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Alger Hiss returned last night to his alma mater, the Law School, to talk about the McCarthy are, but somehow the focus of the evening kept coming back to Richard Nixon.
Hiss, accused of Communist espionage connections in the late '40s and later convicted of perjury (charges he has always denied) introduced the subject himself when he noted Nixon's first television interview with David Frost tonight would air on the anniversary of "the Kent State massacre." He went on during his Law School Forum appearance to link the former President to both the original creation of McCarthyism and also to the survival of similar tactics today. And he said he feared that after the Frost interview there would be a renewal of "a lot, at least qualified, support" for Nixon.
"Nixon has had a great deal of resilience," he said. "When struck to earth, he has always rebounded."
Nixon first gained national political prominence when as a Congressman he attacked Hiss, a former New Dealer and State Department official, for allegedly passing secret documents to Communists.
Hiss also told Ames Courtroom audience that McCarthyism had resulted in a "lack of political guts" in the United States and a weakening of the Left. "People are still timid," he said. He mentioned the exclusion of militants from labor union leadership as one example of the power of McCarthyism.
In discussing the early '50s, Hiss said "the ugliness of the McCarthy era has indeed appeared before; what should shock us is that it happened here."
He said that hundreds of thousands" of people had lost their jobs, been driven out of the country, or ostracised during the period. "Courage is contagious" he said and went on to tell several stories of witnesses who ridiculed McCarthy.
Hiss added that he thought that if Franklin Roosevelt had lived, there would have been a Cold War, but that the "ugliness and vulgarity" which characterized the McCarthy period would have been avoided on the domestic scene.
In questioning after his speech, Hiss said that his defense team hopes for a writ of coram nobis ("our court" in Latin) in federal court next winter. Such a process, Hiss said, allows a litigant to present his case and any wrong-doing on the part of the prosecution and can lead to the reversal of a conviction. He said presently he is attempting to collect evidence for the writ, mainly from FBI files, under the Freedom of Information Act.
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