Hiss in History

Hiss in History

Although many historians have condemned Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, the facts of his story remain obscure.


Victor Navasky delivered these remarks at the “Alger Hiss and History” conference at New York University on April 5, 2007.

In 1951 Leslie Fiedler, the literary critic, wrote “It is time, many of us feel, to forget the whole business…[t]he prison doors have closed [on Alger Hiss]; let us consider the question also closed.”

Twenty-seven years later another literary critic, the distinguished and thoughtful cultural and political observer, Alfred Kazin wrote, on the occasion of the publication of Allen Weinstein’s book, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, “it is impossible to imagine anything new in the case except an admission by Alger Hiss.”

Fourteen years after that in 1992, the Russian historian general Dmitry A. Volkogonov, after ordering a search of a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence – or GRU files – told Hiss attorney John Lowenthal and the world, in a videotaped interview that Hiss had not been a spy (“If he was a spy then I believe positively I would have found a reflection in various files…Alger Hiss was apparently a victim of the Cold War…”) he said. Volkogonov subsequently conceded under questioning by Herb Romerstein, formerly a staff consultant to the House Committee on Unamerican Activites, that he could not say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive.

Ten years ago, in 1996 the CIA and NSA released 3,000 World War II intelligence cables decrypted under the secret Venona project. They included a cryptic reference to Hiss by name but also a 1945 report about an agent code-named “Ales” and it contained a footnote, dated 20 years later saying that Ales was “probably Alger Hiss.” At the time, Time Magazine wrote “…the Venona message [document no. 1822] seems to remove reasonable doubt about Alger Hiss’s guilt.”

This morning, Kai Bird and Sventlana Chervonnaya release a paper whose full text will appear in the American Scholar online, which purports to document that Alger Hiss could not have been Ales.

I mention all of the above not to argue that Alger Hiss was or wasn’t a spy, but rather to underline the obvious. This is a case that will not die. It will not go away. The Cold War is over but this, among other Cold War ghosts, lingers on. The question is why? It is perhaps the wrong question to put to this audience, since you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t think the case still mattered. In 1999 Jacob Weisberg, writing in The New York Times magazine put forth one possible explanation not about the Hiss case alone but about Cold War political cases as a class: “These are not primarily arguments about historical fact at all. Espionage charges, initiated by subterranean and frequently unreliable sources, are a way of arguing about the past as if it were present. A continuation of ideological politics by other means among people who are, charitably put, obsessive. Listening in you get a sense that these arguments are less a posthumous sorting out of the Cold War than a sublimated continuation of it. The prevailing perspective remains that of the battlefield, occupied by shell-shocked soldiers who can’t process the news that the war is over. It is, in a way, a metaphysical problem, that afflicts the ex-, pro-, anti-, and anti-anti-Communists: What happens when the political struggle that defined your existence ceases to exist?”

Well, that may explain the pull of this case for some of the characters who have thought, obsessed and written about Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers, but this morning, by way of putting this conference in perspective, I put to you that there are at least ten other possible reasons to be here. Pace, David Letterman. And I share them with you in full expectation that in the course of today’s deliberations, the scholars, journalists, commentators and participants, on panels and in the audience, will dismiss some of them as frivolous, explore others in depth, and of course add alternatives of their own.

First, to borrow a familiar phrase from Richard Nixon, let me make one thing perfectly clear, I am well aware that there are those who believe that at least as far as the Alger Hiss case goes, there really is nothing more to discuss — that the small band of true-believers in Hiss’s innocence are in denial. There is even a book out called In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr which argues that people like me, who think the case against Alger Hiss has never really been proved, are, simply, in denial. Well, I deny that I am in denial and here’s why. Unlike Allen Weinstein, Sam Tanenhaus, the late Bill Reuben and others, I do not pretend to be a scholar of the Hiss case. But when I sat down in 1978 to review Allen Weinstein’s book, Perjury, partly because I started with the impression — and that is all that it was — that Whittaker Chambers was not to be trusted, and not always capable of distinguishing fact from fiction; and partly because I believed that the major political trials of the period were carried on in the over-heated atmosphere of the Cold War. I started with the impression that Hiss was indeed still entitled to the presumption of innocence. But presumptions are there to be rebutted and after reading Perjury I found that a number of those he had interviewed seemed to strengthen Chambers’ story, and it seemed to me if he had them right, I would have to abandon my presumption. So I sent advance galleys of his book to seven of his most startling new sources, to ask if he had reported what they had to say correctly and in context. Six of them got back to me and they each independently said the same thing: yes he had, except for the espionage part. I will not burden you this morning with the details, but the bottom line was that they all denied that anything they knew or said or believed confirmed the espionage part of the Chambers-Weinstein’s narrative. Weinstein’s response was that they had recanted only because they disapproved of his conclusion that Hiss was indeed guilty of perjury. Perhaps Weinstein was right (although one of them sued and won a settlement from him, his publisher and the new republic, where he had repeated his misinformation.)

My point this morning is not who was right or wrong between Weinstein and me. It is not even that when he republished and updated Perjury, he omitted the fact that six of his original sources denied that he got them right. Nor is it that when Sam Tanenhaus wrote his interesting biography of Whittaker Chambers, which relied heavily on Weinstein for many of his facts and assumptions, he too omitted the fact that Weinstein’s key sources had recanted or whatever you may want to call it.

Rather, my point is that the omission of inconveniently exculpatory material seems to be something of a pattern among those who have no such inhibitions when it comes to sharing what appears to be on the surface, incriminating material. Those who share what they like to call the “consensus” will cite the famous footnote in Venona cable 1822 saying that the agent code-named Ales was “probably Alger Hiss.” on its face, incriminating. But they omit that in another cable, this one a fragment that is otherwise incoherent, Hiss is mentioned by name. Yet in the world of Venona spies are supposed to be referred to only by their code-names. On its face, exculpatory. They will quote from the memoir of former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky, who said that Hiss was a spy, but they fail to quote another KGB officer, General Vladimir Pavlov, who says in his memoir, that Hiss was not a spy. And so forth. If I am right — and of course perhaps I am not, but if I am, who then is in denial?

Second, Whittaker Chambers himself may have provided the best explanation for the enduring interest in this case when he called it an epitomizing one. As he wrote, “It epitomized a basic conflict and Alger Hiss and I were the archetypes. This is of course what gave the peculiar intensity to the struggle.” Here he was not talking about innocence or guilt. He was, I believe, talking about belief in God vs. Belief in man. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who accepted Chambers’ basic account, nevertheless put it, Chambers’ writings divided the world into “messianic Christian anti-Communists” and “atheistic Communists”. A more extreme version of this perspective was provided by John Strachey writing in 1962, when he put the case in its most cosmic context. Chambers, he wrote, was part of the literature of reaction “not only against communism but against five hundred years of rationalism and empiricism; against, in short, the enlightenment.”

One among many of the paradoxes that persists in this case has to do with Chambers, and I regret that Sam Tanenhaus is not with us today to perhaps shed some light on it. Irving Howe, who believed that Hiss was probably guilty, reviewed Witness for The Nation in 1952. And like Schlesinger and Strachey, he wrote that “The world, as Chambers sees it, is split between those who acknowledge the primacy of god and those who assert the primacy of man; from this fundamental division follows a struggle between morality and murder, with communism merely the final version of the rationalist heresy; and the one hope for the world is a return to Christian virtue, the ethic of mercy.” how does one reconcile this world-view with Sam Tanenhaus’s explanation of one of the mysteries of the case — why Chambers, after telling the FBI on numerous occasions and under oath that Hiss had been a Communist but not involved in espionage changed his story (after he produced the pumpkin papers, allegedly given to him by Hiss.) Hiss supporters say Chambers lied. Tanenhaus provides a clue when he reports that although Chambers said that as a quaker he did not want to hurt anyone’s life, “Chambers did not mention his longstanding fear that he himself would be prosecuted for espionage.” (Under the statute of limitations, which placed a three-year limit on espionage, by 1948 he could not be prosecuted as a spy.) Would the messianic Christian anti-Communist Chambers, the man who saw what he termed “the tragedy of history” as a test of faith, who invoked the moral authority of a true counter-revolutionary, the prophet who exposed the hell of Stalinism, whose self-proclaimed heroes were Dante, Dostoevsky and Kafka, really have put the statute of limitations and his mundane self-interest ahead of his deeper interest in salvation – his own and mankind’s? Perhaps the panel on “Hiss in History” will deal with this.

A third reason that the case retains interest for the survivors of the period, but also for those who would understand it whatever they may believe about Hiss’s innocence or guilt, is that as Alistair Cooke noted at the time, not just Hiss, but a generation was on trial. Chambers himself wrote in witness “Alger Hiss is only one case that stands for the whole Communist penetration in government.” And from the Democrats’ point of view consider that the case was used at the time to smear FDR and the New Deal : If Hiss was guilty then the New Deal was corrupt, the state department had been subverted, Yalta was a sellout, the UN was a Communist plot, the possibilities of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet union were shattered, incipient Cold War repression became defensible. Anyone who would understand the history of the New Deal , the so-called McCarthy era, and the post war international order must come to terms with the Hiss case.

Fourth, as Kai Bird and Svetlana Chernovonnaya point out in their fascinating paper, the case had historic consequences: “as the distinguished historian Walter Lafeber observed,’ it was the Hiss trial, among other [events] that triggered the McCarthy era.’ it also catapulted an obscure California congressman, Richard M. Nixon, onto the national scene.” I do not want to scoop Bird and Chernovonnaya here but if they are right, their paper is a comment not merely on “who was Ales?,” an important question in its own right, because ultimately truth is what history is and ought to be about. But also for what it says about the history profession, and how well or ill the system of opinion trusteeship under whose auspices the rest of us get our information, is functioning. If they are right, these two superb, indefatigable investigators have put the consensus historians to shame.

Fifth, of course, there is the irrisistably dramatic structure not to mention the larger than life protagonists who inhabit this case. It’s hard to believe that aside from a teleplay or two more has not been made in Hollywood of this spy story of how the lean, handsome golden boy from Harvard Law School, the New Deal hot dog with all the right connections — clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes, protégé of Felix Frankfurter, colleague, friend and valued associate of Dean Acheson, advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, mentioned as possible secretary of state — was brought down by short, overweight, rumpled and deeply closeted Columbia drop-out, self-confessed spy-turncoat with the rotting teeth and gift for self-dramatization. At one point a Hollywood studio was rumored to have commissioned Gore Vidal to write a screenplay about the case. The project was abandoned at about the time the latest so-called consensus emerged. On the other hand, the right has long maintained that Hiss charmed and deceived the elite liberal media by demonizing and even gay-baiting Chambers. Either way, it seems to me that Hiss vs. Chambers is, if nothing else, the ultimate case study in the relationship of popular culture to history, the ways in which our belief systems are subject to manipulation even as they inform and are formed by our politics.

Sixth, is the mystery which has hovered over the case ever since Hiss emerged from prison. And spent the rest of his life trying to prove his innocence. For his supporters there was no mystery. He must have been telling the truth because as Philip Nobile reported in Harper’s in 1975, “Nothing else makes any sense.” But if he was telling a lie, why did he persist in telling that lie, compromising his friends, family and allies in the process? It is an issue worth airing because by avoiding it, each side to the dispute, as it were, thinks (and writes and talks as if) it occupies the moral high ground, making it that much more difficult to get at the underlying reality. Ron Rosenbaum, writing in 2001 in The New York Observer, put forth one theoretical answer: if he was a mole (which Rosenbaum persuaded himself Hiss was), the same convictions that led him to deceive the people who were close to him when he was active “might just as well have led him to deceive those defending his innocence in ‘retirement.'” but Rosenbaum went further. He thinks Hiss’s supporters do him a disservice by believing him. He points out quoting Graham Greene, that when Kim Philby moved to Moscow he could say “I did it and I’m glad!” Hiss deprived himself of that recognition, but his supporters needn’t. It’s a sentiment akin to that of Gary Wills, who also believes Hiss to be guilty, and wrote “I would not pay him the insult of believing him. It is only as a secret foe that he regains the integrity people have always sensed in him.” Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to plumb Hiss’s psyche on the issue may be found in G. Edward White’s book, Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars.

Mr. White’s thesis, if I understand him correctly, is that by appearing to pursue proof of his innocence, Hiss believed he would persuade his supporters that he was not the kind of person who could have been a traitor to his country. That way he could be “an inspiration to his supporters, and a reminder of the excesses of the Cold War.” And he could be a Soviet agent too, since once an agent always an agent. “Those achievements taken together gave him a sense that his life had a completeness and a fundamental meaning, writes white. It is a complex theory, which I hope Mr. White will elaborate when his turn comes because of all the issues buried in this case, none is more difficult and critical to disentangle than the relationship between personal psychology, morality and politics. If Hiss was telling a lie, was it an important or a trivial one (like Clinton’s denial that he had sex with an intern)?

Number seven: with the meltdown of the former Soviet union one would have thought that the need for carrying on the symbolic politics of the Cold War had expired. Not so. As new Cold War archives came on the market, they have been exploited not merely to revisit old Cold War battles, but with an eye on contemporary politics. Thus George Will said of the new Yale “annals of communism” series that the material shows that “the left was on the wrong side of history and deserves to be.” Nick von Hoffman, the left-libertarian maverick columnist wrote, in the aftermath of Venona, and the publication of a new, sympathetic biography of Joe McCarthy that “point by point McCarthy got it all wrong and yet he was closer to the truth than those who reidiculed him. McCarthy may have exaggerated the scope of the problem, but not by much.” all of which led Josh Micah Marshall in 1999, in The American Prospect, to detect “a generalized red scare revisionism in which liberals, the Democratic Party, the left, the New Deal are all retroactively besmirched by an association with – or at least gullibility about – the Communist menace.”

If Marshal who happens to believe that Hiss was guilty, was right, what we have here is more than a rehashing of Cold War battles. It is what he called the new McCarthyism that “seems to discredit Cold War liberalism by revising history, but also to attack liberal internationalism in foreign policy today by using the tactics pioneered by the red baiters of half a century ago.”

The continuing power of the case, fifty years after the fact, was on display when Clinton’s nominee for the CIA, Anthony Lake, had to withdraw from contention not least because he said on “meet the press” that he found the evidence against Alger Hiss “inconclusive.”

Eighth and not unrelated, at a time when there is a tendency to demonize a new enemy other, the Muslim-as-terrorist, study of the Hiss case has the potential to help demythologize and demystify the enemy other of those years when to be liberal was to be a pinko was to be a Communist was to be a spy. If the Communist party was involved in both reform (see Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression), and espionage, as ellen schrecker’s writings make clear, it’s important to know in what proportions. Where did belonging to a marxist study group stop and belonging to a Communist cell begin, and did belonging to a Communist cell and/or “doing underground work” inevitably mean being to be part the secret Soviet underground? We know what we mean by espionage, but reading some of the Venona cables (so and so definitely understands that he is working for us) one wonders whether there is such a thing as unwitting espionage? I tried without success to get the late Victor Perlo and the late Harry Magdoff, both of whose names found their way onto various Venona lists of suspected spies, to tell their stories. Magdoff claimed innocence but they both claimed disinclination to disrupt their end-of-the-last-century lives by once again getting in the papers. But the social history of life at the intersection of radical politics, democratic politics and Communist party politics in those years, is still for me, remains a missing piece of history, and such murkiness perpetuates misunderstanding.

A ninth reason that the case has not died is the possibility, the conference notwithstanding, that what we have here is a monumental miscarriage of justice. I don’t wish to get sentimental, but the other day I was talking with – of all people – Tony Hiss, Alger’s son. He reminded me that “when we stop to think about it and stop to feel about it we can sometimes acknowledge and sense the pain and shame that a miscarriage of justice is an unhealed wound, an injury that continues to hurt the victim and the victim’s family and friends in a way that does not diminish throughout any of their lifetimes.

“But it’s perhaps harder to see that the circle of the injured also takes in all the of the rest of us too. A miscarriage of justice is just that – a miscarriage. A stillbirth, a piece of the truth that never made it into the light of day. It’s absence from the world encourages dangerous and harmful illusions to lodge invisibly in our minds – one of them being that our system of justice is more reliable than it actually is; this can fool us into thinking that our courts have the strength and resilience to withstand sudden episodes of fear, panic, and prejudice. A miscarriage of justice also weakens all of us in another, subtler way. If a wrongful conviction is the result of lies or trickery of some kind, until we learn to recognize the patterns of dissembling being used, we remain vulnerable to repeating our original mistake and to being tricked time and again by the same deception.”

And tenth and finally, I want to mention the blogosphere. Not as a reason that the case has survived, so much as by way of a cautionary note that a conference such as today’s is important not least because real people talking and arguing with other real people in real time at a real place like the New York University Law School auditorium, can serve as a valuable corrective to the distortions that so quickly overwhelm cyber-space. Even before we got underway, this conference was been attacked in the blogosphere so we are already a success — but since we were attacked, among other reasons, for having me as the keynote speaker, allow me to apologize for being me. However, although I was not among the inviters, I might say that although I deeply regret that Weinstein and Tanenhaus were unable or unwilling to attend, I want to praise the center for holding the conference that we have. My own suspicion is that before the day is done, a variety of views on the matters I have inventoried will have been heard, but should it prove to be the case that those questioning the consensus outnumber those reflecting it, I think the political culture will survive this latest swing of the pendulum. Either way, I trust that today’s proceedings will benefit from the civility our hosts have already displayed in making it possible. And I ask that you join me in thanking them for doing so.

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