- Historic Sites
“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
After testifying, Chambers went back to Grand Central Station, retrieved his insecticide, and rode to his mother’s home, experiencing what he called “a drought of the soul, a sense of estrangement and of being discarded.” Late at night, after writing letters to his wife and children, and one to the general public, he moistened the chemical in the tin and breathed in the fumes.
Perhaps because he had read the instructions improperly—or possibly because he had not really wanted to die—he awakened later suffering only from a terrible nausea. When Nixon learned of the suicide attempt, he felt himself to blame. “I had been the one public official who had stood by him and on whom he thought he could count. And now I was deserting him.”
Thereafter Nixon aided Chambers as best he could through the protracted agony of the two Hiss perjury trials. When it looked as if the Justice Department might indict both Chambers and Hiss for perjury, as J. Edgar Hoover was urging, Nixon made a powerful public plea that Chambers be left alone. In the previous September, in a moment of folly and without benefit of counsel, Chambers had testified before the New York grand jury that he had no evidence of Hiss’s espionage, thus laying himself open to the perjury charge. Nixon, aided by the testimony of Isaac Don Levine, explained it as the act of a man who could not bring himself to destroy a friend. Should Chambers be indicted, he said, his effectiveness as a witness in any trial of Alger Hiss would be forever destroyed.
The gesture helped. Hiss was indicted for perjury on December 15, 1948, and Chambers was left free to testify against him. Since the statute of limitations on espionage in peacetime was only three years, neither man could be indicted for spying. Nixon followed the two trials with care, secretly submitting questions to the government prosecutor, Thomas Murphy, through his newspaper reporter friend, Victor Lasky.
When the first trial resulted in a hung jury, eight to four for conviction, an enraged Nixon called for an investigation of Judge Samuel H. Kauf man’s “fitness to serve on the bench.” Several of the jurors who had voted guilty said they thought the judge had been partial to Hiss. Kaufman blocked the crucial testimony of Hede Massing, who was the one witness prepared to testify that she had known Hiss as a Communist agent. And there was some evidence that the judge had been informed quite early that the foreman of the jury had from the beginning been determined on an acquittal. In the second trial, conducted by Judge Henry W. Goddard, Hede Massing did testify.
Hiss’s main defense in both trials, aside from a parade of character witnesses, not all of whom did him service, was that Chambers was mentally unstable. In the second trial, Dr. Carl Binger, a psychiatrist friend of Hiss’s, who testified that Chambers was a psychopathic personality, withered under Thomas Murphy’s cross-examination and left the court looking something of a fool.
The jury decided the case primarily on the evidence in the pile of documents collectively if inaccurately called the Pumpkin Papers. A great deal of argument centered about Priscilla Hiss’s Woodstock N230099, which Hiss said he had given to their maid, Claudia Catlett, before the dates typed on the crucial pages. The prosecution established that the Catlett sons had received it in the same month that Chambers had defected from the Communist Party and had threatened to expose Hiss. Switching his story, Hiss then said that Chambers had somehow gotten into his house to type the papers. The fact that experts testified that the typing of the papers matched that of the “Hiss standards”—letters typed by Priscilla Hiss earlier than 1938—convinced all twelve members of the second jury that Hiss was indeed guilty of passing on documents to Chambers, and he was sentenced on the charge of perjury to five years in prison.
After his conviction, Hiss developed six elaborate conspiracy theories to explain his innocence. The best publicized one held that Chambers had constructed a phony machine, using samples of Priscilla Hiss’s typing from the 1930's, and typed the papers in imitation. Loyal Hiss followers raised ten thousand dollars to construct a typewriter matching the Woodstock N230099, but it failed to be an exact reproduction. The other conspiracy theories proved to be just as improbable.
In his memoirs Nixon would quote with satisfaction what Eisenhower said to him on their second meeting, “You not only got Hiss, but you got him fairly.” He would also write, underlining his own multiple motivations, “I recognized the worth of the nationwide publicity that the Hiss Case had given me—publicity on a scale that most congressmen only dream of achieving.” Robert Stripling was blunter when he told Allen Weinstein, “Nixon had set his hat for Hiss. It was a personal thing. He was no more concerned whether Hiss was [a Communist] than a billy goat.” Certainly Nixon seemed more concerned in pinioning Hiss as a liar than as a Communist.