In the summer of 1948, a squat, rumpled man took the witness stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee and made a series of accusations that changed the temper of his times. The accuser was a journalist named Whittaker Chambers. The accused was Alger Hiss, a longtime high-ranking State Department official who had been at Franklin Roosevelt‘s side at Yalta and had helped to write the Charter of the United Nations.Share
Chambers’ sensational charge: he and Hiss had once worked hand in glove for a Communist spy ring operating in Washington during the ’30s.
Chambers’ startling statements touched off an impassioned and bitter national debate. At first, public sentiment favored Hiss, for the case seemed to turn solely on the word of a confessed Communist agent determined to destroy a man who had been the trusted colleague of such officials as the late Senator Arthur Vandenberg and former Secretaries of State Cordell Hull, Edward Stettinius and James Byrnes. Most of the U.S. was still reluctant to believe that Communism could have penetrated the Federal Government. Then, bit by bit — as if hesitating to reveal the extent of the conspiracy and his own involvement — Chambers produced the evidence that finally sent Alger Hiss to jail for lying, when he said that he had not given official documents to the Communist Party.
Secrecy & Mystery. But the effect of the Chambers-Hiss case was not confined to the sentencing of one man and the vindication of another. During the hearings, President Harry Truman charged that the whole affair was a Republican-plotted “red herring” — and his quip became a political boomerang, evidence that the Democrats were “soft on Communism.” Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, insisted stubbornly that he would not “turn his back on Alger Hiss”—and came under political attack that seriously curbed his effectiveness. A young California Congressman named Richard Nixon became a national figure by prying information out of the reluctant witness. (Read more.)