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“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
“I didn’t mean to be facetious,” Hiss went on, “but very seriously I would not want to take an oath that I had never seen that man. I would like to see him and then I would be better able to tell whether I had ever seen him. Is he here today?” And he looked about him.
“Not to my knowledge,” Mundt replied.
“I hoped he would be,” Hiss said, with an air of regret. Nixon said later, “It was a virtuoso performance.”
Every committee member but Nixon was convinced of Hiss’s innocence and eager, in Congressman Edward Hébert’s words, to “wash our hands of the whole mess.” But Nixon won the right to question Chambers further and to arrange for a meeting between the two men. Still, it was a sobering experience for him to emerge from the hearing and learn that President Truman, in a news conference that morning, had called the HUAC hearings “a red herring” and had insisted that “no information has been revealed that has not long since been presented to a federal grand jury.” All but two of the employees involved, Truman said, had left the government, and the remaining two were on voluntary leave. As Nixon described it in his book Six Crises : “I had put myself, a freshman Congressman … opposing the President of the United States and the majority of press corps opinion … against one of the brightest, most respected young men following a public career. Yet I could not go against my own conscience and my conscience told me that in this case, the rather unsavory-looking Chambers was telling the truth, and the honest-looking Hiss was lying.”
With considerable sagacity Nixon now enlisted some powerful men on his side. Bert Andrews was a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Herald Tribune journalist who had been critical of unfair firings of State Department employees and who was expected to support Hiss. Nixon gave him a copy of Chambers’ testimony with its recollections of the Hiss households. They included descriptions of interior rooms and small but graphic details, like the fact that the Hiss cocker spaniel had been boarded in a Wisconsin Avenue kennel and that the Ford car had a windshield wiper that worked only by hand. Of the Hiss passion for birdwatching, Chambers had testified, “They used to get up early in the morning and go out to Glen Echo out the canal, to observe birds. I recall once they saw, to their excitement, a prothonotary warbler.” After reading the testimony, Andrews said, “I wouldn’t have believed it after hearing Hiss the other day. But there’s no doubt about it. Chambers knew Hiss.”
Next, Nixon won over William P. Rogers, counsel for the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. This was the beginning of a crucial friendship. Nixon would make Rogers a confidant, and later his Secretary of State. Finally, Nixon took the Chambers testimony to John Foster Dulles, expected to become Secretary of State if Thomas E. Dewey won the November election. With Dulles was his brother Alien, who had been with the Office of Strategic Services in Europe during the war. Nixon did not know that John Foster Dulles was already suspicious of Hiss. As he described the meeting, “Dulles paced the floor, his hands crossed behind him. It was a characteristic I was to see many times in the years ahead when we discussed important issues. He stopped finally and said, ‘There’s no question about it. It’s almost impossible to believe, but Chambers knew Hiss.’ Alien Dulles reached the same conclusion.”
HUAC committee members who heard or read Chambers’ testimony were also impressed and agreed to call Hiss for more questioning on August 16. Hiss had learned, meanwhile, that Nixon had spent time with Chambers at his farm, and that he had learned innumerable details from him. Had he been a more clever actor, arguing that everything Chambers had learned about his houses and himself came from others, including members of HUAC, and had he never sued Chambers for libel, Hiss might have survived. Instead he came forward with an elaborate fantasy.
He admitted that in 1934 and 1935 he had known a man who might well have been Chambers, one George Crosley, an impecunious free-lance writer who had sought him out for material concerning the Nye Committee hearings, for which Hiss had then been serving as legal counsel. He had befriended Crosley and his wife and child, Hiss said, subletting his apartment and loaning him small sums, though not the actual sum of four hundred dollars that Chambers said Hiss had given to him in 1938 to buy a car.
Chambers had used a score of pseudonyms. Hiss had known him as “Carl” and as “David Breen” but chose to identify him as George Crosley. This was a blunder, revealing that Hiss knew a great deal about Chambers, for George Crosley was the name Chambers had used as a young man in 1926 when he sent several poems with a strong homosexual flavor to a publisher of erotica.
Hiss’s unexpected admission that he might indeed have known Chambers as Crosley gave Nixon an opportunity to question him deftly about those details of his life that Chambers had recalled most vividly. Hiss fell into what became a famous trap. When Nixon asked him to list his hobbies, he replied, “Tennis and amateur ornithology.” Then Congressman John McDowell, himself a birdwatcher, asked delicately, “Did you ever see a prothonotary warbler?”