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“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
In 1948 Nixon united with Chambers in planning the destruction of a man whom Chambers had once sought out in affection, like the brother he had lost. Nixon organized the details with the eagerness of a hunter stalking his prey. But Chambers was tormented, as he wrote later, by the question God asked Cain, “Where is Abel, thy brother?” He remained for months “a man constantly wavering.”
In their many sessions together Chambers educated Nixon about Soviet espionage, and he also provided the intellectual underpinnings for Nixon’s anti-Communism. He taught him his own concept of the Stalinist mind as “instantly manipulable, pragmatic, motivated by the instinctive knowledge that political position … is indispensable to political power.” Chambers saw the Communist vision as “the vision of Man without God,” the “vision of man’s displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world.” He polarized the world into two great contending forces and thus transmuted his personal struggle against Hiss into world terms.
Nixon would himself preach the doctrine of the divided and polarized world, and he referred repeatedly in his speeches to truth and character, but he would never become messianic. He would remain instead relentlessly political, very like Chambers’ own description of the Stalinist.
At the Maryland farmhouse, Nixon also came to know Chambers’ wife of seventeen years, the dark, soft-spoken, apprehensive Esther, who feared no less than her husband that his turning informer would wreck their lives. Hard-working as any pioneer woman—milking eighteen cows a day—she was also endlessly supportive. At the Hiss trial, when her husband was under venomous attack, she cried out, “My husband is a great man and a decent citizen.”
Chambers always wrote about his wife with tenderness- “all selfless love and forgiveness,” he said—and in describing their friendship with Alger and Priscilla Hiss he said that “the fact that both couples were firmly and happily married drew us together.” Yet he confessed secretly to the FBI in February, 1949, that during his years in the Communist underground he had been an active and at times an obsessive secret homosexual. Whether Nixon learned this from Chambers himself or only from the FBI we do not know. Fearing that his homosexuality would become public at the Hiss trial and be used to discredit him as a witness, Chambers had admitted to the FBI in advance what he said was the entire history of his indiscretions. He had sought out only men whom he did not know and men who did not know him, and the rendezvous was inevitably in a “flea-bag” hotel.
His homosexual life ended, he said, “with God’s help,” when he left the Party in 1938 and for the first time embraced religion. He denied that Hiss was ever his lover: “At no time did I have such relations, or even thought of such relations with Hiss or with anybody else in the Communist Party.”
He described Hiss as “a man of great simplicity and a great gentleness and sweetness of character,” and said that he and his wife were friends “as close as a man ever makes in life.” Gossip that Chambers had been attracted to Hiss sexually was common during the years of the case, and eventually Hiss said publicly that Chambers was persecuting him as “a spurned homosexual who testified … out of jealousy and resentment.” Though only a handful of men knew about Chambers’ confession to the FBI (which was not published until the Freedom of Information Act made the material available to Weinstein in 1977), the gossip did not die.
Nixon scrupulously avoided mentioning any of this gossip in Six Crises . He insisted, with some exaggeration, that he maintained a warm friendship with Chambers until his death in 1961. The news of his death, he wrote in his memoirs, “hit me hard.” Actually the two men had drifted apart. When Nixon visited him in 1960 to describe his presidential aspirations, Chambers wrote to William F. Buckley, “I came away with a most unhappy feeling. … I suppose the sum of it was: we have really nothing to say to each other.” Nixon, Chambers felt, “with dismay and a gnawing pity,” was inadequate for the “awful burden he was inviting.”
Still, Chambers wrote to Nixon after his defeat by John F. Kennedy, urging him to run for the governorship of California: “Almost from the first day we met (think, it is already 12 years ago), I sensed in you some quality very deep going, difficult to identify in the world’s glib way, but good, and meaningful for you and multitudes of others. … Service is your life.”
This was his last letter to Nixon. After his death, a few months later, Nixon wrote to his widow that Chambers was “a very great and a very good man.” He also sent her a copy of his telegram to the press at the time, saying that Witness was “the most penetrating analysis of the true nature and deadly appeal of Communism produced in this generation.”