Lauchlin Currie to Eleanor Roosevelt

views updated

Lauchlin Currie to Eleanor Roosevelt

16 August 1948 [New York City]

Dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

I can't tell you how much I appreciated your mention of me and my case in several of your recent columns. They encouraged me when I needed encouragement badly and many people called my attention to them.

As you perhaps knew, I asked to testify in order that I might deny under oath the Bentley woman's preposterous charge.7 I really can't complain of the treatment I received at the hands of the Committee during my own actual hearings and Congressman Mundt even went so far as to say that he believed in my Americanism.8 However, as you pointed out, the Committee had already done the damage by providing a national forum for the airing of Miss Bentley's charges, and I suppose that for the rest of my life and in my obituary my name will be linked with this investigation.

You might be interested in glancing over the prepared statement the Committee permitted me to read.9

Again my heartiest thanks.


                                        Lauchlin Currie


Along with Lauchlin Currie and Harry Dexter White, Elizabeth Bentley also named as a former Communist agent Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961), a senior editor for Time magazine. When Chambers appeared before the Thomas committee on August 3 to answer Bentley's charges, he not only admitted to his former membership in the Communist Party, but also offered another name: Alger Hiss, a former clerk to justice Felix Frankfurter and aide to FDR, who then served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.10

Chambers claimed Hiss was one of the leaders of the "underground" Washington, D.C., group that Chambers managed in the 1930s. Moreover, Chambers told the committee that when he realized he would have to testify against Hiss, he, "at great personal risk," tried to persuade Hiss "to break away from this group." Chambers then concluded his remarks with a dramatic image describing Hiss's tears as they "separated" and Hiss's vague pronouncements about "'the party line' and [how he] wouldn't break with the party"11

Two days later, Hiss came before the committee to respond to Chambers's allegations, declaring that not only had he never met Chambers, but that he also "not now and never [had] been a member of the Communist Party," that he "never had been a member of any Communist-front organization," that he had never "followed the Communist Party line directly or indirectly," and that to the best of his "knowledge none of my friends is a Communist." When questioned about Hiss's response to his testimony, Chambers announced that he had "no change whatsoever to make in my testimony concerning him."12 Committee leaders then asked the two men to confront one another on August 25, which led ER to write the following column.

Although Truman, Byrnes, Acheson, Clark, and Dulles had known that the FBI suspected Hiss of being a Soviet agent, there is no record that they passed their concerns along to ER. Furthermore, Acheson and others in the department held Hiss in high regard. ER had worked with Hiss in his capacity as advisor to the American delegation to the UN General Assembly and spoke well of him in the diary letters she distributed among her friends. As she told readers of My Day August 16:

Anyone knowing either Mr. Currie or Mr. Hiss, who are the two people whom I happen to know fairly well, would not need any denial on their part to know they are not Communists. Their records prove it. But many people who do not know them would read of the accusations and never know that they were cleared.13

Ultimately ER's confidence in Hiss was misplaced. In October, after Hiss was indicted on perjury charges and appealed for a change of venue, ER wrote:

It seems to me a very wise and sensible move to have the new trial of Alger Hiss in Vermont. Vermonters are not easily stampeded. They are hard-headed, down to earth, conservative and very realistic people. They do not like Communism, but I doubt if they are frightened by it. They are pretty sure of themselves. New York newspapers are apt to be jittery on the subject…. Possibly because New York, much like our other big cities, is the most likely place for Communists to thrive. One finds people more conscious of their fears here than of their confidence in themselves. That doesn't happen in Vermont and I think Alger Hiss will get no soft soap, but complete and fearless consideration of the merits of his case. That is what any American is entitled to and should have, no matter what the accusations are against him.14

However, as Hiss and Chambers prepared to confront one another, she threw her very public support behind Hiss.