Thirty-seven years later, it is difficult to describe the impact of Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case on the America of 1978. Weinstein died last week at the age of 77, but his most famous work has long since been enshrined in the historical canon. Here’s why.
One of the unseemly byproducts of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, and of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, had been the rehabilitation—and in some cases the celebration—of certain Nixon political adversaries. Chief among these was Alger Hiss, the onetime New Deal lawyer and State Department official who had been accused of spying for the Soviet Union and convicted of perjury in 1950. It was Rep. Richard Nixon who had led the congressional inquiry into the Hiss case, which featured (among other dramatic details) a testimonial standoff between Hiss and his chief accuser, former Time editor and onetime fellow Communist Whittaker Chambers.
From the time of Hiss’s conviction and brief imprisonment until the publication of Perjury, it had been an article of faith among many liberals, here and abroad, that Hiss was not a Soviet spy but a victim of anti--Communist hysteria. Perceptions of Hiss’s innocence, like the innocence of the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, depended largely on left-wing revulsion at his prosecutors. Nixon’s resignation in disgrace (1974) only deepened this instinct, and Alger Hiss enjoyed a brief and well-rewarded celebrity in the journalistic-intellectual-academic circles of the disco era.
Allen Weinstein, a young history professor at Smith College, shared the conventional view of the case and set out to vindicate Hiss in a definitive scholarly study. But his deep research and wide-ranging inquiries—gradually and very much to his surprise—led him to the unanticipated conclusion that Nixon and Chambers were right: Alger Hiss had been a Communist and Soviet spy in the 1930s and ’40s, lied about it under oath, and been properly convicted of perjury.
It is no exaggeration to say that Perjury created a sensation and sorely tested the integrity of Hiss’s advocates. To his eternal credit, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote at the time that Perjury is “the most objective and convincing account we have of the most dramatic court case of the century.” And although, decades later, a handful of Hiss partisans still exist on the fringes of political discourse, years of revelations from the Soviet archives, and other authoritative sources, have long since confirmed Weinstein’s pioneering work and Hiss’s guilt—as well as set the stage for the corrective scholarship of Cold War historians such as Ronald Radosh, Harvey Klehr, and John Earl Haynes.