It happened today - August 3, 2015
The case rapidly became not just a cause celebre but a political litmus test. All right-thinking persons despised the House Un-American Affairs Committee before which Chambers made his accusation. They also despised Richard Nixon, whose determined investigation into Chambers’ accusations helped his meteoric political rise from House freshman to California senator to Vice-President and then eventually President. Nixon was, it must be said, a dishonest man even by the standards of politics, and liberals cherished the notion that this key stepping stone of his career had been his first big lie.
The problem is, Hiss was guilty. Chambers had all sorts of evidence that could not be ignored or explained away including, with implausible spy-thriller melodrama, key microfilm hidden in pumpkins on his Maryland farm. Hiss was ultimately convicted of perjury in 1950, the statute of limitations having run out on espionage, spent three and a half years in jail, and protested his innocence to his dying day. As do some liberals even now, though many have reluctantly accepted long after it stopped mattering that even if it helped Nixon rise to power, Hiss was guilty.
Once again I am dismayed at the way in which people can be consistently, vocally, bitterly wrong on an important issue with no harm to their reputation or credibility. Particularly as their reaction was compounded of ideological partisanship and sheer snobbery.
Hiss was to the manner born, a child of privilege, Harvard law graduate, protégé of a future Supreme Court justice, a striped-pants diplomat who was with Roosevelt at Yalta and with Truman when he addressed the UN in June 1945. Chambers was a loser with bad teeth and a shabby suit, and Nixon was a vulgar parvenu. It was us against them and the elite rallied around “us,” treason be hanged.
Actually Chambers was not a loser. He did have bad teeth and he did not have Alger Hiss’s wardrobe. But he was a remarkable man, a profound and compassionate soul whose book Witness is a must-read autobiography. It is not primarily about his being a witness against Alger Hiss, though of course he discusses that affair in detail. It is the compelling story of his weird, difficult life and a witness to his spiritual odyssey that included initially perjuring himself by denying Hiss’s espionage to try to spare a former friend pain and trouble. Having himself wandered so long in the dark, he would later write, he was determined to do nothing that would hinder another in his struggle to get back to the light. By the time he died, quite young, in 1961, Chambers was thoroughly vindicated. Not so Hiss.
Alger Hiss was a communist, a spy and a traitor. But not just to his nation. He was in his shallow, supercilious, frivolous life of privilege and deceit, a traitor to life itself. Chambers was the opposite, a reluctant accuser whose “central mood”, he wrote in the “Letter to my children” at the beginning of my copy of Witness, was of “absolving pity”. His story and his ideas remain vitally important long after Hiss and his supporters have become an annoying footnote to history.