IanHunter N. Thorpe
The Trial of Alger Hiss represents the rise of extreme anti-communist paranoia in the United States. Alger Hiss was the perfect device for key members of the United States government to start spreading mainstream paranoia of communist infiltration into every bastion of American life. J. Edgar Hoover sent a letter to President Truman stating that there was an enormous soviet spy network in Washington with the purpose of obtaining atomic secrets. The letter was somewhat half baked but it only confirmed how powerful mere rumors could become. Hiss had been a very successful lawyer and government employee. It was Hiss’s work with the State Department that made him such a threatening potential subversive.
The United States had been shifting its post World War Two goals to allow for the United States to dominate the global community. The United States found itself relatively unopposed with the exception of the Soviet Union which the United States began a policy of political and military containment to isolate the Soviets. Alger Hiss having been such a high ranking figure in the State Department made the accusation of Hiss being a communist spy all the more unsettling to the American public.
Alger Hiss had worked under the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and even traveled to the Yalta conference during the Second World War. Hiss worked on the committee for the creation of the United Nations. His status made him a prominent figure and in 1946 he left government employ to take the president position of the Carnegie endowment for international peace. Alger Hiss was forced out of the State Department because of Whitaker Chambers testimony to the FBI that same year.
Hiss on August 3rd 1948 was accused by Whitaker Chambers of being a communist spy. The resulting storm of media attention swallowed up Hiss in public relations nightmare. The Hiss trial would later allow for the rise of Richard Nixon and Senator McCarthy because of their capitalization of the strong negativity growing against communism in the United States. The situation around Hiss proved to be a complex affair that stretched back a decade, into the 1930s. Whitaker claimed that during the 1930s that Hiss and Chambers were very close friends who had worked together in the communist party. The Hiss trial had considerable media attention, throughout 1949 there were 271 different articles written about Hiss in the New York Times alone. Whitaker was even allowed to accuse Hiss of being a communist spy over the radio. Newspapers of the time were in a buzz about the situation and were very quick to come to conclusions about Alger Hiss’s guilt. An article in the New York Times from 1950 accused Alger Hiss of being guilty.
If it had not been for Richard Nixon the whole unpleasant affair might have been over shadowed by some other event. Nixon with his position on the HUAC made sure this would be how he made his mark on the political stage. Alger Hiss at the time of the accusation was a prominent figure so his potential communist affiliations were all the more effective of a tool to spread the fear associated with communist infiltration. The Roosevelt administration had been vilified by the American political right because of the New Deal programs. The Right went as far as to say that Roosevelt was an anti-free market. The connection that Hiss shared with the Roosevelt administration made him all the more appealing of a target.
What made the Hiss trial more problematic was the situation of world events that surrounded it. The Soviet Union had in 1948 detonated a nuclear weapon which put considerable strain on political relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The most damaging effect of the soviets gaining an atomic weapon was the impact it had on the imagination of the American public. The United States has always had a need for an enemy. The United States has a paranoid history that is filled with enemies who are always from across the ocean.
Richard Hofstadter makes the point that almost every decade of American history has had some kind of enemy bent on the destruction of America and its institutions. The paranoid style has been a very active political tool because it plays so well to the fears of the American public. The Alger Hiss trial falls at a very troubled time in American history when it was thought that communists were actively infiltrating every piece of the American government. The fear of some unknown force infiltrating the United States is nothing new to the American imagination. A Texas newspaper in 1855 went as far to claim that the monarchs and the Pope in Europe were determined to destroy America.
The Hiss trial fell into the public eye because the Soviet Union was considered a real threat to the United States. The Soviets were seen as godless and anti capitalist so naturally they became the symbol of everything that opposed America and its scared beliefs. The United States has always felt the internal established moral system has been under attack by these outside threats that continue to appear decade after decade. The paranoid response within the United States has always been one of nativism.
What set Alger Hiss apart was that in 1948 the right wing in the United States had been growing increasingly anti-intellectual. Richard Nixon during the trial was often attacking Hiss because of his well educated background. A number of the other committee members actually gave up but Nixon refused to stop suspecting Hiss of the charges. What changed in the paranoid style of American Politics was that the American public became more educated in the mass media. The word educated is wrong because it implies that Americans gained knowledge from the mass media of the 1940s and 1950s it was more like Americans were more indoctrinated into the paranoid propaganda of the associated era. The whole communist plot was thought to be a tool used by the Left to paralyze loyal Americans from resisting.
President Truman under pressure to act against communism enacted EO 9835 in an effort to calm Americans about a supposed communist infiltration of the State Department. The American public was growing increasingly paranoid about the soviets and especially communists. The communists in the United States had been growing in strength in the 1930s but in the 1940s the communist party was a shell of its former size. Many people in the United States in the 1930s had joined the party during the depression but once the depression ended and Stalin had made a non-aggression pact with Hitler, the party in the United States split and lost its strength.
The Alger Hiss trial was a large culmination of America’s collective fears about the communist menace. Chambers claimed to have been a communist agent in the 30s but left to try and expose the evil plot the communists had attempted. The Trial of Alger Hiss boils down to taking place in the wrong decade for it to have actually been a fair and un-bias trial. Even in the modern day the truth about the guilt of Alger Hiss is un-confirmed. Alger Hiss is somewhat of a folk hero to the Right wing politicians who used him to campaign their paranoid crusade against alleged American communists. The paranoid style in American politics went from being somewhat subtle, like it had been in prior decades, to becoming one of the single largest drivers of American policy.
DESMOND, JOHN. “The Alger Hiss Case.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Apr 02, 1950. http://search.proquest.com/docview/111335204?accountid=9649.
Friend, Richard M. Nightmare In Red. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Hofstadter, Richard. Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86. http://www.kenrahn.com/jfk/conspiracy_theory/the_paranoid_mentality/the_paranoid_style.html
Linder, Douglas. “The Alger Hiss Trial: An Account” Famous Trials, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/hiss/hiss.html