Mar 8, 2014
Jacob Heilbrunn on Alger Hiss
Posted on Mar 20, 2009
In 1984 Ronald Reagan returned to his alma mater, Eureka College, where he had been a middling student who devoted himself to extracurricular activities such as the drama club rather than his studies. Now, the former B-movie star and pitchman for General Electric was returning in his latest role—as a popular, if unlikely, American president. He gave the students a dose of conservative political philosophy. He didn’t cite Barry Goldwater or economist Friedrich Hayek as his great heroes. Instead, Reagan focused on someone else, the former communist turned renegade, Whittaker Chambers, who created an uproar in the late 1940s by stating that his old friend, Alger Hiss, a State Department official and member of the Eastern establishment, was, in fact, a Soviet spy. Chambers, Reagan said, was a monumental figure in American history. He had single-handedly created a “counterrevolution of the intellectuals” by breaking with the communist movement. Chambers’ massive autobiography, “Witness,” had cured Reagan of a dangerous delusion that afflicted so many of his coevals. As Reagan put it, “For most of my adult life, the intelligentsia has been entranced and enamored with the idea of state power, the notion that enough centralized authority concentrated in the hands of the right-minded people can reform mankind and usher in a brave new world.”
Ever since he pulled microfilm of State Department documents from a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm, Chambers has been a totemic figure for the modern conservative movement. In July 2001, I myself attended an event in the Old Executive Office Building held by the Bush White House to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Chambers’ death. As journalist Robert Novak spoke, I watched slack-jawed. It was as though time had been suspended for a moment and the McCarthy era had returned, as Novak lauded Richard M. Nixon and raged against the traitorous liberals who had sneered at Chambers for having the courage to expose a communist conspiracy at the heart of American government. Conservatives, Novak said, would be eternally grateful to Nixon for backing Chambers.
Indeed, for Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr. and other traditional conservatives, Chambers was a heroic prophet who alone had the moxie to endure the obloquy of the liberal-left in the service of truth. Obsessed with the notion that Yalta, where Hiss had been a minor figure, was a sell-out to the Soviets, a betrayal of Eastern Europe to Josef Stalin by a befuddled Franklin D. Roosevelt, conservatives flayed Hiss and other New Dealers as nefarious figures who had been working hand in glove with the KGB. And for generations of neoconservatives, Chambers’ searing experience in breaking ranks was one that they themselves tried to recapitulate, positioning themselves as former leftists who had seen the light and spurned the totalitarian American intelligentsia, no matter the cost to their careers, which somehow seemed to prosper, not despite but because of their supposed apostasy.
In “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History,” Susan Jacoby explores the anfractuosities of the Hiss-Chambers affair. Jacoby, a gifted writer who is the author of numerous books, including “The Age of American Unreason,” reports that her 86-year-old mother responded to the news that she was working on public perceptions of Hiss and Chambers by asking, “Who cares about that anymore?” It’s a fair question. The two men formed a sort of ideological fault line in American intellectual life for decades. On one side were the uncouth conservatives who lauded Chambers; on the other, the anxious liberals who sought to defend Hiss, or at least mitigate his espionage sins. Jacoby seeks to show that the dispute over the two men isn’t a musty affair from the past. Instead, it offers a revealing glimpse into American political history, whether it’s the Cold War or the war on terrorism. Her assessments of the positions of the two camps will probably meet with the approbation of neither, but she lucidly and expertly maps out the terrain upon which the Hiss-Chambers engagements have been fought over the decades.
As Jacoby reminds us—and it is a reminder that cannot come too often—the Hiss case offered for a vengeful postwar right a golden opportunity to tar the New Deal itself as a crypto-communist conspiracy. The stakes were never about Hiss himself, whose influence on Roosevelt was nugatory. Rather, he became a symbol for the iniquities of the New Deal, for the quislings such as Dean Acheson who had sold out America to the Reds. This exercise in historical revisionism allowed the right to efface its own history of having embraced isolationism during the 1930s and, sometimes, worse, having adulated Nazism and scorned the British Empire as trying to inveigle the U.S. into combat on the European continent, all of which is beautifully spelled out in Philip Roth’s indispensable “The Plot Against America.” As the Chicago Tribune, formerly the tribune of the isolationists and inveterate foe of FDR, proclaimed, “So we find this traitor hobnobbing through the years with the mightiest of the New Deal mighty. He advises the President. He is the favored protégé of two men who are kingmakers within the burocracy.” (The Tribune favored phonetic transliteration of some words.)
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