"What was the Hiss Case?":
An answer for Tricia

by Richard Nixon
from Six Crises
(Doubleday, 1962).

....Now, I would like to attempt an answer to the question my daughter, Tricia, asked me.

"What was the Hiss case?"

Whittaker Chambers, with typical insight, perhaps came closest to the truth when he wrote in Witness that the situation which involved Alger Hiss and himself was not simply "human tragedy," not just "another fat folder in the sad files of the police," but rather was a "tragedy of history." Here, "the two irreconcilable faiths of our time, Communism and Freedom, came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men."

In this sentence, he compressed whole chapters of world history: the rise, development, and-as some would argue- partial decay of the philosophy called "liberalism"; the parallel emergence of a liberal heresy called Communism; the assumption of world leadership by two superpowers, America and Russia, each wedded to a competing faith and each strengthened and yet limited thereby; and, :finally, the present confrontation of these two faiths and these two superpowers at speci:fic times and places in every part of the world. The issue at stake, to put it starkly, is this: whose hand will write the next several chapters of human history?

The Hiss case aroused the nation for the :first time to the existence and character of the Communist conspiracy within the United States. It focused attention sharply on the conspiratorial aspects of the Party. The prevailing opinion in the country prior to the Hiss-Chambers case was probably that the Communists were nothing but a handful of noisy but relatively harmless left-wingers attempting to exercise their rights of free speech and political action. A substantial number of Americans believed the investigations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities were "Red-baiting" for partisan purposes only. The unpopularity of the Committee, whatever the reasons, caused many political leaders and opinion-makers to dismiss without investigation anything the Committee might discover and disclose about Communism in the United States. Upon learning that Communists and fellow-travelers were holding important positions in government, in education, or in labor, many people simply responded-"so what! All they are doing is exercising their legitimate freedom of speech and political opinion." Some went even further and charged that the members of the Committee, and their allies, were really "Fascist agents," bent on denying free expression to "unpopular views."

The Hiss case, for the first time, forcibly demonstrated to the American people that domestic Communism was a real and present danger to the security of the nation. As Herbert Hoover wrote me after Hiss's conviction, "At last the stream of treason that has existed in our government has been exposed in a fashion all may believe." Chambers testified that his espionage ring was only one of several that had infiltrated the American government. Yet he had turned over to the Committee and the Justice Department hundreds of pages of confidential and secret documents from the State Department and other government agencies. And he testi:6ed that on at least seventy different occasions, the members of his ring had obtained a like number of documents-all of which he had transmitted to Soviet agents.

Hiss was just one of the members of the group from which Chambers obtained government documents. Chambers' contacts included four men in the State Department, two in the Treasury Department, two in the Bureau of Standards, one in the Aberdeen and one in the Picatinny Arsenal, two in the Electric Boat Company, one in the Remington Rand Company, and one in the Illinois Steel Company. The individuals he named, almost without exception, held positions of influence where they had access to confidential and secret information. But the purpose of the Hiss-Chambers group was not limited to stealing documents and passing information to Soviet agents like common spies. Some, like Hiss, reached positions so high in government that they could influence policy directly. As I said in a speech in the House of Representatives in 1950, this type of activity "permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy; it disarms and dooms our diplomats to defeat in advance, before they go to conferences; traitors in the high councils of our own government make sure that the deck is stacked on the Soviet side of the diplomatic table."

The Hiss case thus demonstrated the necessity of screening federal employees in sensitive positions for loyalty and security-rigorously, fairly, and with sophisticated insight into the many-sided Communist apparatus.

The Hiss case exposed the blindness of the Truman Administration and its predecessors to the problem of Communist subversion in government. It demonstrated the need for congressional investigatory bodies, like the Committee on Un-American Activities, which could expose such laxity and, with the help of a mobilized public opinion, could force the Executive branch to adopt policies adequate for dealing with the problem. 

The record of negligence was almost too flagrant to believe. Chambers first made his charges in 1939 and he repeated them to government officials several times thereafter. Yet as far as the public record is concerned, the only action taken on his charges until the Committee started its investigation in 1948, was to promote each of the individuals he named to higher positions of power and influence within the government. The most damning proof of negligence on the part of the Executive branch was that Hiss himself had to be indicted and convicted not for espionage, the crime of which he was originally guilty, but for perjury-for lying when he denied committing espionage. The statute of limitations, requiring prosecution for espionage within three years after the crime had been committed, had already long expired.

The conduct of President Truman in this case was particularly hard to understand. No one would question the tough-minded anti-Communism of the man who had so boldly initiated the program of Greek-Turkish aid and the Marshall Plan. One can understand why he might have felt justifIed in terming the case a "red herring" when Hiss first testifIed before the Committee. But he did a disservice to the nation and to his own party by stubbornly maintaining that position as evidence to the contrary piled up. His error was sheer stubbornness in refusing to admit a mistake. He viewed the Hiss case only in its political implications and he chose to handle the crisis which faced his Administration with an outworn political rule of thumb: leave the political skeletons hidden in the closet and keep the door locked. He denied outright the evidence in front of him and he stumped the 1948 political trail flailing away at the "red herring," thus putting himself in a needlessly untenable position on an important issue and-of infinitely graver consequence- leading a large segment of the public away from a deeper understanding of the true threat of the Communist conspiracy in America.

I have no doubt that President Truman personally had just as much contempt for Alger Hiss as I had when the full import of his activities became known to him. An indication of his attitude was a report Bert Andrews gave me shortly after Hiss's indictment. He said Truman was shown copies of the stolen documents by a representative of the Justice Department. As he thumbed through page after page of the incriminating evidence, he muttered, over and over, "Why, the son of a bitch-he betrayed his country!" Yet when asked in his next press conference if he still thought the Committee's investigation of the Hiss case was a "red herring," he replied in the affirmative! When a friend asked him how he could possibly make such a statement in light of the new evidence, his reply was: "Of course Hiss is guilty. But that damn Committee isn't interested in that. All it cares about is politics, and as long as they try to make politics out of this Communist issue, I am going to label their activities for what they are-a 'red herring.'"

President Truman spoke quite properly and effectively of the need for bipartisanship in meeting the threat of Communism abroad. Along with a substantial number of the Republicans in both House and Senate, I responded to his pleas in this respect by voting for and supporting the Greek-Turkish Aid Program and the Marshall Plan. What he did not seem to understand-and here is the really crucial point-was that Communism in America is part and parcel of Communism abroad. The problem, like Communism itself, is indivisible. If, in other words, he had recognized the need for bipartisanship in fighting Communism at home as well as abroad, he would not have persisted in making his "red herring" statements with regard to the Committee investigations. And furthermore, there would have been no need for that investigation to be continued as it was, simply in order to force the Justice Department to take the action demanded by the facts.

Once the FBI was given the green light in its investigation of the Hiss case, it did a magnificent job. The blame for failing to act before that time rests not on the FBI but squarely on those officials of the Executive branch who had full access to FBI reports and who failed or refused to order a full investigation.

The Hiss case taught the nation some major lessons, too, about the most effective methods for fighting Communism in the United States. Communism cannot be fought successfully by brushing off or ignoring the danger because of the small number of Communist Party members, or by concentrating solely on "removing the causes of Communism by making democracy work." The nation finally saw that the magnitude of the threat of Communism in the United States is multiplied a thousandfold because of its direct connection with and support by the massive power of the world Communist conspiracy centered in Moscow. But while we should not underestimate the danger, we also must not resort to Communist methods to fight Communism. We would then become little better than the Communists themselves-playing their game, by their rules. We must not be so blinded by the threat of Communism that we can no longer see the principles of freedom. The most effective weapon the Communists and their supporters use against their opponents is to complain of unfair play and abridgment of their civil liberties, in order to divert public attention from the charges being leveled against them. Even when the most impeccably correct procedures are used, they will cry "foul." When the investigators' conduct gives even a hint of unfair procedures, the Communists are able to make their accusers, rather than themselves, the issue. There is nothing more irresponsible than for the radicals of the right to make a racket of anti-Communism. By exaggerating and making charges they can't prove, they raise doubts as to the very real danger that Communist agents in the United States in fact present. On the other hand, it is just as irresponsible for the radicals of the left to pooh-pooh the danger of Communism at home by denying it exists, even in the face of facts like the Hiss case-thereby adding fuel to the fire of the demagogues on the right.

We succeeded in the Hiss case for three basic reasons. First, we were on the right side. Second, we prepared our case thoroughly. Third, we followed methods with which few objective critics could find serio, is fault. This is not the easy way to conduct a congressional investigation and certainly not the best way to make sensational headlines. But it is the way which produces results. In dealing with Communists, any other procedure can play into their hands and usually does.

To give an extreme example. If we were to accuse X of having killed his mother, his two brothers, and five friends, X and his allies would shout back, "That's a lie! X never hurt a hair on his old mother's head and he only wounded one brother. Foul and unfair!" The Counterattack would be on, with attention diverted from the five friends and the other brother whom X had, indeed, actually killed. Thus, if someone charges that there are fifty-eight Communists in the State Department, he is at once attacked on the exact number and on the fine distinction between Communists and security risks. The tactic of exaggeration and the deliberate "fishing expedition" does, to be sure, attract public attention to the problem. But it also tends to undermine the effort to develop an effective program for weeding out the actual security risks in the government bureaucracies. The best tactic in the face of suspicion from a large segment of the press and public is to be certain you can prove every statement you make about Communist activities.

These lessons from the Hiss case are important. But more vital still is that we understand why a man like Alger Hiss, with his education and background, joined the Communist Party in the first place. The tendency too often is to try to find some convenient excuse for his conduct and thereby avoid facing up to the real reasons. But none of the typical excuses fit Alger Hiss. He did not join the Communist Party, accept its rigid discipline, and steal State Department secrets for money, position, or a desire for power, or for psychological reasons stemming from some obscure incident in his early life, or because he had been duped or led astray by his wife. He joined the Communist Party and became a Communist espionage agent because he deeply believed in Communist theory, Communist principles, and the Communist "vision" of the ideal society still to come. He believed in an absolutely materialistic view of the world, in principles of deliberate manipulation by a dedicated elite, and in an ideal world society in which "the party of the workers" replaces God as the prime mover and the sole judge of right and wrong. His morality could be reduced to one perverted rule: anything that advances the goals of Communism is good. Hiss followed his beliefs deliberately and consciously to the utmost logical extreme, and ended up in the area of espionage.

At a less rigorous level-somewhere in a vague area that goes by such names as "positivism" or "pragmatism" or "ethical neutralism"- Hiss was clearly the symbol of a considerable number of perfectly loyal citizens whose theaters of operation are the nation's mass media and universities, its scholarly foundations, and its government bureaucracies. This group likes to throw the cloak of liberalism around all its beliefs. Eric Sevareid's term "liberalists" probably describes them most accurately. They are not Communists; they are not even remotely disloyal; and, give or take a normal dose of human fallibility, they are neither dishonest nor dishonorable. But they are of a mind-set, as doctrinaire as those on the extreme right, which makes them singularly vulnerable to the Communist popular front appeal under the banner of social justice. In the time of the Hiss case they were "patsies" for the Communist line.

The "liberalists" now stand self-accused in all their vulnerability by a most damaging fact. As soon as the Hiss case broke and well before a full bill of particulars was even available, much less open to close critical analysis, they leaped to the defense of Alger Hiss-and to a counterattack of unparalleled venom and irrational fury on his accusers. Some of the reasons may have been simply political. The New Deal had fallen hard for the popular front tactic and now it was going to be called to account for its past errors-or, perhaps, for its past "innocence." Some thought it had to be defended at any cost. Typical of this attitude was a conversation I had with a New Deal lawyer who had served in the Roosevelt Administration during World War II. The Hiss case was being discussed at a Washington dinner party shortly after the "pumpkin papers" came to public attention. He shouted at me, "I don't give a damn what the facts are. Even if Hiss admits he's guilty, these investigations are dangerous and will have a terrible and disastrous effect on the country-because the net result is to cast reflection on the United Nations and all the other progressive aspects of the Roosevelt-Truman foreign policy."

What then is the answer to the appeal Communism seems to have, not only in the so-called "underdeveloped" countries abroad and not just among the "downtrodden masses," but to those with excellent intellectual backgrounds and material security right here in the United States?

Certainly more is needed than a purely negative militant "anti-Communism." Nor is it enough to answer Communism's constant claims of "we shall win-we represent the wave of the future" with a static position in which we say, "All we want is peace, and we will only defend what we have."

And we must never be put in the position of meeting the appeal of the Communists on their ground alone. A watered-down materialism of our own will be no match for the authentic article, with all its trappings, peddled by the Communists. If materialism is all we have to offer, then men like Hiss, impatient with compromise and anxious for faster progress, will turn to Communism as the simpler and swifter vehicle for the realization of purely materialistic goals.

Our goal cannot and must never be to force our way of life on others. But our fundamental belief that every nation has a right to be independent, that individual freedom and human rights are grounded in religious faith and because they come from God cannot be taken away by men, must be instilled in the new generation. And our beliefs must be combined with a crusading zeal, not just to hold our own but to change the world-including the Communist world-and to win the battle for freedom, individual dignity, and true economic progress without a hot war.

Foster Dulles, in commenting on Alger Hiss's conviction, said: "The conviction of Alger Hiss is human tragedy. It is tragic that so great promise should have come to so inglorious an end. But the greater tragedy is that seemingly our national ideals no longer inspire the loyal devotions needed for their defense." In these words, Dulles summed up the greatest lesson of the Hiss case for our generation, because the case so dramatically demonstrated the intellectual confusion of our time. Since 1917 Moscow had been successful in convincing all too many of our best educated citizens of the superiority of Communism and caused them to abandon Western ideals and values for the chimera of Soviet "idealism" which unconsciously became their moral standard. To this day, many "liberalists" are incapable of facing the brutal reality of Soviet totalitarianism and dealing with it accordingly.

The Hiss case was, of course, also a lesson for me. I learned first-hand about the true nature of the Communist conspiracy at home and abroad. I learned, too, some valuable lessons in crisis conduct-the necessity for thorough preparation for battle; the need for handling a crisis with coolness, confidence, and decisiveness; the importance of guarding against a letdown in that most dangerous period of a crisis, after the battle is over.

The Hiss case brought me national fame. I received considerable credit for spearheading the investigation which led to Hiss's conviction. Two years later I was elected to the United States Senate and two years after that, General Eisenhower introduced me as his running mate to the Republican National Convention as "a man who has a special talent and an ability to ferret out any kind of subversive influence wherever it may be found, and the strength and persistence to get rid of it."

But in politics, victory is never total. The Hiss case brought me national fame. But it also left a residue of hatred and hostility toward me-not only among the Communists but also among substantial segments of the press and the intellectual community-a hostility which remains even today, ten years after Hiss's conviction was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Bert Andrews once gave me his opinion about the primary motivating force for much of this attitude. "The surest way to make yourself unpopular with anyone who considers himself an intellectual," he said, "is to prove him wrong once he has gone out on a limb on an issue so charged with emotion as the Hiss case."

Ironically enough, I not only gained the deadly enmity of the Communists and others who, for a variety of reasons, defended Hiss; I was to receive, at best, lukewarm support and at times outright opposition from many of those who claimed to be the annointed apostles of anti-Communism in America. There were two reasons, I think, for this attitude. First, they deeply resented the fact that I would not go along with their extremes. The second reason is perhaps more controlling.

Earlier in this section I pointed out the inexcusable attitude of some officials and apologists who could see the danger of Communism abroad but were blind to the threat at home. Strangely enough, many of those who speak up most vigorously about the threat of Communism at home simply reverse the blind spot: they oppose programs designed to deal with the same threat abroad. Because I have consistently supported what some of them consider to be "liberal" international policies-like foreign aid, reciprocal trade, collective security pacts, and adequate appropriations for our information and foreign service programs-the credentials I had gained as an anti-Communist because of my work in the Hiss case became somewhat tarnished with a tinge of "pink!"

And there were still others who were to mistrust me because of the Hiss case-without exactly knowing why. I remember one amusing incident demonstrating this attitude which occurred during the 1952 campaign. Bill Rogers, who was traveling on our campaign train at the time, used to make a practice of wandering among the audiences while I was speaking so that he could pick up reactions and pass them along to me. He heard one eminently respectable elderly lady say to another, "I like Eisenhower but I don't like Nixon." When she was asked why, she replied: "Oh, he was mixed up with that awful Alger Hiss!"

In any event, one of the personal aftermaths of the Hiss case was that for the next twelve years of my public service in Washington, I was to be subjected to an utterly unprincipled and vicious smear campaign. Bigamy, forgery, drunkenness, insanity, thievery, anti-Semitism, perjury, the whole gamut of misconduct in public office, ranging from unethical to downright criminal activities-all these were among the charges that were hurled against me, some publicly and others through whispering campaigns which were even more difficult to counteract.

And so, in retrospect, I suppose there may be a grain of truth in both of the observations I quoted at the very beginning of this section: had it not been for the Hiss case, I might have been President of the United States. But equally: had it not been for the Hiss case, I might never have been Vice President of the United States and thus a candidate for President.

But whichever of these propositions is "truer" -and neither of them is subject to proof-of this much I am sure: I shall always be grateful that at a period in my life when I had the requisite energy and drive to cope with it, I had the opportunity to meet the challenge which that case presented. Because through that case, a guilty man was sent to prison who otherwise would have remained free; a truthful man was vindicated who otherwise would have been condemned as a liar; and the nation acquired a better understanding, vital to its security, of the strategy and tactics of the Communist conspiracy at home and abroad.

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