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“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
More than any other single event, Richard Nixon’s dogged pursuit of Alger Hiss made the young congressman from California a national figure. Nixon’s methods and motives in the explosive confrontation between Hiss, the alleged Soviet agent, and his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, foreshadowed Nixon’s actions throughout his career.
Dr. Fawn M. Brodie, who died on January 10 of this year, spent the last seven years of her life working on a study of Nixon—and how he got to be the kind of man he proved to be. Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character , finished only a few weeks before her death, will be published by W. W. Norton in September. This fascinating psychohistory is based not only on the standard sources—including the Watergate tapes—but also on interviews Dr. Brodie conducted with people who knew the ex-President. The controversy this book is sure to arouse will serve as a fitting climax to Dr. Brodie’s controversial career.
Born a Mormon, she first wrote a biography of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith ( No Man Knows My History , 1945). It resulted in her excommunication from the Mormon Church. After writing biographies of two other turbulent men, Thaddeus Stevens and Sir Richard Burton, Dr. Brodie, by then a professor of history at the University of California, caused a furor among Jefferson scholars with her 1974 book, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History . Its premise was that the widower Jefferson had lived for years with Sally Hemmings, a slave and his wife’s half-sister.
AMERICAN HERITAGE published two articles based on Dr. Brodie’s Jefferson studies, and we are proud, though saddened, to present the following excerpt from this independent and original historian’s last work.
The Hiss case reads like a Henry James novel with Gothic overtones. One wanders in a labyrinth of lying, intrigue, and perjury. There is still some argument about the truthfulness of the leading characters, and in the subplots there are unsolved murders and unexplained suicides. Controversy over Hiss’s trial, one of the most divisive in the century, has refused to die. At the time, Hiss was called a Benedict Arnold and Chambers was denounced as a sadist and moral leper. A small but influential core of Americans continued over the years to believe Hiss to be the American Dreyfus; the larger number who read seriously about the case thought him to be simply a resilient liar.
In 1978 historian Allen Weinstein’s brilliant volume of historical detection, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case , concluded that Hiss had been guilty of perjury and espionage. Weinstein, who had first thought Hiss might well be innocent, found himself finally tracking down one lie after another. His book, definitive in its accumulation and analysis of the evidence, did not quite end the controversy—the author had predicted it would not—partly because he stayed with the facts and was chary about divining motives or character. Hiss in particular remained a well of mystery. The case lived on, troubling those who believed that to find Hiss guilty would be to sustain Nixon, which some could not do even if he was in the right.
The Hiss case “began for me personally,” Nixon wrote, “on a hot, sultry Washington morning—Tuesday, August 3, 1948.” Whittaker Chambers had been subpoenaed by HUAC—the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon described him as short and pudgy, with unpressed clothes, speaking in a bored monotone, “an indifferent if not reluctant witness.” “None of us thought his testimony was going to be especially important.” Chambers named eight government officials, among them the Hiss brothers, who had in the thirties been Communists intent on infiltrating the highest offices of government. “This was the first time,” Nixon wrote in Six Crises , “I had ever heard of either Donald or Alger Hiss.”
In fact, it was not the first time. Nixon had been briefed extensively on Alger Hiss in February, 1947, by Father John Cronin, a strenuously anti-Communist priest to whom FBI agent Ed Hummer had leaked from FBI files Whittaker Chambers’ earlier and secret denunciations of Hiss. But Nixon chose to keep this fact a secret even from his HUAC colleagues. Later he would mention the Cronin briefing to two journalists, each of whom eventually published the fact, but apparently he forgot the admissions when he wrote Six Crises and there renewed the fiction that August 3,1948, was the first time he had heard of Hiss.
Nixon wrote also that he had thought of skipping the public hearing altogether, but he had been delayed by an “extraordinary quality” in Chambers “which raised him far above the run of witnesses.” It was especially when Chambers said, “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism,” that Nixon was captured by what “sounded like the ring of truth.”
He now moved decisively into Chambers’ life, questioning him in executive sessions, visiting him for long hours at his Maryland farm, the first time alone and later with newspaperman Bert Andrews and HUAC investigator Robert Stripling. “The old farmhouse smelled of another generation,” Stripling recalled. “A stuffed raven stared at us from a wall. An old German Bible lay opened on a table.”
Chambers’ son and daughter liked Nixon. “To them he is always Nixie,” Chambers later wrote, “the kind and the good, about whom they will tolerate no nonsense.” Nixon even invited his parents to the Chambers farm. Frank and Hannah Nixon had turned their Whittier, California, store over to their son Donald and had bought a farm in Pennsylvania, and when Richard Nixon realized that they were worried over the newspaper furor concerning the case, as well as about his own anxiety and insomnia, he arranged a meeting with Chambers to quiet their fears. When his mother had urged him to drop the case, he had said to her, “Mother, I think Hiss is lying. Until I know the truth, I’ve got to stick it out.” Their visits to Chambers put the seal of “family” on the relationship.
Very early Nixon saw his chance to turn the case into an embarrassment for President Truman, and he was at least as intent on finding out why Hiss had been left untouched by the Justice Department as he was in exposing him. Chambers told him much about his friendship with Hiss but kept secret the fact that both had been involved in espionage. He admitted that he had been “in the underground,” that he had collected Party dues from Hiss and others in their secret cell, but held that they all had acted as “functionaries” intent on influencing policy.
Chambers broke with the Party in 1938. In 1939, after the Stalin-Hitler pact, he turned informer, fearful lest the whole Communist underground apparatus in the United States be put at the service of Hitler’s Gestapo. Isaac Don Levine, anti-Communist journalist and Soviet expert, who had found him living penniless and in terror of assassination by a revengeful GPU (Russian Secret Service), had taken him to Adolf Berle, then Under Secretary of State. Chambers had wanted to see President Roosevelt and ask for immunity, but he could get no closer than Berle, who listened with some consternation and took notes. He said he would speak to FDR and he did, but Roosevelt—not surprisingly, since Chambers presented no documentary evidence—had turned the story aside with an epithet.
When nothing happened to Hiss, Chambers remained silent. He found work writing book reviews for Time . Henry Luce liked him and eventually made him an editor. “ Time gave me back my life,” Chambers said. “It gave me sanctuary, professional respect, peace, and time in which to mature my changed view of the world and men’s destiny, and mine in it.” Meanwhile, he watched with increasing anxiety the rise of Alger Hiss in government as an important aide to Roosevelt at Yalta, then as chief organizer of the San Francisco Conference that set up the United Nations. Chambers told FBI men, who had sought him out in 1945, that if Hiss were made temporary Secretary General of the United Nations (as had actually been privately urged upon Secretary of State Edward Stettinius by Andre! Gromyko in London on September 7,1945), he would expose him publicly.
Still Hiss had remained seemingly untouched and the apparent inaction on the part of the FBI and the Justice Department smacked of treason to Richard Nixon. Chambers described him standing by the barn on his farm shaking with anger, saying, “If the American people understood the real character of Alger Hiss they would boil him in oil.” Actually, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and others had become suspicious of Hiss, as evidence of his Soviet sympathies and possible espionage dribbled in from other sources, including Canadian and French intelligence. France’s premier, Edouard Daladier, had warned American Ambassador William C. Bullitt that “two brothers named Hiss” in the State Department were “Soviet agents.” And a defecting Russian code clerk at the Soviet embassy in Canada had implicated “an aide” to Stettinius. Hiss had worked for Stettinius in 1945.
Hiss had been questioned by the FBI on February 4,1942, and later warned by Secretary of State Byrnes, Dean Acheson, and John Foster Dulles that he was suspected. To one and all he denied that he had ever been a Communist and that he had ever known a man named Whittaker Chambers. He made the same denials under oath to a New York grand jury investigating Soviet espionage in the United States. Nevertheless, J. Edgar Hoover had put Hiss under surveillance for a year, beginning in November, 1945, and the State Department had quietly eased him out of government into a nonsensitive, wholly academic job as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February, 1947, in such a fashion that his reputation and livelihood had not been destroyed. None of this was known to Nixon, or Chambers, or, apparently, even to Harry Truman.
Although the long sessions in the battered rocking chairs on his farmhouse porch deepened the trust Whittaker Chambers felt for Nixon, the latter was troubled by persistent rumors—later stated openly by Hiss—that Chambers was an alcoholic, that he had been in a mental institution, and that he was a homosexual. Every aspect of his story that could be checked by committee investigators was checked. Nixon as a canny lawyer probed Chambers’ memory looking for weakness and dissimulation. He found no evidence of alcoholism and became satisfied that the rumors of hospitalization for mental illness came from Chambers’ two serious heart attacks, one of which meant months of rest in bed.
He could hardly have escaped learning about Chambers’ ferociously damaged childhood, which later was described in the apocalyptic Witness . There Chambers told almost everything about his childhood and youth save that his father had been a homosexual. An unwanted baby, given a name he detested, Vivian, he had grown up in genteel poverty in Lynbrook, Long Island. His mother, a frustrated actress, was intent chiefly on seeing that he grew up into a man of “breeding.” His father, a talented but chronically depressed artist, ignored both his sons, and finally ran off with a male lover when Chambers was nine. His mother put her two sons in her bedroom, kept an axe in the closet for protection, and vowed she would live “entirely for her children.” “A woman with an axe is a match for any man,” she said. Chambers never quite escaped the cot in his mother’s bedroom. Even as senior editor of Time , he would spend five nights a week with his mother in the old Lynbrook home and the weekend with his wife and two children on the Maryland farm.
Whittaker’s father, Jay Chambers, had returned after two years but had lived in continued estrangement from his family in an upstairs bedroom. His own mother, Grandmother Chambers, who had become psychotic, also moved into an upstairs bedroom. When she emerged at all it was to tell gentle memories of her peaceful Quaker childhood or to scream that she was being poisoned with kitchen gas and to threaten her sons and grandsons with scissors and kitchen knives. Young Chambers’ hands were scarred, he said, “where the scissors missed my father and caught me.” For years, he said, “this dark, demoniac presence sat at the heart of our home.”
As an adolescent, Chambers had been fat, effeminate, and friendless. He ran away from home and lived for a time as a day laborer under an assumed name. It was the first of many identities. When he returned, he entered Columbia University. Lionel Trilling, who put him in a novel, said he moved in a group of young men “of intimidating brilliance” despite a physical presence “calculated to negate youth and all its graces,” especially his mouth, which was “a devastation of empty sockets and blackened stumps.”
Chambers’ formidable talents as a linguist and fledgling writer were recognized by his adviser, Mark Van Doren. His one-act drama, A Play for Puppets , published under a pseudonym in the Columbia Morningside , betrayed the death fantasies that would always plague him. It also included a scene in which Roman centurians idly discussed the recently crucified Christ. One says casually, “They say he never lay with a woman.”
When Dean Herbert Hawkes found the play blasphemous and ordered Chambers to confiscate all copies and make a public apology, he refused and left college. Shortly afterward he joined the Communist Party, finding among tough labor organizers and disciplined Party men and women, most of them immigrants, what seemed to be a dedicated brotherhood. They gave him orders, told him never to drink and to forget about the pursuit of wealth. And they promised to save the world.
The childhoods of Nixon and Chambers were similar in that each had felt himself to be the least loved by his parents. Each too had seen a more favored brother die after a harrowing period of illness—as had Hiss also. Richard Chambers, the younger son, handsome as Whittaker was not, and a natural athlete, had returned from college drinking heavily and depressed, and had begged his brother to join him in death. For two years the family had faced the relentlessly aggressive and numbing behavior of the alcoholic and would-be suicide. Twice Whittaker had resuscitated Richard when he found him in a coma from inhaling kitchen gas and he never recovered from guilt over not having been present to save him on the night he succeeded in killing himself.
Chambers wrote that his brother’s suicide made him an “irreconcilable” Communist. Communism, he said, “speaks insistently to the human mind at the point where desperation lurks,” and the choice seemed to him at the time as one “between a world that is dying and one that is coming to birth.” Eleven years later he had come to believe the Party to be “the malevolent god that failed,” and he had begun, “like Lazarus,” the impossible return. This led him through a religious conversion, first to Episcopalianism, and finally to the Quaker Church of his grandmother’s childhood. He would describe it as “a transit that must be made upon the knees or not at all.”
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.”
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.
By late 1939, thanks to the Stalin-Hitler pact, the Communist espionage system in the United States was in a shambles. Chambers himself had been exposed by a former comrade, and only the most naive or doctrinaire of men would have continued, as Hiss apparently did as late as February, 1945, to try to funnel information secretly to the Soviet Union. Despite the wartime alliance, suspicion of Stalin remained endemic, and the Yalta pact, negotiated to a small extent with Hiss’s assistance, had caused cries of outrage. From 1942 on, as we have seen, Hiss had warnings that he was suspect. Still he trusted to simple denial.
Denial had been a way of life in the Hiss family. Alger was not yet three years old when his father, a Baltimore businessman, had cut his throat with a razor. Although there must have been a lot of blood and hysteria in the home at the time, Hiss insisted that only his two older sisters knew and that he and his two brothers grew up in ignorance of the suicide. The conspiracy of deception on the part of mother, sisters, relatives, and friends remained unshattered until he was an adolescent, when a neighbor told him the truth. Bosley, the eldest brother, then sought out the Baltimore newspaper obituary and brought home the grisly details.
Later Bosley Hiss, whom Alger called “a near genius,” ran away from home several times, drifted into dissipation, and died at twenty-six of a kidney ailment said to have been “alcohol induced.” Alger admitted eventually that Bosley had too many women, too much alcohol, and a disposition to shock, to “épater les bourgeois.” These traits he never admired he said. Still, no one was to shock his mother and her bourgeois friends more than Alger, who destroyed himself no less certainly than had his father and older brother.
Two years after Bosley’s death, an older sister, Mary, who had been in and out of sanatoriums, killed herself after a midnight quarrel with her husband. The manner of her death, like Bosley’s alcoholism, was buried in still another conspiracy of Hiss family denial. Later Alger Hiss, out of a sense of propriety, would also cover up the fact that Priscilla Pansier Hobson, whom he wanted to marry, had had an abortion. Still later he would try to hide the fact that his stepson had been discharged from the Navy for emotional problems relating to homosexuality. All these cover-ups, for whatever motive, confirm the role of denial in his life and help to explain his naive and steadfast habit of lying when questioned about himself.
Hiss, who counted himself the least loved of five children, described his childhood as “female dominated,” with a mother, Minnie Hiss, who was an “unloving” woman who never lost an argument. “All we got from Minnie was preaching,” Hiss said. Although he told his defender, Dr. Meyer Zeligs, that from the earliest time he could remember “he knew it was necessary to resist his mother’s will,” and that he was contemptuous of her insistence that he be “especially pleasant to important people,” he did develop a special skill at cooperating with dominating people—his mother, older siblings, teachers, bureaucrats, and finally Presidents.
Hiss married a woman who, like his mother, had conspicuously preferred others to himself. Priscilla Pansier rejected him first to marry Thayer Hobson. After Hobson abandoned her for another woman, she had an affair with a New York newspaperman, who refused to marry her when she became pregnant. Hiss comforted her through the abortion and finally won her for his wife.
Priscilla Hiss was one of the new women of the twenties, demanding respect for her own intellect and career, dabbling in Marxism and psychoanalysis and also, somewhat incongruously, converting to Quakerism. Donald Hiss in 1939 described her privately as “a red hot Communist” but later testified that neither she nor his brother had been Party members any more than himself. Some of Hiss’s defenders, like Eleanor Roosevelt, and for a time his lawyers, thought he was lying to protect his wife. But there is abundant evidence that by the early 1930’s both Hiss brothers and Priscilla were united in their secret dedication to the Party.
According to Chambers, Hiss’s commitment was total. Unlike most of the young idealists flirting with the Party who thought joining a secret Communist cell no more sinister than becoming a Freemason, Hiss turned early to espionage. When Chambers first met him, he was an aide to Francis B. Sayre, Assistant Secretary of State. For a period of about two years he copied or summarized cables that came across Sayre’s desk and turned them over to Chambers for transmission to Soviet agents for photographing. Priscilla, a better typist than her husband, copied Hiss’s summaries and occasionally whole cables on her Woodstock typewriter.
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.
“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?”
“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.”
When Nixon adroitly introduced a question to Chambers that many had been wondering about, “Is there a grudge that you have against Mr. Hiss?” Chambers replied: “I do not hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends but we are caught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are all fighting, and I am fighting. I have testified against him with remorse and pity, but in a moment of history in which this nation now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise.”
Hiss’s friends, who had found his problem with identification troubling and his behavior in the confrontation inexplicable, were even more shaken when they saw photographs of Chambers taken in the mid-thirties; he had been thinner then, but otherwise not noticeably different from the man in the hearing room. They could not know it, but already Hiss was sliding into a morass of deception from which he could never extricate himself. In later years, after leaving prison, Hiss described the meeting with Chambers as having brought on “a sense of fantasy or dream.” Chambers himself wrote of it: “I was swept by a sense of pity for all the trapped men of which the pathos of this man was the center. … Under the calculated malice of his behavior toward me, which I could not fail to resent, under his impudence and bravado to the congressmen, he was a trapped man.…”
Nixon recollected his own feelings of the moment when writing Six Crises : “I should have been elated. The case was broken. The Committee would be vindicated, and I personally would receive credit for the part I had played. We had succeeded in preventing injustice being done to a truthful man and were now on the way to bringing an untruthful man to justice. Politically, we would now be able to give the lie to Truman’s contemptuous dismissal of our hearings as a ‘red herring?…
“However, I experienced a sense of letdown. … There was a sense of shock and sadness that a man like Hiss could have fallen so low. I imagined myself in his place. … It is not a pleasant picture to see a whole brilliant career destroyed before your eyes.…”
But his compassion was momentary. The next day, he said, he learned that “the point of greatest danger is not in preparing to meet the crisis or fighting the battle; it occurs after the crisis of battle is over,” when one is “spent, physically, emotionally, and mentally.” His error, Nixon explained, happened the next morning when Hiss brought his wife Priscilla to corroborate his story about Crosley. Nixon was the only committee member present. Priscilla Hiss was a small, fragile-looking woman, primly dressed, with great liquid hazel eyes, and a turned-up nose not unlike that of Nixon’s mother.
“I subconsciously reacted to the fact that she was a woman. … She played her part with superb skill. When I asked her to take the oath to tell the truth, she inquired demurely if she could ‘affirm’ rather than ‘swear.’ Subtly, she was reminding me of our common Quaker background. … She succeeded completely in convincing me that she was nervous and frightened, and I did not press her further. I should have remembered that Chambers had described her as, if anything, a more fanatical Communist than Hiss.”
Priscilla Hiss was never indicted, although it was generally agreed by experts hired by both the government and Hiss’s lawyers that it was indeed she who had typed most of the State Department material later called the “Pumpkin Papers.” Donald Hiss also escaped indictment, although there is considerable evidence of lying in his case also. But before the case was over, at least four deaths and one near-death were publicly linked to the Hiss-Chambers probe. We have already noted Harry Dexter White’s fatal heart attack and Marvin Smith’s apparent suicide. Laurence Duggan, a former State Department official and friend of Hiss’s, jumped or fell—or as some thought, was pushed—to his death on December 20, 1948, from the sixteenth floor of a Manhattan office building. He was wearing one galosh at the time; the other remained on the office floor.
Nixon and Mundt at once released HUAC testimony by Isaac Don Levine accusing Duggan of having been a Communist agent, and Mundt boasted callously that the committee would reveal the names of others in the probe “when they jumped out of the window.” Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a good friend of Duggan’s, wired New York Mayor William O’Dwyer saying it was “impossible to believe” Duggan’s death a suicide and urging an. investigation. Four days later, Welles was found almost frozen to death from exposure after an apparent heart attack on his Virginia estate.
That Nixon was to some degree shaken by all these deaths and near deaths, and that he continued to be troubled by the destruction of Hiss long afterward, is apparent when he wrote in Six Crises of his feeling of “letdown.” But in the end he had only one real regret—that he had not destroyed Hiss’s wife as well. “I could have made a devastating record,” he wrote, “but I dropped the ball.”
The case was by no means finished with the crucial unmasking of Hiss in the HUAC hearing in the Commodore Hotel, for Hiss did not go to prison until March 22, 1951. In the intervening period we see Nixon not only as the diligent sleuth and master of detail of Six Crises but also as a man giving way to panic, belaboring his staff, and abandoning a friend who had done him conspicuous service.
Chambers publicly called Hiss a Communist on Meet the Press August 27, 1948, and three weeks later Hiss launched a libel suit for fifty thousand dollars, later raised to seventy-five thousand dollars. Although it was soon apparent that Hiss intended to wage a savage fight, Nixon left Washington and traveled about the country giving hundreds of “nonpolitical” speeches describing the case. Since he had won both Republican and Democratic primaries in June, he did not have to campaign formally on his own behalf. By election time he had been heard by thousands of people and had become one of the most visible congressmen in the country. Lynn Bowers and Dorothy Blair, in an admiring article in the Saturday Evening Post , described the tour, quoting him as saying,” Anyone who thinks communism in this country is just an idea is crazy.”
Chambers, who had resigned from Time , watched Nixon’s political exploitation of his life with dismay. When he realized, belatedly, that he could very well lose the libel suit without documentation of his charges against Hiss, he made a trip to the home of his Brooklyn nephew and retrieved from the shelf of the unused dumbwaiter the envelope hidden there almost ten years earlier. On November 17 Chambers went to the pretrial deposition hearing with his lawyer, Richard F. Cleveland, and turned over to Hiss’s lawyers, William Marbury and Edward McLean, the four memos in Hiss’s hand, the sixty-five pages of cables and cable summaries typed by Priscilla Hiss, and the eight-page summary in the hand of Harry Dexter White. He kept in secret reserve the five rolls of microfilm. After an hour of “stunning itemization,” Marbury and McLean were aghast.
Watching the scene was a young lawyer, Nicholas Vazzana, hired by Time to assist Chambers. When almost a fortnight passed and the Justice Department, to which copies had also been delivered, still had not yet contacted Chambers, Vazzana feared a cover-up and decided to leak the story to Nixon. He found the young congressman preparing to leave the following day on a vacation cruise with his wife to Panama. Stripling, who also heard the story, was bursting with excitement and urged that they drive immediately to interview Chambers at his Maryland farm. But to the astonishment of both Vazzana and Stripling, Nixon broke into a rage. “He cussed me out real good,” Stripling told Weinstein, shouting, “I am so God-damned sick and tired of this case, I don’t want to hear any more about it, and I’m.going to Panama. And the hell with it, and you, and the whole damned business.”
Furious because Chambers was no longer confiding in him, and because he had lost the chance to exploit the new and sensational evidence that Hiss had been not only a Communist but also a spy, Nixon now refused to see Chambers at all. Stripling persuaded him to make the drive hours later only with the greatest difficulty. When they arrived at the farm, Chambers was cool and evasive, admitting only that he had turned over “a bombshell” to Hiss’s lawyers and the Justice Department and that he held a second one in reserve. Nixon could do little but beg him to turn his secret bombshell over to HUAC.
When they got into the car, Nixon said to Stripling, “What do you think he’s got?”
“I don’t know what he has, but whatever he has, it’ll blow the dome off the Capitol. Certainly you’re not going to Panama now?”
“I don’t think he’s got a damned thing,” Nixon said. “I’m going right ahead with my plans.”
At the urging of Bert Andrews, he did take the time to issue a subpoena on Chambers for all the relevant documents and, mindful of keeping on good terms with J. Edgar Hoover, reported the story to the FBI, promising that he would reopen the Hiss case for HUAC on his return on December 15. Vazzana and Stripling, who were angered by Nixon’s description of himself in this episode in Six Crises as the ever-confident detective hero, saw him at the time as “cautious, irascible and fearful,” fleeing Washington on his “cruise-ship vacation” in order to miss out on any embarrassment, should the Chambers papers prove to be of no consequence or fraudulent, but keeping open the option to return instantly should he be summoned. Thus he could “steal the headlines and claim credit for the coup.” “ Six Crises is pure bullshit,” Stripling told Weinstein. “Mr. Nixon did not break the Hiss case.”
When HUAC investigators Donald Appell and William Wheeler arrived at the Maryland farm with the subpoena, Chambers, with a flair for melodrama, mystified them by walking into his pumpkin patch, where he fumbled about for a moment and then took five rolls of film wrapped in wax paper out of a hollowed-out pumpkin shell. He had hidden them there that morning, he said, because of prowlers on his farm. Back in Washington Stripling examined the two already-developed films, with their confidential State Department cables, and instantly wired Nixon on the S.S. Panama , “ CASE CLINCHED. INFORMATION AMAZING. … CAN YOU POSSIBLY GET BACK .” Nixon transferred from the boat to a Coast Guard amphibious plane and flew to Miami. When newsmen besieged him with questions about papers Chambers had found in a pumpkin, he thought for a time that “we might really have a crazy man on our hands.”
After returning to Washington, where he was briefed by Stripling, Nixon welcomed in the press, and the photograph taken of him looking at the microfilm with a magnifying glass, presumably at the spot where it said “Department of State, Strictly Confidential,” was published all over the nation. He did not correct Stripling when he told newsmen the developed films had made a stack of letter-sized documents three or four feet high. Actually they barely reached an inch.
The Nixon euphoria suffered a brief but potentially catastrophic setback when Stripling, on a routine check with the Eastman Kodak Company concerning the age of the film, which Chambers dated early 1939, was told that it had not been manufactured before 1945. The news, said Nixon, “jolted us into almost complete shock.” “We sat looking at each other without saying a word. This meant that Chambers was, after all, a liar. … We had been taken in by a diabolically clever maniac who had finally made a fatal mistake.” Vazzana, who was in the office at the time, remembered Nixon shouting, “Oh, my God, this is the end of my political career!” Turning abusive, he hurled the blame on the young lawyer who had leaked the story of the espionage documents to him in the first place. “Well, you got us into this. This is all your fault.” Vazzana, who thought he had done Nixon a great favor, protested helplessly, “I didn’t know there was any microfilm there.”
When Nixon finally located Chambers in New York and demanded an explanation, there was a long silence. Then Chambers said, “in a voice full of despair and resignation, T can’t understand it. God must be against me.’”
“You’d better have a better answer than that,” Nixon said. “The Sub-Committee’s coming to New York tonight and we want to see you at the Commodore Hotel at nine o’clock and you’d better be there!” And he slammed down the receiver without waiting for an answer.
Stripling said later that it was he who now insisted on calling in the press to admit that they had been “sold a bill of goods,” but that Nixon would have none of it. Nixon in Six Crises said it was he who called the press conference. “This would be the biggest crow-eating performance in the history of Capitol Hill, but I was ready to go through with it.” As it turned out, the Eastman Kodak representative saved Nixon’s reputation by telephoning just in time to say that he had been in error, that films with the same emulsion figure had been produced through 1938, discontinued because of the war, and then manufactured again in 1945.
Chambers, meanwhile, wandered about the streets of New York in a state of deep shock. When he finally learned of the Eastman error he felt not so much relief as rage. “An error so burlesque, a comedy so gross in the midst of such catastrophe was a degradation of the spirit,” he said. A “pointless pain continued to roll under me like a drowning wave.” Once again he walked the streets, finally going into a seed store, where he bought some insecticide that contained cyanide. This he stored in a locker in Grand Central Station and then went on to the Commodore Hotel.
There he found what seemed to him idiocy and paranoia. Nixon had been met by enraged Justice Department agents who forbade him to question Chambers because he had just begun testifying again before the grand jury. They threatened Nixon with a contempt citation if he would not turn over the microfilm. After a shouting match, with charges of meddling on the one hand and cover-up on the other, Nixon won the right to question Chambers, providing that he would turn over enlargements of all the film. Chambers described the committee as being “in the preposterous position of having the microfilm in its possession, but of not knowing what it was all about.” A siege mentality convulsed the HUAC congressmen: “The Committee was convinced that the Justice Department had it surrounded, that the hotel was wired or that the session could be overheard by wireless devices. … Certain comments were not spoken at all. They were scribbled on a scrap of paper and passed around the room. None of them was important … members of the Committee’s staff stood guard at the doors to challenge intruders and keep off the press.”
After testifying, Chambers went back to Grand Central Station, retrieved his insecticide, and rode to his mother’s home, experiencing what he called “a drought of the soul, a sense of estrangement and of being discarded.” Late at night, after writing letters to his wife and children, and one to the general public, he moistened the chemical in the tin and breathed in the fumes.
Perhaps because he had read the instructions improperly—or possibly because he had not really wanted to die—he awakened later suffering only from a terrible nausea. When Nixon learned of the suicide attempt, he felt himself to blame. “I had been the one public official who had stood by him and on whom he thought he could count. And now I was deserting him.”
Thereafter Nixon aided Chambers as best he could through the protracted agony of the two Hiss perjury trials. When it looked as if the Justice Department might indict both Chambers and Hiss for perjury, as J. Edgar Hoover was urging, Nixon made a powerful public plea that Chambers be left alone. In the previous September, in a moment of folly and without benefit of counsel, Chambers had testified before the New York grand jury that he had no evidence of Hiss’s espionage, thus laying himself open to the perjury charge. Nixon, aided by the testimony of Isaac Don Levine, explained it as the act of a man who could not bring himself to destroy a friend. Should Chambers be indicted, he said, his effectiveness as a witness in any trial of Alger Hiss would be forever destroyed.
The gesture helped. Hiss was indicted for perjury on December 15, 1948, and Chambers was left free to testify against him. Since the statute of limitations on espionage in peacetime was only three years, neither man could be indicted for spying. Nixon followed the two trials with care, secretly submitting questions to the government prosecutor, Thomas Murphy, through his newspaper reporter friend, Victor Lasky.
When the first trial resulted in a hung jury, eight to four for conviction, an enraged Nixon called for an investigation of Judge Samuel H. Kauf man’s “fitness to serve on the bench.” Several of the jurors who had voted guilty said they thought the judge had been partial to Hiss. Kaufman blocked the crucial testimony of Hede Massing, who was the one witness prepared to testify that she had known Hiss as a Communist agent. And there was some evidence that the judge had been informed quite early that the foreman of the jury had from the beginning been determined on an acquittal. In the second trial, conducted by Judge Henry W. Goddard, Hede Massing did testify.
Hiss’s main defense in both trials, aside from a parade of character witnesses, not all of whom did him service, was that Chambers was mentally unstable. In the second trial, Dr. Carl Binger, a psychiatrist friend of Hiss’s, who testified that Chambers was a psychopathic personality, withered under Thomas Murphy’s cross-examination and left the court looking something of a fool.
The jury decided the case primarily on the evidence in the pile of documents collectively if inaccurately called the Pumpkin Papers. A great deal of argument centered about Priscilla Hiss’s Woodstock N230099, which Hiss said he had given to their maid, Claudia Catlett, before the dates typed on the crucial pages. The prosecution established that the Catlett sons had received it in the same month that Chambers had defected from the Communist Party and had threatened to expose Hiss. Switching his story, Hiss then said that Chambers had somehow gotten into his house to type the papers. The fact that experts testified that the typing of the papers matched that of the “Hiss standards”—letters typed by Priscilla Hiss earlier than 1938—convinced all twelve members of the second jury that Hiss was indeed guilty of passing on documents to Chambers, and he was sentenced on the charge of perjury to five years in prison.
After his conviction, Hiss developed six elaborate conspiracy theories to explain his innocence. The best publicized one held that Chambers had constructed a phony machine, using samples of Priscilla Hiss’s typing from the 1930's, and typed the papers in imitation. Loyal Hiss followers raised ten thousand dollars to construct a typewriter matching the Woodstock N230099, but it failed to be an exact reproduction. The other conspiracy theories proved to be just as improbable.
In his memoirs Nixon would quote with satisfaction what Eisenhower said to him on their second meeting, “You not only got Hiss, but you got him fairly.” He would also write, underlining his own multiple motivations, “I recognized the worth of the nationwide publicity that the Hiss Case had given me—publicity on a scale that most congressmen only dream of achieving.” Robert Stripling was blunter when he told Allen Weinstein, “Nixon had set his hat for Hiss. It was a personal thing. He was no more concerned whether Hiss was [a Communist] than a billy goat.” Certainly Nixon seemed more concerned in pinioning Hiss as a liar than as a Communist.
Over the years, Nixon lauded Chambers as a man of truth, although he had no illusions about the fate of the informer. He told Haldeman in March, 1973, “Hiss was destroyed because he lied—perjury. Chambers was destroyed because he was an informer, but Chambers knew he was going to be destroyed.” And though he detested Hiss from their first meeting for his arrogance and “100 percent certified gentleman” manners, it was not Chambers but Hiss—“twisting and turning and squirming…”as Nixon had described him, “evading and avoiding”—whom the cornered President would imitate during Watergate. It would be one of the most arresting ironies of Richard Nixon’s life.”