Sunday, August 11, 2013

Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon 15

My post today about Roger Morris' Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician will concern the Alger Hiss case.  If you don't know the highlights of the Alger Hiss case, you may want to acquaint yourself with them before you read this post.  See here and here for background information.

As I've said more than once on this blog, a key reason that I have wanted to read Roger Morris' book about Nixon is that I desired an alternative perspective about the Alger Hiss case.  Probably every book that I have read thus far about Nixon that discusses Hiss has maintained that Alger Hiss was a Communist spy, who was engaging in espionage for the Soviet Union as a U.S. Government employee during the 1930's.  The evidence looked pretty air-tight to me, so I desired to read Morris' alternative perspective.

The thing is, Morris does not exactly dismiss the possibility that Hiss engaged in espionage for the Soviets.  He does, however, criticize how elements of the U.S. Government brought their case against Hiss, and he questions aspects of Nixon's narrative about the case, which essentially made Nixon into a star.  And yet, Morris does appear sometimes to question Hiss' guilt, sometimes effectively, and other times not.

Hiss' typewriter was a key part of the Alger Hiss case.  Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Communist who was alleging that Hiss as a State Department employee had given him copies of State Department documents to relay to Soviets, hid microfilm copies of those said documents in a pumpkin on his farm.  Chambers alleged that Hiss' wife Priscilla had copied those documents by typing them out on her typewriter, then Hiss gave Chambers those copies to relay to the Soviets.  It was believed that tracking down Hiss' typewriter could prove that Alger and Priscilla had transcribed the documents that would come to be on microfilm and placed within Chambers' pumpkin, for each typewriter was believed to be unique, like a fingerprint.

Well, a typewriter was found, and it was presented to the public as Hiss' Woodstock typewriter.  But there was a problem, according to Morris: It had a serial number that demonstrated that it was made later than the typewriter that Alger Hiss owned.  The FBI chose not to reveal this little detail during the Alger Hiss case, however.

Did Alger Hiss pass along documents to Whittaker Chambers, according to Morris?  Morris says that some of the documents looked like something that Alger Hiss would write, and that Whittaker Chambers had "four small notes in Alger Hiss's handwriting" (page 457).  Morris does not buy Nixon's argument that it was dangerous to the U.S. for the Soviets to get a hold of those documents on account of the code that was on them, for Morris states that the Soviets could already crack that old code, that they were able to do so for a long time, and that this was common knowledge among a number of people within the U.S. Government.  But Morris does acknowledge that some of the  documents contained the sort of information that the Soviets would be interested in during the 1930's: documents about U.S. foreign policy plans and things that were going on in the world (page 474 has details).  Morris later in the book appears to speculate that a State Department clerk, Julian Wadleigh, could have been the one who gave the documents to Whittaker Chambers, or at least Morris chides those going after Hiss for not considering that possibility.  

Another significant aspect of the Alger Hiss case was an old Ford car that Alger Hiss owned.  Chambers testified that Hiss gave the Ford to the Communist Party through an intermediary (since the Communist Party did not want Hiss' link to the Party to be known).  According to Nixon in his memoirs, House Committee on Un-American Activities investigators found the papers in which Hiss transferred ownership of the Ford to a car dealership for $25, and the car was then transferred for the same amount to a person who had a Communist record.  Unfortunately, as far as I could see, Morris did not sufficiently interact with this issue.  On page 497, Morris says that "The title to the old Ford remained, as Stripling conceded, 'a mystery,' confirming neither protagonist."  But I don't recall Morris addressing the papers that HUAC found.

According to Nixon in his memoirs, what convinced Nixon that Hiss knew Chambers (even though Hiss initially equivocated about this) was that Chambers knew intimate details about Hiss' life.  Morris more than a couple of times in his book appears to present Chambers as a rather unreliable witness on some of these intimate details, for Chambers got things wrong about Hiss and his apartment.  At the same time, Morris cannot deny that Hiss knew Chambers, for Hiss testified that he knew Chambers by the name of George Crosley, a writer, to whom Hiss sublet an apartment.  While Chambers denied before HUAC that he went under the name of George Crosley, Morris presents reasons to believe that Chambers actually did go under that name in the course of his life.  Morris states on pages 428-429: "Over a year and a half later, on the stand at a second trial, would Whittaker Chambers testify that he had 'never been able to remember' among more than a dozen aliases quite which name he had adopted while living in Hiss's apartment.  One of those names, a pseudonym he had used along the way to author pornographic poetry, was George Crosley."  While Nixon in his memoirs highlights the contradictions in Hiss' testimony (while also offering explanations for why Chambers changed his testimony when Chambers denied engaging in espionage, only later to admit that he did), Morris points out where Chambers' testimony was problematic.  Morris also argues that some of the people going after Hiss were quite shady when it came to Chambers' testimony, for Morris says in one place that they one time coached Chambers so that his testimony would agree with that of one of Hiss' maids.

Why would Chambers go after Hiss, if Chambers were not telling the truth?  Nixon made the point that Chambers stood to lose so much by making his accusations against Hiss.  But Morris does not buy into the notion that Chambers lost a great deal professionally, for, even after Chambers resigned from Time magazine under pressure, he still had the support of publisher Henry Luce, who provided Chambers with "a generous settlement...that supported him for years" (page 481).  As you may have seen in my post yesterday, however, Morris also presents times when Chambers was afraid of being persecuted for taking his public stance against Alger Hiss.  In terms of why Chambers would have accused Hiss, Morris refers to Hiss' 1975 statement that Chambers was jealous of Priscilla (Alger Hiss' wife), perhaps implying that Hiss thought Chambers had a homosexual attraction to him.  Morris also calls Chambers "one more free-lancer looking for a story", even as Morris later in that same paragraph says that "Alger Hiss could never tell the whole truth."

Morris also talks a lot about how Nixon's account of his own role in the Alger Hiss case differs from what actually happened, according to the testimonies of others.  Morris does not downplay Nixon's role in the case, but, well, he doesn't think that Nixon told the full story.  I'll stop my post here, though, since I'm more interested in the question of Alger Hiss' guilt rather than whether everything Nixon said about his own involvement in the case was accurate.

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