- Historic Sites
“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The case was by no means finished with the crucial unmasking of Hiss in the HUAC hearing in the Commodore Hotel, for Hiss did not go to prison until March 22, 1951. In the intervening period we see Nixon not only as the diligent sleuth and master of detail of Six Crises but also as a man giving way to panic, belaboring his staff, and abandoning a friend who had done him conspicuous service.
Chambers publicly called Hiss a Communist on Meet the Press August 27, 1948, and three weeks later Hiss launched a libel suit for fifty thousand dollars, later raised to seventy-five thousand dollars. Although it was soon apparent that Hiss intended to wage a savage fight, Nixon left Washington and traveled about the country giving hundreds of “nonpolitical” speeches describing the case. Since he had won both Republican and Democratic primaries in June, he did not have to campaign formally on his own behalf. By election time he had been heard by thousands of people and had become one of the most visible congressmen in the country. Lynn Bowers and Dorothy Blair, in an admiring article in the Saturday Evening Post , described the tour, quoting him as saying,” Anyone who thinks communism in this country is just an idea is crazy.”
Chambers, who had resigned from Time , watched Nixon’s political exploitation of his life with dismay. When he realized, belatedly, that he could very well lose the libel suit without documentation of his charges against Hiss, he made a trip to the home of his Brooklyn nephew and retrieved from the shelf of the unused dumbwaiter the envelope hidden there almost ten years earlier. On November 17 Chambers went to the pretrial deposition hearing with his lawyer, Richard F. Cleveland, and turned over to Hiss’s lawyers, William Marbury and Edward McLean, the four memos in Hiss’s hand, the sixty-five pages of cables and cable summaries typed by Priscilla Hiss, and the eight-page summary in the hand of Harry Dexter White. He kept in secret reserve the five rolls of microfilm. After an hour of “stunning itemization,” Marbury and McLean were aghast.
Watching the scene was a young lawyer, Nicholas Vazzana, hired by Time to assist Chambers. When almost a fortnight passed and the Justice Department, to which copies had also been delivered, still had not yet contacted Chambers, Vazzana feared a cover-up and decided to leak the story to Nixon. He found the young congressman preparing to leave the following day on a vacation cruise with his wife to Panama. Stripling, who also heard the story, was bursting with excitement and urged that they drive immediately to interview Chambers at his Maryland farm. But to the astonishment of both Vazzana and Stripling, Nixon broke into a rage. “He cussed me out real good,” Stripling told Weinstein, shouting, “I am so God-damned sick and tired of this case, I don’t want to hear any more about it, and I’m.going to Panama. And the hell with it, and you, and the whole damned business.”
Furious because Chambers was no longer confiding in him, and because he had lost the chance to exploit the new and sensational evidence that Hiss had been not only a Communist but also a spy, Nixon now refused to see Chambers at all. Stripling persuaded him to make the drive hours later only with the greatest difficulty. When they arrived at the farm, Chambers was cool and evasive, admitting only that he had turned over “a bombshell” to Hiss’s lawyers and the Justice Department and that he held a second one in reserve. Nixon could do little but beg him to turn his secret bombshell over to HUAC.
When they got into the car, Nixon said to Stripling, “What do you think he’s got?”
“I don’t know what he has, but whatever he has, it’ll blow the dome off the Capitol. Certainly you’re not going to Panama now?”
“I don’t think he’s got a damned thing,” Nixon said. “I’m going right ahead with my plans.”
At the urging of Bert Andrews, he did take the time to issue a subpoena on Chambers for all the relevant documents and, mindful of keeping on good terms with J. Edgar Hoover, reported the story to the FBI, promising that he would reopen the Hiss case for HUAC on his return on December 15. Vazzana and Stripling, who were angered by Nixon’s description of himself in this episode in Six Crises as the ever-confident detective hero, saw him at the time as “cautious, irascible and fearful,” fleeing Washington on his “cruise-ship vacation” in order to miss out on any embarrassment, should the Chambers papers prove to be of no consequence or fraudulent, but keeping open the option to return instantly should he be summoned. Thus he could “steal the headlines and claim credit for the coup.” “ Six Crises is pure bullshit,” Stripling told Weinstein. “Mr. Nixon did not break the Hiss case.”