Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon and Collingwood

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Nixon calls for new HUAC probe of HissRemember the case of Alger Hiss? I didn’t think so. It was before your time. Mine too. But let me jog your memory, just in case you’re older than I am. Or perhaps just well read in recent history.

Hiss was a US government employee, a diplomat at the centre of a House Un-American Advisory Committee (HUAC) investigation in 1950. He was accused of being a Soviet spy and eventually sent to jail (coincidentally on the same day George Orwell died…). Ring a bell? How about the Pumpkin Papers?

Remember HUAC? You know, the committee investigating Communism in America, the one that brought Senator Joe McCarthy to prominence and eventually proved his undoing. How about the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s? The Cold War? Anything coming back to you, yet? No? You’re probably too young.

Well, so am I. For the Hiss case, that is. Not for the Red Scare, the Cold War, Nixon and the decades of US-vs-USSR ideological squabbles that almost led us to WWIII. That all happened in my time and I remember the news, the stories, the broadcasts,the air raid drills. But the HUAC hearings about Hiss were just before me.

Still, I know something about them, about Hiss, Nixon and the whole HUAC thing from my ongoing reading and studies. The story came up last night as I read another chapter in Anthony Summers’ biography of Richard Nixon, The Arrogance of Power. A good book, by the way, if you are interested in the ‘Machiavellian’ politics of Nixon.

Hiss and HUAC collectively launched the career of the then-neophyte politician, Richard Nixon, newly elected to Congress. It was a milestone for him. Hiss was highly respected and well-placed, with no evidence to convict him. HUAC’s investigation had stalled and the committee was about to throw in the towel when Nixon was appointed to it. Nixon proved a bulldog who, using inside information from other sources, possibly even faked evidence, turned the case around and got Hiss convicted. And he used compliant media to make his case and get coverage.

From an unknown newcomer to the political battlefield, Richard Nixon would leverage his profile as an unrelenting, staunch anti-Communist into the Senate, the vice presidency and eventually, after many false starts, to the presidency. Any lights going on now?

Probably not. Hiss is long forgotten by the public. He died in 1996, a few days after his 92nd birthday, protesting his innocence to the end. Nixon himself died earlier, in 1994, still claiming Hiss was guilty until the end. The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991 and despite a lot of its secret archives being opened for Western researchers, the evidence for or against Hiss remains controversial, contradictory and inconclusive. Even today it’s hard to say for certain if he was a spy or someone’s patsy.

What is conclusive is that Nixon’s obsessive pursuit of Hiss and his manipulations in the background gave him headlines and for a short while star status. It was also the time when Nixon’s political persona was being cast in concrete and his ambitious machinations to climb the political ladder really leapt into high gear.

For a glimpse into the politics of post-war America, the rivalry between superpowers, and a picture into both Nixon’s and the Republican mindset, you should read the Hiss story. It’s fascinating stuff.

But of course that’s not why I brought you here, dear reader, down this meandering path of what must seem like lessons in ancient history spiced by the ramblings of an old curmudgeon. What I wanted to give you was a recap of what Summers writes in his conclusion to the chapter. Why? Not because of Hiss, Nixon or any Cold War story, but because I think you will recognize the local relevance. Read on…

It is one of those odd, inexplicable coincidence that Summers, writing 16 years ago from another country about unrelated events and people more than 66 years past, seems to sum up traits and attitudes of our own local council and maybe even a staff member or two.

Here is a summary of the themes in Nixon’s career that Summers presents in Chapter 8 (p. 78-79). These themes would characterize Nixon’s political and personal life from then on.i think you might recognize a few of these traits:

  • Delusion, of himself and others.
  • An addiction to intrigue.
  • A vengeful desire for retribution against those who failed to do what he wanted.
  • The obsession with the… elite that he saw as his perennial enemy.
  • A perception of himself as a marked man.
  • A tendency to fly into a rage and blame others when things went wrong.
  • Driving himself beyond his limits, putting himself and his family under intolerable pressure.

Wow. Didn’t that give you chills? Couldn’t you see in those lines at least one person on our own council, maybe see them in another person in town hall? Didn’t it read like it was written yesterday by someone local, not 16 years ago in another nation?

Perhaps that’s the description of anyone with a Nixonian character, regardless of time and place. But boy, does it ring true here.

Just read the keywords: deluded, angry, driven, obsessed, vengeful and scheming. I say wow again. Fits them to a ‘T’, doesn’t it? Well, it does if we’re thinking of the same person I am. Or people. Sometimes I have a hard time telling them apart.

Just say those words together, like a mantra, and the faces twisted with anger spring to mind without hesitation, a little blurry because they meld into one another so well. As if they were clones, or twins separated at birth.

Uncanny, isn’t it, how Summers could capture the local political scene so succinctly, so accurately

I’m not a conspiracy theory kind of guy, but if I were,I’d suspect Summers was a time traveller with an invisibility cloak that allowed him to be a fly on the wall at some of council’s many, secret closed-door meetings where the spume of spittle flies during the venomous attacks and the spiteful accusations.

Why even that description brings to mind Nixon’s many, secret, closed-door meetings in which his spume of spittle flew during his venomous attacks and the spiteful accusations.

Like I said: uncanny the resemblance. Spooky… as Count Floyd would say.

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