A cliche so overused it is at ad nauseam level is the one where villains tell heroes that “we are not so different, you and I.” But occasionally this rings true. A prime example is Richard Nixon and Alger Hiss.
Despite then-Congressman Nixon being the one who, probably more than any other figure at the time, exposed former State Department official Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy (later re-confirmed by declassified Soviet documents), Nixon and Hiss, as the years rolled by had more in common than not.
Among the HUAC committee that day in 1948, Nixon alone knew something wasn’t right about Hiss. He attributed in later recollectionsHiss’s lawyerly evasiveness. Others that day on Nixon’s side of the aisle recall it was Hiss’s upper-class haughtiness that activated the young congressman into late night research. Perhaps it was both. Perhaps Hiss recalled to Nixon the law graduates who got the jobs in New Deal Washington while he toiled back home.
Hiss noticed Nixon from the start, as well. An admirer of power politics (“Joe Stalin sure plays for keeps,” he told Whittaker Chambers in response to the purge trials), he showed little interest as a source for Moscow Central in economic theory and instead seemed to relish crushing enemies with his wit. He sparred with every congressman that day except Nixon. Perhaps he sensed another politician who admired power over theory, or as others in the cell characterized Hiss himself, he saw another “energetic worker” for a cause.
Each behaved recklessly, albeit in different milieus. During the 1930s, Hiss recruited for his cell at Georgetown cocktail parties, typed classified documents bearing the unique imprint of his Woodstock, and while he knew he was under surveillance, attempted to procure atomic information at State. During his presidency, Nixon tape-recorded himself discussing payoffs, forgeries, and those troublesome Jews. Both acted as if there would never be a smoking gun.
Nixon owed his rise to Hiss. Elected Senator on his image as the “man who got Hiss,” he was also offered the Vice Presidency on the Eisenhower ticket with this resume. Hiss owed his renaissance in the Watergate-era 70s to Nixon. Still unable to deal directly with the damning evidence, he once again opted for the character issue over substance, proclaiming himself Nixon’s “first victim.”
While Hiss benefited from this Cold War revisionist atmosphere and was content to stay in this time frame, Nixon, during the worst of Watergate, was revisiting 1948. To stiffen his cabinet’s spine, he urged them to read the Hiss portion of his book, Six Crises, when a young congressman took on the establishment.
Each would never let the other go, and with good reason. In Nixon, Hiss had a character witness far more convincing to his leftist defenders than the Supreme Court justices and New Dealers he got to defend him at trial. Since Nixon was linked to the case, leftists assumed it had to be a frame-up.
With Hiss, Nixon had at least one vindicating moment with the Right and vital center, the former upset over his detente and trips to China, the latter decrying his enemies’ list and plausible deniability scenarios but admitting that even a sociopathic fascist had one moment of service to the Republic.
In retrospect, it probably took a Nixon to nab a Hiss, much like it took a Churchill to battle a Hitler. Neither FDR nor Acheson, blindsided by the Harvard resume and their condescending image of communists as grubby little cloth-capped men on corners or foreign gangsters, could see Hiss in all his compartmentalized glory. Only Nixon, who knew well about egomania and dual selves, could detect the secret life beneath the New Deal rhetoric.
In the Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John Le Carre has the protagonist offer an un-Bondian view of spies in the Cold War as maladjusted and lower class. In the Hiss case, the Bondian figure was the spy, and his interrogator had work-calloused hands. But such is the irony of history and the blindness of those who saw treason as the work of the downtrodden.