The Blog


11:00 PM, Dec 1, 1996 • By ROBERT L. BEISNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The question came quickly. Besides proclaiming that he would not turn his back on Hiss, Acheson responded: "I think every person who has known Alger Hiss or has served with him at any time has upon his conscience the very serious task of deciding what his attitude is and what his conduct should be. That must be done by each person in the light of his own standards and his own principles. For me, there is very little doubt about those standards or those principles. I think they were stated for us a very long time ago. They were stated," continued this Episcopal bishop's son (a religious skeptic himself), "on the Mount of Olives, and if you are interested in seeing them you will find them in the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, beginning with verse 34. Have you any other questions?" An aide stood by with a Bible should anyone want to check the reference:

Then shall the king say unto them on his right hand, some, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Though no one ever again asked him about Hiss in a press conference, powerful attacks came immediately. A few newspapers praised his charity, but the New York Times's James Reston wrote that Acheson seemed "to lack the gift absolutely essential in a Secretary of State, of foreseeing how his remarks will look in tomorrow morning's newspapers." Acheson promptly offered his resignation to Truman, who laughed it off. Alluding to his own presence at the funeral of Kansas City boss James Pendergast, the president replied: " If you think that a person who walked behind the casket of an old friend who was a convicted criminal would have had you do anything else, you're mistaken in me. Go on back and get to work." In the face of unremitting criticism, however, a month later Acheson read a prepared statement before a Senate committee: "I will accept the humiliation of stating what should be obvious, that I did not and do not condone in any way the offenses charged [against Hiss], whether committed by a friend or by a total stranger, and that I would never knowingly tolerate any disloyal person in the Department of State. "

Subsequently, Acheson apologized to State Department colleagues for a self- indulgence that caused grief to all of them. He should have used duller language. He had been "a little grandiloquent," he told CBS broadcaster Eric Sevareid many years later. "Perhaps it would have been better if I had said, 'I haven't anything to say about it.' I suppose in a way an element of pride entered into this. I knew the question was going to be asked. And I knew the press was going to believe I'd run. I just said, I'm not going to run. I'm going to let you have it right on the jaw. Perhaps I knocked myself out."

He was already trimming his sails at the time the Supreme Court turned down Hiss's appeal in March 1951. Acheson's undersecretary, James Webb, carefully reviewed with him what he should say if asked about the decision by reporters. Webb preferred a "no comment," at most something like, "This disposes of the case." Acheson listened. Arriving in New York on a flight from a Bermuda vacation, he remarked: "The Supreme Court is the highest court and if it acts, that disposes of the matter."

These are the bare "facts"; the mystery of what Acheson truly believed remains. In his memoirs, Acheson wrote that "many students had been attracted by communist doctrines" in the depression-ridden thirties, and that "some of these [people] had found their way into the Government." Though Acheson himself never flirted with radical doctrines, he was an unapologetic if conservative New Dealer, long comfortable in cosmopolitan settings and discussions. His friends represented a wide spectrum of professions and points of view.