The story of Whittaker Chambers, HUAC, and the case that defined the McCarthy era, as reported by one of the twentieth century's most respected journalists.
In August 1948, a former Communist Party member named Whittaker Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that a secret cell of Communists had infiltrated Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration. Chief among the conspirators, according to Chambers, was Alger Hiss, a former government attorney and State Department official who had taken part in the Yalta Conference and been instrumental in the creation of the United Nations. Hiss's categorical denial of the charges, which led Chambers to produce evidence linking both men to Soviet espionage, quickly escalated into one of the most divisive episodes in American history and ignited the widespread fear and paranoia of the McCarthy era.
As the US correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Alistair Cooke reported extensively on the Hiss affair. In an atmosphere that he memorably compares to that of a seventeenth-century religious war, Cooke maintained a clear head and his signature intellectual rigor. A Generation on Trial, which begins with a brilliantly succinct summary of the case—“We are about to look at the trials of a man who was judged in one decade for what he was said to have done in another”—is both a fascinating historical document and a stirring example of journalistic integrity.
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A Generation on Trial
U.S.A v. Alger Hiss
By Alistair Cooke
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1952 Alistair Cooke
All rights reserved.
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST
"It was quite a different atmosphere in Washington then than today." —Alger Hiss
"I am going to ask you to sort of throw yourselves back to those years 1937, '36, '35, '34, because unless you do that you don't quite grasp what the thinking was in those times." —Thomas F. Murphy
WE are about to look at the trials of a man who was judged in one decade for what he was said to have done in another.
Ten years is a long time in the memory of any man. And when this accuser and his accused were first asked to tell their story before a Congressional committee, each of them was called on to make an effort that is bound, in the nature of memory, to start a quarrel. If a husband and wife were asked on their tenth anniversary to tell how they fell in love, even a desire to be gallant in each other's behalf would produce strangely different versions of the truth. It is doubtful indeed whether "the truth" of the most amiable relationship can ever be recalled correctly. For we all want to justify our present feeling about life; and we therefore try to give to the past a consistency we can be proud of, or an inconsistency we can now appear man enough to disown. We remember what we must, either for our self-respect or our interest, or even for our discomfort; for if conscience makes cowards of us all, it also keeps the sense of cowardice flourishing in us as the price of refusing to admit that some things we have done are shameful.
To know whether a man is telling the truth, even in the most limited sense, about something he did a long time ago, we need to know what he has to gain or lose today from the story he tells. It is natural that an accuser should have a more lively memory than his victim, since one man accuses another before the law for a purpose: to get back something he has been robbed of, to redress a wrong that has festered through the years, or—as the accuser maintained in this case—to expose a conspiracy against the safety of his country. Also, the man who feels himself wronged has better cause to remember his humiliations than the man who professes he never was the cause of them.
We are at the start confronted with a problem that is a constant of the human situation: of how memory relates to guilt. It is a problem that cannot be solved by a legal definition of "fact." The English and American courts have had the sense to side-step this most human dilemma by making a rule that preserves the dignity of the court and at the same time flatters the ordinary citizen. They simply pass the problem on to the jury. The judge explains in all criminal trials that "the law" is something highly specialized they cannot be expected to know about; and that if any problems of "the law" arise, he will explain them. But it is up to the jury to decide matters of "fact." They alone, with their corporate knowledge of human nature, must judge what is true and what is not. It is the beguiling theory of the jury which G. K. Chesterton expounded with more romance than historical truth: "When it [our civilization] wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity."
This handsome admission that the facts of the case are beyond them does not make either the judge or the opposing lawyers excuse themselves from seeking the facts or doing their damnedest to imply that there is only one tolerable version of them. On the contrary, the whole art of direct examination is to coax from a witness a recital that sounds honest and plausible; and the art of cross-examination is to throw the most sinister aspersions on the most humdrum facts of birth, life, love, and work. In this way the lawyers make melodramatic amends for their magnanimous concession to the jury. If they are to yield the judgment of the facts, they make sure thereafter that the privileged twelve shall be able to get at them only through the most dramatically prejudiced presentation of them.
To put on this extraordinary performance, the law and the lawyers have assumed for centuries that a man is more or less the master of his memory. And the interminable job of the prosecutor and the defense attorney is to discover discrepancies of memory on the understanding that the man who cannot match his memory of big and little things is a liar. This is an immense assumption. And up to the end of the nineteenth century nothing that we knew about the working of the mind had come along to make it absurd. It has been badly and permanently damaged, however, by the lifework of Freud and his followers. And as we learn more about the workings of conscience, and unconscious memory, no doubt our courts of law will, at a cautious distance of time, come to amend their views of what is material, what is relevant, what is discrepant, what is a fact, and what is evidence.
Within the limits of this essential absurdity the courts do a noble job. And probably there are just as many innocent men set free as go to jail, even after jury trials. It may be said that in the following case, the jury was faced with no such nicety as deciding when a man is telling a lie that he honestly believes to be the truth. They were faced with a contradiction so gross that they had simply to decide whether Chambers's story was a wholesale fabrication or whether Hiss was making a blanket denial of an experience it would have been fatal to admit in part. By any definition of the truth, however naïve, one or the other was on a lying spree.
But this at once asks the question: Why? And to expect the jury to answer it we have to assume they know how far a man will go to deny his conscious memory (if Hiss was the liar), or how far lying can be a sincere pathological occupation (if Chambers was the one). Since memory has been observed as one function of fantasy—that is, of wishing—and its operations have become a specialized study, there may come a time when we can have no more confidence in a jury's verdict in a perjury trial than patent lawyers have in the run of judges assigned to patent suits. The "ordinary man looking on" has a limited experience of systematic political lying and a robust medieval view of mental sickness and expects a deranged person to foam at the mouth or babble like Ophelia. He is skeptical of the information that a man able to add figures, to feed and clothe himself neatly, to make jokes and talk with attentive intelligence may be dedicated beyond all scruple or mad beyond all cure. But he does know, as another axiom of our simple, melodramatic folklore, that "one may smile and smile and be a villain." And thus a tissue of lies is generally assumed to be a mark of villainy. Which is the villain, was the question the jury was asked to decide, and—in the First Trial at any rate—they were assisted in this simple view of perjury by the rhetoric of both counsel.
The issue was very simple. Chambers, an ex-Communist, had accused Hiss, formerly in the State Department during the New Deal, of having at that time pilfered confidential State documents and passed them on to him in the service of Communism. Chambers said that Hiss had been a Communist then and was his best friend in the party. Hiss denied all of it. He said that he had never known the man as Chambers, that the man was never more than a deadbeat acquaintance. Hiss denied he had ever been a Communist or anything like one. Chambers later produced a wad of documents that he said were the stolen papers. These documents were shown by the State Department's experts to be typed copies or photostats of authentic State papers. They were said by the F.B.I.'s typewriter experts to have been done on an old typewriter that once belonged to Hiss. Hiss admitted both these facts.
To begin with, the dice were loaded against Hiss. He would have somehow to discover the missing typist or so impress the jury with his reputation and apparent integrity that they would take his word and consign the typewriter and Chambers's possession of the documents to oblivion.
Ultimately the jury was forced back, as we all were, on the documents and the typewriter, as also on their hunches, on their instinctive or considered preference for the behavior of one man over the other. There must be many other things that influenced them which it would be idle to guess at: the physical and social types of the two men, the comparative appeal of their wives, the kinks and prejudices and personal chemistry of attraction and repulsion that are involved in liking or disliking another human being. But there is one element in this choice that overwhelmed everyone who came near the case, that indeed caused it to come up in a court of law, and that turned it into a newspaper circus.
This was the element of politics.
In the summer of 1948, when the names of Hiss and Chambers were bannered across the front pages, the United States was convulsed, as at no time since the 1920s, with fear and hatred of the Soviet Union. A Congressional committee, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, had been warning the country for years about the treacherous intentions of Communists when to do so seemed to show a perverse obsession with the lesser of two evils. To most Americans in the 1930s the Communists were moonstruck intellectuals. To the New Dealers, they were useful minute-men who would alert the countryside to the menace of Fascism. To Catholics, they were anti-Christ. Since this House Committee, once Representative Martin Dies became its chairman, showed a marked allergy for the un-American activity of Communism, and a dogged indifference to the epidemic possibilities of Fascism, its investigations were thought mildly absurd during the late thirties and downright egregious in the four years when—however distasteful it may now be to recall—the Soviet Union was embraced as a full fighting ally; an embrace, it is worth saying, that was offered not out of magnanimity but out of a keen preference for survival.
The House Committee, however, persisted in its obsession through the lean years of the New Deal into the fat years of what was called the Cold War, when popular feeling about Russia cooled and soured. In 1948 the Committee was riding a current spy scare with an investigation into espionage. It had been saying for years that the Communists got a sure foothold in the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt. It had never proved it. But in the summer it looked up among others an ex-Communist, one Whittaker Chambers, now a respectable magazine editor, who reminded the Committee of a list of alleged spies and participating fellow travelers he had given nine years before to Mr. Adolf Berle, then an Assistant Secretary of State. It was a list of once young New Dealers who, he said, were expertly organized through the mid-thirties as the official secret underground of the Communist Party in Washington. Some of them had since become fairly prominent in labor circles and two or three of them in Henry Wallace's Progressive Party. One of them had been an adviser to President Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, which just then the Republicans were making out to be the occasion of a wholesale sell-out to the Russians.
This looked like vindication beyond the dreams of the long-suffering House Committee. It confirmed the worst anxieties of a greatly changed America. It froze the condescension of people who had smiled sympathetically at President Truman's opinion that the House Committee was dragging "a red herring" across the campaign trail of a Presidential election year. The Committee was rewarded with resounding publicity and the grudging admission, from unlikely people, that it was after all perhaps made up of vigilant and patriotic men. The room where it held its hearings was a Roman circus panting for the entrance of dazed Christians. Into this arena walked, of his own volition, one man—the only man on Chambers's astonishing list who wished immediately to deny his accuser. He was Alger Hiss.
Hiss was almost unknown to the public eye, though the subsequent craving for a full-blooded New Dealer transmuted him in no time into the protector of great statesmen, and President Roosevelt's high-policy adviser at Yalta, a fiction that the defense counsel in the following trials curiously abetted. Hiss was not a policy-maker or ever much more than a devoted and able State Department officer just below the first rank. But he had organized the United Nations Conference on International Organization at San Francisco. He had flown back to Washington, as somebody had to, with the signed Charter. He had gone, in a humble capacity, to the Yalta Conference. His prestige in the Roosevelt Government and the United Nations, or rather the prestige that could be thrust upon him in restrospect, made him a very precious commodity to the House Committee. He became a point of honor and an object of rare suspicion when, of all the underground men named by Chambers, he asked to deny the charge before the Committee, challenged Chambers to repeat it outside the privilege of a Congressional hearing, and, when Chambers obliged, brought suit for defamation of character. Chambers then produced his old State papers.
The Department of Justice took an interest and reopened a grand-jury investigation into espionage that had been sitting on and off for fourteen months in New York. The grand jury called Hiss and Chambers many times and on the last day of its sitting indicted Hiss for perjury, implying that it believed Hiss had passed the State papers to Chambers in 1938. The statute of limitations protected Hiss from an indictment for espionage. But though the count was perjury, the implied charge was espionage. There was a strong desire, in both those who believed Hiss guilty and those who believed him innocent, to make him out to be a more representative Rooseveltian figure than he was. Among the House Committee, which had a Republican majority when the inquiry and the subsequent indictment came about, there was the eager wish to nail the curse of Communism on the coffin of the New Deal and so exorcize the legion of "liberal" and "bureaucratic" spirits that had been loosed on Washington fifteen years before to gibber down two decades and supposedly terrify the country. Among Hiss's supporters there was a defensive reaction to the Republican inference that while Russia was now the cause of all our ills, it was so only because we had been betrayed by the New Deal into diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union and Heaven knows what exchanges of policy. I have said it is a natural thing to want to make the past consistent with the rationale of our present self-respect, or to want to confess an inconsistency when we have confidently outgrown it. This impulse is very strong in America, where people want the best of everything, believe Time is the Siamese twin of Progress, and refuse to let even experience shake them from their belief that happiness is manageable. If we are now baited in every direction by the Russians, it does not satisfy Americans to say that this is the turn of history. It must mean that somebody entrusted with our welfare betrayed us or blundered. A nation with a religious trust in Progress simply cannot admit that even when the best is done, hard times may follow.
In such a nation no man's honor is above suspicion. For where all the people feel it is their right to know all "the truth" all the time, the laws that discourage snooping into a man's past—the libel laws, especially—are made purposely lax. A public man has to watch his step, for he may be confronted at any time with inconsistencies from his past that are not the permissible inconsistencies of the time. Politicians know this better than most men and are always on guard to qualify a bold political stand and see that their ground is well tunneled with avenues of escape. It is what gives to American political promises their evasive legalism and to American campaign rhetoric its depressing devotion to all virtues that are abstract. If Sir Stafford Cripps were an American politician, he would be made to defend in 1950 the plea for a common front with the Communists which in 1939 had him expelled from the British Labour Party. And Mr. Harold Nicolson would very likely have been debarred from any responsible job in the Second World War because in 1931 he had edited a magazine run by Sir Oswald Mosley. (What vulnerable character witnesses these honorable men would have made if the accident of citizenship had put them on call in either of the Hiss trials!). This compulsion to judge the 1930s by the hindsight of the 1940s was not restricted to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or to Republicans sniffing for a campaign scent in the year of a Presidential election. At its most foolish, the House Committee wanted to prove that the New Deal was a calculated flirtation with Communism, and that the follies and treacheries it claimed to have on file were the first act of a drama that ended in Pearl Harbor, the Russian domination of eastern Europe, and the loss to American influence of the whole of China. But short of this forgivable partisan lunacy, most Americans who took an interest in the trials of Alger Hiss were affected in much the same way.
Excerpted from A Generation on Trial by Alistair Cooke. Copyright © 1952 Alistair Cooke. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
I. Remembrance of Things Past: The 1930s,
II. An International Episode: Summer, 1948,
III. From an Accusation to an Indictment,
IV. The First Trial,
V. The Second Trial,
VI. The End of It,
About the Author,