“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
When Nixon adroitly introduced a question to Chambers that many had been wondering about, “Is there a grudge that you have against Mr. Hiss?” Chambers replied: “I do not hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends but we are caught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are all fighting, and I am fighting. I have testified against him with remorse and pity, but in a moment of history in which this nation now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise.”
Hiss’s friends, who had found his problem with identification troubling and his behavior in the confrontation inexplicable, were even more shaken when they saw photographs of Chambers taken in the mid-thirties; he had been thinner then, but otherwise not noticeably different from the man in the hearing room. They could not know it, but already Hiss was sliding into a morass of deception from which he could never extricate himself. In later years, after leaving prison, Hiss described the meeting with Chambers as having brought on “a sense of fantasy or dream.” Chambers himself wrote of it: “I was swept by a sense of pity for all the trapped men of which the pathos of this man was the center. … Under the calculated malice of his behavior toward me, which I could not fail to resent, under his impudence and bravado to the congressmen, he was a trapped man.…”
Nixon recollected his own feelings of the moment when writing Six Crises : “I should have been elated. The case was broken. The Committee would be vindicated, and I personally would receive credit for the part I had played. We had succeeded in preventing injustice being done to a truthful man and were now on the way to bringing an untruthful man to justice. Politically, we would now be able to give the lie to Truman’s contemptuous dismissal of our hearings as a ‘red herring?…
“However, I experienced a sense of letdown. … There was a sense of shock and sadness that a man like Hiss could have fallen so low. I imagined myself in his place. … It is not a pleasant picture to see a whole brilliant career destroyed before your eyes.…”
But his compassion was momentary. The next day, he said, he learned that “the point of greatest danger is not in preparing to meet the crisis or fighting the battle; it occurs after the crisis of battle is over,” when one is “spent, physically, emotionally, and mentally.” His error, Nixon explained, happened the next morning when Hiss brought his wife Priscilla to corroborate his story about Crosley. Nixon was the only committee member present. Priscilla Hiss was a small, fragile-looking woman, primly dressed, with great liquid hazel eyes, and a turned-up nose not unlike that of Nixon’s mother.
“I subconsciously reacted to the fact that she was a woman. … She played her part with superb skill. When I asked her to take the oath to tell the truth, she inquired demurely if she could ‘affirm’ rather than ‘swear.’ Subtly, she was reminding me of our common Quaker background. … She succeeded completely in convincing me that she was nervous and frightened, and I did not press her further. I should have remembered that Chambers had described her as, if anything, a more fanatical Communist than Hiss.”
Priscilla Hiss was never indicted, although it was generally agreed by experts hired by both the government and Hiss’s lawyers that it was indeed she who had typed most of the State Department material later called the “Pumpkin Papers.” Donald Hiss also escaped indictment, although there is considerable evidence of lying in his case also. But before the case was over, at least four deaths and one near-death were publicly linked to the Hiss-Chambers probe. We have already noted Harry Dexter White’s fatal heart attack and Marvin Smith’s apparent suicide. Laurence Duggan, a former State Department official and friend of Hiss’s, jumped or fell—or as some thought, was pushed—to his death on December 20, 1948, from the sixteenth floor of a Manhattan office building. He was wearing one galosh at the time; the other remained on the office floor.
Nixon and Mundt at once released HUAC testimony by Isaac Don Levine accusing Duggan of having been a Communist agent, and Mundt boasted callously that the committee would reveal the names of others in the probe “when they jumped out of the window.” Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a good friend of Duggan’s, wired New York Mayor William O’Dwyer saying it was “impossible to believe” Duggan’s death a suicide and urging an. investigation. Four days later, Welles was found almost frozen to death from exposure after an apparent heart attack on his Virginia estate.
That Nixon was to some degree shaken by all these deaths and near deaths, and that he continued to be troubled by the destruction of Hiss long afterward, is apparent when he wrote in Six Crises of his feeling of “letdown.” But in the end he had only one real regret—that he had not destroyed Hiss’s wife as well. “I could have made a devastating record,” he wrote, “but I dropped the ball.”