May 19, 2013
Jacob Heilbrunn on Alger Hiss
Posted on Mar 20, 2009
Hiss served as the opening act to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who went after Acheson and his peers with a vengeance. And not only McCarthy. It was Richard Nixon who had urged Chambers on, and who, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential nominee, would denounce Acheson as leading a “cowardly College of Communist Containment.” Jacoby, then, has it right when she remarks that the Red-hunters not only claimed that treachery had helped turn the Soviet Union into a global power but that the “logical extension of that claim was a blurring of the distinction between communism and liberalism, since many of the most influential anti-Communist liberals, such as George Kennan and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., were not only willing to credit the Soviets for their role in defeating Hitler but felt that containment and coexistence … must form the basis for an American foreign policy that would eventually thwart Soviet ambitions.” Jacoby also astutely notes that the right has doggedly continued to tar liberalism as tantamount to socialism, even Bolshevism. In 1994 Newt Gingrich said that Democrats should be depicted as backers of “Stalinist” policies and political values. According to Jacoby, “That Joseph Stalin had been dead for more than forty years, and that the Soviet Union itself had ceased to exist, did not dissuade the Republican right from its conviction that Stalinism and communism could still be hot-button issues for the American electorate.” Indeed, the egregious Ann Coulter extruded an entire volume attempting to make the case that McCarthy had it right and that liberals remain traitors down to this very day.
If Jacoby is hard on the right, she is also very critical of what she sees as “the passion that a handful of liberal intellectuals have invested in keeping open the tiny possibility that Hiss really was thoroughly innocent and was framed by the FBI.” Jacoby traces these passions back to the 1930s when the Nazi peril prompted a number of American intellectuals to join the Communist Party, or at least become fellow travelers. She notes that the “view of leftists as nothing more than dupes or dopes and of active Party members as the incarnation of evil does not take into account the psychological and political effects of the long impotence of the democracies in confronting Nazi aggression as the thirties wore on.” Of course, the brutal wake-up call came with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, which divided up Europe between the two great dictators, Stalin and Hitler. It was no longer possible to hit the snooze button on what was transpiring in the Soviet Union.
For his part, Chambers had already abandoned the party, going underground for fear that he would be assassinated by Stalin’s agents, which was not an exaggerated fear. Hiss had evidently not. As Jacoby underscores, the evidence that Hiss was innocent of serving as a Soviet spy is sparse. It requires contortions to suggest that he was not and to explain away the evidence suggesting that he was. Again and again, Hiss would resort to legalisms and qualifiers to try to wriggle out of culpability for espionage. Ultimately, he was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to jail. But Hiss had found a new crusade—himself. He spent decades trying to restore, or at least rescue, his reputation, which, he alleged, had been traduced by a conservative cabal led by Nixon. It never quite took.
Part of the problem, Jacoby indicates, was that Hiss himself was something of a bore. His first attempt at self-rehabilitation came in his 1957 book, “In the Court of Public Opinion.” Not having perused it, I am entirely willing to take Jacoby’s word that it is “arguably the dullest book ever written about the Hiss case. It is devoid of political or social analysis, not to mention emotion.” By 1960, Hiss had pretty much fallen off the political map. Jacoby reports that Hiss, who was working for a barrette company named Feathercombs, was occasionally confused with the Nazi Rudolf Hess (who was languishing in Berlin’s Spandau prison). Jacoby believes that by the 1970s, Hiss began to enjoy partial exoneration, at least in the eyes of the academic left, which had witnessed Vietnam and Watergate and concluded that Hiss himself was an early victim of a government run amok. But she also devotes much attention to the publication, in 1978, of Allen Weinstein’s “Perjury,” which dealt a body blow to Hiss’ attempts to recoup his reputation. Jacoby concludes by observing that the tragedy of the Hiss case is that it wasn’t conducted more cleanly. Had the troglodytic House Committee on Un-American Activities not existed, she says, “many on the left might have been more open to the possibility, at an earlier period of history, that Hiss really was guilty and that, whatever the motive, it is a bad idea to have people in sensitive government jobs passing on confidential information to any foreign government.”
The strangest part of the Hiss case, however, remains his refusal, or inability, to accept responsibility for his actions. It’s a pity that Jacoby doesn’t cite Murray Kempton’s brilliantly insightful essay on Chambers and Hiss titled “The Sheltered Life,” in his collection “Part of Our Time,” edited by David Remnick. In it, Kempton offers the most persuasive explanation for Hiss’ lifelong defiance. Pointing to Hiss’ striving to enter the gilded world of the high-class WASPs, he writes: “we are all what our background makes us and … the world of shabby gentility teaches the best of its sons that, when all else goes, empty though it is, they must fight to the death against losing the precious little they have won.” Whether Hiss succeeded in protecting his small hoard, however, is dubious. Despite Jacoby’s portentous title, it seems more likely that the battle over Hiss has devolved into minor spats that retain little, if any, of the emotional power they once possessed. Hiss has disappeared as a force on the left. The lingering political influence of Chambers upon the right, however, is another matter entirely.
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