The “Mary Martin” Note in Alger Hiss’s handwriting

There has been a historical consensus that “the most damning” physical evidence against Alger Hiss was a tiny early 1938 note in Alger Hiss’s handwriting known as the “Mary Martin” note. Since Alger Hiss’s first perjury trial and in all subsequent accounts, this puzzling note was presented as evidence of Hiss’s betrayal of U.S. government secrets to the Soviet military intelligence.

In his summation for the jury in Hiss’s first perjury trial, on July 6, 1949, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Murphy made a dramatic gesture of drawing the jurors’ attention to “the Mary Martin cable” as “the jam on Hiss’s face” – in an “analogy of a child caught with jam on his face but who denied having taken jam from the pantry.” 1

To historian Allen Weinstein, in his Perjury account of the Hiss-Chambers Case (1978), the fact that Hiss made an almost verbatim summary of a State Department cable was “compelling evidence that Hiss passed the hand-written summaries to [Whittaker] Chambers early in 1938.” In addition, Weinstein cited “compelling evidence that Hiss’s transcription (delivered to Chambers) reached Soviet intelligence at the time.” 2 Although the evidence Weinstein cited originated in the account given by Hiss’s accuser, Whittaker Chambers, Perjury shows no attempt at fact-checking. To my knowledge, no such attempt has been undertaken in the three ensuing decades.

Hence, this essay is very probably the first attempt at documentary cross-checking of this item of physical evidence in Alger Hiss’s perjury trials. It has required research in contemporary diplomatic records, both Russian and American, and in the records of the Communist Party of the USA, the FBI FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) records from the late 1940s, as well as searching through contemporary press reports.

Those who have enough patience to follow the intricate story behind this tiny note in Alger Hiss’s handwriting, known as the “Mary Martin” note, may decide for themselves if it was indeed “the jam on Hiss’s face.” However, I should warn readers that the story requires considerable attention span and is not for the impatient.

The “Mary Martin” note turned up among copies and summaries of U.S. State Department documents – which Whittaker Chambers produced in a weathered envelope in Baltimore in November, 1948 – known since then as the Baltimore Documents. The “Mary Martin” note is the earliest of the four sheets of note-pad paper with Alger Hiss’ handwriting found among the typewritten contents of Chambers’s envelope. At first sight, it looks cryptic and rather puzzling:

M 28
Tel from Mary Martin widow of Hugh Martin formerly employed for special work
by Legation at Riga
Remember well Rubens while working for Hugh, be strict if needed,
write Lib. of Cong. Law Div.

In early 1949, in preparation for the first Hiss perjury trial, the FBI established that this note was an almost verbatim summary of a January 28, 1938 cable sent to the U.S. Department of State by Loy Henderson, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. 3

In March 2007, while conducting research at the U.S. National Archives at College Park, MD, I came across this January 28, 1938 cable with a little note clipped to it. The note was written on May 19, 1949 – 12 days before the beginning of Alger Hiss’s first perjury trial. It said:

361.1115 Robinson, Donald L./90.
Telegram No. 30, Moscow, January 28, 1938
– 11 a.m.
From Henderson.
Relaying telegram from Mary Martin,
who remembered Rubens well while she
was working in American Legation at Riga.
This paper handed over to a messenger for
Mr. Dye on May 19, 1949.
Rogers P. Churchill

The note was attached to the following cable:

A portion of this telegram
must be closely paraphrased MOSCOW
before being communicated to
anyone (A) Dated January 28, 1938
Rec’d 6:13 a.m.
Secretary of State,
Washington, D.C.
30, January 28, 11 a.m.
Have received following telegram from Mary Martin,
widow of Hugh Martin, formerly employed for special
work by Legation at Riga.
(GRAY) “Remember well Rubens while working for Hugh,
be strict if needed, write Library Congress, Law Division.
Signed Mary Martin.” (END GRAY). HENDERSON

On cross-examination, Hiss had no explanation for this brief note drafted more than 10 years earlier – except to say that he frequently wrote memos to himself so he could brief his boss, Francis Sayre on incoming cables. Hiss’s habit was confirmed in his files in the State Department records, where I saw a folder entitled, “Miscellaneous Records Relating to Far East, 1937-44,” which includes 14 pages of copies of Alger Hiss’s handwritten, penciled notes. The earliest was dated July 27, 1937 and the latest, August 8, 1940, which was for briefing Stanley Hornbeck, Hiss’s boss beginning in the summer of 1939.5

Nor could Francis Sayre, Hiss’s boss from 1936 to 1939, remember what the “Mary Martin cable” was about. In Perjury (1978), Allen Weinstein makes the case that Sayre’s testimony did not support Hiss’s explanation about summarizing cables for briefing purposes, citing the FBI and Hiss defense records of late 1948-1949. 6 However, at the time of writing Perjury (including its second, 1998 edition), Weinstein had no access to the grand jury records in the Alger Hiss case, which were only released in October, 1999. We now know that, in his testimony to the grand jury on December 22, 1948, Sayre said that he had “no recollection” of the “Mary Martin” note (or of the three other notes in Alger Hiss’s handwriting that turned up among the Baltimore Documents). As a “possible explanation,” he described the practice at his office at that time; when faced with a daily “stack of cables,” Hiss would distill them after reading the original:

… so that he could tell me in a few words what the memorandum contained. Not that he would show me or pass to me those specific memoranda, but possibly that he would digest it for his own purposes, so that in handing me a stack of telegrams he might just glance at his little digest and say, “Well, this telegram is about so-and-so; I don’t think you have to read that,” “This telegram is about so-and-so; perhaps you better get after that,” and so on and so forth.

When asked if he would be interested in matters not directly involved with the economic and trade matters that his office was handling, Sayre explained that he “had to be interested in everything that pertained to developments going along, …” 7 However puzzling the “Mary Martin” note may have seemed in late 1948, in early 1938 the circumstances behind it were at the center of a diplomatic crisis threatening serious deterioration of Soviet-American relations. Given the fact that the 1937 Soviet-American Trade Agreement was due to be renewed in August 1938, the development of this crisis would have been of immediate concern to Francis Sayre’s office.

To keep focused on the intricacies of the case built around Hiss’s tiny, early 1938 note, let us reconstruct the circumstances behind it – as they appeared in contemporary U.S. press reports.

In November 1937, an American couple named Mr. and Mrs. Donald Louis Robinson turned up at Moscow’s Hotel National – just two doors from the U.S. Embassy. Soon after, the husband suddenly disappeared, leaving Mrs. Robinson alone and at a loss. When this matter was brought to the attention of U.S. Embassy officials, they paid a call on Mrs. Robinson to see if they could assist this American in her distress. When they returned the following day, however, they found that Mrs. Robinson had also mysteriously disappeared without a trace. The Embassy made an information request to the Soviet Foreign Office, then called the People’s Commissariat (Narcomat) of Foreign Affairs; however, the latter procrastinated about a reply.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Department of State launched an investigation and soon learned that the Robinsons’ passports were fraudulent and that the couple possessed two sets of passports, the second one issued in the names of Mr. Adolph Arnold Rubens and Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens. Henceforth, the incident became known as the Rubens-Robinson case.

For several weeks thereafter, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the U.S. State Department continuously pressed the Soviets for information – while Soviet silence irritated the Department of State and the White House. By mid-January 1938, a federal grand jury was investigating the Rubens-Robinson fraudulent passport case. Finally, on January 18, the Department of State released information that “the Soviet Government had reported the arrest at the city of Sverdlovsk of a man traveling as ’Donald L. Robinson’ and the arrest a few days later in Moscow of a woman traveling as ’Mrs. Robinson.’ ”

Eager to ascertain the couple’s identity and to learn more about the passport fraud, American diplomats requested permission to visit Mrs. Rubens. They were turned down, however, until early February. Not until February 5 would the U.S. press report that a representative of the U.S. Embassy would be allowed to visit Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens.

On February 10, U.S. Embassy officials finally visited “Mrs. Rubens-Robinson” in Moscow’s Butyrskaya prison – and the circumstances of the visit were immediately reported in major U.S. newspapers and in a U.S. Department of State Press Release dated February 12. The news was that the Soviets “imposed a heavy censorship… on the efforts of U.S. diplomats to obtain from Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens full details of the American woman’s arrest and detention as Soviet spy” – and that she herself had refused any assistance from American authorities. Hence, the crucial question of the nationality and identity of “Mr. Robinson-Rubens” remained open – and the U.S. Government investigation continued for many months to come. 8

On careful reading, the January 28, 1938 State Department cable summarized by Alger Hiss provided some hints to help with the identification of the mysterious Rubenses. Loy W. Henderson, American Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, informed the Department of State that he had received a cable from a woman named Mary Martin in Washington, D.C. This person was the widow of one Hugh Martin, who had formerly worked at the U.S. Legation at Riga, most probably as an intelligence officer. The woman said that she remembered Mr. Rubens from her time working for Hugh Martin – and suggested that she could be contacted by writing to the Library of Congress.

In March 1949, while searching through State Department files in preparation for the first Hiss perjury trial, the FBI came across a follow-up to the Mary Martin story. According to an FBI teletype dated March 23, 1949, on Jan. 31, 1938, R. C. Bannerman, a State Department security officer, wrote a letter to Mrs. Mary Martin in connection with her wire to Henderson. On February 3, 1938, Mrs. Martin replied that she was ill and would see Bannerman as soon as she got better. Mrs. Martin was to call Bannerman’s office only on March 18, 1938, to tell a bizarre story in explanation of her January 1938 telegram to Henderson in Moscow. Bannerman reported as follows:

In February 1933, while employed by the Department of Labor as an undercover investigator of Communist activities in the U.S., she was in Pittsburgh, PA, and was temporarily employed in a big manufacturing establishment there. She became a member of one of the cells of the Communist Party and attended two secret meetings of cell members of various establishments in that district of Pittsburgh. Both meetings were addressed by a comrade Rubens whom she was immediately able to identify as the Rubens now under arrest in Moscow. Her identification rests entirely on the name and the picture but she describes Rubens as a man of slight build whereas the Rubens under arrest in Moscow would weigh over 190 pounds. Comrade Rubens was evidently a Latvian but his speech indicated he had been in this country for several years. He was not the principal speaker at either meeting and Mrs. Martin cannot recall exactly what subjects were discussed at the two meetings referred to.

After talking with Mrs. Martin, Bannerman was inclined to believe that her identification of Rubens as the man she saw in Pittsburgh in 1933 could not “be given much confidence.” Moreover, he felt that, at that point, State Department security officers were not aware “if the party under arrest in Moscow used the name of Rubens prior to 1935.” 9

Mary Martin proved to be a disturbed and unreliable source. CLICK HERE for a glimpse of Mary Martin’s background, as seen in C.P. U.S.A and Venona files.

In March 1949, the FBI logically decided to follow up on the State Department’s 1938 efforts to ascertain the circumstances behind Mary Martin’s cable. The FBI’s March 23, 1949 teletype, cited above, outlined the following steps to be taken:

… Washington Field Office should review State Department file for original file copy of Moscow cablegram No 30 of January 28, 1938, as set above, also review State Department files for all background information re Hugh Martin, particularly nature of Hugh Martin’s duties at Riga, Latvia, whether Mary Martin employed by State Dept in Latvia, and if so, nature of duties. Efforts should be made to ascertain whether Rubens was in any way attached to legation at Riga, or if he was an informant or active in some other capacity in assisting Hugh or Mary Martin while both were allegedly employed on special mission at Riga….

The next passage in the March 23, 1949 teletype is noteworthy, for it reveals the FBI’s thinking about probable reasons behind Hiss’s “Mary Martin” note:

… Strong possibility exists that Hiss in attempting to forward contents of Moscow cablegram No 30 to Russians was endeavoring to warn them of possibility that Rubens had acted as a double agent, possibly as informant of Hugh Martin. Available info strongly indicates that Adolph Arnold Rubens was a native of Latvia, further that he and his wife visited Europe for a period of several months in 1936 and while there may have been operating for Hugh Martin.

From all indications, the FBI was unable to learn anything about Rubens’s identity or his biographical details. This information would surface on the Russian side only in the early 1990s, in the course of research conducted in KGB investigative files from the late 1930s by a team from the Russian Memorial Society. In a roundabout way, the information would later end up in Sam Tanenhaus’s 1997 biography, Whittaker Chambers.

The mysterious Rubens turned out to be one Arnold Adamovich Ikal, a native of Latvia. While working for the Comintern in Moscow in 1925, Ikal was sent to Latvia on an intelligence mission. However, in the fall of the same year he was arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Sentenced to four years in a hard labor jail, Ikal was released in 1927 and returned to Moscow in an exchange of political prisoners. Beginning that year, Ikal was listed as a cadre operative of the Soviet military intelligence, commonly known as the GRU. In May 1932, Ikal was posted in the United States as an “illegal” resident of this intelligence service. In 1935, he married an American Communist, Ruth Boerger, who assisted him in his work. In October 1937, Ikal was recalled to Moscow, where he returned with his American wife. Arrested on December 2, 1937, he was sentenced to “ten years without the right of correspondence,” which in those years usually meant facing a firing squad. The official date of his death was given as 1942; however, that most probably was the date listed on an official notification of his death from “natural causes.” 10

Ikal was sent to Latvia on a Comintern intelligence mission in 1925, only to be arrested the same year and incarcerated until 1927. According to early 1931 diplomatic correspondence that I discovered in U.S. State Department decimal files, by that time Captain Hugh Martin had been “attached for more than six years” to the American Legation in Riga. 11

Therefore, Hugh Martin could have been in Riga sometime in 1925 – and, due to the nature of his service, could have been familiar with the circumstances of Ikal’s arrest on espionage charges. He might also have followed Ikal’s 1927 release in an exchange of political prisoners with Moscow. Hence Mary Martin’s “remember well Rubens while working for Hugh” in her January 1938 cable to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

However, it does not automatically follow that Ikal might have been “turned” [into a “double” agent] by Captain Martin at any time during his stay in Latvia. Moreover, this looks unlikely in view of Ikal’s subsequent career in the Soviet espionage service. The crime the Soviets charged Ikal with was espionage on behalf of the Nazis (a standard charge of the period), not the Americans. 12 Had the Soviets any reasons to suspect Ikal of ever having been a double agent, they would not have rehabilitated him in 1956. 13

More importantly, the FBI in 1949 placed a “possibility that Rubens had acted as a double agent, possibly as informant of Hugh Martin” at a much later date – 1936 – when Rubens/Ikal and his wife visited Europe. The U.S. State Department records unequivocally rule out any such possibility: Hugh Martin died in Riga on or immediately prior to March 9, 1931. The U.S. Legation in Riga cabled to the U.S. Secretary of State that the “Legation mourns loss of Hugh Martin and request expression of our sympathy be sent to nearest relatives.” 14

Mary Martin herself was notified of her husband’s death on the same day, March 9, 1931 – at an address in Washington, D.C., which means that by that time she was already back in the USA 15

There is no way to say whether the FBI had seen the records of Captain Hugh Martin’s death, which had been on file since March 1931: the March 1931 documents cited above bear no indication of FBI scrutiny of the type appearing on a number of records the Bureau reviewed in connection with the Hiss case. However, it is certain that the FBI quickly decided that Mary Martin would be “an improbable figure” as a witness. “When the FBI interviewed Mary Martin in 1949, the woman who had sent the telegram that Henderson cabled to Hull a decade earlier turned out to be an improbable figure: a fanatical anti-Semite who exaggerated her claims to expertise on the Communist underground.” 16

At the end of the day, the puzzling “Mary Martin” cable reads as if it was intended to inform U.S. diplomatic officials in Moscow that “Rubens” was someone she remembered from her time in Riga – and that they should press harder to ascertain his identity. If it had been spelled out more clearly in late January, 1938 by a less troubled individual than Mary Martin, that information would have been of considerable value to American diplomats in their dealings with the Soviets. However, would it have been of any value on the Soviet “receiving end”?

According to Allen Weinstein in Perjury, “the accuracy of Mary Martin’s information or the significance of her telegram to Henderson does not depend either upon her mental condition in 1949 or upon her deficiencies as an informant on Communist espionage.” To Weinstein, “the crucial element remains Hiss’s transcription of Loy Henderson’s confidential ‘Mary Martin’ cable to Hull in January 1938, a handwritten memo that Chambers retained and turned over ten years later.” 17

However, under U.S. espionage statutes, “the crucial element” would not be a transcription of a confidential cable by a U.S. Department of State official, but rather the “obtaining of information with respect to the National Defense of the U.S. with the intent or reason to believe such information would be used to the injury of the U.S., and/or for the benefit of a foreign country” – as the FBI was advised by the Department of Justice’s legal expert E.P. Morgan in early 1947. 18

In the case of the “Mary Martin” note, both elements – that is, 1) obtaining “national defense” information and 2) its use for the injury of the United States or for the benefit of a foreign country – were obviously missing. On the U.S. side, the cable sent by Mary Martin was so vague and confusing, and she herself so obviously troubled, that her information was considered unreliable – by the Department of State in early 1938 and by the FBI in early 1949 – and was therefore dismissed.

On the Soviet side, any benefit from receiving a vague hint that some American woman remembered “Rubens” from his time in Riga – and had relayed this information to American diplomats in Moscow – looks doubtful. Moreover, this hint had absolutely no follow-up on the part of the U.S. Embassy’s officials, as is obvious from detailed records of the case in Soviet diplomatic files of early 1938.

To breach this obvious gap on the Soviet “receiving end,” historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr allege in their recent account of the Hiss case that Soviet military intelligence was concerned “with how much the U.S. government had figured out about the Robinson/Rubens matter,” and that, to satisfy that concern, “Alger Hiss was furnishing the Soviets with copies of Henderson’s cables from Moscow.” 19

In fact, the idea that the “Mary Martin” note was part of Hiss’s pattern of supplying the Soviets with “copies of cables” sent by Loy Henderson from Moscow during the Rubens-Robinson case, goes back to an assumption in Allen Weinstein’s Perjury. 20

Referring to the notes made by Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle about his interview with Whittaker Chambers on September 2, 1939 – commonly known as the Berle List – Weinstein cites a “statement just below an entry on Alger Hiss” that says: “When Loy Henderson interviewed Mrs. Rubens his report immediately went back to Moscow. Who sent it? – Such came from Washington.”

As “compelling evidence” that Hiss did transcribe Henderson’s cable about his prison interview with Mrs. Rubens – and that it “reached Soviet intelligence at the time,” Weinstein cites one of several articles that Chambers drafted in November 1938, but did not publish. Entitled “The Faking of Americans: 1. The Soviet Passport Racket,” the article described activities of a Soviet agent named “Ewald” – the name Chambers said he knew “Rubens-Robinson” under. Besides quoting the Mary Martin cable that Alger Hiss made notes of, Chambers mentioned “the public uproar in the United States over Mrs. Rubens’s imprisonment and the reluctance of Soviet officials to allow Henderson to see her.” In a footnote, Weinstein quotes Chambers’s description of the interview with Mrs. Rubens that Henderson finally obtained at Butyrskaya prison:

The interview took place in the Butkuri [sic] Prison in the presence of a Red Army Intelligence officer. By then Mrs. Rubens’ will had been destroyed; during the interview she seldom took her eyes from the Red Army man. 21

To judge for yourself what could have been the real source of Chambers’s description, and to see how that description fit with early 1938 reports in U.S. State Department files and American contemporary press reports, CLICK HERE.

There was just one cable about the February 10, 1938 prison interview with Mrs. Rubens – sent from Moscow to Washington, D.C. on the same day in the least confidential “gray code.” 22 A detailed memorandum on the interview reached the Department of State almost a month later, this time sent with a diplomatic pouch. Henderson’s cover letter to the Secretary of State, dated February 14, 1938, explained that, “supplementing” his February 10 and previous dispatches, he was attaching “a number of memoranda and other documents relating to the arrest in Moscow in December 1937 of Mrs. Ruth Marie Rubens…” 23

Most interesting among these documents is Henderson’s summary of the February 10 interview and his 21-page Memorandum describing the interview and dated February 15, 1938. 24

Chambers’s described one Russian individual present at the Butyrskaya Prison interview as “a Red Army Intelligence officer.” Here, however, is the description of the Russian personnel who were present provided in Henderson’s Memorandum:

1) “the investigating officer, Major Yamnitsky of the State Security Administration;”
2) “Major Mitin of the same organization;” and
3) “Mr. Vinogradov, Assistant Director of the Third Western Political Division of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.”

The first in the list was “the investigating officer” and the second acted as an interpreter.

To get a better idea of whether Henderson’s description left any room for the “Red Army Intelligence officer” mentioned in Chambers’s story, let us look up the contemporary Soviet record of the same interview, discovered in the files of the Office [Secretariat] of the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov: 25

The meeting took place at the Butyrskaya prison, in an office, 26, on February 10 at 4 pm. It lasted for one hour and 15 minutes. Present from the Embassy [were] Chargé d’Affaires Henderson and Second Secretary Ward; from the NKVD, investigator [Russian “sledovatel’”] comr. Yamnitsky and translator Mitin; and from the NKID, Vinogradov.

This makes it clear that the “State Security Administration” also mentioned in Henderson’s Memorandum was the NKVD. Hence, both American and Soviet records rule out any probability of the presence of a “Red Army Intelligence Officer” like the one mentioned in Chambers’s story.

With this question settled, we may now proceed to another puzzling passage in Chambers’s unpublished story that is quoted in Weinstein’s Perjury:

The Americans were especially interested in positively identifying Mrs. Rubens as an American citizen, but had had difficulty in finding any of her former friends or connections. A woman employee of the American legation in Riga, Latvia, however, had identified Rubens in a code telegram from the Riga legation to the American Embassy in Moscow. This woman was the widow of a former American official in Eastern Europe.

But when the American asked Mrs. Rubens if she remembered her, the Intelligence Officer instantly forbed [sic in Perjury, most probably ‘forbid’] her to answer their question. He had been waiting for this question since he had read the telegram on which it was based, and which said (this is a literal quotation): “Remember well Rubens from my work with Hugh (her late husband). Be strict if necessary.” There followed a reference to something in the Library of Congress which the Soviet intelligence never understood.

In the end, Mrs. Rubens requested the American Government to leave her to her fate. 27

Allen Weinstein writes in Perjury that “… so similar are Henderson’s February 10 dispatch concerning the interview with Mrs. Rubens and Chambers’s description of that interview in his 1938 article that it is reasonable to conclude that Chambers had read Henderson’s cable on the episode.” 28

However, neither the Russian Memorandum nor a more detailed American memo on the interview, sent to the State Department with the diplomatic pouch, had recorded any question which would appear to be a follow-up of the “Mary Martin” cable. In the American record, however, the Americans did ask about one “Mary” by the end of the interview:

Q. Who is Mary Smied?

After investigator Yamnitsky “refused to transmit this question,”American diplomats proceeded to their next – unrelated – question. 29

The question about Mary Smied is missing from the Russian record – in the only disparity between the two records. This would have been a smoking gun if Mary Smied were identical with Mary Martin. However, that was not the case.

Among the documents on the “Robinson, Donald L.” case filed in the records of the U.S. Department of State, there is only one cable sent in a more secret Confidential Code – a February 5, 1938 Department of State cable to the American Embassy in Moscow, saying:

Your thirty-four Ruth M. Rubens. For your con-
fidential information: Handwriting expert informally
advises Department that signature Mary Smied on 1934
and 1936 passport applications that name apparently
written by Mrs. Rubens.
(Esm) 30

Hence, Mary Smied was a name written by “Mrs. Rubens” on two of her passport applications made in the United States – having nothing to do with Mary Martin and her cable. However, information on “Mary Smied,” obtained in the course of the State Department’s most confidential investigation into the passport fraud, had very limited distribution within the Department of State and, by virtue of its confidential nature, would not have been publicly released and reported in the press. As indicated by Allen Weinstein in Perjury, these papers were declassified only in late 1970s, in response to his FOIA request.

The plot gets thicker as Weinstein continues to quote from Chambers’s unpublished 1938 article:

After this second visit, Mr. Loy Henderson wrote a detailed confidential report of the interview to the State Department in which he gave it as his opinion that Mrs. Rubens and her husband were agents of the Communist International caught in the Purge. This was not strictly accurate, but close enough to satisfy the Soviet Government that there would be passivity in Mr. Rubens’ case in Washington. For like the rest of Mr. Henderson’s correspondence, this report also found its way to the Soviet Military Intelligence. 31

God knows what Chambers had gotten wind of at the time, for Loy Henderson had only one visit with Mrs. Rubens – as is recorded in both the U.S. and Soviet diplomatic files. Still, Chambers’s description most probably refers to Henderson’s February 15, 1938 summary report on the February 10 interview mentioned above. According to distribution stamps on its front page, this Strictly Confidential report had a rather wide circulation within the Department of State:

Received, Department of State, Division of Communications and Records, March 9, 1938, PM 1:44;
Division of European Affairs [with minimum 3 or 4 initials], March 10, 1938;
Adviser on Political Relations, Mr. Dunn, March 16, 1938;
Chief Special Agent [initialed RCB, most probably, R.C. Bannerman], March 17, 1938;
Treaty Division [initialed GIH], March 21, 1938;
Legal Adviser [initialed RN? RU?], March 24, 1938;
Counsel of the Department of State, Mr. Moore, April 2, 1938;
Passport Division Received [undated];
Filed April 8, 1938.

Besides these distribution stamps, the front page lists several initials – PM, EUD, DA, CSA, FD, LE, C, PD — some of which are crossed out.

Such wide distribution suggests multiple “access points” in the process of copying, delivery, filing, etc. – and multiple possibilities for leaks, particularly to inquisitive reporters.

Weinstein cites just two things Chambers said about Henderson’s summary report – and both of them turn out to be wrong.

The first is Chambers’s reference to a “second visit” by Henderson, which not only never took place, but also was not even mentioned in Henderson’s summary report.

The second thing Chambers said was that, in this report, Henderson “gave it as his opinion that Mrs. Rubens and her husband were agents of the Communist International caught in the Purge.” This, too, was not the case. In fact, Henderson’s February 15, 1938 summary report relayed the opinion of several foreigners then in Moscow, who “have stated that the case bears all the earmarks of being one involving agents of the Communist International who have fallen into bad grace. …” However, Henderson did not share the opinion he reported and went on to say:

The Embassy has been able to obtain no evidence thus far which would tend to support the theory that Mr. and Mrs. Rubens have been acting as agents of the Communist International…. 32

Would Chambers have given such a garbled report had he really seen a copy of Henderson’s February 15 memo to the Secretary of State? Can we write off his confused account as a natural memory lapse, when only eight months had passed between the time Henderson’s memo reached Washington, D.C. and the time Chambers wrote his unpublished article?

Now let us examine the final assertion in Chambers’s unpublished article from late 1938: the statement that Loy Henderson’s report on his prison interview, which “found its way to the Soviet Military Intelligence” via Hiss, satisfied “the Soviet Government that there would be passivity in Mr. Rubens’ case in Washington.” 33

It is obvious from Russian diplomatic files of the period that the commotion on the Soviet side over the Rubens-Robinson case obviously subsided immediately after February 10, 1938, with occasional later references to the case spaced out by months. In a very careful reading of the Russian diplomatic files of early 1938, I was unable to uncover any indication of the receipt of insider information, as is alleged by Chambers.

For a glimpse of events on the Russian “receiving end” – to see what was behind the Soviets’ behavior in the case, and what information they sought and received – CLICK HERE.

In the Russian files, the reason for the relief in diplomatic circles about the Rubens-Robinson case looks quite different than the Chambers assertion cited above.

A June 26, 1938 entry in the books of Constantine Oumansky, then Soviet Chargé d’Affaires in Washington, D.C., provides a record of his tête-à-tête breakfast conversation the previous day with U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Joseph Davies. Oumansky quotes the latter as saying, while recalling their “private conversation at his (Davies’s) New York apartment at the end of last year,” that following that conversation, he (Davies) had taken “every possible measure to liquidate the campaign around the Rubens case launched on the initiative of Moscow Embassy’s officials.” 34

Around the same time, Oumansky reported to Fedor Weinberg, head of the Third Western Department of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, that “the press has almost got silent on the Rubenses. An interest in this case had been stirred up from the Department of State … and particularly its European Department… [with its] mafia of anti-Soviet hooligans who try to artificially accumulate conflict material ….” 35

The issue of the Rubens-Robinsons would be picked up again by Soviet Foreign Office radar in June 1938, when the U.S. Embassy requested information on the progress in the case “from competent authorities” (that is, the NKVD). However, this time the “competent authorities” were unwilling to divulge any information to the Americans. 36

When it became time, in mid-summer 1938, for the annual renewal of the Soviet-American Trade Agreement, the diplomatic crisis created by the Rubens-Robinson case was no longer a factor, and on August 6, 1938 the Agreement was renewed for one more year. 37

In 1939, American diplomats in Moscow would occasionally raise the issue of the Rubens-Robinson case with the Soviet Foreign Office. 38 However, this had nothing to do with the Mary Martin cable, nor with the note which Alger Hiss made of the cable in late January, 1938.

  1. Cit., Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Vintage Books, 1979, pp. 466, 463.
  2. Allen Weinstein, Op. Cit., pp. 243, 246.
  3. Government’s State Exhibit 1 in Alger Hiss’s 2nd trial. – Transcript of Record, Volume VIII, Government’s State Exhibits 1-24, p. 3535.
  4. 361.1115-ROBINSON, DONALD L./90 – RG 59. State Department Records, Decimal File 1930-39, NA, College Park, MD. Hereinafter, GRAY designates the cable as written in the so-called “gray” diplomatic code, which was the least confidential.
  5. Alger Hiss Files, Box 27 – RG 59, General Records, Department of State, NA, College Park, MD.
  6. Allen Weistein. Perjury. Op. Cit., p. 248.
  7. Excerpts from the testimony of Francis B. Sayre before the grand jury, December 22, 1948. –
  8. The New York Times, 1937, December 10-17, 28; 1938, January 9, 11, 14, 16, 19, 23, 25, 26; February 4, 6, 11, 12, 14, 15, 22; The Washington Post, December 31, 1937; 1938, January 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 19, 20, 23, 26; February 6, 9, 10, 11, 12; Press Releases, U.S. Department of State, December 18, 1937, p. 472; January 22, 1938, p. 133; January 29, 1938, p. 172; February 12, 1938, p. 260; Ellery C. Stowell. The Robinson Case. – The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 32, No. 2 (April 1938), pp. 320-324.
  9. FBI Teletype, March 23, 1949, Wash & WFO from New York, Director and SAC urgent, 3-57 PM. Courtesy of Jeff Kisseloff.
  10. V.M. Lurie, V.Ya. Kochik, GRU: Dela i ljudi. Moskva: Olma Press, 2003, s. 397. (GRU: Deeds and People, by V.M. Lurie, V.Ya. Kochik. Moscow: Olma Press, 2003, p. 397.) Ikal KGB investigative file cited in: Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers, A Biography. New York: The Modern Library, 1997, pp. 126-127, 130; 550-551 (footnotes 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 33, 34.)
  11. Robert F. Kelley, Chief, Division of Eastern European Affairs to Dear Mrs. Moore, March 9, 1931. – Ibid., 123 M 365/12A.
  12. Krasnaja Zvezda (Red Star) daily, November 14, 1938.
  13. As I had a chance to see in Soviet Communist Party Central Committee files, even during the Khrushchev’s Thaw, rehabilitation was not universal: some convictions remained in force well into the Gorbachev period.
  14. Cable (gray code) from Riga, 3/6/1931. – RG 59. State Department records, Decimal File 1930-39, Box 583, 123 M 365/12.
  15. Robert F. Kelley to Dear Mrs. Martin, March 9, 1931. – Ibid., 123 M 365/12B.
  16. FBI report, April 19, 1949, #3050. – Cit., Allen Weinstein, Op. cit., p. 617, f. 39.
  17. Allen Weinstein, Op. cit., p. 617, f. 39.
  18. E.P. Morgan to H.H. Clegg, January 14, 1947. – The FBI Silvermaster File, No 65-56402, Vol. 093, Serials 2000-2081, pp.166-170. The FBI would go back to E.P. Morgan’s January 14, 1947 analysis in late October, 1950, while reviewing the prospects for prosecution on the evidence provided by Elizabeth Bentley, identified in the FBI files as Informant Gregory: “Since the preparation of the above memorandum by Mr. Morgan, we have interviewed or endeavored to interview the Gregory subjects. … Many of them have appeared before one of the two Federal Grand Juries … Many of the subjects have appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. However, a review of the fifty-four cases reveals that we still have insufficient facts upon which to base prosecution for the violation of the espionage and related statutes because of the reasons noted by Mr. Morgan.” – Ibid., Vol. 150, Serials 3835-3896, p. 6 (PDF, p. 55.)
  19. John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr. Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 113.
  20. See Allen Weinstein, Op. cit., pp. 246-247.
  21. Ibid., footnote 41, p. 618.
  22. Loy W. Henderson to the Secretary of State, February 10, 8 p.m. – RG 59, State Department records, Decimal File 1930-39, Box 1590, 361.1115-ROBINSON, DONALD L. /117.
  23. Loy W. Henderson to The Honorable Secretary of State, Moscow, February 14, 1938, Dispatch No. 938 (by pouch) – RG 59, State Department records, Decimal File 1930-39, Box 583, 361.1115-ROBINSON, DONALD L./I 35., NA (College Park)
  24. Enclosure No. 1 to dispatch No. 938, dated February 15, 1938, from the Embassy at Moscow. – Ibid.
  25. On the visit of the arrested Robinson Rubens by the representatives of the American Embassy, 11 February, 1938. – The Records of Litvinov Secretariat, Fund 05, description 18, P. 147, file 133, pp. 15-18. Translation from Russian.
  26. Russian “v kabinete” refers to a special room used for interviews with prisoners by investigators and for visits by defense lawyers
  27. Allen Weinstein, Op. Cit., p. 247, f. 41 (p. 618)
  28. Allen Weinstein, Op. Cit., p. 247.
  29. Enclosure No. 1 to dispatch No. 938, dated February 15, 1938, from the Embassy at Moscow, p. 19.
  30. Enclosure No. 1 to dispatch No. 938, Op. Cit., p. 3.
  31. Allen Weinstein, Op cit., p. 247, f. 41 (p. 618)
  32. Enclosure No. 1 to dispatch No. 938, Op. Cit., p. 3.
  33. Allen Weinstein, Op cit., p. 247, f. 41 (p. 618)
  34. From Oumansky’s books, 26 June, 1938. – Fund 05, description 18, P. 147, file 132, pp. 32-33. AVP RF.
  35. C. Oumansky, Soviet Chargé d’Affaires in the U.S.A. to F. Wienberg, head, III Western Department, NKID, 26 June, 1938. – Fund 05, description 18, P. 147, file 139, p. 13, AVP RF. As can be seen in the Russian diplomatic files, Oumansky’s language was often far from diplomatic.
  36. From Weinberg’s books. Conversation with U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Kerk, 14 June, 1938. – Fund 05, description 18, P. 147, file 133, pp. 27-28, AVP RF; Conversation with U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Kerk, 24 June, 1938. – Ibid., p. 29; From Weinberg’s Diary. Conversation with U.S. First Secretary Henderson, 27 June 1938. – Ibid, p. 30.
  37. This Agreement provided the Soviets with the same Most Favored Nation status granted by the Agreement of August 6, 1937.
  38. From the books of Potemkin, reception of Chargé d’Affaires Grammon, 17 June, 1939 – Fund 0129, description 22, P. 136, file 1(429), AVP RF.