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A Son's Own Story | The Nation

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A Son's Own Story

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Richard Nixon had in common with Leon Trotsky the belief that whoever controlled the story controlled history. In the Hiss-Chambers case, Nixon manipulated that story with a series of well-timed leaks, stage-managed press conferences and masterful misleading language that has shaped public opinion to this day.

About the Author

Jack Gelber
Jack Gelber is a playwright whose latest work is called Chambers.

Chambers's Communist Party training convinced him that its underhanded methods, lies included, had to be employed against it. In the style of the day, Chambers loaded his gun with buckshot accusations. Initially, the public was inclined to believe the story projected by the Second Alger--a tall, handsome New Dealer who wanted government to make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens. He had character references from three Justices of the Supreme Court, and he was being unfairly accused by a self-confessed Communist, self-confessed spy and self-confessed liar.

Against the background of the 1948 presidential campaign, Henry Luce's Time magazine used the Hiss case to attack Roosevelt's foreign policy. Gossip columnists undermided Hiss's credibility with innuendoes, while excusing Chambers's lies. They said that at first Chambers wanted to protect his friend, giving him time to admit his guilt. When Hiss proved to be arrogantly recalcitrant, Chambers was forced to expose him. After all, America was in a cold war with a ruthless opponent who had infiltrated our government. The Third Alger had been instrumental in selling us out to Russia at Yalta. The Third Alger was a member of the wishy-washy left that plotted to rob America of its virility and make it kowtow to lesser powers in the newly formed United Nations, which Hiss was instrumental in organizing. The Third Alger was a Communist. Well, a secret Communist. So secret, in fact, that only Whittaker Chambers knew about it. And every Communist was a spy.

The self-dramatizing Chambers confected this Third Alger with fictional skills derived from large chunks of Dostoyevsky and globs of Kafka. His story, Witness, was as relentless as a film noir thriller. He depicted an Alger who, behind a cool exterior, was a fanatic Communist and a wily, cruel man. The Third Alger had betrayed his country. A frightened public bought the book and bought the story.

The Hiss-Chambers case catapulted Nixon onto the national scene. He placed his handling of the case high on his list of achievements. Although he lost the Watergate battle twenty-five years later (despite imploring his troops to use the Hiss-Chambers case as a model for his defense), Nixon won the war. His view prevails today. Hardly a month goes by without a reference to the case in an article or book. In almost every instance, the Third Alger is presumed guilty. Recently released grand jury testimony verifies Nixon's high-wire act, which led to the perjury indictment of Hiss and exoneration of Chambers.

When Alger Hiss's name comes up in conversation, many people give a tired, knowing shrug. Give up, they seem to say, we were all a bit naïve back then. Russian spies did infiltrate our government. Don't the recently released Venona tapes prove that Hiss was guilty? But this new evidence is sketchy at best.

Alger's letters home show him to be an idealistic, loyal American. "I saw Roosevelt's victory as heralding a great national effort to eliminate the root causes of the social ills I had found so distressing." There is no hint of Chambers's Third Alger, "the greatest actor this country has ever known."

The letters bear out his son Tim's assessment. "If Alger hadn't gone to jail, it's likely that he would have been stuck being just a stuffy and limited Alger all his life. Jail is where Alger became a human being."

The cost was high. There were death threats in and out of prison, and the bitter end of his marriage. Disbarred, he found work as a printing salesman. "Alger spent the second half of his life trying repeatedly--and always unsuccessfully--to get his perjury conviction reversed," writes Tony. Alger's brother-in-law got it right. "Chambers was able to slap a label on you and the label stuck, and the reason the label stuck is that you are not oily enough or slick enough for it to slide off harmlessly."

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