Jun 28, 2023
In Podcast 26, Alger Hiss takes the stand! In the
courtroom corridor, Hiss said: “I have been waiting for this a long
time.” (Smith at 383.). Lloyd Paul Stryker walked him through
his golden resume, emphasizing all the times he had been trusted
with secrets and remained loyal (as far as anyone knew). Hiss
denied every bad act of which Chambers had accused him and ended by
telling the jury that he was not guilty.
If you were cross-examining Hiss, you might be tempted, given
his charm and rhetorical skills, to ask him just a few questions
and then let him go. You could prove his many changes of
story and his rococo accounts of his financial dealings with
“Crosley” by reading Hiss’s HUAC testimony in to the record and
introducing into evidence all the business records darkening or
disproving what he said about the Ford with the sassy little trunk,
the $400 loan, and the rug. But Nixon, the only man who had
cross-examined Hiss, warned Murphy not to do this. Nixon got
word to Murphy ‘Hiss makes a very good first impression, and you
can’t let that be the impression he leaves the jury with.
You’ve got to get down in the pit and wrestle with him.' See
who you think won the wrestling match.
John Chabot Smith’s pro-Hiss
version of the trial covers Hiss’s testimony at pages 379-85.
He describes Hiss as calm and careful. Smith observes that
Hiss’s precision on the witness stand contrasted sharply with his
hesitant and ever-changing testimony to HUAC. Hiss said that
since HUAC he’d had more time to remember what happened, but Smith
worries that a hostile listener might think Hiss was now emitting
carefully memorized lies and sticking to them for dear life.
Smith (at 383) describes Murphy’s cross-examination as calm and
methodical. Professor Weinstein (at 475) describes Murphy’s
cross-examination as rapid-moving and unfocused (which may have
been intentional, to throw Hiss off guard) and Hiss as remaining
“almost unflappable.” Weinstein writes (at 480) that Hiss
left the witness stand “a bit battered,” but that he, like
Chambers, “had held firmly to his basic story.” Alistair
Cooke writes (at 196) that Hiss “walked over to the witness stand .
. . with the same nimble grace and compact charm” with which he had
presided over the founding of the UN. Cooke (at 200)
describes Prosecutor Murphy, during Hiss’s direct testimony, as
“mentally tapping his teeth” and (at 208) describes Hiss under
cross-examination as “superlative.” Cooke (at 213) describes
Murphy as ever more frustrated and husky as the cross-examination
wound on. Hiss’s calm, graceful deportment, according to
Cooke (at 209, 211), encouraged his admirers and infuriated his
detractors. Cooke wrote (at 196) that if Hiss was innocent,
his “serenity could be only the deep well of security in a
character of great strength and purity. In a guilty man, . .
. his detachment would be pathological in the extreme.”
Questions: Are you one of Hiss’s encouraged admirers or
infuriated detractors? Do you think he could have done any
better on direct examination? Would it have hurt him to
describe a few times in his life when he had done wrong, or had
just shown imperfect judgment? Might such an admission have
made him more human and perhaps likable? Do you think Hiss
survived Prosecutor Murphy’s cross-examination without a
scratch? Or did he take one or two torpedoes? Or did
Murphy reduce Hiss to a smoking ruin?