Chapter 26: The Defense - Alger Hiss Testifies

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In Podcast 26, Alger Hiss takes the stand! In the courtroom corridor, Hiss said: “I have been waiting for this a long time.” (Smith at 383.). Lloyd Paul Stryker walked him through his golden resume, emphasizing all the times he had been trusted with secrets and remained loyal (as far as anyone knew). Hiss denied every bad act of which Chambers had accused him and ended by telling the jury that he was not guilty. If you were cross-examining Hiss, you might be tempted, given his charm and rhetorical skills, to ask him just a few questions and then let him go. You could prove his many changes of story and his rococo accounts of his financial dealings with “Crosley” by reading Hiss’s HUAC testimony in to the record and introducing into evidence all the business records darkening or disproving what he said about the Ford with the sassy little trunk, the $400 loan, and the rug. But Nixon, the only man who had cross-examined Hiss, warned Murphy not to do this. Nixon got word to Murphy ‘Hiss makes a very good first impression, and you can’t let that be the impression he leaves the jury with. You’ve got to get down in the pit and wrestle with him.' See who you think won the wrestling match. FURTHER RESEARCH: John Chabot Smith’s pro-Hiss version of the trial covers Hiss’s testimony at pages 379-85. He describes Hiss as calm and careful. Smith observes that Hiss’s precision on the witness stand contrasted sharply with his hesitant and ever-changing testimony to HUAC. Hiss said that since HUAC he’d had more time to remember what happened, but Smith worries that a hostile listener might think Hiss was now emitting carefully memorized lies and sticking to them for dear life. Smith (at 383) describes Murphy’s cross-examination as calm and methodical. Professor Weinstein (at 475) describes Murphy’s cross-examination as rapid-moving and unfocused (which may have been intentional, to throw Hiss off guard) and Hiss as remaining “almost unflappable.” Weinstein writes (at 480) that Hiss left the witness stand “a bit battered,” but that he, like Chambers, “had held firmly to his basic story.” Alistair Cooke writes (at 196) that Hiss “walked over to the witness stand . . . with the same nimble grace and compact charm” with which he had presided over the founding of the UN. Cooke (at 200) describes Prosecutor Murphy, during Hiss’s direct testimony, as “mentally tapping his teeth” and (at 208) describes Hiss under cross-examination as “superlative.” Cooke (at 213) describes Murphy as ever more frustrated and husky as the cross-examination wound on. Hiss’s calm, graceful deportment, according to Cooke (at 209, 211), encouraged his admirers and infuriated his detractors. Cooke wrote (at 196) that if Hiss was innocent, his “serenity could be only the deep well of security in a character of great strength and purity. In a guilty man, . . . his detachment would be pathological in the extreme.” Questions: Are you one of Hiss’s encouraged admirers or infuriated detractors? Do you think he could have done any better on direct examination? Would it have hurt him to describe a few times in his life when he had done wrong, or had just shown imperfect judgment? Might such an admission have made him more human and perhaps likable? Do you think Hiss survived Prosecutor Murphy’s cross-examination without a scratch? Or did he take one or two torpedoes? Or did Murphy reduce Hiss to a smoking ruin?

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