Publication Date

December 1, 1999

Hiss Grand Jury Records Opened

On October 12, the National Archives made available to the public 4,200 pages of transcripts of grand jury records in the espionage case of Alger Hiss. Researchers may see these records at the National Archives building in College Park, Maryland, and at the Northeast Regional Archives in New York City. Strict rules of secrecy have surrounded grand jury records. However, because the Department of Justice decided not to appeal the lower court decision to open the Hiss records, the historical community has reason to celebrate the first grand jury records to be opened to the public because of their importance for historical research.

On December 15, 1998, the 50th anniversary of Hiss's indictment, Public Citizen Litigation Group filed a lawsuit on behalf of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, and the American Society for Legal History. Judge Peter K. Leisure of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in May in favor of the plaintiffs, noting the records will fill important gaps in the historical record and should not remain behind locked doors any longer.

The Public Citizen Litigation Group held a press conference on October 12 to announce the release of the Hiss grand jury records and David Vladeck, the group's director, noted that researchers who have sought to tell the story of the Cold War's most celebrated perjury trial had been, until now, denied access to the grand jury transcripts of the case. Stressing the significance of this case, Vladeck pointed out that the allegations against Hiss convinced many Americans that the threat of Soviet subversion was real and helped catapult the career of the then obscure congressman from California, Richard Nixon.

Arnita Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association, emphasized at the press conference the groundbreaking aspect of this case, stating that historians have long believed that in historically important grand jury cases the cloak of secrecy should diminish with time. Yet, she stressed that grand jury records should be opened only in very exceptional cases where there is broad public interest in the issues, where the records are very old, and where there are no outstanding privacy issues. "The Alger Hiss case," she said, "falls squarely within these parameters."

For the press conference, Public Citizen brought together four historians who reviewed the documents and came away with varying interpretations, though none believed the documents ultimately prove or disprove the guilt of Hiss, who professed his innocence until his death in 1996. Bruce Craig, who played a key role in gathering background material for this case, commented at some length on Nixon's testimony, describing it as "clever, nuanced, and at times spellbinding," and asserted that it will be remembered as the most important and successful speech of his career prior to his famed "Checkers speech." Anna Kasten Nelson (American University) pointed out that these records provide the necessary context of the wider investigation and enrich the story by providing new details. For example, she noted that the legal transcripts portray prosecutors who rarely differentiate between real Soviet spies, communists, fellow travelers, and the New Deal liberals who knew them.

Athan Theoharis of Marquette University pointed out how the release of these records can assist historians in gaining access to related files at the FBI. Tanenhaus, author of a prizewinning biography of Whittaker Chambers, Hiss's main accuser, applauded the opening of those records for, he said, they will help researchers to deal with the question of how we got from congressional testimony to an indictment of Hiss. Additionally, Tony Hiss, Alger Hiss's son, spoke and stressed that while these records do not contain a "smoking gun," they do contain a "shining light" that adds many new details and gives us an opportunity to hear, in their own words, from the 80 witnesses in the case.

House Subcommittee Holds Oversight Hearing on the National Archives

On October 20 the House Subcommittee on Government Management, In formation, and Technology of the Committee on Government Reform held an oversight hearing on the National Archives. Representative Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), the chair of the subcommittee, presided . Representative James Turner (D-Tex.), the ranking minority member on this subcommittee, also participated in the hearing.

Archivist John Carlin was the first witness and his testimony dealt with a wide range of records management and records access issues. Horn's questions for Carlin touched on many diverse issues-records preservation, quality of microfilm readers, guidance to agencies on managing electronic records, guidance to agencies on handling of material on web sites, relationship to the Library of Congress, complications related to recent legislation on declassification, the encasement of the Charters of Freedom, the relationship with state archives, a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study on electronic records, and the grants program of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Rep. Turner directed most of his questions toward issues related to the preservation of e-mail and plans for preserving the original forms used in the 2000 census.

There were four witnesses in the second panel: Nye Stevens of the GAO; Stanley Katz (vice president of the AHA's Research Division), representing the AHA; , speaking on behalf of the Organization of American Historians; and Thomas Hickerson, president of the Society of American Archivists. Stevens's testimony focused on a July report that concluded that there was a pressing need for a baseline survey to obtain government-wide information on how agencies are managing their electronic records and noted that the archives has postponed work on this survey until completing a business process reengineering effort. Although Carlin said that the archives' position and the recommendation of GAO were not that far apart, Stevens continued to emphasize the need to begin now to work on the baseline survey. Miller spoke about access issues and particularly about the 30 percent backlog of the National Archives holdings for which there are no reference-quality finding aids, and about the access to nonfederal records provided by NHPRC grants. Miller noted that NHPRC grants were funded at $4 million in fiscal 1976 and at $6 million in fiscal 1999 and urged an increase for this important program. However, Carlin contended that the current funding level was sufficient to take care of all the good applications, a point on which there are differing views.

Katz spoke about the National Archives' new reimbursable program whereby agencies will be charged for the storage of their records in federal records centers and said that he fears that the new program will exacerbate the current inadequate records management programs by creating incentives for agencies systematically to purge their files. Hickerson highlighted the crisis in electronic records management and in the question and answer section quoted a computer systems specialist who has suggested that many records from 1995 to 2015 will simply be lost.

This hearing marked the first time in over 20 years that any congressional committee has held a broad oversight hearing on the National Archives. There have been hearings about particular, narrow issues, but no broad oversight hearing. The historical and archival communities are most indebted to Rep. Horn for holding this hearing and for his plans for additional hearings.

Groundbreaking for Native American Museum on the Mall

On September 28 the Smithsonian broke ground for the National Museum of the American Indian, which will open in 2002. Located on the Mall at Third Street and Independence between the National Air and Space Museum and the Botanic Garden, the new museum will be situated on land used by the Nacotchtank tribe in the 17th century. Representatives of numerous tribes gathered for the ceremony. W. Richard West, the museum director and a member of the Cheyenne tribe, said that the museum "represents a seminal occasion to reconcile a present and future with an often troubled and tumultuous past. " The core of the museum's collection will be 800,000 artifacts covering 10,000 years that were collected by George Gustav Heye, who built a museum in New York that housed the collection. The Smithsonian acquired this collection in 1990. The new museum building will cost $110 million, one-third of which will come from private contributions and the rest from federal appropriations.

A Call for Reestablishing the Office of the House Historian

Several major historical associations have written to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R- Ill.) urging that he appoint a nonpartisan, professional historian for the House of Representatives. In 1982 the House established the House Historical Office, which provided invaluable services: helping to develop programs for the better preservation of the rich legacy of the House; serving as a central source of historical information for use by members' offices, the press, scholars, and the gene republic; keeping current bibliographic information about the House and its current and past members; transcribing interviews with individuals who have extensive knowledge of institutional operation and development of the House in the postwar period; and assisting members in the preservation of their personal papers. Despite the important contributions of the historian , this position has been vacant for the past five years.

Added support for the call to appoint a House historian recently came from the September 29 issue of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, which included an opinion piece by political commentator Norman Ornstein titled “House, Lacking Institutionalists, Needs a Historian.” Having a House historian, Ornstein states, sends the powerful signal that Congress cares about itself and its institutional maintenance. A professional, nonpartisan historian could play a significant role, he states, not only in providing an efficient and productive source of background information on the House, but could also help to restore respect for its history and traditions.

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