The Hiss–Chambers affair marked the point where the Cold War came home to America. In 1948, Whittaker Chambers – obese, troubled, scruffy, mumbling into the microphone of the House Un-American Activities Committee as he struggled to reconcile himself to his past life as a secret agent – accused a charming, articulate and successful former State Department official, Alger Hiss, of passing secret documents to the Soviets. Over the course of 1949, Americans followed the case obsessively as it unfolded through the newspapers, radio, and television, which for the first time provided direct coverage of congressional hearings. Hiss deployed the full force of the Establishment to defend his innocence, but after two trials Chambers was vindicated and Hiss sent to prison for perjury. The American public became sensitised to the threat of Communism from within, and the stage was thus set for McCarthyism.
A book on the Hiss case has issued from the presses roughly every two or three months for the sixty-one years since Chambers first took the stand. Innumerable echoes can be found in movies, novels, plays and speeches. Political careers have been made and lost on the back