INTERVIEW WITH RALPH DE TOLEDANO
INTERVIEWER: Roll 10120, fourteenth of February, interview with Ralph de Toledano. Could you just start off by briefly describing for me how you were covering or that you were covering the Hiss-Nixon case and how early on the case it all seemed quite unpromising?
RALPH DE TOLEDANO: I began covering the Hiss case as an editor on Newsweek and one of my fields was what they used to call the Subversive Beat and so I was covering the trial of the eleven Communists and so on. And suddenly the Hiss case broke with the testimony of Whitaker Chambers and this was on August third, 1948, in Washington, before the House and American Activities Committee and it was a big controversy. From my point of view, I was never dubious about the whole thing, it fitted in with everything I knew, everything I'd covered for many years and, but there was this, you know, who is guilty, who is telling the truth, Hiss or Chambers? And it was a big thing, of course. The press at the beginning was antagonistic to Chambers, and therefore antagonistic to Nixon, who was not known at the time, although he had a pretty good, pretty solid reputation in Washington. He was known as the hardest working Congressman, but the controversy built up and built up, until there was the confrontation of Hiss and Chambers and Hiss was so obviously guilty and so obviously lying, that it just broke the whole thing open. But then there was still doubt. The Truman administration didn't want to go after Hiss and so on, so it gave Nixon a chance to press for an indictment of Hiss and so on and as the case developed, it built Nixon up and it made him a national figure.
INT: So how important, just if you could elaborate a little bit more, how important do you think the Hiss case was to Nixon's career?
RT: Well, the importance of the Hiss case to Nixon's career was tremendous. He was just one of many Congressmen, he was part of the California delegation, he'd gotten some publicity, I mean, he was known and so on. But the Hiss case was... people today don't realise how it electrified the country. It was the biggest thing, the biggest news and he was the one who fought for a trial, who fought for Chambers, who insisted that Hiss was guilty and who pressed the investigation, because the House Committee, like a lot of Congressional committees, there's too much controversy, they try to run away and Nixon wouldn't let them. And so as the case developed, it was a page one story day after day, week after week...
INT: So could you just carry on with that answer, starting really where the case developed.
RT: As Chambers and Hiss confronted each other, the whole atmosphere changed and it became clear, at least to many people, that Hiss was lying and Chambers was telling the truth, but there was opposition from the administration. Truman had called the case a red herring and so on and it did build up, it became a daily paper story. I mean, day after day, week after week, what was going on in Washington, the political pressures one way and another...
RT: And the Democrats took cover up and so on and all this did was to make it a bigger story and it was the story of the of 1948 and well on into the trial, which was a very sensational trial, covered by the entire press.
INT: Do you remember what Nixon said to you about the Hiss case in terms of his career?
RT: Well, I don't think that Nixon was talking very much about it... it affected career. At one point, when it looked as if the ground had collapsed under Chambers, he realised that this could also destroy him. But I think that at that time, Nixon was acting not in terms of his own career, but he was committed and, of course, there..., you know there are personal elements that are involved and he and Hiss I think on sight hated each other. Nixon was a California Congressman, he was not born on the wrong side of the tracks, but he came from a rather modest family, Hiss went to the best schools and so on and had had a very, very distinguished career in... Well, he was Secretary General of the San Francisco Conference, which created the United Nations. He'd been director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. He'd been on Roosevelt's side at Yalta, he had a tremendous thing and he was President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and so on. And from a personality point of view, they clashed very much. And you know, Hiss could be pretty snooty at times. during his trial, he corrected the grammar of the prosecutor and it didn't go over at all, it made him look bad, but that was the kind of person he was.
INT: But looking back and Nixon... well looking back at the end of it, Nixon must have been somewhat relieved...
INT: The question that I was going to ask you is that at the end of the case, it must have been not just a relief to Nixon, but, you know, a triumph as well.
RT: Oh it was a tremendous triumph. He got up in the House of Representative and delivered a tremendous speech on the thing and it had made him a national figure. I remember that, oh it must have been in 1950, which was after the trial and so on, Nixon went to Europe and he had a long interview with Dwight Eisenhower and the only thing they talked about, as far as I can find out, is about the Hiss case and my book on the Hiss case and Nixon's role in the Hiss case and Eisenhower was very impressed by it. It put Nixon in the top ranks of Congressmen, and in the whole national picture and it paved the way for his whole career afterwards. He ran for the Senate in 1950, in the Fall of 1950 and he ran on the Hiss case. I covered that campaign and everywhere we went he'd say, well, the author of 'Seeds of Treason' the book on the Hiss case is covering me, would you come up and say a few words on the case, which embarrassed me, because I was supposed to be a newspaper man covering it. But, it was what made him. He was elected to the Senate and as a Senator he started out as a real voice within the United States Senate and other Senators, it takes them months to emerge from the hundred Senators there.
INT: Great, one final question on the Hiss case. Do you remember what it was that made Nixon pursue the case when... What was the incident that made Nixon pursue the case when like Hiss had been cleared?
RT: Well, Nixon...
INT: So very briefly, what made Nixon pursue the case when it looked like Hiss had been cleared?
RT: Well, Nixon pursued the case from the very start, even when the House and American Activities Committee felt that it had made a mistake. And what made him move ahead, first of all, was that he studied Hiss, he studied Hiss's answers. Hiss was always saying, well as I recall, and it seems to me, and it... never gave a direct answer, you see. Now it sounded very good, but Nixon was a lawyer and he said, well this man is covering up for something. Now it was never a question that Hiss was cleared. It was always a question, well could you prove anything, was Chambers lying, why did Chambers wait so long to come forward and so on, which of course was a phoney, because Chambers, right after he broke in '39 had gone and told the whole story to an Assistant Secretary of State and nothing had happened and he had been subpoenaed. And it's interesting that Chambers had spent all those years trying to wipe out the memory of his role in this underground and suddenly he was approached. But you have to remember that Chambers a man of tremendous knowledge, sincerity, udition, everything else and he suddenly made what had been routine investigations of espionage and so on. Suddenly he gave it a dimension, of opening up just exactly what the Cold War was about, what the Soviet Union was about, what Communism meant, not in terms...
RT: Chambers was a tremendous witness, because he was not just somebody talking about, you know, police matters, you know and espionage...
INT: So, briefly...
RT: From the start, Nixon was very impressed by Whitaker Chambers. He was a man who had a grasp of history and he was not just testifying about a police court matter, or, you know, an intelligenmatter or espionage and so on. He was going into the whole question of the Soviet Union, of the appeal of Communism to many people. And in a sense it was sort of a philosophical dimension and a historical dimension that he added. And as I said, Chambers was... Nixon was very, very impressed by Chambers and as a matter of fact, the relationship went on for many years after he was Vice President. He'd come to Chambers for advice, to explain things to him. I became a very close friend of Chambers and it changed my whole life. He was a man, a magnificent man.