The Magazine

Guilty Man

Posterity ponders the Hiss case.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By RONALD RADOSH
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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.

Alger Hiss mugshot in 1949

Alger Hiss under arrest, 1949

Getty Images

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
, 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.”