The Guardian

The Guardian December 8, 1999


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Richard Nixon and the pumpkin

The attack by Richard Nixon and the House Un-American Activities 
Committee (HUAC) on State Department official and New Deal Democrat Alger 
Hiss in 1948 was intended to serve several purposes.

One was to provide justification to a restive population for the dramatic 
shift in US foreign policy in the brief period since the end of WW2 from 
the anti-fascist alliance for the defeat of Hitler and the building of a 
new world to an anti-communist drive for war with Russia.

Even before the War was over, the US was co-operating with the Mafia 
against the Communists in Sicily (and on the New York docks). The US 
disarmed anti-Japanese guerrillas in south Korea while using the Japanese 
military  still armed  for security duties.

The US military intervened in China in a futile attempt to block the 
Communist victory, and took over from the British on the side of the pro-
fascist monarchy in the Greek Civil War.

When the US took over the conduct of the war, the US commander candidly 
admitted (or, rather, boasted) that it was a trial run for rolling back 
Communism throughout Europe.

Borrowing a tactic used by the British in Greece, the US provoked the 
Communist-led HUK guerrilla army that had fought against the Japanese 
invaders in the Philippines into taking up armed struggle again and then 
proceeded to wage a lengthy  and ultimately successful  war against the 
HUK forces.

Having blatantly fomented strife in the divided city of Berlin, the US in 
1949 endeavoured to start an actual war there with the extremely 
provocative "Berlin airlift". The next year they launched a full-scale 
shooting war in Korea, hoping to destabilise and knock off the new Chinese 
Communist Government before it could get settled in.

Meanwhile, covert operations of all sorts were being carried out across 
Europe, Asia and South America.

Bogus "Red terrorists" indiscriminately shot people in stores in Belgium to 
discredit the former Communist anti-fascist Resistance movement, which 
might otherwise have formed the first post-war elected government.

Similar terrorist acts were perpetrated in other European countries to 
discredit the left during the '40s. Terrorist gangs in eastern Europe were 
covertly aided with money and arms.

Clerical fascists were saved from retribution, given new identities and 
infiltrated back into Catholic countries like Poland, Slovakia, Croatia and 
Hungary, there to bide their time.

None of this was really possible without the development of a suitably 
hysterical "red scare" within the US itself. Enter HUAC.

Richard Nixon, ever one to have his eye on the main chance, eagerly took up 
the smearing of supporters of peace and democracy as the "dupes" of "Soviet 
spies". He pursued the case against Alger Hiss relentlessly, blowing his 
own trumpet at the same time.

"I am here solely as a messenger for the House", Nixon told grand jurors 
investigating the Hiss case, according to the recently released transcripts 
of his testimony. Then the dramatic flourish: "I have the microfilm in my 
physical custody."

Nixon made sure that wherever possible each step in the Hiss case was taken 
in a blaze of national publicity.

None was more phony-looking than the dramatic moment when "ex-Communist-
turned-government-informer" Whittaker Chambers led investigators to a 
pumpkin patch at his farm in Westminster, Maryland, and pulled a roll of 
microfilm from inside a hollowed-out pumpkin.

The seriously disturbed Chambers claimed Hiss had given him the film which 
contained photos of State Department documents. Much was made of the fact 
that some of the documents were annotated in Hiss' handwriting, although it 
was hardly surprising, since Hiss was an official in the department.

Some years ago, the Sydney Film Festival ran a long documentary film about 
the Hiss case, made by a US lawyer-turned-filmmaker.

One of the people interviewed in the film, who had been a Communist Party 
member in the '30s, revealed an intriguing long-time link between Whittaker 
Chambers and a HUAC aide engaged in prosecuting Hiss.

The interviewee's statement suggested that Chambers could have been a 
police spy for a decade or more before he allegedly saw the error of his 
Communist ways and brought the "truth" to HUAC. I sought the filmmaker out 
after the Festival screening.

He readily agreed that the witness's statement was potentially very 
important but explained that he had simply run out of time and money to 
pursue the matter further!

At the two Hiss trials (the jury could not agree in the first), Chambers' 
sanity was one of the predominant issues.

Lawyers for the group of scholars and historical associations that recently 
successfully petitioned a federal US court for the release of the grand 
jury papers in the case do not even talk about "whether" Chambers lied but 
about "the extent to which Chambers perjured himself".

Hiss was sentenced to a five-year prison term and was paroled in 1954, 
still maintaining his innocence. Hiss wrote a book about the case, In 
the Court of Public Opinion, in 1957.

(Chambers had rushed out his own book, Witness, as a contribution to 
the Cold War hysteria of 1952.)

In 1992, Hiss asked officials from the former USSR to check their newly 
opened archives for information about the case. Russian General Dmitri 
Volkogonov, an historian and chairman of a commission on the files of the 
Soviet state security service (KGB), announced that there was no evidence 
that Hiss had been involved in Soviet intelligence operations.

Nixon, of course, went on to become President of the USA and prove himself 
a man of honour and integrity.

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