“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
“I have, right here on the Potomac,” Hiss said, his face lighting up. “Do you know that place? … They come back and nest in these swamps. Beautiful yellow head. A gorgeous bird.”
The committee fell silent. Hiss could not have suspected that his prothonotary warbler would shortly become, in the nation’s press, the most famous warbler in America.
During the session Hiss made two unnecessary and serious blunders. He mentioned that Chambers, unable to pay his rent, had given him a rug that “some wealthy patron gave him.” “I have still got the damned thing,” he said. He also said: “I sold him an automobile. I had an old Ford that I threw in with the apartment, that I had been trying to trade in and get rid of. A slightly collegiate model. It wasn’t very fancy, but it had a sassy little trunk on the back.” The Bokhara rug was one of four that Colonel Boris Bykov, chief of Soviet intelligence in the United States, had ordered Chambers to buy and distribute to four Americans as an expression of Soviet gratitude. The Ford car, as it turned out, had never been given or sold to Chambers. When investigators traced the sale they would prove, as Chambers had predicted, that in a most unusual transaction Hiss had turned the car over without payment to the Cherner Motor Company. The Ford transaction would take on ominous proportions when W. Marvin Smith, a Justice Department lawyer and old friend of Hiss’s—who admitted that he had notarized Hiss’s signature on the transfer of title—fell, or as some said jumped, or “was pushed” to his death down an office stairwell some weeks later. No direct connection to the Hiss case has ever been established, though.
Hiss was shaken when Hébert said bluntly, “Either you or Mr. Chambers is lying, and whichever one of you is lying is the greatest actor that America has ever seen. … What motive would he have to pitch a twenty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year position as Senior Editor of Time out of the window?” When Hiss protested that Chambers was “a selfconfessed traitor,” Hebert, who knew New Orleans police courts, replied, “Some of the greatest saints in history were pretty bad before they were saints. … I don’t care who gives the facts to me, whether a confessed liar, thief, or murderer —if it’s the facts.” Thereafter, as Nixon described it, Hiss was “twisting, turning, evading, and changing his story to fit the evidence he knew we had.”
Nixon had arranged a confrontation between Hiss and Chambers for August 25, but following the fatal heart attack of another target of investigation by HUAC, Harry Dexter White, Nixon insisted that the confrontation between Hiss and Chambers be held earlier, on August 17. Chambers was rushed to New York, and Hiss was ushered hastily to the Commodore Hotel. Chambers was at first kept in an anteroom while Hiss was questioned.
When finally he was ushered in, everyone stared at him save Hiss, who looked resolutely out the window. Nixon had to ask him to stand and face the man “he had been so anxious to see ‘in the flesh.’” When asked if he had ever known Chambers, Hiss replied, “May I ask him to speak? Will you ask him to say something?”
Chambers, requested to give his name, said, “My name is Whittaker Chambers.” Hiss then walked forward and looked down into his mouth.
“Would you mind,” he said, “opening your mouth wider?” Chambers was then asked to read from a magazine as Hiss continued to peer into his mouth. This bizarre behavior Hiss explained later: “None of the photographs of Chambers that I saw showed poor teeth. … Crosley’s teeth were decayed and one of them was split, the forward half having come away, leaving the gleaming steel of a pivot against the darkened rear of the broken tooth. … I wanted to hear his voice and see if he had Crosley’s bad teeth before expressing my feeling that this was George Crosley.” When Chambers stated that he had had some extractions and bridgework, Hiss asked the name of the dentist.
“Dr. Hitchcock, Westminster, Maryland,” Chambers said. Then Hiss went on, “I would like to find out from Dr. Hitchcock if what he has just said is true.”
At this point, after the mocking laughter in the audience quieted, Nixon interposed sardonically, “Mr. Hiss, do you feel that you would have to have the dentist tell you just what he did to the teeth before you could tell anything about this man?” Only then, Nixon said, did Hiss realize that he had overplayed his hand. “All his poise was gone. … With a look of cold hatred in his eyes, he fought like a caged animal.”
When the two men were permitted a direct interchange, Chambers said, “Alger, I was a Communist and you were a Communist.” Hiss shortly after challenged him to say it outside the protective limits of the committee so that he could sue him for libel. Striding close to Chambers he shouted, “I challenge you to do it, and I hope you will do it damned quickly.” One of the staff, thinking Hiss was about to strike his enemy, took him by the arm. Hiss recoiled, Nixon said, “as if he had been pricked with a hot needle,” and continued shrilly, “I am not touching him. You are touching me.” Before the confrontation was over, Hiss had abandoned all caution. “The ass under the lion’s skin is Crosley,” he said contemptuously. “If he had lost both eyes and taken his nose off, I would be sure.”