For my blog post today about Conrad Black’s Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, I’ll talk about Black’s discussion of the Alger Hiss case, in which ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy when Hiss served in the U.S. Government. Congressman Richard Nixon’s involvement in bringing down Alger Hiss would launch Nixon to political stardom.
What’s interesting about Black’s narration and analysis of the case is that, in some areas, his conclusion appears to contradict the body of his presentation. Black concludes that Hiss was a Communist sympathizer who passed on documents to the Soviet Union, that Hiss was a “loyalty risk”, and that Hiss in his first appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) committed perjury when he denied knowing Whittaker Chambers.
Earlier in the book, however, Black seems to see more nuance in the situation. On page 112, Black says that “all Hiss had really done was deny knowing Chambers from his photograph and dispute Chambers’s uncorroborated recollections.” That’s not exactly lying under oath, is it? Hiss just said that he didn’t recognize Chambers from his photograph, since Chambers looked like a lot of people; as far as I know, Hiss did not make a blanket, unequivocal statement that he did not know Chambers. Nixon said that Hiss’ equivocations (“as far as I can recall,” or words to that effect) were what made Nixon suspicious of Hiss when Hiss first appeared before HUAC. (Black appears to buy, however, that, even before Hiss’ initial appearance before HUAC, Father Cronin was feeding Nixon information about Hiss, which contradicts the story that Nixon often told. Father Cronin claimed that he fed Nixon information, only to retract that claim in 1990. What’s interesting about Black’s acceptance of the idea that Cronin fed Nixon information is that Black wrote his biography about Nixon years after Cronin retracted his claim.)
On page 116, Black disputes the charge that Alger Hiss played a role in getting the Soviet Union three seats in the UN General Assembly. (Black goes on to say that FDR arranged for the U.S. to have three seats, too, but that FDR and Truman failed to follow through on that right.) And, on page 138, Black acknowledges that there were problems with the typewriter that was alleged to belong to Alger Hiss, the typewriter on which Hiss supposedly copied State Department documents so they could be passed on to the Soviets. As Black says, “What the government thought to be the Hiss typewriter they traced to a sale in 1927, two years before company records indicated it was manufactured.” Black then goes on to say that J. Edgar “Hoover himself was reduced almost to demanding that the facts be made to conform to the prosecution’s requirement.”
Ultimately, in his conclusion, Black says that “The conspiracy of incompetence was far wider than any subversive one, and included Hoover, Clark, Hiss, Chambers, most of HUAC, and many judges and Justice Department officials” (page 144). Black excludes Nixon from this conspiracy of incompetence, contending that Nixon was courageous and diligent, and that “his pursuit of Hiss was not discreditable”, for “Hiss was lying” and “had been a security risk” (page 144). In my opinion, while Black’s criticism in his conclusion of the FBI, HUAC, and others is consistent with his look at the Alger Hiss case in the body of his presentation, his dogmatism about Hiss’ guilt is not. I much prefer how Roger Morris handled the Hiss case: Morris concluded by saying that he did not know if Hiss was a Communist. Speaking for myself, and based on my reading, I’m not particularly impressed by how Hiss handled himself during the case, nor am I convinced that he was innocent, for he contradicted himself in his testimony. But I also have questions about some of the “evidence” that was used to convict him, plus Hiss did appear to oppose the three votes for the Soviets at Yalta. Consequently, I can’t be dogmatic about his guilt.