Day at Night Interview
interview with Alger Hiss was conducted in 1974 by James Day
for the public television series Day At Night.
MR. DAY: Quite aside from the atmosphere of the time, one
of the things which was most condemning against your side
of the case was the absence of any kind of motive. If, in
fact, you are innocent, why would a man like Whittaker Chambers
wish to prove your guilt?
HISS: It's not easy to explain how someone of unsound mind
had a particular motive. It's difficult to arrive at it by
DAY: Your conclusion is that he was a man of unsound mind.
HISS: Definitely a psychopath. I've no doubt of that. After
all, not long after my case there was the instance where a
baseball player [Eddie Waitkus of the Philadelphia Phillies]
had a young woman burst into his hotel room and suddenly shoot
him. He'd never seen her before, and her only explanation
was: He reminded me of my father. Well, that's hardly a rational
motivation. A whole book by a psychoanalyst, Dr. Meyer Zeligs,
in California, has analyzed Chambers' motive - or motives
- and I think the clearest one I've arrived at is that Chambers
was an imposter. A draft of a book I've read describes a dozen
different roles he played. He may briefly have been [a Communist]
but there are indications he also flirted with pretending
he was a Nazi. And it seems now clear that certainly he was
in no underground. This was merely a role.
DAY: I suppose however convincing Dr. Zeligs' arguments may
be to other psychoanalysts, it must still be rather difficult
to prove or to convince lay persons of that kind of motivation.
HISS: Trying to be objective, I think I have to agree with
you. But this draft of a book [on Chambers] has analyzed Chambers'
life in much more detail than Zeligs even was able to do.
It shows he played one role after another. For example, as
a young man at Columbia, I think within a year of the time
he later claimed he was a Communist, he was a strong supporter
of Calvin Coolidge, who was hardly a radical. And his reason
then was that he liked the way Coolidge had handled the police
strike in Boston, which was not one of the things, I think,
that endeared Coolidge to many people. Now Chambers was a
strange duck, that's all I can say to that.
DAY: Mr. Hiss, you were of course convicted of perjury in
a proper court of law. I wonder how this has affected your
attitude toward the American judicial system. Has it changed
that attitude in any way?
HISS: No, no, I think it has deepened my understanding, which
I didn't have at the time the case began, that in times of
hysteria or under emotional excitement throughout the country,
that juries are not always very reliable. In fact, even judges
can be swayed. It's not only the best system I know of but,
normally, it does a fine job and maybe we should not expect
in times of crisis that the courts should be the place to
resolve political issues.
DAY: You regard this as a political issue?
HISS: Oh, positively. I think there's no question. If you
go back into the newspaper files of the time, you can see
this was an attempt by the House Committee to raise its public
standing, which was sinking, and the then Chairman, Mr. Parnell
Thomas, who later went to jail for kickbacks, said in advance
that he was going to have some spy trials whether he knew
[laughs] any spies or not; he was just going to have it. This
was the summer of the campaign against Mr. Truman. So, I have
no doubt it was politically motivated and well tailored to
the political atmosphere.
DAY: I'm told you're not a bitter man. Now if in fact you
are innocent, you certainly would have some cause for bitterness
against those who accused you, those who stood behind the
accusers. Are you bitter about this?
HISS: No. I would vary what you said. I would think that if
I were guilty I might be bitter. No, when one is sure of one's
innocence, when one does believe in the ultimate processes
of our system, I can only be sure that I will eventually be
vindicated. And as far as bitterness, I've already told you
that I thought Mr. Chambers was of unsound mind. You can hardly
be bitter about a person who isn't responsible. And certain
political figures did benefit by it, but again, that was impersonal;
I didn't know them, they didn't know me. I was merely a symbol
that could be used. I would think bitterness couldn't help
me, nor would it help me solve the problem.
DAY: I wanted to ask you about your life before the events
of 1949 which so completely changed your life. You had set
quite a record of achievement for a relatively young man of
45 at that point. Was achievement something that was regarded
highly in your family as you were growing up?
HISS: I guess it was by my mother; I don't think I regarded
it that way.
DAY: Your father took his own life when you were a very young
person, so your mother, for all practical purposes, did raise
you, did she not?
HISS: That's right, quite right. And I think she did care
a good deal about her children prospering in terms of advancement
or career. She used to use the phrase "Put your best
foot forward," which I'm afraid I didn't like.
DAY: You didn't respond to the pushing?
HISS: It seemed to me inconsistent with other moral values
she had, and not quite straight. So I don't think I liked
either being pushed or trying to push myself. No, the things
I did, which you're kind enough to refer to as accomplishments,
I did because they were interesting and I thought valuable
to others rather than just myself. And I don't think I thought
of it in terms of career.
DAY: How did you think of it?
HISS: Well, when I went down to the New Deal, for example,
as a young man of 28, I think all of us went entirely believing
that we were sort of a civilian militia in mufti at a time
of great crisis. None of us expected to stay. We did not want
to make a career out of government service. In fact, I think
practically none of us was bracketed into civil service, because
we weren't interested.
MR. DAY: Were you attracted by the idealism of the New Deal?
This was in the early thirties.
MR. HISS: Oh, heavens, yes! The very first few days of Mr.
Roosevelt's term of office the country was a prostrate economy.
The country was in a state of desperation, so that when Mr.
Roosevelt came along with hopeful plans and a very frank statement
that he had no blueprint, but that he would have to improvise,
and that if he tried one thing and it didn't work he would
be prepared to try another, this was exactly the kind of philosophy
that appealed to young people like myself, so a lot of young
lawyers, young teachers, young economists flooded down to
DAY: I understand that in the years you were growing up, you
held the hope that you might become a medical missionary,
certainly revealing a rather profound idealism. What changed
you from the idea of a medical missionary to going into the
foreign service - which, of course, you did when you finally
left Harvard Law School?
HISS: Well, the switch came fairly early. By the time I was
in college at Johns Hopkins, my goal was to enter the foreign
service. And the two were not so dissimilar in a young man's
mind; they both involve travel.
DAY: Medical missionary and foreign service.
MR. HISS: A medical missionary was supposed to have gone abroad.
And I may have been daunted by the idea that medicine might
be much more difficult to study than law, so that I gave up
being a medical missionary as an ideal quite early on.
MR. DAY: As I understand it, it was your position outside
of law school with Justice Holmes and the influence of Felix
Frankfurter that persuaded you to go into public service.
HISS: He did more than help, he had the power of naming the
secretary so he was the only begetter of that particular post
with Justice Holmes. I was certainly much influenced by Felix
Frankfurter. He was one of the most exciting and attractive
and influential teachers at law school when I was there. He
had taken a very active part in things like the Sacco-Vanzetti,
case which was a personal risk to him. He underwent unfair
attacks from all quarters, but he was a man of conscience
and integrity and certainly never regretted it. But I would
say that I was probably more influenced by Justice Holmes.
DAY: In what way? You spent a year with him, did you not?
HISS: Yes, but it was a year of such intense learning in every
sense. And after all you see a professor at law school a couple
of times a week in class, and some of us were lucky enough
to see Felix at his home on Sundays - occasionally, not every
Sunday. But with Holmes I was there every day except Sunday,
and I spent every day of the whole year with him. I was the
first secretary to suggest that I spend the summer with him.
Normally the secretaries had the summer off, but his wife
had died not long before I went with him, and it seemed to
me I could be useful and also I would see more of the judge.
So he agreed that I could go up to his summer place with him.
He was, I should say, certainly the most extraordinary man
I've ever known, and I think would be my candidate for the
most extraordinary American. He had a continuity, in the first
place, of American history. He was born in 1841, and when
I was with him he was 88 and then became 89. But he had his
grandmother tell him, when he was a small boy, of her seeing
the British enter Boston - and that's continuity right straight
through. His own house on Beacon Hill had been used by Lord
Howe when the British occupied Boston as headquarters. And
he'd been in the Civil War. Here's a man whose whole life
was the epitome of the history of America. The first week
or two I was with him he used to refer to Will and Harry James
and I would sort of start, almost as though you want to look
over your shoulder and see if there were ghosts around. He
meant William and Henry James, both of whom were his generation,
close personal friends and this was his natural way of referring
DAY: What did he teach you about life? You were a relatively
young man at that point.
HISS: Well, had he not gone into law, he would have been a
philosopher. He was a friend of William James; he was an admirer
and friend of Charles Sanders Peirce; and he decided the law,
as one of his great speeches says, was as noble a place to
live intellectually as philosophy. I think he taught me a
great deal about democracy. He had come from an extremely
favored background, but his experience in the Civil War taught
him that people he tended to take a superior attitude toward
were every bit as good men as he, and better leaders. When
officers were shot in combat, there would be some young fellow
from the ranks who would rise to the position of leadership.
He was, himself, a great democrat - with a lower case "D,"
because he was actually a Republican all of his life. He certainly
taught me that, and I hope I learned from him some courage.
He was wounded three times in the Civil War, once left for
dead on the battlefield. I hope he taught me a certain skepticism
about easy answers. He was not a cynic in any sense but no
easy solution got by him.
DAY: After the years that you spent in the New Deal, you rose
very high in the State Department, went to Yalta with President
Roosevelt and attended that conference. And then later you
were the Secretary General of the United Nations Organizing
Conference in San Francisco. With that kind of a background,
I wanted to skip now to a later period, and ask about the
44 months that you spent in federal prison, and whether in
those years you learned something more about yourself. How
did you face those years, coming as you did from a very high
position in the State Department? With that kind of environment
and background it must have been a tremendous psychic shock.
HISS: It was a change! Oh, I'm sure for anyone who's been
free, the experience of prison is a psychic shock. And it
can do no one any good. All the humanizing elements are absent.
I was the oldest man, or one of the oldest men - I was only
44 at the time - and I was called Pop. There were no children
around, of course no women. The men were not even allowed
to have pets. One, a Sicilian, who actually was older than
I - though why he wasn't called Pop I don't know - captured
a baby sparrow in the yard and brought it in as a pet. This
was against the rules, and after a few days, the guard forced
him to release the pet. So as I say, all humanizing elements
are absent so that the most cynical word, the most bitter
word in prison among guards, teachers and inmates is the word
"rehabilitation." It's not the place to rehabilitate
men. You asked me how I faced it. Well, I didn't really have
any alternative. You naturally make use of where you are.
I developed some good relations with a number of my fellow
inmates, some of whom I still see. I taught one boy to read
and write who was highly intelligent but was illiterate because
he'd never gone to school. I helped him write his first letter
to his wife. There were no books that really helped. I had
to send out and we got back Dick and Jane-type books
for this adult to have to read, but he was so interested in
learning that he didn't feel that they were beneath him.
DAY: What about your own learning during this period, other
than what you've just said?
HISS: I read a good deal. We had a very uneven library, with
a strange librarian who, I think, liked only books; he did
not like inmates or other people. But he did like books -
because of that he had somehow made arrangements so that over
the years prisoners could have books sent in. There had been
other people before me who were there really for political
reasons, so it was an uneven but an interesting library. I
found, though this wasn't political, the Babylonian Talmud
was there. I'd never read in the Talmud - an enormous set.
I assure you I didn't do more than dip in and read here and
there. I got permission from the guard who supervised my work
to take books to work when we weren't busy hauling supplies.
I worked in the storeroom - it was active work - but occasionally
there were dull stretches, just as in the army, and he had
no objection if I read. So I suppose I read as much as I did
in college. It was a little different from college because
there were no summer vacations.
DAY: Did you write?
HISS: You're not allowed to, or weren't then. I don't know
DAY: I understand that after your release friends suggested
you might change your name so as not to have to live with
the past. Why didn't you change your name?
HISS: You surprise me. It's a good name; I have no reason
to change it. Quite the contrary; I had nothing to run
away from. No, I had considerable motivation to clear it -
but not to change it.
DAY: The name of Hiss, coming out of that period in the late
forties and early fifties, stands for something, I suppose,
in the minds of many Americans and I would assume many Americans
view it with some contempt. Do you sense any hostility toward
your person as you go about your work? You're a salesman now,
are you not?
HISS: Well, I suppose I can say that in many ways it's been
an asset. At least I could get in to see people who were curious
to see me, and salesmen can't always get in to see people.
I have not experienced hostility. Now that doesn't mean that
the implication of your question isn't accurate; there are
many who do, let's say, disapprove of me. But, if so, they
haven't bothered to make their views plain - directly to me.
Oh, I suppose over the years I did get 15 or 20 hostile postcards,
unsigned, rather illiterate.
DAY: But no more than that?
HISS: Not more than that. And they seemed to come in bunches
of two or three, whenever there was a crisis in the country,
not a crisis that I figured in, anyway. So one can only conclude
that they were rather disturbed people. In time of a crisis
they looked for some scapegoat, and in their minds I was such.
One man may have said something hostile to me; I never could
be sure. This was shortly after I came back from Lewisburg.
I was then living in Greenwich Village on 8th Street, and
as I crossed 9th Street on my way home I did step off the
curb as the light was about to change and a truck started
up at that time. I realized that he had the right of way in
every sense, so I stepped back. And as he crossed the intersection,
he leaned out and said something. At the time I thought he
said: "You traitor." So I looked up at him and said:
"Get out," or something. And he kept going. Later,
it occurred to me, he may have said: "You jaywalker."
DAY: Are you frequently recognized?
HISS: Constantly, yes, still, in spite of all the changes
DAY: You seem to be a man of some confidence. What is the
source of your confidence in the future and in your own future,
HISS: Well, I am a religious man. I suppose that helps a great
deal. Not in any literal or technical sense. I was born and
raised and remain an Episcopalian, and the Episcopal Church
is extremely liberal; one doesn't have to believe in any of
the 39 articles. But I find that my belief in the moral values
I grew up with are very sustaining.
DAY: And what about your faith in democratic institutions?
HISS: Well, that certainly has not changed. I think my faith
is stronger than ever. Particularly as I look about me and
see the need for improvement in them, and they do offer a
chance. After all, the New Deal was one such. I travel about
a good deal on campuses today and it seems to me the young
people have the most marvelous attitude of hope and desire
to improve things - as we did in the days of the New Deal.
to Who Was Hiss?