April 6, 2009


Hiss-Chambers Trial (Patrick A. Swan, 04/06/09, First Principles)

Then there were the witnesses—many, many witnesses. Fifteen character witnesses vouched for Hiss, either in person or in writing. These included Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, and 1924 Democratic presidential nominee, John W. Davis. Familial witnesses for Chambers included the singular figure of his wife Esther, who, after sustained badgering by Stryker, exclaimed to the jury, “My husband is a decent citizen, a great man!”

And, finally, there was the evidence: the prothonotary warbler, a rare bird that Hiss had told Chambers he had recently seen in a conversation during the 1930s. By making reference to this bird, Hiss unwittingly confirmed his conversation with Chambers and helped congressional investigators seeking to verify a relationship between the two men. There were the purloined secret State Department memos and documents Hiss passed to Chambers. There were the additional copies Hiss had keyed overnight on his Woodstock typewriter. Most famously, there were the “Pumpkin Papers,” actually rolls of incriminating microfilm Chambers had photographed from secret documents Hiss had removed from the State Department. Chambers spirited away these canisters when he made his break with communism, and later stowed them away for safekeeping in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm at the height of the investigation’s furor.

The prosecution pieced these materials together into a picture of Hiss’s clandestine activities that convinced the second jury of his intentional spying for the Soviet Union. Of course, the evidence failed to convince some of Hiss’s diehard supporters and mattered little to many on the American Left who argued (as some still argue) that such activities were noble because undertaken for the “right” cause.

After completing his sentence, Hiss began a career as a greeting card salesman (as a convicted felon, he was disbarred from practicing law). He also published his first memoirs, In the Court of Public Opinion (1957), essentially a pedestrian lawyer’s brief, and continued defiantly declaring his innocence until his death in 1996.

In 1952, Chambers wrote his memoirs, the modern biographical classic titled Witness, detailing his life in the Communist Party and the challenges America faced with communism in mid-century. Chambers succinctly summarized those challenges by posing the question: “Faith in God or Faith in Man?” By presenting the stakes in such stark terms and by in effect putting secular liberalism on trial, the soft-spoken Chambers had brought to the fore one of the defining questions of American political discourse in the latter half of the twentieth century. After the trial, an exhausted Chambers retired to his farm in Westminster, Maryland, writing sporadically and publishing commentary in William F. Buckley’s fledgling National Review. He died in 1961.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2009 11:19 AM
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