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The Chambers-Hiss case

History | On its 60th anniversary, the famous spy case poses theological as well as political questions

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

Can we now take anything as seriously as America took an ideological struggle 60 years ago this summer? With Court TV and other networks bringing us trials filled with tribulations undreamed of in the late 1940s, do we still have the ability to focus?

The big trial story six decades ago arose on Aug. 3, 1948, when communist-turned-Christian Whittaker Chambers accused former State Department official Alger Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union. Liberal newspapers, unsurprisingly, favored Hiss, who was known publicly as a New Deal liberal. Conservative newspapers-and there were some at that time-similarly slanted toward Chambers. But neither truly understood the deeper message that Chambers was trying to communicate.

To understand what happened from 1948 through 1950, as the Chambers-Hiss debate wound its way from congressional committees to courtrooms, we have to put aside the exaggerations of 1950-1954 that became known as McCarthyism. Sen. Joe McCarthy during those years charged that huge numbers of communists were in the State Department, but his hyperbole made things harder on the serious, evidence-based critics of communist spying, one of whom was Whittaker Chambers.

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Hiss had such an establishment resumé, including recent posts as secretary-general of the United Nations Charter Conference and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that the thought of Hiss-as-spy seemed nutty. Not until the Soviet Union fell in 1991, and secret documents poured out, was it clear to the world that, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in Secrecy (1998), "Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent and appears to have been regarded by Moscow as its most important."

Fifty years earlier, The Washington Post stood by its man, "the tall, lean, 44-year-old Hiss," whose highly successful civilian and government career was sensationally challenged by Chambers on Aug. 3. In the pages of the Post, Hiss always "calmly strode to the stand" and was always "sure of himself, answering the barrage of questions without hesitation, showing not uneasiness or equivocation."

News stories in both the Post and The New York Times emphasized how improbable it was that Hiss should be a Soviet spy. The Post quoted Hiss character witnesses (Supreme Court justices, congressmen, Eleanor Roosevelt, former secretaries of state, and so on) and asked of Chambers: "Is he a man of sanity?" The New York Times compared the two protagonists' looks: "Hiss, tall, slender, youthful in appearance and build, answered in strong tones. . . . Chambers, heavy-set, weary-looking, answered in dull, barely audible tones. Tears were in his eyes."

For a while it was "he said" vs. "he said," without solid evidence for either side. That's when the Post on its editorial page compared Hiss to "an innocent pedestrian, spattered with mud by a passing vehicle." The New York Times editorial page presented a cartoon of a man labeled "anti-Red smear war" cutting off the nose of the Statue of Liberty.

Conservative newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, though, depicted Chambers' testimony as a strong blow against "public officials charged with betraying their country." The Los Angeles Times also charged a cover-up: Officials "definitely did not want the public to know that any New Dealers were involved in Communist conspiracies."

Week after week the headlines and leads dueled-but a breakthrough came at year's end as Chambers produced his evidence, including microfilm of secret State Department documents under Hiss' control, with some of them retyped on a typewriter Hiss had at his home. (Journalists enjoyed writing that Chambers had hidden the microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin at his Maryland farm.)

On Dec. 8, 1948, facts drove the Post to acknowledge, "The situation has completely changed with the seizure of microfilms picturing secret documents obviously stolen from the State Department and delivered to an avowed Communist. . . . [Chambers] appears to have proved beyond any reasonable doubt that Communists had a pipe line into the State Department."

In succeeding months the Post admitted in its editorial columns that "the circumstantial case against Mr. Hiss has grown gradually stronger." The New York Times similarly backed away from support for Hiss. It gave front-page, top-right, three-column headlines to statements such as "Spy Papers Show U.S. Codes Were Broken, Official Says . . . Chambers Swears Hiss, While a Red, Got Secret Papers . . . Chambers Names 2d U.S. Employee As Giving Spy Data." Times stories emphasized Chambers' "calm demeanor."

Conservative newspapers were jubilant. The Chicago Tribune noted the existence of "Sensational New Evidence in Alger Hiss Case/Consternation in Official Circles." According to the Tribune, federal bureaucrats feared that "a train of events might be started by revelations at the hearings which would culminate in one of the great scandals of American history."

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