By Marshall Garvey
Bradley Manning, in one of the most recent high-profile court cases in America, has been convicted on 20 charges of mishandling data for providing hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to Wikileaks. Violating the Espionage Act of 1917, a law signed by President Woodrow Wilson shortly after America’s entry into World War I, was the most serious conviction.
In 1919, the Espionage Act was unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Schneck v. United States, after being challenged on the grounds that it violated the freedom of speech of those convicted under its provisions. Originally intended to prevent interference with military operations or support of enemies during wartime, the law has since been used to prosecute a diverse array of figures such as socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, newspaper editor Victor Berger, and recently the NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Espionage cases were familiar territory for Richard Nixon, who found himself involved in some of the most critical cases in U.S. history. As a freshman congressman in 1947, he was immediately assigned to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, created to investigate citizens and groups suspected of Communist ties.
Nixon’s anti-communist views were congruent with many across the aisle in government, specifically opposed to the dictatorial state socialism of Josef Stalin, and anyone openly tied to it. By 1947, the United States was in the beginning stages of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In response to the rising threat of communism, President Truman advanced internationalist policies such as containment and economic relief for European countries ravaged by World War II. Then Congressman Nixon understood that the emerging international dynamic involving communism now posed an even greater international threat than what was presented by Germany and Japan.
In 1948, Congressman Nixon and HUAC pursued a case that alerted more people to the threat communism posed domestically. After hearing testimony from former communist spy Elizabeth Bentley, chief investigator Robert Stripling suggested a subpoena of Whittaker Chambers, a highly respected Time magazine editor who was identified as a Communist in the 30’s. In his own testimony, Chambers told of his break from communism due to his disillusionment with Stalinism, but that the group he belonged to had aimed to infiltrate the United States government. In a shocking revelation, Chambers named Alger Hiss as a fellow member of the group who ardently refused to join him in leaving. The surprise of Hiss being named was enormous, as he had amassed an incredible reputation as one of the country’s most accomplished statesmen, from being one of FDR’s assistants at the Yalta Conference to work as an architect of the United Nations.
Indeed, Hiss’s eloquent denial of Chambers’ accusations convinced many he was innocent. Unfazed, Nixon persisted, although he carefully waited to present his challenge until after the 1948 election had passed so as not to use it for partisan purposes. Finding discrepancies in Hiss’s testimony, he continued to pressure him and Chambers in hearings, eventually finding Hiss had perjured himself. In December of 1948, Chambers responded to a HUAC subpoena by leading two investigators to his Maryland farm, where rolls of 35 mm film were stored inside a frosted pumpkin. These rolls, named the “Pumpkin Papers,” proved to be the decisive factor in the case, disproving many of Hiss’s claims and leading to his conviction of perjury.
The month after Hiss’s conviction, Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, held up a paper at a speech he claimed listed known Communist Party members. While intrigued by McCarthy’s accusations, Nixon was nonetheless skeptical of him. For one, McCarthy had no previous experience in dealing with communists, and Nixon feared he would be too reckless and unable mitigate his pursuit of them with fairness and accuracy. He even worried about McCarthy’s talk of “card-carrying Communists,” advising him instead to focus on actual security risks. While McCarthy quickly rose to prominence as a leading anti-communist crusader, he soon drew criticism from many for his unscrupulous tactics, and was officially censured by the Senate in 1954.
As our government deals with controversial espionage cases like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, Nixon’s passionate but judicious approach to comparable issues like the Hiss case serves as an example for how to handle critical security policies.