In the more than 40 years since Richard Nixon resigned as president — disgraced as much by his inveterate lying as by his actual crimes related to Watergate — history has been relatively kind to him. Compared with Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Nixon in retrospect can seem statesmanlike, thoughtful and liberal-minded. He established diplomatic relations with communist China, took the US off the gold standard, negotiated the wind-down of the Vietnam war, and created the Environmental Protection Agency — accomplishments that generally prompt even Nixon-haters to pause before they condemn Tricky Dick to perdition.
But now comes Joan Brady with a bracing reminder of what indeed was so hateful, so villainous about Nixon and his political ascent. For her outraged new book about his persecution of the internationalist lawyer and New Deal diplomat Alger Hiss is as much a reindictment of Nixon as it is an attempt, once and for all, to clear Hiss of the accusation that he betrayed his country in the service of Soviet Russia. Whether Hiss can ever be fully exonerated remains a vexed question that ultimately has little to do with the flimsy and compromised evidence brought against him.
Brady has done a convincing job of reading and reinvigorating the long trial and hearing transcripts, as well as a vast amount of published and unpublished literature about the case. To her credit, she has rendered the Hiss/Nixon duel more compelling for a younger audience unfamiliar with ‘the trial of the century’ by styling this cri de coeur as a memoir and relating chatty anecdotes about her complicated friendship with Hiss. Specialists may quibble with Brady’s reliance on her own life story to enliven the recounting of Hiss’s tragic fall. But her personal feelings about the red-baiting that engulfed America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, viewed through the intimidation of her father and husband by anti-communist hysteria, make America’s Dreyfus an absorbing read. The problem with the book is that, despite Brady’s best efforts to bring closure to the Hiss affair, one is still left wondering not about why Hiss went to jail, his brilliant career destroyed, but how Nixon got away with what he did.
As every American high school student ought to know, Hiss was convicted (after his first trial ended in a hung jury) on two counts of perjury stemming from his relationship with the confessed ex-communist and mentally unstable bisexual Whittaker Chambers — convicted not of espionage, nor of Communist party membership (which was legal, anyway), nor of releasing top-secret State Department documents that endangered national security. The case for espionage was weak and the statute of limitations had already run out, so perjury — whether Hiss was lying when he denied giving government documents to Chambers or that he had seen Chambers (known to Hiss as George Crosley) after 1937 — was the only route to the hanging. Encouraged by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers hurled all manner of easily refutable accusations at Hiss, chiefly that Hiss ran a communist cell inside the State Department and that the two were close friends as well as party comrades. But thanks to Nixon’s genius for public relations, his shrewd understanding of Hiss’s penchant for self-defeat, and his savagely corrupt political ambition, this junior Republican member of HUAC managed, while making himself famous, to also put Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign-policy record on trial.
It’s an oversimplification to suggest, as Brady does, that the Hiss affair was a proxy counterattack by right-wingers and Nazi sympathisers against the New Deal policies of social welfare, income redistribution and ‘world government’ in the form of the United Nations (Hiss had helped found it). However, hatred of FDR and all he stood for certainly played a part, since by the time Nixon was done trying Hiss in the press — leaking secret grand-jury testimony, coaching Chambers on his accusations and lying to reporters — the dead Roosevelt, not just Hiss, had been convicted of treason by large segments of the public.
This treason centred on the alleged wartime appeasement of Stalin — a myth that was essential to promoting ‘the most macabre horror of right-wing folklore’, as the historian Rick Perlstein describes it. In this version of US history, loyal Americans are constantly betrayed by politicians engaged in secret schemes epitomised by ‘the 1945 negotiations at Yalta in which an enfeebled Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Soviet agent Alger Hiss supposedly whispering advice into his ear, sold out eastern Europe to the Reds’.
There’s no question that Hiss was at Yalta, advising FDR and his British counterparts. But so was most of the American foreign-policy establishment, in spirit if not in body. As pitifully few Americans are now aware, the Soviet Union was America’s indispensable military ally, essential to defeating Hitler’s Germany, prepared to help finish off Japan, and already occupying large portions of eastern Europe when Yalta took place.
Brady is neither a professional historian nor an investigative journalist. But she is a very good judge of character, and the book is strongest in its analysis of the contrasting personalities of the patrician, Harvard-educated Hiss, and the striving, working-class Nixon. ‘As smart as Robespierre,’ Brady writes, ‘Nixon was one of those rare people who really were born to lead; where he went, others followed.’ He was also an excellent poker player and master of the bluff. His combination of innate political ability and tactical intelligence was devastating against the political amateur Hiss, who time and again granted advantages to Chambers, Nixon and Nixon’s friends in the press. ‘New England arrogance is legendary — self-righteous, effete, insolent,’ writes Brady. ‘Harvard epitomised it and Alger epitomised Harvard.’
This arrogance, as much as Nixon’s opportunism and political ambition, is what brought Hiss the ‘do-gooder’ down. So great was his sense of entitlement, so deep was his belief in his own integrity and immunity from reproach, that he foolishly relinquished his precious constitutional entitlement, the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Had he merely brought a smart lawyer to the first HUAC hearing, history might have been different.
Of course, as things turned out, Nixon also thought himself above the common herd, immune from prosecution under the law as it applied to everyone else. But that’s another story.