The Destruction of Alger Hiss
That son-of-a bitch Hiss would be free today if he had not lied. ... But the son-of-a bitch lied, and he goes to jail for the lie rather than the crime.
—NIXON, TO JOHN DEAN, APRIL 16, 1973 1
WHITTAKER CHAMBERS BY HIMSELF could not have brought about the downfall of Alger Hiss. As he wrote in Witness, "Richard Nixon made the Hiss Case possible." 2 There are extraordinary similarities between Hiss under fire from Nixon and Nixon as a target in Watergate. Both men in crucial moments of decision chose what seems to have been the self-destructive path. Neither reacted under fire like a seasoned lawyer, and each denied his guilt when the evidence was ruinous. Nixon said Hiss "made the fatal mistake no client should ever make—he had not told his own lawyer the full truth about the facts at issue." 3 He would do the same.
Allen Weinstein wrote that Nixon's behavior in the case "could be best characterized not as cool, confident and decisive but as cautious, calculating, indecisive and at one point, at least, hysterical—foreshadowing in many respects the President of the White House Watergate tapes during the last, end-game crisis." 4 Hiss stonewalled, built elaborate fantasies about forged typewriters, and never acknowledged his guilt even long after he was out of prison. During his own long exile at San Clemente, Nixon admitted only to having made "mistakes" and toyed with Haldeman's conspiratorial fantasies about the Democrats in the National Committee headquarters bugging themselves. 5
Neither Hiss nor Nixon had an intimate understanding of criminal law. Hiss had never before his own trial been inside a courtroom with a jury. Unprepared for cross-examination, he reacted to Nixon's first questions in the HUAC hearings in a fash