The Ordeal of Alger Hiss

The Ordeal of Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss may have been the defendant, but a whole generation was put on trial–and convicted.


Alger Hiss may have been the defendant, but a whole generation was put on trial–and convicted.

The verdict is, of course, being appealed, but it was perhaps too much to expect that this circumstance would inhibit those who from the first have viewed the affair as a divine gift to the Republican Party rather than a deep tragedy of the times. No sooner was the verdict reported than the political pack, Southern Democrats as well as Republicans, let loose a torrent of indiscriminate charges. Senator Capehart of Indiana demanded the immediate resignation not only of Secretary of State Acheson but also of Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, “because of his sponsorship of a convicted spy.” Senator Mundt, of South Dakota, called for a ferreting expedition to hunt down others who have “contributed so greatly to the deplorable mess into which our foreign policy has fallen.” And Representative Rankin was sure that if Hiss cared to he could “unmask a cabal of treachery to this country the like of which it has never known.” The press, too, took up the cry, with a gibbering columnist in the New York Daily News predicting “the first determined effort to find out who were the individuals surrounding Roosevelt from ’38 on who got this nation into a war which the nation didn’t want.”

To anyone familiar with the trial of Alger Hiss the irrelevant nature of these blasts is immediately apparent, but by the time the next election rolls around such dispensable items as logic will be lost in clouds of murky rhetoric. By Frankfurter’s “sponsorship” is meant the fact that he recommended Hiss, as a top student at the Harvard Law School, for a secretaryship with the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and testified to his good reputation at the first trial. Not only did a stream of witnesses similarly testify, but their statements were not even questioned by the prosecutor, who contended only that Hiss took advantage of his reputation to deceive his friends.

As for Mundt’s charge, it is worth noting that at no time during the trial was Murphy able to show a single instance of influence brought to bear by Hiss in the direction of a pro-Soviet foreign policy, which is what the Senator means by “deplorable mess.” On the contrary, Mr. Murphy had to minimize the fact that when war broke out in Europe, Hiss wrote a letter to William Marbury to the effect that international law did not require this country to take a position of neutrality as between the Western allies and Nazi Germany. This was a good two months after the signing of the Soviet-German pact, when neutrality was the watchword of the Communists, who, as even the Daily Newscolumnist might recall, were like himself hysterically opposed to our being drawn into the war. In short, Hiss could have been a Communist or a “war- monger,” but in October, 1939, he could not have been both.

According to Murphy, Hiss deliberately took this line on neutrality to conceal his affiliations, but in that case it is somewhat less than reasonable to damn his superiors for harboring a man with an excellent reputation whose avowed policy, at any rate, was anti-Communist. Obviously Hiss may have undergone a change of heart by that time, but accepting the verdict of guilt, down to the last allegation in the government’s case, can one condemn two Administrations, with hundreds of thousands of employees on the pay roll, because one man was a spy—or even two, to include Julian Wadleigh? Wouldn’t a man of Alger Hiss’s background and personality have fitted into a Republican Administration as easily as into a Democratic one? Suppose John Foster Dulles had been President of the United States. Is there any reason to suppose that he would have barred Hiss from the government any more than he barred him from the presidency of the Carnegie Foundation?

It is true, of course, that Chambers made unsubstantiated charges to a high State Department official in 1940 that Hiss was a Communist—no hint of espionage—but what New Dealer was not vaguely accused of that at some time or other? In fact, if the Mundts, the Rankins, the Dieses, and the Thomases had not been so loose in their accusations, if they had not constantly reduced the whole issue to an absurdity, it would have been a great deal easier for responsible security officers in the government to spot the extremely rare employee whose zeal for a political ideal led him into the black fog of espionage. For it is well to remember that the crime that lay beneath the perjury of which Alger Hiss stands convicted was not treason—he had no dealings with an enemy state—but espionage; the kind of espionage that was committed neither for gain nor out of hatred for country but in the grotesquely mistaken belief that by helping the Soviet Union at that time the sweep of fascism might be checked and our own democratic freedoms safeguarded. As Wadleigh insisted on the witness stand, he was convinced that his own transmission of papers to Chambers “could not be used against us, but could be used against Germany and Japan.” Defending Wadleigh from the defense lawyer’s attacks, Mr. Murphy himself put the matter rather neatly. Wadleigh, he said, only wanted to stop the rise of fascism; “we all came to hate it, but he saw it earlier.” So, perhaps, did Alger Hiss. Not for a second would I justify or condone the method used or the perjuries to cover it up, but if Murphy’s analysis may be applied fairly, there is, politically and morally, a great gap between the crime admitted by Benedict Arnold and the crime denied by Alger Hiss.

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