It’s the case that introduced Richard Nixon, then a first-term congressman from California, to the national political stage 64 years ago. It’s the case that made Nixon’s subsequent political success possible. And it’s the case that made Nixon lots of enemies — enemies who would follow him for the rest of his political career.
It started in August 1948 when Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet spy, went before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and accused a high-ranking federal government official, Alger Hiss, of spying for the Russians. The effects of the ensuing trial, known as the Alger Hiss case, are still being felt today.
The case brought together some interesting characters. On the one hand there was Chambers, the somewhat frumpy-looking accuser, a man who had wandered in from the cold a few years before, having seen the sinister reality behind the communist propaganda. Then there was Hiss, a guy with poster-child-for-success looks, brains, friends in very high places, a killer resume and seemingly endless references. And finally, there was Nixon, the young, ambitious politician who was quickly climbing a ladder to somewhere.
And the story itself was compelling. Along the way, we learned about microfilm squirreled away in a pumpkin on a Maryland farm, one man’s dental challenges and a president of the United States talking about something called a “red herring.”
The Hiss case won’t go away — nor should it. In a sense it marked the beginning of America’s modern political discussion and cultural divide. Ask people about the Hiss case today and many will predictably give you a deer-in-the-headlights stare. But those old enough to remember, or who have an interest in the history of our country, tend to quickly reach animation. “Hiss was smeared,” or “Chambers was right,” or my favorite: “Well, that was just McCarthyism at its worst.” Never mind that Senator Joe McCarthy didn’t make a name for himself until after Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury.
But as the saying goes, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” In fact, Chambers was eventually proven right: Hiss was a traitor and perjurer.
The case still matters today, not just because of the inherent importance of the truth, but also because while the two stars of the case — Chambers and Hiss — are dead, their philosophies live on in the form of the tea party and Occupy Wall Street.
In her new book, Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, Christina Shelton, a retired U.S. intelligence analyst, refreshes our memory not only about the Hiss case itself, but why it still very much matters:
The story doesn’t go away, because it has become a symbol of the ongoing struggle for control over the philosophical and political direction of the United States. It is a battle between collectivism and individualism; between centralized planning and local/state authority, and between rule by administrative fiat and free markets …
Hiss firmly believed in a collectivist political ideology; he believed government was the ultimate instrument of power for solving problems and that the U.S. Constitution should be bent or bypassed to support this view. Hiss put his political belief into practice in his support for Communism and loyalty to the USSR, a state where government authority and power were not limited by the rule of law — in fact it would brook no limit.
Whittaker Chambers, who died in 1961, never lived to see the fall of Soviet communism. Actually, he believed that it would never happen and that when he left communism to embrace the ideals of American freedom, he was leaving the winning side for a losing cause.
Some people never forgave Nixon for his skill and zeal in pursuit of the truth about Hiss back in the late 1940s. In the days following Nixon’s 1962 defeat in the California gubernatorial race, ABC News aired a special, hosted by Howard K. Smith, called “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.” It included insight by a special guest — none other than Alger Hiss. Many were outraged. Others applauded the interview as well as Nixon’s apparent demise.
The Hiss case would be a great story for all Americans to revisit every few years — as a caveat and catalyst. Christina Shelton’s book is a great place to start. She reminds us that “Hiss has become emblematic of the ideological divide that continues to this day in the United States. … Hiss’s advocacy of collectivism and the need for government control over society and his support for international policies ahead of national security interests still resonate today.”
David R. Stokes is a minister, author, columnist, and broadcaster. His book, “The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America,” is available in bookstores everywhere.