1949 - The trial of Alger Hiss

The trial of Alger Hiss was different in many ways from anything that could happen in Britain. The judge did not wear a wig; the lawyers were allowed greater freedom than British procedure permits. In the courtroom on the thirteenth floor of a skyscraper you could hear the distant hum of New York traffic. But the difference was deeper than this. The trial was conducted in a society that has suddenly found itself one of the world's two super-powers, that is acutely conscious of spies and plots and that has seen the isolationism of twenty-five years ago translated in many breasts into a fear of the dark unknown of Communism.

The deadlock of the Hiss jury in some degree symbolised a deeper national conflict. But before testing the trial for its soundness as allegory it should be said that it was first-rate drama. Who was the liar, the tall, spare, boyish-looking Hiss, who till recently was $20,000-a-year president of the Carnegie Peace Endowment, or Chambers, that rotund and melancholy man, until recently a $30,000-a-year senior editor of Time?

There were at least two incidents of high drama. One was the confrontation scene. Last August Chambers had gone before the House Un-American Activities Committee to charge that certain prominent Washington officials had been, like him, members of a Communist group in the Thirties. He charged that Hiss, then in the State Department, was one. Hiss denied ever knowing Chambers. The Committee brought the two men together in New York. The transcript of that scene is as fascinating as anything in print. Hiss, after some questions about Chambers' new artificial teeth, calmly placed him as "Crosley", a cadging free-lance writer with whom he had had dealings a decade before. Chambers, on the other hand, insisted that the families were intimate, that they had met weekly for five years up to 1938, and that they were all secretly Communists together. The two men's wives supported their respective husbands. One side was lying - which?

The second big scene came last November. Chambers suddenly produced dozens of typed memoranda summarising confidential State Department documents of the Thirties and charged they had come from Hiss after being typed out by Mrs Hiss. More, he led agents to his Maryland farm where he had hidden microfilms of other secret documents in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Several were in Hiss's handwriting.

Up to this time the affair had seemed to many like an ugly hoax, but this new evidence caused doubts. Hiss was unshaken. He left the Carnegie Foundation (it was later revealed) under the pressure of John Foster Dulles, one of the directors. At the same time Chambers left Time. Chambers was destroying himself and his adversary.

The statute of limitations on espionage charges made it impossible to initiate prosecutions on that count, so the Government brought its suit against Hiss on a perjury indictment. He had lied under oath, it was charged, in denying he had known Chambers in 1938, and in denying that he had passed on confidential documents. The trial of these charges ended its first phase with a deadlocked jury. Four jurors thought Hiss innocent, eight guilty.

There can be no doubt that an espionage group operated in Washington at least up to 1938, and that it had access to State Department secrets. The personal enigma remains. Was this bright star of the department a member of that group? Hiss was at Yalta, Dumbarton Oaks, San Francisco; he brought the completed UNO charter personally to Roosevelt; he knew Eden, Smuts, Marshall, Soong. Had he played a double game?

Paul Stryker, Hiss's lawyer, flung himself into the task of destroying the credibility of Chambers, who is by any standard an extraordinary figure. His record shows what may be an inner hunger for spiritual security. He first embraced then broke with Communism. Subsequently he became an Episcopalian, then a member of the Society of Friends. At 17 he lived in New Orleans with an unmarried woman, wrote erotic poetry and brought the woman for a while to live at his mother's home. A grandmother died insane, a brother killed himself. (Suicide dogged the Hiss family, too; his father cut his throat, a sister died of drinking disinfectant.) "Did you perjure yourself in previous testimony?" thundered Stryker. "Yes, yes, of course," said Chambers calmly.

The prosecuting attorney, Thomas F Murphy, cross-examined Hiss, moving ponderously after this nimble-footed witness who never seemed to be there when his pursuer closed his trap. Hiss's wife Priscilla supported her husband in a lilting, little-girl voice clutched by nervousness. The two cut attractive figures in contrast to gloomy, stocky Chambers and his plain, dour wife. But regardless of personalities, there the unexplained documents were. Somebody had taken them.

The trial raises questions of the national mood. When the sensational charges were made a year ago the election was in full blast. "Ah ha," cried conservatives, "this proves that the whole New Deal, if not Communist-inspired, was at least 'soft' toward Communism." It is this writer's feeling that much of that attitude has now evaporated. The events are long in the past. The election is over. There has been a reduction in tension with Russia. The public is vastly interested in the Hiss riddle, but on the personal rather than international side. It reads the trial as detective fiction not history. Theoretically a man is innocent till proved guilty. But, under the freedom of American press comment, nearly all aspects of the case are being canvassed. Under such circumstances, if Hiss is innocent he is a terribly injured man. The question raised is whether he was once a fellow-traveller not whether he is now; nobody seriously makes that charge any longer.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery