Oct. 12, 1999
Statement of David C. Vladeck,
Director of Public Citizen Litigation Group
Good morning. My name is David C. Vladeck, and I am the Director of Public Citizen Litigation Group. This morning, I have historic news to report. As a result of a settlement we reached last week with the Justice Department, we have obtained the grand jury records relating to the indictment of Alger Hiss — over 4,200 pages of grand jury transcripts, including the testimony of then-Congressman Richard M. Nixon, who was among the last witnesses to appear before the grand jury that indicted Hiss. The release also includes the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, Hiss’ main accuser; Elizabeth Bentley, the principal witness against dozens of alleged Soviet spies; and over 80 other witnesses, many of whom are key Cold War figures.
For over 50 years, these grand jury records have been kept from the American people. Only a handful of prosecutors from the Justice Department have ever seen these materials. Historians, scholars and journalists who have sought to tell the story of the Cold War’s most celebrated perjury trial have been denied access to these records.
Today that changes. As we speak, the National Archives and Records Administration is placing a full set of these transcripts in its reading rooms in New York City and Washington, D.C., where they will be available to all.
We have assembled a group of leading Cold War scholars to give you their first impressions of what secrets these documents reveal. Before doing that, however, I want to briefly explain how we arrived at this point and publicly acknowledge a number of people whose work made today happen.
This settlement is the culmination of a lawsuit Public Citizen Litigation Group filed on December 15, 1998 — the 50th anniversary of Hiss’ indictment — on behalf of the American Historical Association, the American Society of Legal History, the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Archivists. Our petition was supported by the affidavits of 10 noted Cold War historians, several of whom are here today, journalists, a documentary filmmaker, Hiss’ son Tony Hiss and stepson Timothy Hobson, and William F. Buckley Jr., who was a close friend of Whittaker Chambers.
A half-century ago, Hiss was indicted by a grand jury sitting in New York City on two counts of perjury: 1) That he lied to the grand jury when he denied passing government documents to Whittaker Chambers; and 2) That he falsely testified before the grand jury that he had not seen Chambers after January 1, 1937.
Hiss was the embodiment of the Eastern ruling elite. He had been an academic superstar, Harvard Law School graduate, law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, assistant to the Solicitor General of the United States, confidant to many high-ranking government officials and a senior official in the State Department. The allegations against Hiss convinced many Americans that the threat of Soviet subversion was real and helped catapult the career of a then-obscure, junior congressman from California — Richard M. Nixon.
Hiss was tried twice. His first trial led to a hung jury; the second resulted in his conviction. Hiss spent nearly four years in a federal prison. These trials, according to many historians, were defining moments in the early Cold War. For years Hiss attempted to clear his name. In doing so, he made an unsuccessful attempt to obtain access to these grand jury records.
The grand jury records released today are being made available as a result of an order entered in our litigation by the Honorable Peter K. Leisure, a federal district court judge in New York. In two exhaustive opinions, Judge Leisure ruled that the government’s objections to the release of the grand jury records were not well founded. Because of the age of the records and their undeniable historical importance, Judge Leisure believed that no legitimate purpose would be served by keeping them locked in secret in perpetuity. As he eloquently put it:
The Court is confident that disclosure will fill in important
gaps in the existing historical record, foster further academic
and other critical discussion of the far-ranging issues raised
by the Hiss case, and lead to additional noteworthy historical
works on those subjects, all to the immense benefit of the
public. The materials should languish on archival shelves,
behind locked doors, no longer.
Although the government initially filed an appeal from Judge Leisure’s ruling, it decided last week to withdraw its appeal and to disclose all of the records subject to Judge Leisure’s order.
We applaud the Justice Department’s decision. I would like to specially commend Assistant United States Attorney Jonathan A. Willens, the government’s lawyer on this case, for working so hard to facilitate disclosure of these records once the government made its decision to dismiss its appeal.
I would also like to recognize publicly the extraordinary work of my Litigation Group colleagues, Lucinda A. Sikes and Brian Wolfman. Their dedication and tireless effort were critical in making this case a reality. I would also like to acknowledge my co-counsel Debra L. Raskin, of Vladeck, Waldman, Elias and Engelhard, who also provided substantial legal assistance, for which we are grateful.
I’d now like to introduce our other speakers. First up is Dr. Arnita Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association, our lead petitioner. Then we will hear from Dr. Bruce Craig, a leading Cold War scholar. Dr. Craig will be followed by three other historians who have assisted us in securing the release of these records. Dr. Craig will introduce the scholars. Last, but hardly least, will be Tony Hiss, the son of Alger and Priscilla Hiss.