Remember 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…