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?”