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.
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."
Despite the evidence, Hiss could not be tried for the espionage in which he had apparently been engaged a decade earlier: The statute of limitations for espionage was five years. Instead, Hiss was tried twice for perjury: The first trial, in June 1949, ended with the jury deadlocked 8 to 4 for conviction. The second trial ended in January 1950 with Hiss found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.
Oddly, as the trials wore on, The Washington Post ignored the evidence and returned to its early tone, with headlines like "Hiss Counsel Calls Accuser Mental Case" and "Chambers Admits He Lied to Congress." Reporters added their own critical descriptions of Chambers, such as "customary air of complete emotionless detachment" or "supercilious expression." A Post editorialist in July 1949 pooh-poohed the evidence that had seemed so strong a half year before and instead emphasized "mysteries" of the Hiss trial and Chambers' "complex and enigmatic motives."
The Post increasingly seemed to be reporting a different story than other newspapers saw. For example, the testimony of Whittaker Chambers' wife Esther became crucial to Chambers' contention, denied by Hiss, that Chambers and Hiss had been close friends during the 1930s. The Los Angeles Times, under the headline, "Wife Gives Ringing Chambers Defense," began its story, "Subjected to a stinging and sarcastic cross-examination at the Alger Hiss perjury trial, Mrs. Whittaker Chambers finally cried out in defense of her husband today as 'a decent citizen and a great man.'"
The New York Times also portrayed Esther Chambers as heroic in a headline, "Chambers' Wife, Defiant, Testifies He Is 'Great Man,'" and a story about how "the 110-pound Maryland housewife pitted her resources against those of the veteran trial lawyer throughout the day." But the Post transformed one faltering moment-Esther Chambers could not remember whether she had seen the Hisses 12 years earlier at an anniversary party or a New Year's Eve party-into a front-page headline: "Chambers' Wife Alters Testimony."
The New York Times stuck with the facts when it examined the jury's guilty verdict, stating in an editorial "that the examination of the charges brought against Mr. Hiss has been full and fair." The Times emphasized "the fact that the incriminating documents were typed on the Hiss typewriter. The fact that four of the incriminating papers were in Hiss' handwriting." The Post seemed to redouble its pro-Hiss efforts as his innocence became increasingly doubtful. Hiss, a Post editorial opined, "had the misfortune of being tempted to betray his country in an era of widespread illusions about communism." (Only a "misfortune"? Only temptation, or actual betrayal?)
Why did the Post and the Times differ? The answer must be speculative-principal editors did not leave their reminiscences on this question, and all of them are now dead-but we may have a twist here in the old practice of "boosterism" (newspaper reporting designed to aid community economic interests). The term boosterism, for the most part, has been used in reference to promotion of private-sector business, industry, and tourism. Boosterism in Washington, D.C., though, means support of the federal bureaucracy, Washington's biggest industry-and in 1948-1950, that meant support for Hiss.
Examination of the Post's history supports such a theory. Publishers Eugene Meyer and Philip Graham defeated two competing newspapers from the New Deal through the New Frontier by making the Post the voice of the rapidly growing executive branch. The Post in recent decades has also been pro-Washington-growth in the same way Detroit newspapers were traditionally pro-auto: It's just business. The New York Times, meanwhile, has been ideologically tilted over the years but removed from such direct booster pressures-and that contributed to greater honesty in coverage of the Chambers-Hiss affair.
Comparing the stories of the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post provides additional evidence. The Tribune constantly used the Chambers-Hiss affair as a platform from which to argue for a shrinking federal bureaucracy. Washington agencies, according to the Tribune, were "honeycombed" with officials whose loyalties were "pledged to an alien ideology." The most efficient way to deal with the problem, according to the Tribune, was to reduce the government to its pre-New Deal size. The Post fought such an onslaught and complained that accusations against Hiss were undermining the morale of federal employees.
Curiously, though, both the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times became less supportive of Chambers in 1949 and 1950 as he was winning his case-perhaps because Chambers kept saying that he was a Christian and a "man of the right," not a conservative. By this Chambers meant that he saw U.S. materialism as no answer to Soviet materialism: He saw both sharing the modern "vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man's mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals."
Chambers raised such theological issues from the start of his public agony: His first statement to the press, shortly before appearing as a congressional hearing witness, was that he had left the Communist Party because "it was an evil." Chambers throughout the trials argued that it was the near-religious vision of Communism that attracted persons like Hiss. Chambers stated that Americans needed faith in God both for personal salvation and for societal survival in the face of Marxist faith.
Neither the Chicago Tribune nor the Los Angeles Times stressed those theological dimensions. After listening to Chambers, one observer suggested that the question was "no longer whether Alger Hiss is guilty. The question now is whether God exists." Many conservative journalists, like many of their liberal counterparts, seemed uncomfortable with that question.