July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
In the summer of 1948 I was a seventeen-year-old high school student from Kentucky visiting my older sister in the nation’s capital. After making the rounds of the usual tourist attractions, I found my attention drawn to Congressman J. Parnell Thomas’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, then conducting what came to be known as the Hiss-Chambers hearings.
My brother-in-law pointed out that the hearings were open to the public and urged me to attend. They were held in some high-ceilinged government building that reminded me vaguely of the Federal Building back home in Louisville. The halls outside the room were jammed with noisy protesting demonstrators.
I listened raptly for several days as men questioned witnesses and unraveled secrets about Communist party cells in Washington back in the thirties.
The memory I retain most clearly is of Alger Hiss. Listening to his testimony, I became convinced he was lying about his relations with people identified as Soviet agents. Nothing I have heard or read since—including the claim by Hiss’s attorney a year or two ago that a former Soviet spymaster could find no records of Hiss’s having been an agent—has changed my mind about him.
Why did a seventeen-year-old boy feel so strongly about that? Because Hiss could not remember in 1948 what he had done a dozen years before with a perfectly good seven-year-old automobile. It was inconceivable to a teenager growing up in an automotive society that anyone, especially a brilliant government lawyer, could ever forget giving away a car . Testimony showed that the ownership of the Ford involved had been transferred from Hiss to someone identified as a local Communist cell member.
If Hiss couldn’t remember that, and presented no reasonable explanation, then he had to be lying about everything else. Or so went my thinking in that hearing room that muggy Washington August some forty-five years ago.