It was the case that first introduced Richard Nixon, then a first-term congressman from California, to the national political stage sixty-four years ago. It made all of his subsequent political success possible. It also planted seeds of animosity toward him on the part of many—seeds that ensured thorns and thistles would inevitably accompany any and all of the high and low moments throughout Nixon’s subsequent political career. All of the famous Six Crises he wrote about in his best-selling memoir in the early 1960s—and those surely to come—were in some way related to that first taste of controversy and conflict in 1948.
A Harvard trained and high-ranked member of the Federal Government was accused by a self-confessed former Soviet spy of being complicit in those very same nefarious enterprises.
On the one hand there was Whitaker Chambers, the somewhat frumpy-looking accuser, a man who had wandered in from the darkened cold years before, having seen the sinister reality behind the propaganda-driven hope and change promised by Communism. Then there was this other guy with poster-child-for-success looks, brains, friends in very high places, and a killer resume with seemingly endless references. His name was Alger Hiss.
Add to that mix a committee in the House of Representatives increasingly dominated by a young Richard Nixon, who was quickly climbing a ladder to somewhere—and no Hollywood writer or gifted novelist could devise a more compelling story. 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. It not only made Richard Nixon, in a very real sense it contains the DNA of our current national 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 demonstrated a cultivating interest in the political history of our country for the past hundred years or so, 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 even begin to make a name for himself until after Alger Hiss’s conviction on a couple of counts of perjury.
But as the saying goes—“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” And with the Hiss case it took years for a preponderance of evidence to come out proving that Whitaker Chambers was right and that Alger Hiss lied. He was a traitor and perjurer. And it still matters today, not just because of the idea of finding out the true story but because the philosophies the two men represented at the time are alive and well and every bit as distinct and diametrically opposed as the Tea Party is from the group purporting to Occupy Wall Street.
Even while denying his guilt throughout his life (he died in 1996 at the age of 92), Mr. Hiss maintained a steadfast belief in the liberalism behind all the manifestations of the New Deal. And this remains the salient talking point—the very real connection between the “progressive” political machinations and actual Marxist thought and methodology. “What Is To Be Done” gave way to what has been done. This is the story of American political liberalism from the heady days of the New Deal to the conjured euphoria of “Yes, We Can.”
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 indeed 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.
Whitaker Chambers, who died in 1961, never lived to see the fall of Soviet communism. In fact, he truly believed that it would never happen and that when he left communism to embrace the ideas and ideals of American freedom he was leaving the winning side for a losing cause. We know that he was wrong—at least in the short run. Having read his wonderful political tome, Witness, several times, I often wonder what Chambers would have made of the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Some people never forgave Mr. Nixon for his skill and zeal in pursuit of the truth about Hiss back in the late 1940s. And whenever the chance arose for some in the media to remind the public about their version of the story, the predictable bias was glaringly obvious. For example, 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. Of course, his political career was far from over. As far as Hiss was concerned, there was much more information to come out over time proving his treachery beyond any reasonable doubt.
These days, the “constant vigilance” consistently needed to perpetuate liberty in the face of what often seems to be humankind’s default affinity for a clueless slouch toward tyranny (weeds grow naturally, flowers take work), seems to be in dangerously short supply. 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.”
Toward the end of the book, Shelton tells the story of Vladimir Bukovsky, a man who spent a dozen years in Soviet prisons and labor camps as a dissident. He reflectively compared the former USSR and the European Union (EU), where “nationalism is suppressed in an attempt to establish a socialist European state.” He summarized his comments with words of warning:
“I have lived in your future and it didn’t work.”
David R. Stokes is a minister, radio talk show host, and author based in Fairfax, Va.