The court case that Richard Nixon rigged

America’s Dreyfus: the Case Nixon Rigged tells the story of Alger Hiss, the American government official accused of being a Soviet spy.

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The one-sentence summary of this extraordinary book is that it is about the dirty tricks employed by Richard Nixon and his allies in the late 1940s and early 1950s to secure the conviction of Alger Hiss, a former government official, on a trumped-up charge of perjury. That leaves out many material facts. Joan Brady was only eight years old when a former Communist Party member, Whittaker Chambers, told the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Hiss was a communist. She was not quite ten when Hiss was convicted in January 1950. But in 1960 she was living with Dexter Masters, whom she later married. Masters was an old friend of Hiss. Hiss came to dinner and remained friends with Brady until his death in 1996.

As that might suggest, the book is part autobiography, part memoir of Hiss, part thriller, and also a reminder of what happens when a society becomes infected by the paranoia that produced the American “Red Scares” after the First and Second World Wars. The threat to civil liberties posed today by the “war on terror” is an unobtrusive backdrop but a substantial element of what motivated the writing of the book. Another element is very personal. Brady’s parents were economists at the University of California, Berkeley, and when academics were required to sign oaths of loyalty to keep their jobs, her father led the resistance and organised a boycott. He crumpled as pressure from the administration and capitulation by colleagues undermined the campaign. Disgusted by his surrender, he took an overdose that did not kill him, but did something worse, leaving him in a vegetative state. Brady’s loathing for the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s is complete.

The press described the Hiss trial – in fact, there were two trials, with the jury deadlocked the first time round – as “the trial of the century”. Brady thinks that every American schoolchild has at least some inkling of what it was about, though I very much doubt that. Nonetheless, it remains a litmus test of political allegiance. Commentators, historians, intelligence buffs and the like on the political right believe devoutly and unshakeably that Alger Hiss was a communist spy, saved because the statute of limitations had expired (as a result of which he faced only the lesser charge of perjury). On the left, opinion about his guilt or innocence is more divided – but the left is unanimous in thinking that the trial was rigged; that no rational and unintimidated jury would have believed Whittaker Chambers, a confessed liar and fantasist, rather than Alger Hiss; and that Richard Nixon had done what he subsequently boasted of, which was to manipulate the press so thoroughly that Hiss was convicted in the mind of any potential juror even before charges were presented. Twenty-five years later, he was still boasting that he had “played them [the press] like a master”.

Joan Brady believes that Hiss was innocent but thinks, as did many of his friends at the time, that he was suicidally naive about what he faced. Chambers had appeared before HUAC in 1948 and, in the fashion of the day, had produced a list of alleged communists in government service. At this time, Hiss was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was in his mid-forties and had played an important role in establishing the United Nations. He was very much a New Deal figure, having served in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration in the 1930s, after dazzling at Harvard Law School and clerking for the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Working for Holmes, he received the advice he ought to have followed in 1948: “This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.” Friends told him not to react to Chambers’s list. Hiss demanded to be called before HUAC. Nixon understood Holmes’s dictum better than Hiss; the prosecution was not a dispassionate search for the truth, but a battle for the ear of a jury. Hiss was an innocent facing unscrupulous enemies and he was lost.

For Nixon, securing a conviction was just a step to achieving his ultimate ambition. He had won his congressional seat in 1946 by impugning the loyalty of his opponent, just as he was to do in his campaign for the Senate. He plainly didn’t care what Hiss believed, though he loathed him as an upper-class, Harvard-educated liberal. He was grudgingly respectful of the quality that ensured Hiss’s safety in Lewisburg Penitentiary: a friend in the justice department advised Hiss to make friends with a Mafia boss. Like Nixon, mobsters admired Hiss because he “never ratted anybody out” and when a prison guard ill-advisedly suggested to two junior mafiosi that they might get rid of Hiss, it was the guard who “committed suicide” soon afterwards.

Why does it matter at this late date? It is 66 years since Hiss was convicted; all the participants are long since dead. One answer is that, as Joan Brady shows, a politics built on whipped-up terror is bad for all of us. Another answer, closely related, is that US politics involves a fight for control of the past. Alistair Cooke’s account of it all in the wonderful book A Generation on Trial emphasised that Hiss represented everything about the New Deal that conservatives loathed. He was the embodiment of liberal progressivism. The fight still goes on. Watch Fox News.

America’s Dreyfus: the Case Nixon Rigged by Joan Brady is published by Skyscraper (431pp, £20)

Alan Ryan is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford. His books include On Politics (Penguin)

This article appears in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle