The Magazine

Guilty Man

Posterity ponders the Hiss case.

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

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a columnist for PJ Media and coauthor of The Rosenberg File.