Among the files recently released by the National Archives are a collection of papers relating to Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. MI5 was unsurprisingly interested in the court proceedings involving the two men, and in Chambers’s subsequent and widely-read book about his espionage days, Witness.
The papers include a report of an MI5 interview with Rebecca West in January 1951. She was at the time writing a book about Klaus Fuchs, but as her interviewer points out she didn’t ask anything of him in relation to the Fuchs case.
MI5 had asked West to talk to them after the FBI made a request to hear what she had to say about an acquaintance who had known Hiss. West was a New Yorker staff writer living in England, and as she told MI5 she herelf was a recruiter of a kind, telling her editors in New York about promising writers she met. What the FBI wanted to know was whether this Czech man she had talked to, who turned out to be a Hungarian, had told her that Hiss was a Communist.
West said she’d never heard about Hiss’s espionage from her Hungarian acquaintance, but she did instead have a lot to say about a number of journalists on the Times. She began with John Duncan Miller, the paper’s Washington correspondent. He’d started out as an interior decorator in Fitzrovia, West said, ‘and had been very friendly with the Mosleys and Stracheys in their Communist days’.
Miss West then went on to inveigh against the Times for having a Communist cell in its organisation. She considered Basil Davidson, ‘Times’ correspondent in Paris, as of Communist sympathy. She recalled the influence of E.H. Carr during the war.
Two people who worked for the New York Herald Tribune, and who had been to visit her, West told MI5, must be suspect because they liked Alistair Cooke’s account of Hiss’s trial, and claimed not to have needed directions to her house. ‘Miss West could only assume that they had been told to come and see her and given instructions in advance.’
The MI5 report concludes:
Miss West’s parting shot to me was that she supposed Owen Lattimore had been a British agent as well as a Soviet one. She gave me a knowing look, not expecting me to reply to her remark. Miss West seems to be unduly influenced by personal considerations. She is rather pompous and clearly regards herself as the high priestess of Anti-Communism. Already she feels a slight persecution mania as a result of the crusade she has launched… Occasionally, Miss West made faintly hostile allusions to our organisation, but her general demeanour was pleasant enough.
The report is signed M.B. Hanley, 26 January 1951.