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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.

Feb 17, 2022

Alger Hiss is taken to prison
 
Alger Hiss’s conviction — technically for perjury, but effectively for treason — was a major event.  It was a disaster for The Establishment, especially liberal Democrats, and vindication for Republicans and populist Democrats.  The 18 month labyrinth of HUAC hearings, depositions in Hiss’s libel suit, grand jury proceedings, and two criminal trials were the long, long overture to the so-called McCarthy Era.  Senator McCarthy, in fact, gave his famous “I have a list . . .” speech just weeks after Hiss’s conviction.  This Podcast gives an overview of the many and complex reactions to the guilty verdict.  Everyone, it seems, accepted the factual correctness of the verdict.  But many liberals could not help making up excuses for Hiss, or damning Chambers for being fat and melodramatic.  And many conservatives and populists could not help painting all liberals and Harvard graduates with the black pitch of Hiss’s treason.  Most interesting and encouraging to me, a significant number of liberals and Democrats were sufficiently mature and morally alive to engage in genuine introspection and self-criticism, to admit they had ‘blown it big time’ when it came to Soviet traitors in our midst, and to resolve to fashion a liberal anti-communism that was just as vigorous as what Republican conservatives had been offering for decades.
 
 
FURTHER RESEARCH 
 
The McCarthy Era, although sparked by this Case, is an oceanic subject beyond the scope of these Podcasts.  If you want to read about it, among the best conservative books are George H. Nash’s “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945” (Basic Books 1976), esp. 84-130; and Richard Gid Powers’ “Not Without Honor:  The History of American Anticommunism” (Free Press 1995), esp. 191-272.See also Professor Harvey Klehr’s essay “Setting the Record Straight on Joe McCarthy,” https://archives.frontpagemag.com/fpm/setting-record-joe-mccarthy-straight-harvey-klehr/.
 
Among the far more numerous, totally anti-McCarthy books are David Caute’s “The Great Fear:The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower” (Touchstone 1979), esp. 56-62; Fred J. Cook’s “The Nightmare Decade:The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy” (Random House 1971); Victor Navasky’s “Naming Names” (Viking 1980) (especially the early pages); I.F. Stone’s “The Truman Era: 1945-52” (Little Brown 1953) (Stone was himself a secret agent of the Soviet Union); and James A Weschler’s “The Age of Suspicion” (Random House 1953).  I must note that it was a stroke of genius for the minimizers of Communist treason to name the era after anti-Communism’s most irresponsible big name.  This is as if racists had succeeded in labeling the civil rights movement The Al Sharpton Movement.  
 
Concerning the impact of the Hiss verdict in particular, Dean Acheson, in his autobiography “Present at the Creation:  My Years at the State Department” (Norton 1987), titles his pertinent chapter (at 354) “The Attack of the Primitives Begins.”  Alistair Cooke (at 340) also saw nothing good coming from Hiss’s conviction.  A more mature view, at page 267 of Walter Goodman’s “The Committee:The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1968), is that the Hiss-Chambers Case “whip[ped] up a storm which did not last long but left ruins in its wake.”  Other more realistic analyses of the Case’s impact on America are in Weinstein at 529-47 (chapter titled “Cold War Iconography I:  Alger Hiss as Myth and Symbol”); the best single essay on this Case in my opinion, Leslie Fiedler’s “Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence” at 3-24 of his “An End to Innocence:  Essays on Culture and Politics” (Beacon Press 1955) and Diana Trilling’s essay “A Memorandum on the Hiss Case,” first published in The Partisan Review of May-June 1950 and re-published at 27-48 of Patrick J. Swan’s anthology of essays on this Case, “Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul” (ISI Books 2003).  The latter two essays I highly recommend.
 
Questions:  If you had been adult when Hiss was convicted, what would have been your reaction to his conviction?  ‘Justice at long last,’ ‘a miscarriage of justice,’ ‘guilty but a fair trial was impossible,’ ‘technically guilty but with an excuse,’ or something else?  Would your reaction have been purely emotional/political/tribal, or would you have cited one or more facts to support your reaction?  Would you have been totally certain that your reaction was the right one, or would you have harbored some doubts?