Red Harvest: The KGB in America
In the course of their noble, if belated, exoneration of Robert Oppenheimer, the authors write: "There are reports about him by Soviet spies, not reports from him." Precisely the same is true of I.F. Stone, who, as it happened, defended Oppenheimer in the 1950s, when doing so took courage. Similarly, they dismiss any suspicion of Walter Lippmann ("Bumblebee") as ridiculous; his meetings with the same Tass correspondent whom Stone avoided were merely professional contacts with "a Soviet journalist with whom he traded insights and information."
In a sane world, the supposed new material on Alger Hiss in Spies--and perhaps more important, the documents cited but used misleadingly by the authors--would raise many of the same questions. There is a KGB report from 1938 in which Iskhak Akhmerov, newly appointed New York station chief, writes, "I don't know for sure who Hiss is connected with." Far more troubling for those who consider the case against Hiss closed is the Gorsky memo, which, as quoted (accurately) in Spies, lists Alger Hiss under the code name "Leonard." From John Lowenthal's article to the present, much of the current controversy regarding Hiss concerns his identification with "Ales"--an agent who figures in numerous VENONA cables but who, when the material was originally released, was identified merely as "probably Alger Hiss." It was this uncertainty that Allen Weinstein claimed to have removed in The Haunted Wood. And it was this uncertainty that was the subject of a 2007 article by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya in The American Scholar (an expanded version is available on the magazine's website). Gorsky, who in addition to his role as KGB rezident was also First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy, certainly knew who "Ales" was. He is, for example, the author of VENONA 1822, dated March 1945, which refers to the presence of Ales at Yalta, as well as another cable from March, not in VENONA but found in the documents Vassiliev submitted to court, that places Ales in Mexico City (at a time when Hiss was already back in Washington). The problem is not the whereabouts of Ales, however, but the fact that Gorsky, in his comprehensive résumé of damage to the American networks, didn't connect Hiss with Ales.
Why does this matter? Precisely because 1938 is not 1945. As Susan Jacoby points out in Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, among Americans who had an opinion on the matter in 1938, 75 percent supported the Spanish Republicans (backed by Moscow). In 1938 the Soviet Union was a potential ally against fascism, not an enemy. Until the Foreign Agents Registration Act became law in 1938, the KGB's activities in America weren't even illegal. Nor was belonging to the American Communist Party--even secretly--or meeting like-minded comrades after work, or even passing along information you thought might help the party to take an informed view of what the New Deal was really trying to achieve. Whittaker Chambers had no knowledge of Hiss after his own break with Communism in 1938. Yet as Jacoby notes, it is only the charge that "Hiss was a lying Communist Party member taking orders from the Kremlin as well as a State Department aide at the Yalta conference" that turned him into a poster boy for treason, symbolizing not just the resentment over "betrayal" at Yalta that Richard Nixon would ride into the White House but also, as Jacoby puts it, the "long-held right-wing contention that if you scratched a New Deal liberal, you might just as easily find a socialist or a communist." Jacoby is often acute and surprisingly witty on the national psychosis that the Hiss case represents. But her nervous profession of her belief in Hiss's guilt--like her willingness to write an entire book on the case without ever examining the evidence--strongly suggests that we are still far from living in a sane world. At least not as far as Alger Hiss is concerned.
I'll never be a Hiss scholar. I don't have the patience to sift through the minutiae of typewriter serial numbers and Persian rugs and who got the Hiss family's old Ford. Though my mind is less tightly closed now, the thought of joining the ranks of Hiss obsessives still leaves me cold.
Nevertheless, I have a question for those who take comfort in the certainty that Hiss, though guilty, was an exceptional case--or the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy: what if McCarthy was right? Not about Communists in the State Department or Owen Lattimore (a case that, though almost as celebrated as Hiss's, merits only a passing mention in the footnotes of Spies; but then Lattimore really was innocent). But what if the New Deal was riddled with idealistic young radicals, some of them Communists, some Socialists, some Trotskyists, even some anarchists? How much of the great transformation of American society under FDR--agencies like the WPA that lifted millions from poverty to purpose and programs like Social Security and the TVA--derived its energy from not a cadre but a cohort of unabashed radicals who realized that the machinery of the state was available for what seemed like revolutionary ends, and proceeded to use it? And who saw the Popular Front not as a cynical stratagem but as a genuine turn toward a social democratic politics where on the central questions--industrial democracy and racial tolerance in America, antifascism in Europe--they had far more in common than anyone suspected?
Of course, all this ended with the Nazi-Soviet Pact. And while the New Deal lasted, it was a heyday for those willing to exploit it--though my research on the New Deal suggests that even the KGB's unwitting accomplices didn't amount to more than a tiny fraction of Washington's reds. But must we keep pretending it never happened?