I started Six Crises, which is the first book that Richard Nixon wrote. Nixon wrote it shortly after his loss in the 1960 Presidential election. I tried to read the book back when I was a kid, when I was in the fifth or the sixth grade, but, if I remember correctly, I only got through Nixon’s first four crises. Now, I will read the entire book, and I’ll understand more of it because I am older.
Nixon’s first crisis was the Alger Hiss case, in which ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers claimed in the 1940’s that Alger Hiss as a State Department official provided him with government documents to give to the Soviet Union. I wrote about this in some of my write-ups on two other books that I read, Irwin Gellman’s The Contender and Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician. I’m finding that my reading of Six Crises is filling in some of the gaps, so it’s worth reading, even though it covers a lot of the same ground. But I’ll go into that a bit more in tomorrow’s post.
What struck me in my latest reading was how limited the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) were, at least in Nixon’s telling. The way that Nixon narrates, it was often difficult for HUAC to nail people for espionage, for the accused could simply deny that they were Communists or refuse to answer, and, without evidence, it was simply the accuser’s word against word of the person accused. And J. Edgar Hoover, while he could investigate, “could not follow up with prosecutions or other required action without the approval of his superiors in the Justice Department and in the White House” (page 5). My hunch (and I’m open to correction on this) is that, while HUAC may have been limited in its capacity to legally punish espionage, it could still ruin people’s reputations. (UPDATE: I should note, though, that there were people who appeared before HUAC who went to jail for contempt. Nixon does not talk about this, but I read about it in Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady.) Yet, in Nixon’s telling, in terms of the Hiss case, HUAC was meticulous about the facts in that it verified elements of Chambers’ testimony and even found paperwork for Hiss’ sale of a car to a supposed Communist.
What set Alger Hiss apart was that he voluntarily came forward to testify, whereas many others who were accused chose not to do so or waited until they were subpoenaed. While Hiss’ initial testimony was impressive to most of the committee-people, Nixon smelled a rat, for he thought that Hiss was overeager and was choosing his words really carefully, so Nixon concluded that Hiss was hiding something. Chambers, by contrast, was not overly impressive on account of his monotone and his clothing, but Nixon thought that Chambers did not come across as the type who would make outlandish accusations, for Chambers was low-key, plus Chambers said that Alger’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Donald Hiss, was not a Communist. Some of Nixon’s fellow HUAC members were skeptical about Chambers’ testimony because Chambers was speaking in precise detail about names, places, and events with which he came into contact ten years before. But Nixon said that Chambers was a man of great intelligence, and as a Communist agent Chambers had trained himself to remember vast amounts of information, just in case Chambers were “apprehended with documents on his person” (page 16).