- Historic Sites
“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
As President, Nixon told several persons privately that Hiss and Chambers had been lovers, apparently forgetting that he had once described such gossip as “a typical Commie tactic.” Allen Weinstein wrote delicately in Perjury: “…at the height of the impeachment crisis a Congressman who spent an evening sailing down the Potomac with Nixon on the presidential yacht said later that Nixon had told him ‘the true story of the Hiss case.’ The Congressman was highly amused: ‘I didn’t know those two guys were queers.’ Others close to Nixon had confirmed his current use of this analysis: that a homosexual relationship between Hiss and Chambers caused Hiss to steal the documents. Thus Nixon, in his adversity, turned to‘explaining’ the complex Hiss Case with an unproved rumor, a persistent one during the 1948 HUAC hearings, revealing far more about himself under pressure than about the Case.”
One special aspect of the legacy of Whittaker Chambers remains to be noted. In Six Crises Nixon wrote that Chambers “had systematically collected [on the rolls of microfilm] documents which had been given him by Hiss, White, and other members of the espionage group so that he would have some physical evidence of their activities to hold over their heads in the event of threatened reprisals.…” So Nixon, too, would systematically collect on tape during his Presidency the spoken words of everyone who came into three presidential offices. He wrote that the tapes were his “best insurance against the unforeseeable future, some protection in case people close to me would turn against me.”
Whittaker Chambers by himself could not have brought about the downfall of Alger Hiss. As he wrote in Witness , “Richard Nixon made the Hiss Case possible.” There are extraordinary similarities between Hiss under fire from Nixon and Nixon as a target in Watergate. Both men in crucial moments of decision chose what seems to have been the self-destructive path. Neither reacted under fire like a seasoned lawyer, and each denied his guilt when the evidence was ruinous. Nixon said Hiss “made the fatal mistake no client should ever make—he had not told his own lawyer the full truth about the facts at issue.” He would do the same.
Allen Weinstein wrote that Nixon’s behavior in the case “could be best characterized not as cool, confident and decisive but as cautious, calculating, indecisive and at one point, at least, hysterical—foreshadowing in many respects the President of the White House Watergate tapes during the last, end-game crisis.” Hiss stonewalled, built elaborate fantasies about forged typewriters, and never acknowledged his guilt even long after he was out of prison. During his own long exile at San Clémente, Nixon admitted only to having made “mistakes” and toyed publicly with H. R. Haldeman’s conspiratorial fantasies about the Democrats in the National Committee headquarters having bugged themselves.
Neither Hiss nor Nixon had an intimate understanding of criminal law. Hiss had never before his own trial been inside a courtroom with a jury. Unprepared for cross-examination, he reacted to Nixon’s first questions in the HUAC hearings in a fashion almost certain to hurt his chances of success. “He was rather insolent toward me,” Nixon wrote in his notes at the time, and “his manner and tone were insulting in the extreme.”
Hiss represented many things Nixon had coveted in life. A graduate of Harvard Law School, former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, an aide to Roosevelt, one of the builders of the United Nations, and now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he was also, in Nixon’s words, “tall, elegant, handsome, and perfectly poised.” Preoccupied with clothes, as was Nixon, he had, according to his son Tony, “an astonishing number of suits and shoes and shoe trees and ties, and he always wore a white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket.”
That Hiss fully expected to charm Richard Nixon, as he had for many years charmed a great many influential men, was indicated to his son Tony when he was a bitter, old man, long out of prison: “Of course I didn’t realize then what shits they were. And then I just couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t love me, once I was there. And in fact, the hearings at first seemed to bear that out and go my way. Right up until the Pumpkin Papers, I was in clover.”
His saying, “I just couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t love me,” reflected affection he had won from three Supreme Court Justices—Stanley M. Reed and Felix Frankfurter, as well as Holmes—and from educators, Secretaries of State, and Roosevelt himself. It reflected, too, his incapacity for sensing dislike of himself, a defect in his antennae for danger. As he admitted to his son, “My analyst says I have a phobia against fear and don’t get afraid even when I should get afraid.”
Chambers in 1939 had blown Hiss s cover as an espionage agent by going to Adolf Berle with his story. Hiss knew that this would be a possibility as soon as the friend he knew as “Carl” or “David Breen” came to him in 1938 with a recitation of Stalin’s evils and begged him to abandon the Party, threatened to expose him if he did not. Priscilla Hiss had reacted disdainfully, Chambers said, calling his arguments “mental masturbation.” But Hiss, who said he could not follow him out of the party, had wept.