MANY MYSTERIES REMAIN in the wake of the life and death of Alger Hiss. One is his relationship to Dean Acheson. On January 25, 1950, the day Hiss was sentenced to prison for lying about passing secrets to the Soviet Union, Harry Truman's secretary of state declared during a press conference: "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." Acheson's apparently quixotic loyalty to the former State Department official provoked vociferous denunciation: Republican Senator William E. Jenner of Indiana attacked the Truman administration as a "military dictatorship, run by [that] Communist- appeasing, Communist-protecting betrayer of America, Secretary of State Dean Acheson." Such assaults greatly reduced Acheson's ability to conduct foreign policy in his remaining years in office.
Most historians today probably accept Hiss's guilt. What did Acheson think? When the case broke in 1948, Acheson had known Alger Hiss and his brother Donald (a partner at Washington's prestigious Covington & Burling law firm) for many years. "Donnie" was a good friend, but Acheson was not close to Alger either professionally or personally, considering him "stuffy and rigid," as George Ball remembered, and guilty of "lacking a sense of humor." From the fall of 1945 onward, Acheson was privy to mounting evidence that Hiss was a spy, information he may have discounted, aware as he was that J. Edgar Hoover was making bizarre charges that he too (and John J. McCloy, Henry Wallace, and other estimables) were part of "an enormous Soviet espionage ring in Washington." Yet Acheson must have suspected that charges against Hiss would stick, for as undersecretary of state in 1945 and 1946 he helped insulate Hiss from sensitive discussions in the department. When an outraged Joseph Alsop blustered about writing a column attacking Whittaker Chambers for his accusations against Hiss in 1948, Acheson told him to cool it: "It's always a mistake to write about anything that is sub judice." "It was perfectly obvious," Alsop recalled, "that Dean thought that Hiss was guilty, or had been guilty."
During Hiss's August 1948 travail before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Acheson maintained a careful balance, both assisting Hiss and distancing himself from him. The accused received unpaid help from Covington & Burling on his testimony and perhaps advice from Acheson himself on selecting an attorney, but Acheson, by then a private citizen, refused to appear with Hiss before the committee, though he had conspicuously represented another accused spy, Lauchlin Currie. At his confirmation hearings as secretary of state in January 1949, Acheson stated that everything he knew about Hiss had caused him to discount earlier accusations but -- Hiss was then under indictmerit -- he now expressed perplexity. Evidence seemed to be accumulating against him. It made no sense that Hiss would engage in such "insane" behavior; yet the evidence made no sense unless he had. Confirming that he and Hiss had become "friends," he added that his friendship was not easily gained or withdrawn.
Almost exactly a year later, Hiss was convicted in his second trial (the first ended in a hung jury). Acheson was scheduled to hold a regular press conference on January 25. Against the wishes of all his advisers, he privately determined to speak out in defense of Hiss, who was sentenced that day to five years in federal prison. He refused to discuss the matter with his personal assistant, Lucius Battle, or with Paul Nitze or Charles Bohlen. Nitze recalled, "I went in to see Acheson, but he asked me to leave. I called Chip Bohlen . . . but Acheson refused to see him as well." At breakfast, Acheson told his wife Alice that he knew he would be asked about Hiss at the press conference. "I'm going to reply that I will not forsake him." Alice responded: "What else could you say? Don't think this is a light matter," Acheson went on. "This could be quite a storm and it could get me in trouble." When his wife asked whether he was sure he was right, Acheson replied: "It is what I have to do."
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.
During the Cold War he would have profoundly disapproved of any "friend" who became a Soviet agent, purloining government documents, microfilming them, and passing them along to code-named intermediaries to ship to Moscow. But he might have felt tolerant toward someone in the 1930s, or during the heyday of the Anglo-American-Soviet World War II alliance, who entertained sympathies for the USSR and the teachings of Karl Marx. He deeply despised the right-wingers who crusaded against communism and equated it with American liberalism. He called this rightist effusion "The Attack of the Primitives" in his memoirs. Had the accusations against Hiss originated with someone Acheson respected, rather than the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee, he might have reacted differently.
Robert L. Beisner is professor of history at American University.