Until now, Adolf A. Berle’s original notes from his historic September 2, 1939 meeting with Whittaker Chambers and Isaac Don Levine have never been seen by scholars or historians, but thanks to Lewis Hartshorn, who is completing a book on the case, and Bob Clark of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, they are now being posted online after Harshorn and Clark turned them up at the library.
A typewritten transcript of the notes — but not Berle’s original handwritten pages — was introduced at Hiss’s trials. With it came some controversy, mostly surrounding the question of whether Chambers (who in the meeting was talking about his alleged underground life for the first time to a public official) and Levine told Berle, who was then the Assistant Secretary of State, that the people they alleged were associated with the Communist underground, were also engaged in espionage. In 1948, Levine told HUAC that Chambers did say they were spies, and the heading on the typewritten notes, “Underground Espionage Agent,” has led many people to believe him. Indeed, the notes with the heading “Underground Espionage Agent,” have been reprinted widely. The Web site of John Earl Haynes (the co-author with Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev of the recent book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America which says that Hiss was in fact guilty of espionage) offers a version of the typescript with the heading set off , the implication being that he agrees with those who say that Chambers was labeling Hiss and the others as Soviet spies. Even Ann Coulter has weighed in, writing in her book Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism that Chambers did inform Berle about espionage rings in Washington, but that when Berle tried to speak with President Roosevelt about it, he was told to go “f…. himself.” Chambers said Berle was told to go jump in a lake, but, according to Berle, neither was true.
Chambers also contradicted Levine’s claim about espionage, writing in Witness, “At no time in our conversation can I remember anyone’s mentioning the ugly word espionage.” He went on to say, however, that the implication was there, and he fanned the controversy when he wrote, “For when four years after that memorable conversation, his notes were finally taken out of a secret file and turned over to the F.B.I., it was found that Adolf Berle himself had headed them: Underground Espionage Agent.”
In his own interviews with the FBI and the defense, in his HUAC testimony and his private comments recorded in his diary, Berle insisted that Chambers never charged the people he named with espionage. This is borne out by an entry in Berle’s diary from 1952, after the Saturday Evening Post began serializing Witness: “At no time does he record what he said to me, and thus gives the impression that he told me everything he told many years later in the Hiss case. The fact, of course, was that he did not state anything he told me as personal knowledge — but as something he had heard about while in the Communist Party in New York. He did not even remotely indicate that he personally had been engaged in the operation. He did not charge individuals with espionage — they were merely ’sympathizers’ who would be hauled out later when the great day came. He would not take his story to the FBI. He would not even stand to it himself — he would not himself verify or stick to the story.
“Further, under some cross-examination, he qualified everything to the point of substantial withdrawal. He also told of having fled the Party, and having been in fear of his life, spending a long time in flight and fearing armed attack, and so on. I thought I was dealing with a man who thought he was telling the truth but was probably afflicted with a neurosis.”
But if Chambers didn’t mention espionage, why did the notes have that heading? The answer as we can finally see is they really didn’t. Looking at the actual notes, it appears that Berle was referring not to Chambers but to the first item on his list: a description of a New York City dentist named Philip Rosenbliett, who Chambers identified as one of the leaders of the underground. If that is the correct interpretation (and there’s no reason to think otherwise, since both Chambers and Berle essentially agreed on this point), it knocks out one of the accusations that have been continually leveled against Hiss: that Chambers’ 1948 allegations about espionage were more credible because he had actually leveled those charges nine years before.
Here is the first page of Berle’s notes. You can also download all six pages of the notes here.