Alger Hiss and the Battle for History
Yale University Press, 2009
When American journalist Susan Jacoby told her 86-year-old mother that she planned to write a book on “changing perceptions of the Hiss case”, her mother shot back an e-mail asking, “Who cares about that anymore?” For the younger Jacoby, the answer is axiomatic: everyone. Forty-nine years after a US federal court convicted Alger Hiss of perjury, Jacoby claims that the case still “strikes chords located along ideological fault lines”. If Jacoby had written those words a decade ago, they might have rung true. But Jacoby’s mother—who is impressively quick with the keyboard for an octogenarian—has her fingers more firmly on the pulse of America circa 2009.
After Hiss died in 1996, his ghost lingered for several years. According to search statistics from the Lexis-Nexis database, US newspapers mentioned Hiss’s name in 274 articles in 1997, and Hiss references reached a post-Cold War peak of 350 in 1999. At that point, it might have made sense to ask (as Jacoby’s book does): “Why…does the Alger Hiss case still matter in such vastly changed geopolitical circumstances?” But since the turn of the millennium, Hiss has fallen into obscurity. In 2008, US newspapers made reference to Hiss on only 72 occasions. Perhaps the pertinent question is: why has the Hiss case ceased to matter to the vast majority of Americans?
For readers unfamiliar with “Hiss-teria”, the facts of the case are as follows: Harvard-educated Alger Hiss was a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; he was a Roosevelt administration official during the New Deal years; he was the secretary-general of the United Nations organising conference in 1945; and he was the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace until 1949. He was also a Soviet spy.
Jacoby waffles on this last point: she says she is “98 or 99 percent convinced of Hiss’s guilt”, but she never explains why her certainty is less than complete. A few remaining defenders of Hiss insist that no single “smoking gun” has been found, but the evidence against Hiss amounts to an entire smoking arsenal. In 1948, a confessed Soviet agent named Whittaker Chambers turned over a cache of transcribed, top-secret State Department cables—some handwritten, others typed—to US House investigators. Forensics experts hired by Hiss acknowledged that the handwriting matched Hiss’s and that the typed transcriptions came from Hiss’s own Woodstock typewriter, serial number N230099.
Chambers claimed that Hiss provided material support—cash, a car, lodging—to underground American communists. Bank statements, automobile registrations, and real estate records supported Chambers’s charges. Hiss had the best defense attorneys money could buy—actually, better than money could buy, because top lawyers agreed to work for him pro bono. Two sitting Supreme Court justices, the governor of Illinois, and one former Democratic presidential nominee all agreed to testify as character witnesses on Hiss’s behalf. After two trials, which the generally liberal New York Times editorial board described as “full and fair”, Hiss was convicted by a jury of his peers. He served 44 months in a federal penitentiary, where by all accounts he was well-treated.
Memories of the case might have faded if not for a pair of post-trial events. First, two weeks after Hiss’s sentencing, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that communist agents had infiltrated the US State Department; the fact that Hiss had served at the department for nine years lent prima facie credibility to McCarthy’s claims. Then, two decades after the Hiss scandal surfaced, Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency. As a young congressman, Nixon had played an important role in bringing Hiss to justice. Nixon haters embraced Hiss as the enemy of their enemy—and thus, as their friend.
Jacoby argues that the Hiss case was—chronologically and symbolically—”the beginning of the McCarthy era”. More accurately, it was the end of the pre-McCarthy era. Senator McCarthy had no personal involvement in the prosecution of Hiss. From the vantage point of the 21st century, what is striking about the Hiss trial is not that the prosecution engaged in shameless red-baiting (it did not), but that Hiss’s defense team engaged in shameless gay-baiting. Unable to discredit Chambers based on the facts of the case, Hiss’s lawyers (with the defendant’s encouragement) sought to smear Chambers based on the fact that he was bisexual. Fortunately, the jurors in the Hiss case were not as horrifyingly homophobic as Hiss and his attorneys. In retrospect, if either side of the trial engaged in egregious behaviour, it was the defense—not the prosecution.
But for Jacoby—as for Hiss and his lawyers—the facts of the case take on secondary importance. “It is not my intention, in this slim volume, to reexamine or reevaluate the actual evidence in the Hiss case”, she writes. “Furthermore, my own view that Hiss lied is based less on the vast body of old and new evidence…than on Hiss’s own elliptical and emotionally unconvincing memoirs.” These sentences are disturbing in their own right: can anyone be “98 or 99 percent” certain of a defendant’s guilt because the defendant’s statements are “emotionally unconvincing”? I, for one, propose that Susan Jacoby be barred from ever serving on a jury.
Whether or not wishy-washiness on the Hiss case ought to be a disqualification for jury duty, it apparently is a disqualification for higher office  in the US. In November 1996, Democratic diplomat Anthony Lake told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that evidence of Hiss’s guilt was not “conclusive”. The following year, when President Clinton nominated Lake to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Republican senators suggested that a Hiss apologist was unfit to serve as the nation’s chief spy. Ultimately, Lake withdrew his name from consideration.
What motivated the Democratic defenders of Hiss, and why did they engage in this strange form of self-immolation? In part, the answer lies in the fact that if Hiss was guilty, then Richard Nixon was—at least on this point—correct. For Nixon foes such as Lake (who left the Nixon administration in protest in 1970) and former Senator George McGovern (who lost to Nixon in the presidential election of 1972 and continues to challenge Hiss’s conviction ), that concession is a step too far.
But for a younger generation of American liberals (this reviewer included), Nixon was a tragic figure rather than an out-and-out evil one. He did more to protect the environment than any president previous or subsequent. Other Nixonian initiatives included the Earned Income Tax Cred it , which Clinton ultimately embraced, and affirmative action , which has been a central plank of the Democratic Party platform ever since. Moreover, by engaging the USSR and China in direct dialogue, Nixon arguably did more to stabilize the Cold War world than any other single figure.
Yes, he was a criminal, and a war criminal to boot, but younger American liberals admit that Nixon was right on the environment, right on anti-poverty issues, and right on détente. From there, it is only a small step to say that he was right on Alger Hiss as well.
Today, the Hiss case does not, as Jacoby claims, “strike chords located along ideological fault lines”. To the contrary, the Hiss case is one issue upon which consensus transcends ideological divides. With the election of Barack Obama, the torch has been passed to a new generation of American liberals—post-Baby Boomers who remember Richard Nixon as a historical figure rather than a real-life foe and who are perfectly willing to admit Hiss’s guilt. The Battle for History thus appears at the precise moment that its subject has lost his place in the progressive pantheon. To its credit, this book is a lively read. But it is not a timely one.
Susan Jacoby is a talented writer, though one might wish she were a more obedient daughter. As far as the Alger Hiss case goes, her mother was the wiser. Unfortunately, Jacoby has chosen to channel her talents into a monograph at precisely the time that her subject slipped to the status of historical footnote.
Daniel Hemel is an MPhil student in International Relations at New College, Oxford. He is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.