The Cornell Lab of Ornithology produces a smartphone app that does an excellent job of assisting in bird identification. I use it when I am in unfamiliar territory and trying to put a name to a bird of no special distinction.
I also get the Cornell Lab’s emails, and before Thanksgiving, I received one informing me that the prothonotary warbler had been voted “the winning warbler to be featured in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s centennial mural.”
I didn’t remember voting, but if I had, my vote certainly would have swollen the prothonotary warbler’s majority. After all, no other little bird has played a part on the stage of American history anywhere near as big as this creature’s role in the extraordinary mid-20th-century drama of the Hiss/Chambers case.
The case involved espionage—specifically, Americans, including U.S. government employees, spying for the Soviet Union in the decade leading up to World War II—but it was also about much more. In the long run, it might not have mattered so much whether Alger Hiss had been a member of the Communist party; whether he had given Whittaker Chambers, then himself a Communist spy, government documents to be conveyed to Moscow; or whether as a State Department official he had had some sort of malign influence at the Yalta conference. By the time his crimes were exposed in
the late 1940s, Hiss was protected by the statute of limitations. But his treason made a large and lasting difference to the man who had reluctantly exposed him under questioning. Chambers, a top editor at Time magazine, persevered through congressional investigations, a suit for libel, remorseless public scrutiny, and vicious attacks. He ultimately made the Hiss case central to his remarkable book, Witness, which is a memoir, a confession, and an account of a political odyssey that has no equal in American literature.
The crucial events of the Hiss/Chambers case were very old news by the time I read the book, in the 1980s. But the literary tension it achieves is such that Chambers’s account reads like a crime novel, in which everyday details turn out to be vital to establishing guilt and innocence.
The case for Hiss’s guilt hung on much indirect evidence, but it would have collapsed completely had it not been possible to prove that Hiss had known Chambers in the 1930s. Hiss denied it. Chambers, grilled by a congressional committee for proof, provided the kind of intimate detail about Hiss and his family that only someone close to him could have known—the gift of a rug, Hiss’s term of endearment for his wife, the sort of car he drove. In answer to one question, Chambers said that Hiss and his wife “both had the same hobby—amateur ornithologists, bird observers. They used to get up early in the morning and go to Glen Echo, out on the canal, to observe birds. I recall one day they saw, to their great excitement, a prothonotary warbler.”
So the trap was laid. Chambers had given this testimony behind closed doors. A few days later, Hiss was questioned in public session. An ambitious young congressman named Richard Nixon asked:
Q: What hobby, if any, do you have, Mr. Hiss?
A: Tennis and amateur ornithology.
Then someone else who was in on the sting asked Hiss:
Q: Did you ever see a prothonotary warbler?
A: I have, right here on the Potomac.
It was so crudely done that you wonder if it would work in a Grisham novel. But it sandbagged Hiss and helped send him to jail for perjury.
The case made a name for Nixon, divided intellectuals and political thinkers into rival camps, and eventually marked the fault line between, on the one hand, Nixon and his “silent majority” and, on the other, a liberal intellectual and academic elite. Despite Hiss’s conviction, supporters continued to believe he had been framed until Allen Weinstein published Perjury in 1978. Weinstein had begun his research believing Hiss was innocent, but instead the evidence convinced him of his guilt. Even so, a few bitter clingers still hold that Hiss was an innocent man, victimized by public hysteria and the vindictive ambitions of Nixon.
Some defenders of Hiss argued that seeing a prothonotary warbler was a big enough event in the life of any birdwatcher that he would have bragged about it. Chambers, in his supposed devious campaign to frame Hiss, would have learned of this from Hiss’s friends and then used it before the committee as proof of his own intimacy with the Hisses.