Hiss Defends Position In Public Opinion Court
IN THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION by Alger Hiss. Alfred A. Knopf, $5.00. 424 pp.
Alger Hiss' most personal comments appear in four short paragraphs at the end of his book. Summing up, Hiss writes:
The ordeal of fighting false charges has disrupted my life and has brought pain to me to to my family. But nothing can take away the satisfaction of having had a part in government programs in which I strongly believed. I feel deep satisfaction that I took part in the creative efforts of the New Deal and in the formation of the United Nations.
Unfortunately for the layman, this is one of the few times in the book that Hiss expresses any of his inner thoughts. For the most part, In the Court of Public Opinion is another legal defense of Alger Hiss, witness and then defendent. It is as disappointing to those liberals who expected Hiss to write passionately about his generation of "bright young men," as it is to those who believed that Hiss would finally break down and admit that Whittaker Chambers was telling the truth after all. Hiss never swerves from his past testimony, denying all of Chambers' assertions, including the two counts of perjury on which his second jury found him guilty.
The book begins with his first appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on April 5, 1948, and closes with the Supreme Court's refusal to review the case on April 27, 1953, and in between there are Hiss' interpretations of the hearings, trials, and fruitless appeals. He selects the testimony he discusses with great care to prove to the world that Whittaker Chambers lied about Alger Hiss. He blames his jail term on a succession of misfortues--a bad political climate. an irresponsible grand jury; an inefficient second judge (Henry W. Goddard); an unscrupulous prosecutor (Thomas Murphy); and a poor Court of Appeals judge (Harrie B. Chase).
Although almost all of Hiss' views have been printed at length in Alistair Cooke's A Generation on Trial, he does expound his lawyers' amazing thesis about the now-famous Woodstock typewriter Number 230099. Hiss devotes considerable space to discussing this typewriter, introduced at both trials by Hiss' lawyers as the machine on which the "Baltimore Documents," a series of sections from State Department papers, were typed. Chambers said that Hiss' wife had typed the documents on that machine, and that Hiss had given the papers to him. Hiss denied this, and this led to one of the perjury counts in the indictment.
Hiss' lawyers' thesis is that the Number 230099 was a fake, "a deliberately fabricated job . . . planted on the defense." Through a succession of analyses by document experts, metallurgists, and typewriter officials, Hiss' lawyers proposed that Number 230099 is actually an old Woodstock--too old to have been Hiss'--with a set of new typefaces similar in design to those on Hiss' model. The defense asserted that Chambers made this imitation typewriter between August and November of 1948, typed out these documents on them, and then planted the typewriter where the defense would find it later.
It is this type of evidence that makes the Hiss case so puzzling. If this typewriter thesis is true, then there is no doubt but that Chambers has lied, and that Hiss was "framed." But the whole story of a fake typewriter seems so fantastic that it is virtually impossible to accept. One asks over and over, how could Chambers in 1948 have found the time and seclusion necessary to make a bogus typewriter, and then plant the machine so that Hiss' lawyers would "discover" it later? Why would he not destroy the machine instead of leaving himself open to possible suspicion of forgery?
Yet as one plods through the cold, carefully-worded book, Hiss' persistence does have its effect. Hiss certainly "appears" right in much of his attack on Chambers' testimony, and he is often convincing in offsetting incriminating evidence. But it is this legal approach to the case that detracts the most from the book. The work is a microscopic observation of the whole Chambers-Hiss case from Hiss' point-of-view, a point-of-view already well-known. Hiss tells the reader little about his intellectual background, especially his attitude toward radicalism, something that is crucial to the whole Case. One wonders why he does not treat the events before 1948 more freely; why we do not meet his friends of the thirties; and why we do not learn more about his political views. These are some of the questions that one hoped Hiss would answer in his book, but which, for reasons of his own, he declined to do.