The Magazine

Guilty Man

Posterity ponders the Hiss case.

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