Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss are caught up in what Chambers calls a ‘tragedy of history.’ For Hiss, that’s what it turns out to be.
The long-awaited “confrontation” scene before the House Un-American Activities Committee, starring Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, proved one of the most dramatic and at the same time one of the most disheartening sideshows in recent Washington history. Spectators were jam-packed in the huge caucus room, and hundreds were turned away. Photographers with every type of equipment from mini-cameras to television sets roamed tirelessly through the hearings. Radio announcers whispered earnestly into microphones, and copy boys hovered about the crowded press tables to carry out “takes” scratched on notepaper. But, spectacle though it was, the familiar, naive “ballyhoo” of past Congressional investigations—as when the midget sat on J. P. Morgan’s lap—was lacking. There was something ugly in its place. The old carnival spirit had given way to an atmosphere that seemed somehow European, reminiscent of newsreels of people’s courts and party congresses. Nor were the charges the old familiar accusations of stock-market manipulation and fraudulent government contracts. Instead, the air was heavy with the ominous and ultimate charges of modern history: treason, espionage, and insanity.
At the end of the day, none of the charges had been proved or disproved. The committee’s relentless questioning of Hiss as to actual dates and details of such matters—as apartment leases and the disposal of an old Ford elicited answers characterized by such persistent qualifications and evasions that an objective observer might have concluded that Hiss’s claim of innocence had been compromised. Yet the truth is that there were no objective people on the committee’s dais; they constituted a court of prosecution as well as of investigation, and their dogged attempts to incriminate the witness might well have moved him to answer with the caution he showed: for Hiss, too, is a lawyer, perhaps more skillful than any on the committee’s staff.
Possibly the most significant statement of the day, not so much for what it added to the evidence as for a mood it revealed, was spoken by Chambers in response to a question by Representative Hebert of Louisiana. “I don’t hate Mr. Hiss,” Chambers replied. “We were close friends, but we were caught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against whom we are all fighting and I am fighting. I testify against him with remorse and pity. But in a moment of historic jeopardy in which this nation now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise.”
After nine hours of their testimony, the truth of the phrase “a tragedy of history” was apparent; and both men had been caught up in it, whichever one was lying. If it is true, as Hiss maintained with unshakable insistence, that he is not and has never been a Communist, that he knew Chambers only as a sponging freelance writer for a short time in the thirties, that his own name and career have been blackened by the wanton charges of a man whose sanity he questions, and that he is being further ruined through the efforts of Republican committeemen like Representative Mundt to discredit such Rooseveltian diplomacy as the Yalta agreement, the China policy, and the United Nations Charter (all of which Hiss helped to author), then he has surely been subjected to a bitterly unfair ordeal.