Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

A Nemesis Named Nixon

There was at least one on the Committee, however, who thought that Hiss was lying. That person was a young, ambitious but, at the time, little-known first term Congressman from California named Richard Nixon.

Nixon had been born in Yorba Linda, California in 1913, the second of five sons of Francis and Hannah Nixon. When he was nine years old, the family moved to Whittier where his father operated a gas station and grocery. Hannah Nixon was a devout Quaker and raised her sons in the Society of Friends church.

As a young adult, Nixon attended Whittier College, where he became known for his debating skills and was active in student politics. He attended Duke University Law School and practiced law after he graduated.

Richard Nixon had talent as an actor and enjoyed appearing in community theater productions. It was there that he met the lovely, blonde Thelma Ryan, called "Pat," and was instantly smitten. The couple married in 1940 and their family soon included two daughters, Tricia and Julie.

In 1942, Nixon worked in the tire-rationing section of the Office of Price Administration. Then, despite the pacifism of the Quaker religion in which he had been reared, Nixon went into the Navy to help fight the Second World War. He served in the Pacific as a lieutenant.

He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1946. He had challenged incumbent Jerry Voorhis, a Democrat known for his enthusiastic support of FDR's New Deal. Nixon waged an energetic and aggressive campaign. It was also, in the opinion of more than a few of the fledgling politician's critics, a dirty campaign. In debates and campaign literature, he depicted Voorhis as being in the pocket of the Political Action Committee (PAC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Nixon alleged that PAC was full of Communists. The PAC had endorsed Voorhis and, although he asked them to withdraw their endorsement, it became an embarrassment to the incumbent that helped Nixon get elected.

Throughout his career, Richard Nixon impressed observers as a driven man self-conscious about his humble origins. He was often described as "tense." His was not the momentary tension of someone in a stressful situation but a kind of deep-seated uncertainty about himself. Perhaps this anxiety about himself caused him to be very suspicious of others.

In Hiss's case, Nixon may have been right to be suspicious.

Richard Nixon was a superb amateur actor and an excellent bluffer at poker, a game he loved. Like most politicians, he had been an attorney and frequently observed witnesses testifying in court. His well-honed sense for such things told him that Hiss was bluffing.

Writing in Six Crises, Nixon noted that, "those who are lying or trying to cover up something generally make a common mistake they tend to overact, to overstate their case." Furthermore, the manner in which he qualified his answers, saying "the name" Whittaker Chambers "means absolutely nothing to me," while never stating "categorically that he did not know" the man, indicated to Nixon that Hiss was hiding something.

HUAC formed a subcommittee for the specific purpose of trying to ferret out whether Chambers or Hiss was telling the truth. That subcommittee was composed of three men: Louisiana's Edward Hébert, Pennsylvania's John McDowell, and California's Nixon.

They met privately with Chambers and grilled him. Chambers told them that Hiss was not lying when he said, "The name Whittaker Chambers means nothing to me" because Hiss had known Chambers only by his "Party" name of Carl. He had used no last name in his association with the Hisses.

Chambers recalled a wealth of domestic detail about his former comrades some of it wrong. As recounted in Crimes of the Century by Gilbert Geis and Leigh B. Bienen, "Hiss, for instance, was four inches taller than Chambers said he was, was not a teetotaler, and neither he nor his friends ever called Priscilla [Hiss] 'Dilly,' as Chambers testified they did." However, as the authors note, Chambers was remembering events of more than a decade previous and would be expected to get some things confused.

About many details of day-to-day living by the Hiss family, Chambers was right on target. He remembered correctly that Alger called Priscilla "Prossy" and that Priscilla called Alger, "Hilly" and that the family had a cocker spaniel. The Hisses, Chambers said, were both amateur ornithologists (birdwatchers) as Chambers himself was. A big moment in the Hiss's life occurred, according to Whittaker, when the two of them spotted a prothonotary warbler, a rare sort of avian.

Priscilla Hiss was a nervous woman, Chambers recalled, who tended to blush beet red when embarrassed, angry, or just excited. She had also been a member of the Quaker denomination and, in intimate settings, would use the Quaker "plain speech" of thees, thous, and thys. This particular memory smacked of truth to Richard Nixon whose own mother used the plain speech only in private when talking with loved ones like her own mother or her sisters.

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