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“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
More than any other single event, Richard Nixon’s dogged pursuit of Alger Hiss made the young congressman from California a national figure. Nixon’s methods and motives in the explosive confrontation between Hiss, the alleged Soviet agent, and his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, foreshadowed Nixon’s actions throughout his career.
Dr. Fawn M. Brodie, who died on January 10 of this year, spent the last seven years of her life working on a study of Nixon—and how he got to be the kind of man he proved to be. Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character , finished only a few weeks before her death, will be published by W. W. Norton in September. This fascinating psychohistory is based not only on the standard sources—including the Watergate tapes—but also on interviews Dr. Brodie conducted with people who knew the ex-President. The controversy this book is sure to arouse will serve as a fitting climax to Dr. Brodie’s controversial career.
Born a Mormon, she first wrote a biography of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith ( No Man Knows My History , 1945). It resulted in her excommunication from the Mormon Church. After writing biographies of two other turbulent men, Thaddeus Stevens and Sir Richard Burton, Dr. Brodie, by then a professor of history at the University of California, caused a furor among Jefferson scholars with her 1974 book, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History . Its premise was that the widower Jefferson had lived for years with Sally Hemmings, a slave and his wife’s half-sister.
AMERICAN HERITAGE published two articles based on Dr. Brodie’s Jefferson studies, and we are proud, though saddened, to present the following excerpt from this independent and original historian’s last work.
The Hiss case reads like a Henry James novel with Gothic overtones. One wanders in a labyrinth of lying, intrigue, and perjury. There is still some argument about the truthfulness of the leading characters, and in the subplots there are unsolved murders and unexplained suicides. Controversy over Hiss’s trial, one of the most divisive in the century, has refused to die. At the time, Hiss was called a Benedict Arnold and Chambers was denounced as a sadist and moral leper. A small but influential core of Americans continued over the years to believe Hiss to be the American Dreyfus; the larger number who read seriously about the case thought him to be simply a resilient liar.
In 1978 historian Allen Weinstein’s brilliant volume of historical detection, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case , concluded that Hiss had been guilty of perjury and espionage. Weinstein, who had first thought Hiss might well be innocent, found himself finally tracking down one lie after another. His book, definitive in its accumulation and analysis of the evidence, did not quite end the controversy—the author had predicted it would not—partly because he stayed with the facts and was chary about divining motives or character. Hiss in particular remained a well of mystery. The case lived on, troubling those who believed that to find Hiss guilty would be to sustain Nixon, which some could not do even if he was in the right.
The Hiss case “began for me personally,” Nixon wrote, “on a hot, sultry Washington morning—Tuesday, August 3, 1948.” Whittaker Chambers had been subpoenaed by HUAC—the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon described him as short and pudgy, with unpressed clothes, speaking in a bored monotone, “an indifferent if not reluctant witness.” “None of us thought his testimony was going to be especially important.” Chambers named eight government officials, among them the Hiss brothers, who had in the thirties been Communists intent on infiltrating the highest offices of government. “This was the first time,” Nixon wrote in Six Crises , “I had ever heard of either Donald or Alger Hiss.”
In fact, it was not the first time. Nixon had been briefed extensively on Alger Hiss in February, 1947, by Father John Cronin, a strenuously anti-Communist priest to whom FBI agent Ed Hummer had leaked from FBI files Whittaker Chambers’ earlier and secret denunciations of Hiss. But Nixon chose to keep this fact a secret even from his HUAC colleagues. Later he would mention the Cronin briefing to two journalists, each of whom eventually published the fact, but apparently he forgot the admissions when he wrote Six Crises and there renewed the fiction that August 3,1948, was the first time he had heard of Hiss.
Nixon wrote also that he had thought of skipping the public hearing altogether, but he had been delayed by an “extraordinary quality” in Chambers “which raised him far above the run of witnesses.” It was especially when Chambers said, “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism,” that Nixon was captured by what “sounded like the ring of truth.”