The Trial of Alger Hiss

Article excerpt

The trial of Alger Hiss was different in many ways from anything that could happen in Britain. The judge did not wear a wig; the lawyers were allowed greater freedom than British procedure permits. In the courtroom on the thirteenth floor of a skyscraper you could hear the distant hum of New York traffic. But the difference was deeper than this. The trial was conducted in a society that has suddenly found itself one of the world's two super-powers, that is acutely conscious of spies and plots and that has seen the isolationism of twenty-five years ago translated in many breasts into a fear of the dark unknown of Communism.

The deadlock of the Hiss jury in some degree symbolised a deeper national conflict. But before testing the trial for its soundness as allegory it should be said that it was first-rate drama. Who was the liar, the tall, spare, boyish-looking Hiss, who till recently was $20,000-a-year president of the Carnegie Peace Endowment, or Chambers, that rotund and melancholy man, until recently a $30,000-a-year senior editor of fine?

There were at least two incidents of high drama. One was the confrontation scene. Last August Chambers had gone before the House Un-American Activities Committee to charge that certain prominent Washington officials had been, like him, members of a Communist group in the Thirties. He charged that Hiss, then in the State Department, was one. Hiss denied ever knowing Chambers. The Committee brought the two men together in New York. The transcript of that scene is as fascinating as anything in print. Hiss, after some questions about Chambers' new artificial teeth, calmly placed him as "Crosley", a cadging free-lance writer with whom he had had dealings a decade before. Chambers, on the other hand, insisted that the families were intimate, that they had met weekly for five years up to 1938, and that they were all secretly Communists together. The two men's wives supported their respective husbands. One side was lying-which?

The second big scene came last November. Chambers suddenly produced dozens of typed memoranda summarising confidential State Department documents of the Thirties and charged they had come from Hiss after being typed out by Mrs Hiss. More, he led agents to his Maryland farm where he had hidden microfilms of other secret documents in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Several were in Hiss's handwriting.

Up to this time the affair had seemed to many like an ugly hoax, but this new evidence caused doubts. Hiss was unshaken. He left the Carnegie Foundation (it was later revealed) under the pressure of John Foster Dulles, one of the directors. At the same time Chambers left Time. Chambers was destroying himself and his adversary.

The statute of limitations on espionage charges made it impossible to initiate prosecutions on that count, so the Government brought its suit against Hiss on a perjury indictment. …