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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 19, 2021

Campaigning for the US Senate, 1950. Pic - Library of Congress

In this 8th podcast, we explore the thinking of Richard Nixon.  Put yourself in his position.  You’re 35, elected to the House in a Republican wave year from a district that is usually safely Democratic.  Your plum Committee assignment was Education and Labor.  But, on HUAC, this throbbing blob of a Case has come rolling in the door.  You and Bob Stripling saw possibilities that no one else saw and now The Case is all yours.  You have satisfied yourself that Hiss is lying and Chambers is telling the truth.  Now, for you, the issue is how far do you take this.  Do you risk everything (your whole career) for it?  How to prevent The Establishment from rallying around its fair haired boy Alger?  How to convince them that Hiss is lying and they should give you free rein?  How to satisfy yourself that Chambers will not crack under the pressure of public scrutiny and Democrat attacks, that he’ll convince typical Americans, that there’s nothing fishy in his past, that his love of melodrama will not carry him away into fantastication?  If anything goes wrong, in six months you’ll be back in Whittier doing slip and fall cases.  In this podcast, you’ll hear about the inner turmoil and external events that made up the mind of the future President. 

Further Research:

Episode 8:  Speculating about the thinking of Richard Nixon has been an indoor sport for people who knew him and the American intelligentsia for decades.  In his own writings about this moment in the Case, he is unusually candid about how uncertain and anxious he was.  See Six Crises at 19-23; see also Weinstein at 36-37.  Nixon sent his brother Ed and his Mother to chat with the Chamberses.  Ed Nixon & Karen Olson, “The Nixons: A Family Portrait” (2009) at 137-38.  Nixon also consulted a reporter for the leading liberal Republican newspaper, The New York Herald Tribune.  This Reporter, Bert Andrews, had been very critical of HUAC and other security agencies for being sloppy in recent investigations.  Nixon used him as a sounding board and devil’s advocate in this Case and Andrews became a fascinated eyewitness to these and later crucial moments.  Andrews’ posthumous memoir, “A Tragedy of History:  A Journalist’s Confidential Role in the Hiss-Chambers Case,”  by Bert and Peter Andrews (1962) at 72-77 describes Andrews’ first chats with Nixon and Chambers.  Andrews says that Chambers, when he needed time to shape his answers to questions, paused for 30-40 seconds and looked like he had gone into a trance.  Nixon, by the way, did not include Stripling in his deliberations at this phase.

Questions:  You’re Richard Nixon.  How do you decide whether to risk your whole career by supporting Chambers all the way?  How do you verify or discredit all the (alleged) facts about the Hisses’ life in 1934-37 that Chambers divulged in his secret testimony?  Use HUAC’s staff, obviously.  How else?  How do you get to know Chambers and form an opinion about his honesty (and perhaps sanity)?  Remember, he doesn’t have to talk to you if he doesn’t want to.  How can you investigate his past and see if there’s anything fishy there?  How do you deter the natural pro-Hiss inclination of the Republican Establishment, which is itself invested in Hiss?  (Hiss’s mentor at the Carnegie Endowment is John Foster Dulles, chief foreign policy advisor to Republican Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey.)  Assuming you decide to ‘bet the farm’ on Chambers, how do you get the news media involved so that this Case becomes Nixon’s Triumph and not HUACs?  How do you separate yourself in the public mind from HUAC and launch a spectacular career of your own without earning the undying hatred of those you leave behind — Bob Stripling and the other members of HUAC?