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“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
How much material Hiss turned over to Chambers can only be guessed at. When Chambers left the Party in 1939 he kept, by way of what he called insurance against assassination, documents Hiss had given to him from January 5 to April 1, 1938. These included four memos in Hiss’s hand, sixty-five pages of State Department documents, consisting mostly of cables marked “Secret” or “Confidential,” sixty-four pages of which had been copied by Priscilla Hiss. Chambers also kept five rolls of film, three undeveloped (one of which happened to be blank). Two consisted of Navy Department material. The developed film, which had come from Hiss, included three cables from Sayre’s office bearing Hiss’s initials. An eight-page memo in the hand of Harry Dexter White completed the fateful package. Chambers put everything into a big envelope and gave it to a nephew in Brooklyn, Nathan Levine, with instructions to make it public only if he should meet a violent death. Levine hid it on the shelf of an unused dumbwaiter in his mother’s home, where it gathered cobwebs for almost ten years.
For Under Secretary of State Adolf Berle there was something ineffably juvenile in the spectacle of Hiss, the impeccable bureaucrat, stealing state secrets and passing them on furtively to the enemy. In testifying before HUAC, Berle indicated that at first he refused to get excited about Hiss. “The idea that the two Hiss boys and Nate Witt [a friend of Hiss’s] were going to take over the United States government didn’t strike me as being much of an immediate danger. … Frankly, I still don’t know whether this is a boy that got in deep and then pulled clear, or what goes on here.” Even after Hiss left prison, editor Hiram Haydn of Random House, from whom he sought a job, found him “gaminlike, elusive, answering my questions with the manner of a shrewd, precocious little boy who was playing games and admiring his skill at them. … Mask succeeded mask, role role, personality personality.”
Hiss’s friends found the very idea of espionage from this gentle and attractive man incredible, although it is likely that Hiss had no conscious moral qualms about it, given his faith in the Soviet Union. Hiss described to his son Tony his satisfaction in “the band of brothers” he found among the lawyers of the New Deal, although he would never admit that the more intimate friends among his brotherhood had all been Communists.
However Hiss may have justified his espionage as a constructive activity for a better world, his betrayal suggests great hatred, whether acknowledged or repressed. Hiss’s stepson said in later years that until Hiss went to prison, he had “no sense of evil.” Chambers, who was enamored of Hiss’s gentleness, saw in him also “a streak of wholly incongruous cruelty.” He was shocked to hear him brutally ridicule Franklin Roosevelt’s crippled body and compare it to the crippled American middle class. He reported, too, Hiss’s speaking venomously of “the horrible old women of Baltimore,” among whom he may well have numbered his own mother.
His friend Lee Pressman said of Hiss, “He gave you a sense of absolute command and absolute grace.” Hiss had moved with grace among giants, but he had never in fact been in command of anything until he became head of the Carnegie Endowment in February, 1947. As the HUAC hearings unfolded, under Nixon’s prodding, Hiss’s life underwent great upheaval. All the lying, evasion, and acting that had gone into preserving intact his two separate lives were now united in preserving the new man in command at Carnegie. Hiss the actor never disappeared. Chambers, watching him, sensed what was happening and learned belatedly that Hiss would destroy him, if necessary, to preserve not the old “secret compartment” but the now valued open life. Nixon, himself an inveterate actor, also sensed from the beginning that Hiss was acting out a role and that he was less than adept at it: “From considerable experience in observing witnesses on the stand, I had learned that those who are lying or trying to cover up something generally make a common mistake—they tend to overact, to overstate their case.”
In his first encounter with Nixon, Hiss came to the hearings without a lawyer, thus communicating a strong impression of innocence. As Dean Acheson said later, “he has conducted himself with calm and dignity and not at all in the way of a person who has been caught in a really terrible crime.” When Hiss denied knowing a man named Whittaker Chambers, Nixon was the only one to view the precision of language with suspicion. Hiss described his career with appropriate modesty and insisted that he had never been a Communist and had no Communist friends. Shown a picture of Chambers, he stared at it with what Nixon described as “an elaborate air of concentration and said, ‘If this is a picture of Mr. Chambers, he is not particularly unusual looking.’ Turning to Karl Mundt, he added, ‘He looks like a lot of people. I might even mistake him for the Chairman of this Committee.’”
What was lost in the laughter Nixon alone caught. Anyone could see that Mundt was round and pudgy like Chambers; but more important, his first name was Karl, and Nixon knew that “Carl” had been the pseudonym Chambers had used with the Hiss family. This was one of many unconscious evidences of guilt, the first of numerous small and inadvertent blunders.