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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.

Aug 5, 2021

Richard M. Nixon, Library of Congress 

Alger Hiss calmly and patiently denies Whittaker Chambers’ two charges: that the two of them were in the Communist underground in 1934-37 and that they became close friends.  The Commie-hunters on the House Un-American Activities Committee are swept away by his poise and simplicity and tell him what a wonderful witness he is.  Only two listeners smell something fishy in Hiss’ carefully phrased testimony: a staffer named Robert Stripling and a freshman Republican Representative named Richard Nixon.  The two form a team of rivals (each claiming credit for the tall thinking and smart talking) and change history.  All four men are now inextricably intertwined in a scandal that will rock the nation.
 
Further Research

Episode 6:  Robert Stripling’s book (largely ghostwritten by the popular writer Bob Considine) is “The Red Plot Against America” (Bell 1949); it describes Hiss’s testimony and reactions to it at 110-16.  More accounts of Hiss’s first testimony are; Nixon at 5-11; Smith at 161-83; Toledano at 151-54; and Weinstein at 21-28.  The full transcript of Hiss’s testimony is in the Alpa Editions reprint of the HUAC hearings at 642-59.

Alger Hiss’s memoir of the Case, “In the Court of Public Opinion” (Knopf 1957) describes at 3-14 Hiss’s reaction to Chambers’ accusations and his first testimony in response.  This book is so dry (in it, Hiss never once describes having feeling) that it has been called the only boring book ever written about this Case.  More interesting pro-Hiss reading is the John Chabot Smith book referenced above and a pro-Hiss book that focuses on Nixon’s misstatements and craftiness (a territory almost as target-rich as Hiss’s testimonies), “A Tissue of Lies:  Nixon vs. Hiss” (McGraw Hill 1979) by Morton and Michael Levitt.  

Questions:  You’re Alger Hiss, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a minor luminary of America’s post-War foreign policy establishment.   Whittaker Chambers testifies to HUAC that the two of you were in a secret Communist chat group 10-15 years ago and that you two became best friends. 

What do you do?

Several options:  (1) Do nothing, because no one who matters to your life cares a fig for what goes on at HUAC; (2) appear before the Committee with both guns blazing, in the style of the Hollywood Communists (but remember they came to a sticky end); (3) admit, sheepishly, that back in the dark days of the Great Depression, when you were just out of grad school and had more youthful idealism than good judgment, you did something very foolish that, fortunately, did no harm in the long run and you stopped doing it years ago; and (4) calmly deny Chambers’ charges like a gentleman who will not stoop to wrestle in the mud; tough it out, hope Chambers gets tangled up in melodrama, and that, with your sterling reputation and friends in high places, you can emerge in two weeks as fabulous as always and with the added sheen of having repulsed a despicable smear campaign.  Hiss chose #4.

If you were Hiss, would your choice depend much on whether Chambers’ charges were true?  What if they were true and you knew that you two had also been in a spy ring, a major league crime that Chambers could blackmail you with for the rest of your life if you admitted to the chat group and the friendship?  But since he was in the spy ring, too, you could blackmail him for the rest of his life.

Extra Credit Question:  I assume that by now you have read parts of Hiss’s testimony and its dissection by Nixon and Stripling.  As you read Hiss for the first time, did you notice any of the suspicion-raising bits that Nixon and Stripling saw?