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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 12, 2021

Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee visit the home of Chairman John Parnell Thomas; (l-r) Rep. Richard B. Vail, Rep. Thomas, Rep. John McDowell, Robert Stripling, chief counsel, and Rep. Richard M. Nixon] Picture: Library of Congress

Were Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss good friends from 1934 through 1937?  Chambers says ‘yes’ and Hiss says ‘no.’  In this podcast, HUAC staffer Bob Stripling and Representative Nixon get Chambers under oath, in secret, and fire questions at him about Hiss’s daily life back in the day.  And Chambers pours forth details (or what he says are details) for two and a half hours.  Stripling and Nixon stop when they simply can’t think of any more questions.  It’s obvious that Chambers is telling the truth and that the polished Harvard man, New Deal wonder boy, and aid to two Presidents is lying.  By inference, Hiss was also, at least long ago, a secret Communist.  The young Congressman’s gamble may just pay off, prove that the Democratic Party enabled treason in high places, and make him the most famous first term Representative in American history.
 
Further Research

Episode 7:  The account of Chambers’ secret interrogation is in HUAC at 662-72.  

Can you think of a good reason that the interrogation lasted two and a half hours but the transcript is only 11 pages long?  I can think of two.  First, at 671 they go ‘off the record,’ evidently for two hours.  It’s been known to happen — I made my share of mistakes in litigation, but never this one — that you go ‘off the record’ for some reason and, when that’s done, you forget to tell the stenographer to start recording again.  Hours later someone notices that the stenographer is still doing a crossword puzzle.  In this case, it would have been too late to go back ‘on the record’ and re-ask what had been asked in the last 2 hours — Stripling and Nixon had been asking about whatever popped into their heads and they all wanted to get back to Washington for dinner with their families (this was Saturday, after all).  Second, some of the matters that arose were ones about which, especially among upper middle class WASPS, their was still enormous social stigma in 1948 — Mrs. Hiss’ previous marriage that ended in divorce and the possibility that the son of that marriage was gay.  Chambers himself said on the record that he dreaded Mrs. Hiss’s first husband learning what he had just disclosed, which was that Mrs. Hiss despised her ex (page 670).

Other first hand accounts of Chambers’ secret interrogation are Chambers (the 1980 edition of Witness) at 558-73, Nixon (Six Crises (1962 edition) at 15-18 and his post-Presidential memoir “RN:  The Memoirs of Richard Nixon” at 55-56), and Stripling at 117-19.

I think it indicates a close friendship that the Hisses were willing to tell Chambers about Mrs. Hiss’s previous divorce and the possibility that her son by that marriage was gay.  

Stripling, who was ‘a good judge of horseflesh,’ said in later testimony and interviews that when Chambers said that Hiss’s alleged car transfer to the Communist underground ‘should be traceable,’ he was suspicious.  I had learned, Stripling said, to be suspicious of what people told me should be traceable.  Did you plant the traces for me to find?  Stripling also noted that every time Chambers testified to HUAC, he was on the next train back to New York.  He never came back to the office and ‘chewed the fat’ or offered further juicy revelations.  From this and other impressions which I state in the podcast, Stripling was left with the hunch that Chambers was telling the truth, but not the whole truth.

Questions:  If you wanted to know whether Chambers knew Hiss very well 10-15 years ago, what questions would you ask him?  Perhaps matters that could be checked in public records, such as residences (both where they lived and the layout of their apartments and houses), cars, dog licenses, charge accounts at stores.  Also, maybe the kind of private stuff you know about your best friends — family secrets, sleeping arrangements, favorite foods, hobbies, childhood memories, quirks of personality?  Anything else?