I’m still reading Irwin Gellman’s The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952. In this post, I’ll talk some about the Alger Hiss scandal.
Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers were former Communists, who were alleging that officials in the Franklin Roosevelt (and also the Harry Truman) Administration engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union. Chambers said that he and State Department official Alger Hiss cooperated on such a project, back when Chambers was a Communist. When Chambers and Hiss appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Hiss made a better impression than Chambers did, with Hiss’ appearance and his humor, and there were a number of people on the committee who believed Hiss. But Chambers was sharing that he knew specific details about Hiss—-such as Hiss’ hearing problems, the layout of Hiss’ apartment, and Hiss’ interest in ornithology. Some of these details turned out to be wrong—-such as Hiss’ hearing problem—-but other parts were remarkably accurate. Hiss, who previously said that he was not sure if he knew Chambers because Chambers looked like a lot of people (including Karl Mundt, who was on HUAC!), later said that he did know Chambers because Chambers rented from him, but he knew Chambers by another name.
But Chambers was claiming that Hiss gave him documents to give to the Soviet Union. At some point, Chambers hid them in a pumpkin on his farm (presumably after copying them, in Chambers’ story). Chambers claimed that Hiss’ wife typed some of the documents on her Woodstock typewriter, in copying other documents. And Hiss’ handwriting was on some of them. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, Gellman does not explain why the typewriter was so significant: because each typewriter was deemed to be unique, like a fingerprint, and so, if it could be shown that Hiss’ typewriter produced those documents, then Hiss would arguably be revealed to be the one who gave those documents to Chambers.
The end result was that Alger Hiss was found guilty of perjury: “he had lied about not seeing Chambers since January 1937 and about not giving Chambers documents” (page 239). Nixon still maintained contact with Chambers after Hiss’ conviction, until Chambers’ death in 1961.
What arguments are advanced by those who defend Hiss? I’ll speak from memory, and I’m sure that there’s more that I do not know about. Critics of Elizabeth Bentley alleged that she had psychological problems (see here), and Hiss referred to rumors that such was the case with Chambers. Hiss noted that Chambers had committed perjury, and I’m not sure what Hiss had in mind, but Gellman says on page 198 that Chambers once denied that there were espionage rings in Washington, which “would prove a lie” (page 198). Some have argued that Hiss at Yalta opposed a policy that would help the Soviets (see here). Regarding the typewriter, some today claim that typewriter forgery was possible back then (see here). Plus, Hiss had given the typewriter away at some point. This wikipedia article refers to a book by John Dean, stating that Dean wrote that Chuck Colson told him that Nixon said HUAC built a typewriter like the one that Hiss had, something that Colson denied. Another consideration is that the former Soviet Union, based on its archives, denied that Alger Hiss was a spy. But the Venona interception of Soviet cables has been argued to indicate otherwise. But then there’s debate about the authenticity of Venona, and whether a particular code-name in those transmissions even refers to Alger Hiss (see here and here).
One argument that Chambers made was that he had a lot to lose by coming forward, and, indeed, he did lose his magazine job (but see here for Thomas Sanction’s speculation in The Nation about Chambers’ motive). But why would Hiss and Harry Dexter White engage in espionage for the Soviet Union? Were they paid to do so? Did they want to maintain a balance of power because they feared American hegemony and thought that a balance of power was more conducive to peace? Or did they sincerely desire a Soviet triumph?
In terms of Gellman’s portrayal of Nixon, Gellman essentially presents Nixon as someone who was committed to finding the facts. Gellman disagrees with critics who contend that Nixon knew for a while about Hiss’ Communist connections—-even before Whittaker Chambers testified before HUAC—-and was seeking to make himself look heroic for his own political advancement. Gellman states that this claim is based on interviews with Father John Francis Cronin from 1958 through the 1980s, in which Cronin said that he informed Nixon early on about Hiss’ Communist connections. (My impression is that Cronin was knowledgeable about Communist activity in the U.S. because of work that he did with the FBI.) But Gellman states that Cronin retracted this claim in 1990 and said that Nixon did not know about Hiss until Chambers mentioned Hiss before HUAC on August 3, 1948.