Rethinking the Story of Alger Hiss:

A Review of a New and Original Book on the Life of the Controversial Spy


Friday, Aug. 06, 2004
G. Edward White, Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy(Oxford University Press 2004)

Edward White's elegant, incisive new account of Alger Hiss's tale of betrayal and espionage takes us into - and then far beyond -- the perennial issue of Hiss's guilt or innocence.

White reviews the evidence on this issue, and finds it compelling - White is convinced of Hiss's guilt. Indeed, he contends that neither Hiss nor his partisans offered any plausible evidence to sustain his innocence.

But White also goes further. In the book's most original contribution, White thoughtfully considers Hiss's insistence on his own innocence, asking and answering questions such as, Why was Hiss so determined to maintain his innocence in the face of the strongest evidence of guilt? How did Hiss effectively convince faithful audiences for more than fifty years that he was indeed innocent?

Hiss's Basic Story: His Background, and His Crimes

Alger Hiss came from a comfortable, but hardly rich, Baltimore family, one freighted with numerous personal tragedies. From his boyhood, he affected an air of authority, whether over his own life or over those who surrounded him.

From Johns Hopkins, Hiss went on to the Harvard Law School -- particularly impressing Professor Felix Frankfurter, who arranged for him a coveted secretaryship with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1929. Hiss also secretly married that year, and with his new wife, Priscilla, soon dabbled in commonplace, Depression-era leftist political activities.

In 1933, Hiss joined the new Roosevelt Administration in the Counsel's Office of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. There, he worked with an extraordinary group, including the later-prominent jurist Jerome Frank, and Lee Pressman, a committed communist. The members of the group knew little about agriculture, but were bound by an unabashed faith in the efficacy of law as a solution to social and economic ills. Hiss also joined a "discussion group" of Communist lawyers and economists, which in turn led to Hiss's secret intelligence work for the Soviet Union.

In 1935, Hiss became Counsel for the Nye Committee's investigation of the munitions industry's role in bringing the nation to war in 1917. His value to the Russians rose substantially with his enhanced access to potentially important information there.

Soon, Hiss moved to the State Department, where he steadily rose in the ranks -- eventually accompanying Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference and later serving in the delegation to the San Francisco Conference for the founding of the United Nations. Secretly, Hiss removed classified files, which he and his wife copied and then delivered to various Soviet couriers.

White carefully takes us through the course of Hiss's eventual exposure. Allegations against Hiss began in 1938, when Whittaker Chambers, a onetime Soviet underground courier, told the State Department that Hiss was a Communist, but made no spy accusations. Hiss came under suspicion, yet nothing happened.

Postwar revelations of Soviet spying by Elizabeth Bentley, and the defection of Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk in Ottawa, raised further alarms. Increasingly pointed accusations forced Hiss to leave the State Department, and he became head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In 1948, Chambers testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which for the first time had publicly charged Hiss with being a Communist. Within two days, Hiss appeared before the Committee at his own request. There, Hiss testified he had never been a Communist Party member, and that he had never heard of Chambers until FBI agents raised his name.

Hiss vs. Chambers: The Joint Appearance, the Subsequent Suit, and the Perjury Charges

At this point, as White notes, Hiss embarked on a life and career narrative that he maintained until he died. He portrayed himself as an idealistic New Deal lawyer, who had come to Washington to combat the Depression and to serve the cause of international peace. By his own account, Hiss was not a Communist; rather, he was a scapegoat and victim for a pack of liars.

Hiss retained a corps of distinguished lawyers, but his "reputational defense" was the core of his strategy. It was not enough.

Eventually, Hiss and Chambers squared off in a joint appearance, which famously boosted Richard Nixon to public prominence. Until this point, Chambers had not charged Hiss with spying. Hiss challenged Chambers to make his accusations outside the committee room, and Chambers accommodated him.

After that, Hiss sued for libel. When Hiss's attorney deposed Chambers, Chambers produced documents he had hidden for more than a decade, including the famous "Pumpkin Papers." The upshot was that two counts of perjury were brought against Hiss -- one for denying he knew Chambers after 1936, and the other for passing stolen documents to him.

Hiss's first trial resulted in a hung jury. But in the second trial, the government introduced the typewriter used to copy the stolen documents, and proved it had belonged to the Hisses. The defendant's legal team countered, however, that the typewriter itself was a forgery, and this, too, became part of the ongoing Hiss defense.

Hiss nevertheless was convicted, and he served three years of a five-year sentence.

Hiss's Attempts to Vindicate Himself

White offers a fascinating account of Hiss's prison time, and his development of an agenda for vindication.

White describes Hiss's careful attempt, while in prison, to accommodate, subordinate, and ingratiate himself. This was necessary, in part, for survival purposes; after all, he was a "commie traitor," and easy prey for a convict eager to make a patriotic name for himself. But Hiss blended in well, offering no complaints, despite what White acknowledges as more than his share of deprivations and injustices. In prison parlance he was a "knockabout guy." Years later, reflecting on the possibility of prison for Nixon and his associates, Hiss said: "Don't ever send anybody to jail, it's a terrible place."

After his release, Priscilla resisted Hiss's plans for public vindication, preferring for them to disappear and change their names. Not Alger; he insisted on being Alger Hiss, A Man Wronged. He was adamant that he would vindicate his reputation and convince the public he was innocent. His large measure of success in doing so, until his death in November 1996, testified to his fortitude and determination.

Despite Strong Evidence of Guilt, Hiss Convinced Many of His Innocence

Following his release in the mid-50s, at the peak of Cold War hysteria, Hiss's following appeared limited to aging New Dealers and old-line progressives. But a decade later, Vietnam and Watergate provided a new context for Hiss's restoration, as both events underscored the possibility of governmental deceit.

Younger audiences on college campuses came to hear Hiss, not as a Cold War relic, but as a man wronged by an unjust, corrupt government. Hiss confidently asserted that the pendulum had swung again to a "liberal-progressive trend in politics." His government pension was restored; J. Edgar Hoover was dead, and under increasing critical scrutiny; President Nixon resigned in disgrace, lost his law license, and Hiss regained his.

Hiss's cup, by then, appeared full. Still, in an interview with his son for Rolling Stone, he called for more public assistance, hoping "those who may know [would] come forward" because he still followed "every lead , ... working for the vindication I'm eventually going to get." O. J. Simpson could not have said it better.

Allen Weinstein's landmark study, Perjury, published in 1977, should have dispelled any lingering doubts about Hiss's guilt. Based on government files and his extensive research into Communist spying, Weinstein concluded that Hiss indeed had lied. Weinstein, then a liberal history professor, began by assuming Hiss's innocence, and gained access to Hiss's files. But, in the end, the weight of evidence convinced Weinstein that Chambers had told the truth. Weinstein's book was impressive history, in its sweep and its scope.

Yet Hiss and his legion of supporters seemed remarkably unruffled by Weinstein's findings. "He can't hurt me," Hiss confidently asserted with grand bravado. But he had, and irrevocably. When even the prominent Democratic Socialist Irving Howe declared Hiss guilty, Hiss summarily dismissed him: "I don't consider him on the left."

Hiss's Legal and Archival Gambits for Vindication

Hiss eventually filed a coram nobis petition to vacate the guilty verdict -- his most dramatic effort at vindication. (A coram nobis petition, unlike a habeas corpus petition, attempts to vacate a conviction but not to free the convicted person from prison - here, Hiss had already served his time.)

The court, however, totally rejected it, dismissing his forgery-by-typewriter argument and any notion that the FBI had conspired against him. "The most depressing experience of my life," he remarked.

Hiss found a new opportunity to attempt to vindicate himself, when the fall of Communism led to a gradual opening of Soviet-era archives. After a cursory search of KGB files, a prominent Russian researcher announced that Hiss "had never and nowhere been recruited as an agent" and "never was a spy for the Soviet Union."

The American media widely reported this moment of Hiss's "absolution." But after some pointed criticism, the Russians quickly backtracked, conceding that the search had been quite limited. White aptly argues that Hiss welcomed the search because he well knew that -- with the Russians eager for rapprochement -- they never would admit to spying.

When Hiss died four years later, however, ABC World News Tonight still only reported the first announcement - not the Russians' subsequent concession. In the end, the publication of the Venona intercepts of wartime Soviet espionage referring to "Ales" settled the matter -- to all but the truest of believers, "Ales" only could mean Alger Hiss.

What White's Excellent Account Adds: Analysis of Hiss's Attempt to Clear His Name

White definitively summarizes the evidence and facts relating to the Hiss case. But his original contribution is his consideration of Hiss's persistent public campaign for vindication.

To help explain Hiss's actions, White invokes John le Carre's notion of a "Looking-Glass War" -- in which spies maintain a secret existence behind their purported likenesses. No one is quite what he seems, but spies are practiced professionals at hiding their true selves.

Hiss, White writes, "practiced his version of duplicity for more than 60 years, ... with unfailing graciousness and self-composure.... That image of Hiss was his public likeness." He succeeded all too well in fooling too many.

Old faiths die hard. Twenty years after Weinstein's book, his fellow historian, George McGovern, still maintained that "I've always believed that Hiss was a victim of the 'Red Scare' and of Nixon's political rapacity. It is a national outrage that this essentially decent and patriotic American went to prison as a consequence of the demagoguery of Nixon and the ignominious House Committee on Un-American Activities." In fact, while Nixon had a good deal to answer for, he did not put Alger Hiss in jail - Hiss's own guilt did that.

Another historian found that the case "remains unresolved," and yet another insisted that Hiss had been "cleared of conspiracy charges in 1992." White's father-in-law, a onetime Hiss attorney, also persisted in believing him innocent.

The mystery White adeptly explores is why some liberals persisted in reacting so defensively and for so long - especially when the result was to hand a victory to the opportunistic characters who went beyond Hiss's particular guilt to indict and convict a generation of New Dealers and liberals. A rotten apple did not spoil the barrel; liberals and leftists could and should have conceded Hiss's guilt; instead, they harmed their own credibility by maintaining his innocence.

Stanley I. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate (Norton).