Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case
Suspecting Alger Hiss was somehow, on the face of it, indecent. He was almost drearily correct. He specialized in innocence. He was innocent of failure—so he could not understand his father. He was innocent of doubt—so he could not understand his brother Bosley. He was so innocent of psychic turmoil that his sister was in and out of mental institutions for several years without his being aware of her disturbance. He passed through the Thirties so innocent of ideology that he could later swear he met no communists at all, or—if he did meet any—he could not recognize them. He was innocent of friendships except with the well placed, with patrons. He seemed to spring fully armed from the head of Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He became the perfect civil servant, a political Jeeves who knew his place and filled it perfectly. If anything, he was so correct as to rule out originality. Justice Frankfurter, another of his early patrons, was puzzled in 1946 to reflect that Hiss had not quite lived up to the promise of his youth which boded something beyond mere rectitude.1
Yet this man drab with the proper virtues had known something vivid in his life, “a cross between Jim Tully, the author, and Jack London” (in his own later words). The contrast between the two men—pale Alger and technicolor Whittaker—should have made their encounters, however fleeting, things to remember. But, no, Hiss stayed innocent of interest. He took and gave gifts—a rug, a car—while barely noticing the donor/recipient who actually moved in his oblivious acquaintance. Hiss’s only recollected interest was, characteristically, a distaste for the improper. He remembered no tales from this Jack London, just bad teeth. The true succeeder can spot a failer far off.
It is a wonder he did not keep him farther off. They shared holidays and trips (Alger fraternizing, apparently, in a fit of absentmindedness), hobbies and small talk—just enough for the vagabond to bring down the paragon. Why did this two-bit Jack London do it? Envy, perhaps, or rejected sexual feelings. The failer would call it “a tragedy of history.” The bewildered succeeder first tried to laugh it off as a comedy of errors. Only later did he come to see that innocence is an affront to the narrow-minded. Nixon did not like Hiss’s earned air of superiority any more than Hiss liked Chambers’s teeth. The mob abhors a gentleman—even a political gentleman’s gentleman like the impeccable Jeeves of Yalta, the New Deal’s first civil martyr.
The only explanation Hiss’s lawyers could come up with was a clash of personalities. The obscure Chambers grudge was more a matter for psychiatrists than lawyers. It was rumored that Chambers had been under psychiatric care (enough, then, to disqualify him as a witness to anything). When the defense could not substantiate those rumors, lawyers remedied the oversight by bringing in a psychiatrist as part of their courtroom team and calling on him to describe the “mental illness” that made…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.