Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the ever present issue of “McCarthyism” and its progenitor the crucial Hiss case. In The Conservative Turn Michael Kimmage traces the growth of modern conservatism in the United States through the careers of Whittaker Chambers, who deliberately set out to create anti-Communist conservatism, and Lionel Trilling, who tried to lead liberalism away from supporting Communism. Of the two, I’d say, Chambers was more successful.
As he launches into his discussion of the Hiss case, Professor Kimmage writes (pp. 204 – 205):
Chambers won the Hiss case in court. His adversary, Alger Hiss, was convicted of perjury, sent to jail, and then to a kind of professional purgatory. The Ware circle that Chambers had helped to assemble in Washington, D.C. was devastated by the Hiss case. After World War II, American communism broke up for good, not just as a party but as a political movement.Unfortunately, this is only partially true. Hiss may have been banished from political life and a few other people disappeared as well but “public opinion”, that is the media and academia as well as political hangers on has refused to accept the upending of the established symbolism. Hiss is still seen as a martyr, Chambers as a psychopath and McCarthyism the greatest evil in the world. All of that despite the overwhelming evidence we now have that even McCarthy’s accusations were largely correct, though his scattershot attacks did him or his cause no favours.
A strenuous anti-communism advanced in tandem with the careers of senators Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, both of whom Chambers knew personally. The Hiss case lent domestic or internal immediacy to the Cold War, distinguishing it from World War II, which could easily be construed in nationalist terms, as us versus them, whether “they” were the Germans or the Japanese.
The Hiss case revolved around the figure of Alger Hiss, who was not simply an American citizen accused of treason but a prince of the American meritocracy. The list of those who believed in his innocence was awesome: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and many other luminaries. Even as resolute an anti-communist as Richard Nixon was, according to his own description, inclined to believe Hiss because he knew so many people who were friends with both Hiss and Hiss’s brother Donald.
Chambers was a wilfully marginal figure with his low voice, his potentially foreign accent, his suits – invariably described as rumpled – and his memorably bad teeth. To Triumph in the Hiss case, Chambers had to upend the established symbolism of success and failure, insider and outsider. To banish Hiss from political life, which the Hiss case effectively did, was potentially to banish anyone from public life.
Chambers told the truth as did Elizabeth Bentley but that cannot be accepted by those who prefer to see the social structure the right way up. That is what we are still fighting against.