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“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
He now moved decisively into Chambers’ life, questioning him in executive sessions, visiting him for long hours at his Maryland farm, the first time alone and later with newspaperman Bert Andrews and HUAC investigator Robert Stripling. “The old farmhouse smelled of another generation,” Stripling recalled. “A stuffed raven stared at us from a wall. An old German Bible lay opened on a table.”
Chambers’ son and daughter liked Nixon. “To them he is always Nixie,” Chambers later wrote, “the kind and the good, about whom they will tolerate no nonsense.” Nixon even invited his parents to the Chambers farm. Frank and Hannah Nixon had turned their Whittier, California, store over to their son Donald and had bought a farm in Pennsylvania, and when Richard Nixon realized that they were worried over the newspaper furor concerning the case, as well as about his own anxiety and insomnia, he arranged a meeting with Chambers to quiet their fears. When his mother had urged him to drop the case, he had said to her, “Mother, I think Hiss is lying. Until I know the truth, I’ve got to stick it out.” Their visits to Chambers put the seal of “family” on the relationship.
Very early Nixon saw his chance to turn the case into an embarrassment for President Truman, and he was at least as intent on finding out why Hiss had been left untouched by the Justice Department as he was in exposing him. Chambers told him much about his friendship with Hiss but kept secret the fact that both had been involved in espionage. He admitted that he had been “in the underground,” that he had collected Party dues from Hiss and others in their secret cell, but held that they all had acted as “functionaries” intent on influencing policy.
Chambers broke with the Party in 1938. In 1939, after the Stalin-Hitler pact, he turned informer, fearful lest the whole Communist underground apparatus in the United States be put at the service of Hitler’s Gestapo. Isaac Don Levine, anti-Communist journalist and Soviet expert, who had found him living penniless and in terror of assassination by a revengeful GPU (Russian Secret Service), had taken him to Adolf Berle, then Under Secretary of State. Chambers had wanted to see President Roosevelt and ask for immunity, but he could get no closer than Berle, who listened with some consternation and took notes. He said he would speak to FDR and he did, but Roosevelt—not surprisingly, since Chambers presented no documentary evidence—had turned the story aside with an epithet.
When nothing happened to Hiss, Chambers remained silent. He found work writing book reviews for Time . Henry Luce liked him and eventually made him an editor. “ Time gave me back my life,” Chambers said. “It gave me sanctuary, professional respect, peace, and time in which to mature my changed view of the world and men’s destiny, and mine in it.” Meanwhile, he watched with increasing anxiety the rise of Alger Hiss in government as an important aide to Roosevelt at Yalta, then as chief organizer of the San Francisco Conference that set up the United Nations. Chambers told FBI men, who had sought him out in 1945, that if Hiss were made temporary Secretary General of the United Nations (as had actually been privately urged upon Secretary of State Edward Stettinius by Andre! Gromyko in London on September 7,1945), he would expose him publicly.
Still Hiss had remained seemingly untouched and the apparent inaction on the part of the FBI and the Justice Department smacked of treason to Richard Nixon. Chambers described him standing by the barn on his farm shaking with anger, saying, “If the American people understood the real character of Alger Hiss they would boil him in oil.” Actually, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and others had become suspicious of Hiss, as evidence of his Soviet sympathies and possible espionage dribbled in from other sources, including Canadian and French intelligence. France’s premier, Edouard Daladier, had warned American Ambassador William C. Bullitt that “two brothers named Hiss” in the State Department were “Soviet agents.” And a defecting Russian code clerk at the Soviet embassy in Canada had implicated “an aide” to Stettinius. Hiss had worked for Stettinius in 1945.
Hiss had been questioned by the FBI on February 4,1942, and later warned by Secretary of State Byrnes, Dean Acheson, and John Foster Dulles that he was suspected. To one and all he denied that he had ever been a Communist and that he had ever known a man named Whittaker Chambers. He made the same denials under oath to a New York grand jury investigating Soviet espionage in the United States. Nevertheless, J. Edgar Hoover had put Hiss under surveillance for a year, beginning in November, 1945, and the State Department had quietly eased him out of government into a nonsensitive, wholly academic job as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February, 1947, in such a fashion that his reputation and livelihood had not been destroyed. None of this was known to Nixon, or Chambers, or, apparently, even to Harry Truman.