In my latest reading of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, Stephen Ambrose talked about the Alger Hiss case. I did not finish Ambrose’s discussion of it, but I’ll comment on what I did read.
Let me start this post by giving you a rough summary of the Alger Hiss case. In the 1940’s, ex-Communist
(and senior editor of Time) Whittaker Chambers accused distinguished former government official Alger Hiss of being a Communist, and Chambers alleged that Hiss had given him documents to relay to the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon, a Republican Congressman who was serving on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), believed that Hiss was lying when Hiss equivocated about knowing Chambers. In the course of the case, many came to believe that Hiss indeed did know Chambers, since Chambers was aware of certain details about Hiss’ life, plus Hiss eventually admitted that he knew Chambers under a different name. Another significant detail in the case was a Woodstock typewriter, which, according to Chambers, Hiss’ wife had used in copying government documents that were given to Chambers. Chambers eventually hid those documents (or, I think, microfilms of the documents) in a pumpkin on his farm. The typewriter was significant because typewriters were believed to be like fingerprints, and so there was optimism that finding Hiss’ Woodstock typewriter that supposedly copied the documents in Chambers’ possession would demonstrate that Hiss engaged in espionage. Hiss was found guilty of perjury, but not for espionage due to the statute of limitations running out.
I liked how Ambrose opened his chapter on the Hiss case. Ambrose states on page 166: “Because of the complexity of the Alger Hiss case, the emotions it aroused, the personalities of the principal characters involved, and its importance, entire shelves in the stacks of large libraries are filled with books on the subject. Small details have become the subject of big books. Four decades after the case, monographs continue to appear, ‘proving’ this case or that, about Hiss’ typewriter, or his car, or his [Communist Party] involvement.” In my January 15, 2013 post about the Hiss case when I was blogging through Irwin Gellman’s The Contender, I mentioned how some of Hiss’ defenders have sought to explain the typewriter.
Since I wrote that post, I read pieces of the script for Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and the script puts the following narration of the Hiss case in the mouth of a reporter: “Nixon became one of the leading lights of the notorious House Un American Activities Committee, questioning labor leaders, Spanish Civil War veterans, Hollywood celebrities…but it was the Alger Hiss case that made Nixon a household name[.] One of the architects of the United Nations, intimate with FDR and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alger Hiss was a darling of the liberals[.] But Whittaker Chambers, a former freelance journalist, said he was a Communist[.] Hiss claimed he was being set up by Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover to discredit the New Deal’s policies. The case came down to an Underwood typewriter, and a roll of film hidden in a pumpkin patch[.] Years later the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the film showed a report on business conditions in Manchuria, and fire extinguishers on a U.S. destroyer. None of these documents were classified. Were they planted by Chambers, who seemed to have a strange, almost psychotic fixation with Alger Hiss?[.] After two confusing trials, Hiss went to jail for perjury. To the right wing, Nixon was a hero and a patriot. To the liberals, he was a shameless self-promoter who had vengefully destroyed a fine man. Eleanor Roosevelt angrily condemned him. It was to become a pattern: you either loved Richard Nixon or hated him.” That’s one narrative that’s out there: Hiss was being set up, and Chambers was using declassified documents in an attempt to smear Hiss!
(UPDATE: Regarding whether the pumpkin papers were declassified or not, Ambrose states on page 192 that they contained “top-secret material”, and on page 194 Ambrose says: “Former State Department officials testified [before HUAC] that the documents were indeed valuable and that just their removal from the office was a serious breach of security. Some were still too hot to reveal.” Regarding their content, this site states: “The Pumpkin Papers consist of sixty-five pages of retyped secret State Department documents, four pages in Hiss’s own handwriting of copied State Department cables, and five rolls of developed and undeveloped 35 mm film. The film included fifty-eight frames, mostly photos of State and Navy Department documents. The State Department documents dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including U. S. intentions with respect to the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, and Germany’s takeover of Austria. Other frames dealt with subjects that hardly seem the stuff of spy novels, such as diagrams of fire extinguishers and life rafts. All of the documents that bore dates came from the period from January 5 through April 1, 1938.”)
Irwin Gellman in The Contender argues that Nixon was fair and committed to finding the facts in his investigation of Hiss, and Gellman disputes a charge that, even before Chambers and Hiss’ initial HUAC appearances, Nixon was already aware that Hiss was a Communist due to FBI reports and was prolonging the proceedings for his own political advancement. Gellman accepts that Nixon first became interested in Hiss at Hiss’ initial appearance before HUAC. What is Ambrose’s take on this? Well, overall, Ambrose differs from Gellman on some aspects of Nixon’s HUAC career, for, while Gellman’s portrayal of Nixon is largely positive, Ambrose argues that Nixon tended to put words into people’s mouth and sometimes even to bend the truth in his questioning of witnesses. But Ambrose appears to accept Nixon’s version of how he became interested in Hiss: Nixon became skeptical when he first heard Hiss’ testimony to HUAC because Hiss used a lot of qualifiers and equivocations when discussing whether or not he knew Chambers, and, even though many on HUAC believed in Hiss’ innocence, Nixon spent a lot of hours trying to uncover the truth. At the same time, Ambrose on pages 171-172 notes that there was long concern in Washington that Hiss had Communist associations. Ambrose says that this was “common gossip among those in Washington whose business it was to ferret out the Reds”, that J. Edgar Hoover since 1943 raised his concerns about Hiss to FDR and Harry Truman (yet failed to show any documentary evidence), and that the State Department responded to the concern by easing Hiss out of policy-making and eventually government. That makes me wonder why HUAC was investigating Hiss, even though he was no longer in government. Was there concern that he could be subversive where he was serving at the time—-in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace?
(UPDATE: On page 686, however, Ambrose says: “For reasons that escape this author, Nixon never admitted in public his prior knowledge about Chambers that came from Father John Cronin.” Ambrose speculates that perhaps Nixon was the one who suggested bringing Chambers before HUAC to corroborate the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, another ex-Communist. I don’t know much about this issue, but people have argued that Nixon knew about Hiss’ Communist connections prior to Hiss’ initial appearance before HUAC by appealing to interviews with Father Cronin from 1958 through the 1980’s. But, according to Gellman, Cronin in 1990 retracted his claim that Nixon learned about Hiss from him and said that Nixon first learned about Hiss when Chambers mentioned Hiss before HUAC on August 3, 1948. See here. Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician was published in 1987, which was before Cronin retracted his earlier claim.)
Notwithstanding the Hiss case, Harry Truman won re-election as President, and he “brought a Democratic Congress in with him” (page 187). According to Ambrose, this happened because many voters could not bring themselves to buy into the notion that Truman was soft on Communism: “It was just plain dumb of Nixon and other Republicans to try to convince people that Harry was soft on the Reds after Harry had stood up to them in Greece and Turkey, called for a worldwide policy of containment, accelerated the atomic-bomb-testing program, met Stalin’s challenge in Berlin head on, instituted loyalty oaths for federal employees, and otherwise done so much to lead and even feed the anti-Communist crusade.” Interestingly, even though many Republicans made Hiss into a campaign issue, Truman’s Republican opponent in 1948, Thomas Dewey, and John Foster Dulles (who would later become Dwight Eisenhower’s anti-Communist Secretary of State), refused to do so, for a variety of reasons: Dulles associated with Hiss within the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Dulles anticipated becoming Secretary of State were Dewey to be elected President, and Dulles did not want European allies to see him as a Red-baiter; Dewey regretted trying to link FDR with Communist Party leader Earl Browder when Dewey ran against FDR in 1944; and Dewey did not want to think that Truman personally was soft on Communism. I should also note that Dewey was a critic of the Mundt-Nixon bill, which Dewey thought would outlaw the Communist Party (which was false, according to Nixon), for Dewey believed that it promoted totalitarianism and thought-control.