“Day at Night” Interview
This interview with Alger Hiss was conducted in 1974 by James Day for the public television series “Day At Night.” (Gyests on other episodes included Jonathan Winters, Cab Calloway, George Plimpton, I. F. Stone, and Ayn Rand.)
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?
MR. HISS: It’s not easy to explain how someone of unsound mind had a particular motive. It’s difficult to arrive at it by reason.
MR. DAY: Your conclusion is that he was a man of unsound mind.
MR. 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.
MR. 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.
MR. 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.
MR. 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?
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: You regard this as a political issue?
MR. 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.
MR. 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?
MR. 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.
MR. 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?
MR. HISS: I guess it was by my mother; I don’t think I regarded it that way.
MR. 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?
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: You didn’t respond to the pushing?
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: How did you think of it?
MR. 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 Washington.
MR. 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?
MR. 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.
MR. 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.
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: In what way? You spent a year with him, did you not?
MR. 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 to them.
MR. DAY: What did he teach you about life? You were a relatively young man at that point.
MR. 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.
MR. 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.
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: What about your own learning during this period, other than what you’ve just said?
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: Did you write?
MR. HISS: You’re not allowed to, or weren’t then. I don’t know about now.
MR. 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?
MR. 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.
MR. 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?
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: But no more than that?
MR. 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.”
MR. DAY: Are you frequently recognized?
MR. HISS: Constantly, yes, still, in spite of all the changes of years.
MR. 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, most particularly.
MR. 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.
MR. DAY: And what about your faith in democratic institutions?
MR. 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.