In the late 1940s, Red hysteria swept the nation. A young congressman from California named Richard M. Nixon was determined to expose Alger Hiss, a State Department official, as a communist.
Fearful that a grand jury might not indict Hiss, Nixon, a member of the Red-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, boldly requested to testify himself.
Yesterday, 4,200 pages of secret testimony given before the grand jury were made public, and they show--as historians expected--that Nixon lobbied strongly for Hiss's indictment. Historians who have read the testimony say he did it with masterful oratory, not blatant manipulation of the grand jury.
Appearing at a news conference, Hiss's son, Tony, said his late father was convinced that the transcripts "contained important information which would help him demonstrate both his innocence and patriotism and the cruel and bizarre unfairness of the case against him."
Days before Nixon testified, Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine and a former member of the Communist Party, had led investigators outside his farmhouse near Westminster, Md., and retrieved microfilm he had hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin--evidence, he said, of Hiss's complicity in a communist spy ring.
"I am here solely as a messenger for the House," Nixon told the grand jury. "I have the microfilm in my physical custody."
The grand jurors wanted the "pumpkin papers." Nixon refused, citing House rules.
The grand jury foreman again asked Nixon for the film. Nixon refused and suggested the matter be decided by a court.
"Regardless of a ruling of the court, I will not part with the films," Nixon said. "If the films go into evidence, I go with them."
Two days later the grand jury, which eventually got the films entered into evidence, indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury--one for having lied about not giving classified State Department papers to Chambers and the other for lying about when he last saw Chambers.
Hiss later went to jail. Nixon went on to become a senator, vice president and president.
But the case that redefined both men's lives never died. Historians still debate: Did Hiss get a fair trial? Was he the victim of Red hysteria? Was the grand jury process conducted appropriately? Did Nixon interfere in the legal process when he testified before the grand jury?
Nixon teased the jurors with the contents of the microfilm, said historian Bruce Craig, who has read the testimony.
"This was Nixon's crowning achievement as an orator before his Checkers speech," Craig said, referring to Nixon's emotional televised message in 1952 that kept him from being thrown out as Dwight D. Eisenhower's running mate.
"Mr. Hiss is a very persuasive witness," Nixon told the grand jurors. "The only way that Mr. Hiss can be cross-examined is by obtaining basic information and then confronting him with that information and then cross-examining him relentlessly and I mean relentlessly until the truth comes out."
The thousands of pages of transcripts will yield more clues.
"I think that this will not end debate but give each side more ammunition," said David Vladeck, a lawyer for the group of scholars and historical associations that petitioned a federal court for the release of the papers.
Grand jury testimony is almost always sealed in perpetuity. But last year, Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, petitioned for the release of the six volumes of grand jury documents.
Lawyers for the group argued the records could be opened because 50 years had passed, all major figures in the case have died and the records have overriding historical value. In May, U.S. District Judge Peter Leisure of the Southern District of New York ordered the government to unseal the testimony.
CAPTION: Alger Hiss rides New York subway just after his 1948 arraignment, three days after Rep. Nixon testified.