If you are looking for a piece of new evidence that will finally vindicate or convict Alger Hiss with certainty, you won’t find it in Tony Hiss’s poignant father-son memoir, A View From Alger’s Window. But there are new citations from a cache of unpublished family letters from 1924 to 1971, 445 of which Alger wrote from Lewisburg Penitentiary. Tony feels that “they are a window flung wide open onto a life, a bird of spirit springing into the air, a heart made plain.” And he asserts, “There is nothing in any of the six decades of letters that…gives even a…hint that he was the kind of man willing to betray his country.”
The letters and a thousand or more photographs were carefully boxed and stored in the back of a closet by his mother, Priscilla (“Prossy” in the family). About a year after his father died, Tony dug out and examined the contents. Until then he hadn’t fully realized how much and in what ways the prison years had shaped his own and Alger’s life. For Tony, the act of writing A View From Alger’s Window was a Houdini-like attempt to throw off the handcuffs of history.
Unlike phone calls or e-mail, letters are composed, rewarding on second and even third readings. And these letters gave Tony a prism, “a kind of 50s/90s vision of events, in which decades keep unspooling, side by side, each one showing how to peer more deeply into the other.” The letters reawakened the pain of his childhood, when Tony was temporarily sent away to live with friends, the humiliation of hearing his father called a traitor and the paranoia that the family phone was tapped (“Hello, George and the FBI”). He also recalled the warm support of the Vermont village he summered in and the safety of books he dove into for weeks on end.
Sifting through the letters, Tony discovered that games he thought he’d invented for his son, Jacob, were actually devised by Alger. Letter games were part of Alger’s strategy to maintain a father-son relationship. One of them assigned Tony the task of going out into the world (an art gallery, a museum, Grand Central Station) to be his eyes and ears.
Alger did not have any special fondness for modern journalism. He wrote home, “Not only the reporter but his readers have been onlookers not participants.” Good-boy Tony, in a show of independence, parted company with his father, feeling a kinship with journalists. After graduating from Harvard, he found a job at The New Yorker, where he became the eyes and ears of William Shawn, the editor in chief. “It was almost like joining a family business.”
For Tony there are three Algers: the private man, the public servant and the creature invented by Whittaker Chambers. The Alger that family and friends knew was an engaging, thoughtful man. His letters home are lively, insightful, caring and cheerful–even jokey at times. The public Hiss, in contrast, seemed exasperatingly formal. And his wooden book-writing style did not help bolster his legal case or convince the world of his innocence.
The third Alger Hiss, according to Tony, was the creation of Chambers, the man who claimed intimate friendship with Alger in the thirties. Chambers outlined a story in which he and Alger were underground Communist conspirators who stole State Department documents and turned them over to the Soviet Union.
Chambers’s accusations of perfidy in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities created a firestorm in the tense atmosphere after World World II. The ambitious young Richard Nixon led the charge to nail Hiss and, not incidentally, attack the “twenty years of treason” of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Tony writes, “Of course, Alger’s letters weren’t being written to refute Whittaker Chambers.” That doesn’t stop Tony from trying. According to Chambers, he and Alger were intimate friends. Alger brought home State Department papers that Prossy retyped. Chambers often visited the Hisses, and described with dramatic flourish a scene in which he informed Alger that he was breaking with the party and a teary Alger was overcome with anguish.
Tony’s half-brother, Timothy Hobson, is the last living witness to the events described by Whittaker Chambers. Tim, who was home with a broken leg during that time, said, “No visits then at all. No typing and no documents either…. Tim assured me that maybe 1 percent of [Chambers’s testimony] was either real or based on something real.”
Tim is still resentful that he wasn’t allowed to tell what he knew in court. Kicked out of the military because of his self-confessed homosexuality, Tim, along with his friends, was hounded by the FBI. Alger would not allow him to testify. “I’d rather go to jail than see Tim cross-examined about his private life.”
Further complicating the issue was Chambers’s 1949 confession to the FBI of the secret, violent homosexual life that he claimed he led in the late thirties. Were all those nights prowling in city parks undercover work or cruising? Speculation abounded on Chambers’s motives in pursuing Hiss. Was it love? Jealousy?
Against the advice of his younger brother, Donald, and many friends, a stunned and angry Alger Hiss sued Chambers for libel. Prossy’s brother warned him,
Be prepared for underhanded, sly, dirty, slugging, foul kinds of tactics. Don’t rely on the armor of righteousness. You may, and my guess is probably will, be attacked through your personal and domestic relations, Pros, Timmy, Anna, Donie, etc…. I do not think it is personal, but I do think that “they” will be ruthless and vindictive–and artful.
Pre-prison, stubborn Hiss would not listen. He believed truth would out. Hiss’s long relationship with the law, particularly with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, for whom he clerked, convinced him that he would be vindicated. Instead, the libel proceedings exploded into countercharges of espionage, of passing documents to the Russians. These allegations eventually led to a perjury trial (the statute of limitations on espionage charges had run out), which ended in a hung jury. Tried a second time for perjury, Hiss was convicted, essentially on the basis of Chambers’s testimony.
Richard Nixon had in common with Leon Trotsky the belief that whoever controlled the story controlled history. In the Hiss-Chambers case, Nixon manipulated that story with a series of well-timed leaks, stage-managed press conferences and masterful misleading language that has shaped public opinion to this day.
Chambers’s Communist Party training convinced him that its underhanded methods, lies included, had to be employed against it. In the style of the day, Chambers loaded his gun with buckshot accusations. Initially, the public was inclined to believe the story projected by the Second Alger–a tall, handsome New Dealer who wanted government to make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens. He had character references from three Justices of the Supreme Court, and he was being unfairly accused by a self-confessed Communist, self-confessed spy and self-confessed liar.
Against the background of the 1948 presidential campaign, Henry Luce’s Time magazine used the Hiss case to attack Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Gossip columnists undermided Hiss’s credibility with innuendoes, while excusing Chambers’s lies. They said that at first Chambers wanted to protect his friend, giving him time to admit his guilt. When Hiss proved to be arrogantly recalcitrant, Chambers was forced to expose him. After all, America was in a cold war with a ruthless opponent who had infiltrated our government. The Third Alger had been instrumental in selling us out to Russia at Yalta. The Third Alger was a member of the wishy-washy left that plotted to rob America of its virility and make it kowtow to lesser powers in the newly formed United Nations, which Hiss was instrumental in organizing. The Third Alger was a Communist. Well, a secret Communist. So secret, in fact, that only Whittaker Chambers knew about it. And every Communist was a spy.
The self-dramatizing Chambers confected this Third Alger with fictional skills derived from large chunks of Dostoyevsky and globs of Kafka. His story, Witness, was as relentless as a film noir thriller. He depicted an Alger who, behind a cool exterior, was a fanatic Communist and a wily, cruel man. The Third Alger had betrayed his country. A frightened public bought the book and bought the story.
The Hiss-Chambers case catapulted Nixon onto the national scene. He placed his handling of the case high on his list of achievements. Although he lost the Watergate battle twenty-five years later (despite imploring his troops to use the Hiss-Chambers case as a model for his defense), Nixon won the war. His view prevails today. Hardly a month goes by without a reference to the case in an article or book. In almost every instance, the Third Alger is presumed guilty. Recently released grand jury testimony verifies Nixon’s high-wire act, which led to the perjury indictment of Hiss and exoneration of Chambers.
When Alger Hiss’s name comes up in conversation, many people give a tired, knowing shrug. Give up, they seem to say, we were all a bit naïve back then. Russian spies did infiltrate our government. Don’t the recently released Venona tapes prove that Hiss was guilty? But this new evidence is sketchy at best.
Alger’s letters home show him to be an idealistic, loyal American. “I saw Roosevelt’s victory as heralding a great national effort to eliminate the root causes of the social ills I had found so distressing.” There is no hint of Chambers’s Third Alger, “the greatest actor this country has ever known.”
The letters bear out his son Tim’s assessment. “If Alger hadn’t gone to jail, it’s likely that he would have been stuck being just a stuffy and limited Alger all his life. Jail is where Alger became a human being.”
The cost was high. There were death threats in and out of prison, and the bitter end of his marriage. Disbarred, he found work as a printing salesman. “Alger spent the second half of his life trying repeatedly–and always unsuccessfully–to get his perjury conviction reversed,” writes Tony. Alger’s brother-in-law got it right. “Chambers was able to slap a label on you and the label stuck, and the reason the label stuck is that you are not oily enough or slick enough for it to slide off harmlessly.”