Since the publication in 1978 of Allen Weinstein’s definitive Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, only partisans of the far left have continued to insist that Alger Hiss was innocent. They see him as a framed-up New Dealer who was painted by Republicans as a patsy through which they could indict liberals as soft on communism. I never had illusions that Alger Hiss was anything but a man of the old pro-Soviet left, and probably a Communist.
In the late 1970s, when he was at the pinnacle of a sudden popularity, and making appearances at campuses throughout the country, I was given the opportunity to attend an afternoon talk and reception for him in New York. The event took place at the apartment of the lyricist E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg. Those present were all either pro-Soviet fellow travelers or actual Communist party members, and the meeting was put together by editors of a Communist journal. If Alger Hiss was (as his supporters argued) an innocent New Dealer smeared as a Red by McCarthyites, what was he doing proudly accepting the invitation of a group of actual hardcore Communists and their followers?
There is certainly no need for another study exploring whether or not Alger Hiss was innocent, as he claimed, or guilty, as many have come to believe. Yet the books keep coming, and their authors have turned to the more interesting questions of what made Hiss a Soviet agent and, later, a man who denied what was obvious. The other question they address is the meaning of the case for the time in which the two Hiss trials took place—the early Cold War of the late 1940s and 1950s—and Alger Hiss’s place in our recent past.
That first question was successfully addressed by G. Edward White, professor of law at the University of Virginia, in Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy (2004). White painted a careful portrait of a man who lived for deceit, who had one path that was constant: “Loyalty to the ideals of Soviet Communism and to the secret work in which he had participated. Loyalty to those who had . . . helped him at the height of his legal troubles,” a world which “had become a way of demonstrating his loyalty to all of those who inhabited it.” A consummate spy, Hiss easily carried on the myth of innocence, a task in which those who believed in the Soviet myth gladly joined him. Hiss succeeded in deceiving so many about what he did and who he really was: from Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the early 1950s to (in our own day) the former Nation editor and publisher Victor Navasky, who almost alone seeks to carry on the fight to vindicate Hiss. That there are still influential people in the publishing and political worlds who continue to believe in Alger Hiss’s innocence, despite the mass of accumulated evidence, clearly infuriates someone such as Christina Shelton, the latest writer to attempt to bring something new to the table about the case.
In Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, Shelton is only partly successful. A retired analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency and other intelligence outfits, Shelton suffers from not being a historian, although her goal is to put the Hiss case in the context of the history of our times. For those familiar with the Hiss story, the bulk of her book is all too familiar: She gives readers a tour through his early years in Baltimore, at Harvard Law School, and as a clerk to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Then Shelton turns to his years in the Roosevelt administration (where he joined a major Communist cell led by Harold Ware), on through Hiss’s advisory status at the Yalta Conference. From there she moves on to the arrest of Hiss, his trial and years in prison, and finally his campaign for vindication—which is still going on. Her final section details what we have learned from the Soviet decrypts called the Venona files and from the ex-KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev’s “Notebooks” as first revealed in Spies by Vassiliev, John Earl Haynes, and Harvey Klehr, now available online.
For anyone who has read any of the earlier books, it all seems rather redundant. Shelton also commits some amazing errors. She quotes Hiss writing in a memoir that, by January 1946, “the Cold War was already gathering momentum and the hoped-for unity of the Great Powers had substantially faded.” Shelton comments, “This was a truly remarkable statement, coming from Hiss no less, admitting that the Cold War had started and was ‘gathering momentum’ and allied unity was gone—several years before Senator [Joseph] McCarthy, the alleged creator of the Cold War, was on anyone’s radar screen.”
If this is Shelton’s understanding of Cold War history, she gets an F. The Cold War was, indeed, already underway in 1946, and to acknowledge that is hardly startling. But more important, no one has ever argued that Joseph McCarthy was any kind of creator of the Cold War. Indeed, the pro-Communist left of that era complained that it was Harry Truman who had departed from Franklin Roosevelt’s willingness to work with Stalin, and that it was Truman who had created a Red Scare precisely to foment support for an aggressive anti-Soviet policy. Only years later did McCarthy come upon the scene and gain political support from Americans frustrated that we hadn’t won the battle with the Soviets, positing the existence of a “conspiracy so immense” that it stood in the way of victory.
When Shelton analyzes Hiss’s role at Yalta, she takes on the claim of Hiss’s defenders that he was an adviser on protocol only and had nothing to do with issues of policy. Although she can offer no firm proof of anything else Hiss may have done to help the Soviets behind the scenes, she speculates that he may have had papers in his possession that went far beyond his particular assignment, the new United Nations, including material on the Soviet view of German reparations and the American position on Poland’s postwar status, as well as material on recommendations for Kuomintang-Communist unity in China in the war against Japan. As an adviser to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, and as an active Soviet asset, Hiss was, in fact, “an integral part of all the non-military, substantive issues discussed at Yalta.” Shelton speculates that his “likely” Soviet contact was a military intelligence (GRU) officer and Red Army general named Mikhail Milshtein, who might have earlier been one of Hiss’s “controls” in New York in the 1930s. Noting that Milshtein was deputy chief of the GRU’s first directorate while at Yalta, and a secret adviser to the Soviet delegation, Hiss might have passed on whatever he knew to Milshtein.
Indeed, anything is possible. But we need to remember that this is all speculation and, at present, no GRU papers are available that would prove or disprove Shelton’s suppositions (as she reluctantly acknowledges). Hiss wrote about Yalta in exactly the manner any supporter of a pro-Soviet foreign policy would have done. He argued for years after his imprisonment that the United States and the Soviet Union could have had a warm postwar relationship, but it was undone by the confrontationist policies of Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was not until the presidency of John F. Kennedy, Hiss argued, and the administration of Richard Nixon, that younger postwar leaders were able to move America into an era of peaceful coexistence and détente with Russia. Shelton concludes that “Hiss has become emblematic of the ideological divide that continues to this day in the United States, and has become the touchstone for many progressive individuals.” That is why, despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, “there are still those today who cannot bring themselves to assimilate that evidence and acknowledge that Alger Hiss was a Soviet asset and guilty of espionage.”
That is, of course, true, and precisely what Susan Jacoby seeks to address in Alger Hiss and the Battle for History. If Shelton fails by giving her reader too much summary of other works, and makes unproven arguments about the extent of Hiss’s espionage, Jacoby fails in her desire to depict a moral equivalence between those who believe Hiss is innocent and those who believe he is guilty, and who rightly feel vindicated that the new research proves they are correct. Jacoby’s problem is that, while she too acknowledges the preponderance of evidence proves that Hiss had been a Soviet agent, she wants those who believed him innocent to be judged correct when they argue that Hiss’s guilt in no way impugns the reputation of the administration in which he served.
Jacoby is fairly sure that Alger Hiss was a Communist party member, as well as a spy. When David Remnick told Hiss, during an interview in 1986, that the “democratic socialist” Irving Howe believed Hiss had lied, Hiss replied: “Howe? Howe? I don’t consider him to be on the left.” He also told Remnick that he admired Stalin as “very impressive . . . decisive, soft-spoken, very clear-headed.” As Jacoby notes, this was (in 1986) a “bizarre observation for anyone to make” about Joseph Stalin. She then asserts that Hiss’s views were “most indicative of a Communist background” since Communists always hated opponents on the left who offered an alternative to Bolshevism, his “mask slipped when Remnick mentioned Howe,” and he made the mistake of “displaying genuine anger instead of maintaining a superior posture of tolerance.”
Given that her observation about Hiss is correct, it is ironic that Jacoby herself has the same response as Hiss’s defenders to arguments about his guilt. She agrees with them that “undermining the legacy of the New Deal was a major goal of the anticommunist crusaders” and it “remains a persistent goal of the political right today.” Jacoby’s implication is that, since “Hiss’s guilt remains so important to the right,” she can understand why many continue to argue he was innocent lest they be seen as right-wing themselves. But does this not indicate the reluctance of many liberals to acknowledge their own blindness about accepting the fact that, indeed, the New Deal might have been successfully infiltrated by Communists?
Jacoby’s problem is a failure to explore why so many intelligent folks, such as Dean Acheson, vouched for Hiss, or seemed incapable of believing that there were dangerous Communists in government service and that many Soviet agents fooled their superiors. An anti-Communist liberal like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. never had any problem proclaiming that Alger Hiss was guilty. Yet when Comintern files found by Klehr and Haynes reinforced the ex-Soviet agent Elizabeth Bentley’s charge that Laurence Duggan, a onetime New Deal official, had been a Soviet asset, Schlesinger responded that he knew Duggan and did not believe he could have been a spy. When Duggan’s role as a KGB agent was confirmed by the Venona files, Schlesinger privately conceded that the documents were “pretty damning” but never publicly changed his position.
Jacoby ends up in the same corner as Schlesinger. Commenting on the evidence assembled by Klehr and Haynes in their various studies, she writes, “I find it difficult to place total faith in the information that one intelligence agent passes on to another.” But what Klehr and Haynes have uncovered is not simply uncorroborated files from agents but information that is corroborated with other files that point incontrovertibly to the fact that the man named “Ales” by the KGB was no one but Alger Hiss. Jacoby, however, prefers to stand above the fray, concluding that “what each side truly hates is the other’s version of history.” True enough. But only one version of this particular history can be correct, and Susan Jacoby cannot decide which one. She seems more concerned that she might be confused with “right-wing ideologists” associated with George W. Bush if she sees Alger Hiss as simply guilty. Opposition to the New Deal, she argues, keeps “the Hiss fires burning” since Hiss himself argued that he was accused only “because he was a loyal New Dealer—not because anyone really thought he was a Communist Party member.”
Jacoby, then, wants Hiss to be guilty but his defenders to be correct in their belief that the Communists did no damage to America at home and that the real threat to American interests came from the “anticommunist campaign” of the Cold War era, with its intrusions on civil liberties. She ends with a diatribe about Guantánamo, wiretapping by the Bush administration, and the views of conservatives about the legacy of the New Left. None of these, of course, has much of anything to do with the Hiss case; they reflect only on her own concern that accepting Hiss’s guilt (as she does) might place her in the company of those she cannot tolerate.