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2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Hiss-Chambers espionage case, which gripped America in 1948 and still provokes controversy. Take a deep factual dive into the story of two brilliant, fascinating men, sensational Congressional hearings, spy documents hidden in a dumbwaiter shaft and a pumpkin, the trial of the century, and the launch of Richard Nixon’s career. Comments and politely phrased corrections or criticism are welcome by the writer and narrator, at john_berresford@comcast.net.

May 10, 2023

Pic: Prosecutor Thomas Murphy  

In this Podcast, I deliver, in my best courtroom voice, short versions of Prosecutor Murphy’s down-to-earth opening statement for the government and Lloyd Paul Stryker’s incandescent overture for the Hiss defense.  See which one you think is more impressive — Murphy’s calm, rational promise of convincing evidence or Stryker’s dazzling contrast of Saint Alger and the “moral leper” Chambers.  
 
FURTHER RESEARCH:
 
Episode 19:  Strangely, neither Hiss nor Chambers in his memoir spends many words on the opening statements of the two great trial lawyers, Murphy and Stryker.  Indeed, Hiss’s description of the trials is all about the evidence, with nothing about appearances, gestures, or his personal reactions.  See Hiss at 213.Chambers, equally remarkably, covers both trials in only four pages at the back of his 799-page autobiography.  Witness at 789-92.He does refer to Stryker as ‘spinning and flailing like a dervish” (791).  
 
More detailed accounts of the opening statements are in Weinstein at 437-41, Smith at 299-303, and Cooke at 109-18.  Cooke’s description (at 107-08) of Hiss’s physical appearance in court on the first day is positively rhapsodic:  “He had what anyone must envy who has come to know that youth is a bloom that sags and vanishes . . . .  He had one of those bodies that without being at all imposing or foppish seem to illustrate the finesse of the human mechanism.. . .  [H]e was of that species which exists in the teeth of the American democratic theory and is yet another proof of the superiority of matter over mind:an American gentleman . . .”  As I wrote about a previous Podcast, Cooke just didn’t get Chambers at all.  Given his inclinations, it must have been a long ands painful journey for Cooke to conclude, as he did, that Hiss was guilty.  See Nick Clarke, “Alistair Cooke:A Biography” (Arcade Publishing 1999) at 288.
 
Questions:  If you were on the jury, which opening statement would leave the better impression on you?  Certainly, Stryker was the superior orator.  Would you want to side with his client, Saint Alger?  Would you feel pity or hatred for Stryker’s Chambers:  the professional liar, mentally ill malcontent, and flouter of every standard of civilized humanity?  After the smoke and music of Stryker’s performance had dissipated, however, would you be left wondering about the evidence?  That’s what Murphy talked about in his opening statement:  Chambers’ testimony that Hiss passed him confidential State Department papers in 1937 and 1938 and the 100 or so such papers he would introduce into evidence.  Stryker didn’t say a word about the documents in Hiss’s handwriting and typed on the Hiss family typewriter, which were created and in Chambers’ possession long after Hiss said he had kicked Chambers out of his life.