If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been reading Whittaker Chambers’ book, Witness.
It’s an autobiographical book; the story of his journey into and out of Communism and his consequent ordeal as a witness for the government against Communist subversion. At the time Chambers began testifying – the late 1940s – the Communist party, headquartered in Moscow, was continuing its effort to penetrate and undermine American democracy. There were many men and women in rather high positions in the Federal government who were secretly members of the Communist party and who quietly worked to influence American policy in favor of the Communist movement. There were also those who conspired with Moscow to gather confidential information about the workings of the United States government and disclose it to the Soviet Union.
This, of course, is espionage, and when, as here, it is conducted by citizens and servants of the government it seeks to destroy it has another name: treason.
In the book Chambers recounts his own philosophical passage into Communism and details the workings of the “apparatus” that he ended up supervising in Washington D.C. in the late 1930s. In this operation Chambers was connected with men who were employed at the highest civilian levels of government. One member of his apparatus was an assistant to the Secretary of State. Another was an assistant to the Attorney General. The group regularly spirited confidential documents out of their several agencies and gave them to Chambers to be photocopied. The originals would then be immediately returned, so as not to betray the operation. Chambers took the copies to a Russian Colonel in New York City for transfer, ultimately, to Moscow.
There is enough in just this part of the story for a great movie. Here you have intrigue and suspense and even minor celebrity. But, interesting as these cloak-and-dagger spy workings are, they are not the real story in the book; not the best part of the tale.
When Chambers began spilling the beans in the late 1940s, one of the traitors he exposed was a man named Alger Hiss. Although many of the people Chambers named in his testimony eventually fessed up to their roles in the conspiracy, Hiss cried foul.
Hiss was, as they say in the movies, well connected. A Harvard grad, he had worked at the highest levels in several government agencies and was, in fact, an assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta conference at the close of World War II.
Hiss denied any participation in Communist subversion and at first even denied knowing who Chambers was. After being directly confronted with Chambers during a hearing, Hiss finally said that he had known “this man” but only under the name George Crossley. Hiss made up a story about his dealings with “Crossley,” much of which was within weeks proven false by reference to various business records.
It is the ensuing battle between Hiss and Chambers that is the real story here. It was a long battle, involving two criminal trials of Hiss for perjury (the first ended in a jury hung eight to four for conviction, the second in a guilty verdict) and a slander/libel suit brought by Hiss against Chambers.
But it is not the ferocity of the fight between the two men that deserves the attention here. It is the conflict between what these two men represented that makes the Hiss Case the trial of the century.
Chambers was, to say the least, a reluctant witness. Although he came to understand what a monstrous, murderous force Communism was in that day, the fates of the men he would testify against weighed so heavily on Chambers that he initially tapered his testimony – to the point of falsity in more than one place – to protect the men he conspired with from the repercussions they would have suffered if all were made known. Indeed, Chambers was so distraught over what his testimony would do to the men it implicated that he attempted suicide. The story, as Chambers compellingly relates it, is one of his hand being forced, time and again, by evolving circumstances as the case proceeded.
I spent the great majority (over 34 years)of my legal career as a Federal Prosecutor. I investigated and tried more than one high-level government corruption case. I’ve spent countless hours before investigative grand juries and I know the dynamics of criminal trials. Let me tell you this: Chambers’ account of his experience in the federal criminal investigation and trials of Hiss is spot on. He describes the legal procedures accurately and conveys the sense of the attendant relationships and resultant emotions profoundly.
Like so many high-profile corruption cases, this one had a life that lasted long after the trials were over and after Hiss had served his prison sentence. What is important here is not so much Hiss’s own determination, but rather the persistent denials of his supporters, even as the years passed, the Soviet Union fell, and documentary evidence came to light from several sources once behind the Iron Curtain that Hiss had, indeed, been a Soviet operative.
Why is this perseverance so interesting, so important? Because it is the very emblem or apotheosis of the political and philosophical battle that rages on, here and now. Here is what Chambers has to say about it:
The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.
It was the forces of this revolution that had smothered the Hiss case (and much else) for a decade, and fought to smother it in 1948. These were the forces that made the phenomenon of Alger Hiss possible; had made it possible for him to rise steadily in Government and to reach the highest post after he was already under suspicion as a Communist in many quarters, including Congress, and under the scrutiny of the F. B. I. Alger Hiss is only one name that stands for the whole Communist penetration of Government. He could not be exposed without raising the question of the real political temper and purposes of those who had protected and advanced him, and with whom he was so closely identified that they could not tell his breed from their own.
And now here we are in the twenty-first century. We are not left hanging. All of the shoes that might drop in this case have already hit the floor. The case is at long last closed. Hiss was a Soviet spy, a traitor and a perjurer. There is not only high drama in this story – the kind that Hollywood thrives on – this story is a revelation of the political and spiritual realities that lie beneath all of modern politics.
Then why is it left alone? Why no television series on the case? Why no feature movie?