In this post, I’ll talk some about Richard Nixon’s discussion of the Alger Hiss case in his 1962 book, Six Crises. As I said yesterday, Nixon filled in a few of the gaps in my knowledge about the case (although there is much that I have to learn about it). Here are five items:
1. Ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers alleged that Alger Hiss gave Chambers State Department documents to give to the Soviet Union. Whittaker Chambers made copies of some of these documents and hid them in a pumpkin that was on his farm. But why did Chambers do that? Nixon’s answer is that Chambers saw some of Hiss’s investigators snooping around his farm, and he feared that the investigators would find the documents. Consequently, Chambers hid them in a pumpkin, where they wouldn’t think of looking.
2. Nixon addresses the question of why the documents in Chambers’ pumpkin were so important, since there have been arguments that the papers did not contain highly sensitive information that the Soviets could use. For one, Nixon says that the House Committee on Un-American activities laid such arguments to rest by offering “to make all the documents public” (page 53), but the Truman Administration (I think) denied that request on the grounds that it could endanger national security, “even though ten years had passed since they were taken from government files” (page 53)! Second, even one of those documents could have provided the Soviets with the ability “to break the secret State Department Code used at the time for the transmittal of messages” (page 53), plus the documents could inform the Soviets about sources of information.
3. Whittaker Chambers initially perjured himself by claiming that he knew nothing about espionage rings in the U.S. Government, and Nixon says this was because Chambers liked Alger Hiss and considered him to be a friend (Chambers even said that Hiss had a sweet temperament) and thus did not want to expose him. According to Nixon, Chambers hoped that Alger Hiss would repudiate Communism and come forward voluntarily to expose the Communist activity within the U.S. Government. The personal aspect of this story was important to me, for it’s easy to see Alger Hiss as an evil person, especially if he engaged in espionage, but Hiss might have been a nice guy who thought he was doing the right thing.
Another story Nixon tells that addresses the personal level of the case concerns the date of the microfilm in the Pumpkin Papers. When an expert concluded (wrongly, it eventually turned out) that the microfilm was much later than the time that Hiss supposedly gave the documents to Chambers and Chambers copied them on microfilm, thereby casting doubt on Chambers’ story, Nixon was outraged at Chambers. Chambers felt that God was against him, and Chambers attempted to commit suicide. Nixon reflects that this was because Chambers was laying his career and the reputation of himself and his family on the line, all for the cause of exposing Communism. Now, it looked as if his cause would fail, and his loss would be for nothing. What’s more, Chambers felt that the only public official who faithfully stood by him, Richard Nixon, was abandoning him.
4. I said in my post here that Nixon dismissed the argument of his opponent for Senate, Helen Douglas, that the Justice Department rather than HUAC deserved credit for exposing Alger Hiss. In Six Crises, Nixon gives his perspective on the role of the Justice Department in the Alger Hiss case. Nixon states that Chambers gave the Justice Department information that it just sat on. While Nixon acknowledges that the lower officials in the Justice Department were diligent and that the FBI had uncovered important information, Nixon believes that the higher-ups were being obstructionist. Nixon laments the role that Harry Truman played in the Hiss case, for Nixon points out that Truman maintained an anti-Communist foreign policy and was even upset when he accepted that the evidence pointed to Hiss’ guilt. But Truman still detested HUAC.
5. A question that I have asked is how Nixon got so many enemies. Stephen Ambrose argues that Nixon’s attack-dog campaign speeches alienated a number of people. Nixon himself, however, traces the hostility against him to his involvement in the Hiss case, for Nixon was uncovering facts that were inconvenient to certain figures in the Establishment, and they did not forgive him for that. Ambrose speculated that Nixon felt paranoid in 1968, and Ambrose seems to imply that Nixon was not as paranoid in 1960. In Six Crises, however, it appears to me that Nixon even in 1962 felt rather besieged by elements of the Establishment, and that this siege was going on since the Hiss case.