Alger Hiss may have been the defendant, but a whole generation was put on trial–and convicted.
The verdict is, of course, being appealed, but it was perhaps too much to expect that this circumstance would inhibit those who from the first have viewed the affair as a divine gift to the Republican Party rather than a deep tragedy of the times. No sooner was the verdict reported than the political pack, Southern Democrats as well as Republicans, let loose a torrent of indiscriminate charges. Senator Capehart of Indiana demanded the immediate resignation not only of Secretary of State Acheson but also of Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, “because of his sponsorship of a convicted spy.” Senator Mundt, of South Dakota, called for a ferreting expedition to hunt down others who have “contributed so greatly to the deplorable mess into which our foreign policy has fallen.” And Representative Rankin was sure that if Hiss cared to he could “unmask a cabal of treachery to this country the like of which it has never known.” The press, too, took up the cry, with a gibbering columnist in the New York Daily News predicting “the first determined effort to find out who were the individuals surrounding Roosevelt from ’38 on who got this nation into a war which the nation didn’t want.”
To anyone familiar with the trial of Alger Hiss the irrelevant nature of these blasts is immediately apparent, but by the time the next election rolls around such dispensable items as logic will be lost in clouds of murky rhetoric. By Frankfurter’s “sponsorship” is meant the fact that he recommended Hiss, as a top student at the Harvard Law School, for a secretaryship with the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and testified to his good reputation at the first trial. Not only did a stream of witnesses similarly testify, but their statements were not even questioned by the prosecutor, who contended only that Hiss took advantage of his reputation to deceive his friends.
As for Mundt’s charge, it is worth noting that at no time during the trial was Murphy able to show a single instance of influence brought to bear by Hiss in the direction of a pro-Soviet foreign policy, which is what the Senator means by “deplorable mess.” On the contrary, Mr. Murphy had to minimize the fact that when war broke out in Europe, Hiss wrote a letter to William Marbury to the effect that international law did not require this country to take a position of neutrality as between the Western allies and Nazi Germany. This was a good two months after the signing of the Soviet-German pact, when neutrality was the watchword of the Communists, who, as even the Daily Newscolumnist might recall, were like himself hysterically opposed to our being drawn into the war. In short, Hiss could have been a Communist or a “war- monger,” but in October, 1939, he could not have been both.