Devotees of the Hiss case have long hoped—and thought it conceivable—that Alger Hiss would one day share his version of that historic episode with the American people. Hence the eagerness with which many awaited his autobiography, which has now finally appeared under the title Recollections of a Life1
Hiss, previously a high State Department official, a member of the U.S. delegation at Yalta, and secretary general of the founding conference of the United Nations, was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1948 when he was accused of having been a secret Communist during the 1930’s. His accuser was Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine and a self-confessed former member of the American Communist underground.
Hiss denied the charge—which had been made under immunity before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)—and sued for slander when Chambers repeated the allegations on a national radio program. But Chambers soon upped the ante, charging Hiss not just with membership in a secret cell, but with having regularly passed on classified State Department documents for delivery to the Soviets.
A grand jury was convened. Chambers produced microfilm of documents he said Hiss had given him, as well as handwritten summaries of cables, which Hiss acknowledged were in his own handwriting. The statute of limitations on espionage having expired, Hiss was indicted for perjury, the slander suit was rendered moot, and Hiss was tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison.
It was not necessary to disbelieve the story told by Chambers—first at the perjury trials and then in Witness, his autobiography—to hope Hiss would some day offer his own version of the case. Indeed, Chambers’s description of a Communist underground in New Deal Washington—an underground that sought both to deliver secret information to the Soviets and to place clandestine Communists in high places—has always been hard to disbelieve. Virtually every time a relevant FBI document has been declassified, and every time a new witness has emerged, a new part of Chambers’s original story has been reconfirmed, and his overall credibility strengthened.
Nevertheless, Chambers was able to report only his own version. And there were many who thought that Hiss, without confessing to espionage, might eventually decide to volunteer additional information, if only to respond to questions that even his supporters viewed as unanswered—if only to leave, for history’s sake, a fuller version of the events that defined his life than In the Court of Public Opinion, the dry and unenlightening treatment of the trials he produced after his release from prison in 1954.
The questions that even Hiss’s supporters hoped an autobiographical account by him might answer are many and varied. For even though Hiss’s absolute innocence has over the years become a matter of received wisdom on the liberal-Left, many in the Hiss camp in 1948—including key members of his legal team—were convinced that he was holding something back.
For example, a good number of Hiss’s supporters deemed utterly incredible his claim not to have remembered Chambers until the much-celebrated personal confrontation orchestrated by Congressman Richard M. Nixon. During that confrontation, Hiss found it necessary to inspect Chambers’s teeth before identifying him as “George Crosley”—a man to whom, by his own testimony, Hiss had given a car, the use of an apartment, a valuable rug, an introduction to a family physician, and much, much more.
No wonder, then, that even Charles Dollard, the president of the Carnegie Corporation—who was close enough to Hiss to have accompanied him to the HUAC-staged confrontation with Chambers—later told Hiss’s attorneys that he “does not believe Alger stole the documents, but he also does not believe Alger has told all he knows about his relations with Chambers.” And that was directly after the initial Hiss-Chambers confrontation, when the case was still very young and when hardly any evidence documenting the ties between the two men had as yet been introduced. Dollard’s view, moreover, was shared by a great number of Hiss associates, including William Marbury, Hiss’s lawyer in the slander suit, and Edward McLean, who organized the defense team after Hiss was indicted for perjury.
Even a recent study decidedly sympathetic to Hiss—A Tissue of Lies: Nixon versus Hiss—argues that Hiss lied about the nature of his relationship with Chambers. The authors, Morton Levitt and Michael Levitt, do not believe that Hiss was guilty of espionage. But they—like Marbury and McLean, and like Hiss’s State Department mentor Francis B. Sayre—see ample evidence of a connection with Chambers far more intimate than Hiss has ever been willing to acknowledge.
There were many theories in the Hiss camp as to what he was holding back and why. Some observers looked beyond the mysterious Hiss-Chambers relationship for answers, and concluded that Hiss was shielding his wife, Priscilla (who died in 1986). Marbury and McLean apparently leaned toward this view, which turned on the premise that Priscilla Hiss was the “real” Communist. Hiss’s friend and counselor, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, also apparently suspected Priscilla.
There were, to be sure, some Hiss supporters who—while recognizing that Hiss was concealing the nature and extent of his ties to Chambers—refused to believe that either Alger or Priscilla Hiss had ever had anything to do with Communism and/or espionage. For this group, the most popular theory at the time of the case was that Hiss was hiding a homosexual relationship with his accuser. This relationship, it was thought, might have enabled Chambers—somehow—to “frame” Hiss.
Also popular was the theory that Alger Hiss’s stepson, Timothy Hobson, who had been discharged from the Navy as a homosexual shortly before the Hiss-Chambers controversy broke, had in some way been involved with Chambers during the 1930’s. Hobson, it should be noted, would have been twelve years old at the time of these alleged contacts, and a relationship between the boy and Chambers still would not explain how Chambers had secured classified State Department documents. Yet for those unwilling, as a matter of principle, to credit Chambers’s tale of Communism and espionage, even the most improbable scenarios were attractive.
In any event, it was on this question—the true nature of Hiss’s relationship with Chambers—that many Hiss supporters, as well as others interested in the case, hoped Alger Hiss would one day elaborate. In Recollections of a Life, however, Hiss offers nothing at all new about his ties to Chambers. Instead, to account for Chambers’s motive in seeking to destroy him, Hiss embraces the theory—which he first advanced in an interview with the historian C. Vann Woodward in 1959—that Chambers was a homosexual spurned.
This notion, too, was popular in the Hiss camp during and immediately after the trials. A sort of cousin to the idea that the two men actually had a homosexual relationship, the “spurned homosexual” theory was a special favorite of two other Hiss lawyers, Harold Rosenwald and Lloyd Paul Stryker. Yet even while embracing this theory, Hiss today continues to insist that he does not remember Chambers making homosexual advances toward him. This creates an obvious problem: if the intimacy existed only in Chambers’s mind, the theory does not really explain anything—not how Chambers came to know Hiss so well; not how he got his hands on the documents; nothing.
It is a fact—and one which was known to government authorities, and to the Hiss defense team, at the time of the trials—that Chambers struggled with homosexuality during the 1930’s. Chambers’s homosexual history has also been documented in Allen Weinstein’s Perjury, the major scholarly study of the case. Yet if Hiss was no more than the object of Chambers’s unfulfilled desires, the theory does little for Hiss’s effort to demonstrate his innocence. All it does is besmirch Chambers’s reputation. It is, in other words, a classic exercise in “gay-baiting.”
If Recollections of a Life fails to shed new light on the Hiss-Chambers relationship, what of the other questions on which both supporters and opponents hoped Alger Hiss might some day elaborate: first and foremost, politics?
When did Hiss turn toward the hard Left? If he was a party-line Communist during the 1930’s, did he ever break with Communism? What was Hiss’s political orientation at the time of the trials? Has it changed since then? If so, how?
There have always been observers who accepted that Hiss was a leftist during the 1930’s, even a secret Communist, but who rejected the notion that he had ever been a spy. It was as a secret Communist, according to this reading, that Hiss came to know Chambers; and it was Hiss’s unwillingness to be candid about his political past in the cold-war climate of 1948 that led to his downfall.
During the period in which Hiss admits he knew Chambers, the latter was a Communist courier, organizer, and political “commissar.” This is beyond dispute. From the private correspondence (discovered by Allen Weinstein) of the writer Josephine Herbst to the public testimony of former Communists like Lee Pressman and Nathaniel Weyl, evidence that Chambers told the truth about his work for Moscow has long been overwhelming. Even Hiss’s lawyers, in the course of their pre-trial research, came to the conclusion that Chambers had indeed been an underground Communist during the 30’s in Washington.
Nor was Chambers the only secret Communist among Alger Hiss’s friends and acquaintances at the time. There was Pressman, as well as Nathan Witt, Noel Field, Henry Collins, and many others. Hiss has maintained that he never discussed the subject of Communism with any of these men, all of whom eventually ceased to conceal their Communist sympathies. This claim by Hiss is even less credible than the story he told about his acquaintance with “George Crosley.”
Its absurdity is underscored by an insightful passage in a recently published study of the New Deal, Dealers and Dreamers, by the late Joseph P. Lash. In that passage, Lash describes the reluctance of underground Communists at the National Labor Relations Board to obey the party’s directive that they remain clandestine and politically inconspicuous:
He [cell leader Victor Perlo] instructed the cell’s members to be “extremely inconspicuous” in regard to their political beliefs and to stay away from the mass organizations. The undergrounders did not like that. They wanted to be active. They had become Communists out of a belief that the party fought harder than any other group for a better world, and now, as Communists, they were asked to be less active than ever.
Needless to say, the “undergrounders” did comply. But if they could not take part in mass rallies, the least the secret Communists inside the government could do was discuss the issues that mattered to them in private conversations with like-minded friends.
Some of these men—Lee Pressman and Nathan Witt, for example—had been Hiss’s friends since Harvard Law School. Henry Collins and Hiss went back even further, all the way to boyhood and summer camp. Yet Hiss asks us to believe that he never even discussed the subject of Communism with any of them. In other words, he never—then or later—asked his lifelong friend Henry Collins why Collins had left government service to head up the pro-Soviet American-Russian Institute. And Hiss purports never to have asked Noel Field why Field had left the State Department to live in Europe, where he worked for the League of Nations and became an open Communist.
By 1948, this entire group—all those named by Chambers, save for Hiss—were “out of the closet” and functioning openly within the ambit of the Communist party. A few—John Abt and Victor Perlo, for example—do so to this day. There are some on the Left—Noel Field’s brother, Hermann Field, for one—who have argued Hiss went too far during his legal ordeal in dissociating himself from the political idealism of the New Deal era. A book by Hiss in the autumn of his life—he is eighty-four years old and nearly blind—might have been an opportunity for him to unburden himself about the ties he felt he had to hide in 1948. But this is not that book.
About Hiss’s politics in the years subsequent to 1938—which is when Chambers broke with Communism (and, of necessity, with Hiss)—we know next to nothing. We do not know whether Hiss remained committed to Communism, or—if he did—for how long.
At the time of the trials, there were quasi-sympathizers of Hiss like former Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle, Jr. who believed Hiss’s problems stemmed largely from an effort to cover up a brief, youthful flirtation with radical politics. In Berle’s words, “Frankly, I still don’t know whether this is the boy that got in deep and then pulled clear, or what goes on here.”
Or was Hiss still a Communist when he went to Yalta with FDR in 1945? If so, this would explain Andrei Gromyko’s surprising willingness to let an American (Hiss) serve as secretary general of the UN founding conference in San Francisco.
A tantalizing piece published in the Daily Worker, the Communist-party newspaper, during the 1948 HUAC hearing suggests that Hiss, at least by then, had left the Communist orbit: “Here is a young man who, whatever one may think about his present enthusiasm for . . . the cold war, performed a highly useful service for his country during the New Deal and particularly during the war.” The implication here is plain: he used to be one of us (perhaps even during the war), but is no longer. This, if true, leaves the question of when Hiss—to use Adolf Berle’s construction—“pulled clear.”
One passage in one newspaper article does not, to be sure, constitute proof. And it may be that Hiss never really did leave the fold, that the anti-Communist posture he struck while under investigation was a disingenuous pose, and nothing more. Certainly the Hiss defense, as Allen Weinstein has demonstrated, received significant clandestine assistance from Communist circles during the trials, including access to Daily Worker corporate records. (Chambers had once worked for the paper.)
After his release from prison in 1954, Hiss seemed to move leftward in a gradual way, picking up steam—not surprisingly—during the 1960’s, as the political climate changed. He grew comfortable in the Old Left circles to which he had long professed no connection. But he asserted publicly that these were new links, that he—like many others—had merely been radicalized by Nixon and Vietnam.
Today, he no longer bothers to hide his contacts with party members, past or present. Hiss’s current lawyers come from the world of the National Lawyers Guild and the National Emergency Committee on Civil Liberties,2 and many of them were involved in representing Communists during the 1950’s. They are a rather different lot from the Debevoise and Plimpton, Covington & Burling battery that handled Hiss’s affairs in 1948.
But even with respect to his politics during the grim post-jail years, Recollections of a Life is a disappointment. There is no attempt to explain the radicalization Hiss purportedly underwent during the 50’s and 60’s, any more than there is an effort by Hiss, earlier on, to flesh out his version of the manifestly mysterious relationship with Chambers.
It is all the more surprising, then, that Recollections of a Life does manage to shed some new light on the character and world view of Alger Hiss.
Not with respect to the case itself: only a small part of the book is devoted to the events of 1948, and in these sections, Hiss relies heavily on the reader’s ignorance of the actual facts. To cite only one of many examples: in discussing the handwritten documents produced by Chambers, Hiss refers to them as “Four small scratchpad sheets of my penciled notes, which I used in briefing my superior, Francis Sayre, about selected cables.” Hiss fails to mention that the “notes” were, for all practical purposes, verbatim transcripts of cables. Nor does he point out that Sayre, in 1948, professed no recollection of the briefing system Hiss describes, and no recollection of the issues treated in the cables.
What is new in these pages is Hiss’s willingness, for the first time, to offer a glimpse at his view of the history of the 20th century. At isolated moments, while treating historical matters, including events in which he took part, Hiss seems to drop his guard—to say what he really thinks.
Thus, in a chapter entitled “Stalin, the Enigmatic Host at Yalta,” Hiss argues that the Soviet dictator demonstrated not just “surprising geniality as [a] host,” but also a “conciliatory attitude as [a] negotiator.” According to Hiss, no one today remembers that “we, the Americans . . . [made] all the requests” at Yalta, and that “except for Poland, our requests were finally granted on our own terms.”
Hiss never tells us what he thinks happened with regard to Poland, and he does acknowledge that Stalin made demands of his own at the conference. But these, Hiss says, came only after we pressed Moscow to enter the war against Japan: “The initiative had been ours—we had urgently asked him to come to our aid.” Nor does Hiss detail the “concessions” Stalin thereupon asked for and got.
No other American participant at Yalta has offered so sympathetic an assessment of Stalin’s role. Conversely, in a similar vein, Hiss sees the cold war in general as a consequence of American belligerence: “Roosevelt’s death and the less conciliatory foreign policy of the Truman administration did change the historic mix at a crucial moment.”
Another fascinating glimpse into the real Alger Hiss comes toward the end of the book. There, in a discussion that fairly reeks of disingenuousness, Hiss examines his own failure to produce the history of the New Deal he had long hoped to write. In the course of trying to produce this would-be magnum opus, Hiss ran into a “major problem.” He realized that the New Deal had not been a complete success:
We New Dealers knew that we had not cured the Depression in the sense that our reforms would prevent its return; our efforts did not ensure a fuller life for all Americans. It was not our reforms but the coming of World War II that really cut back unemployment. . . . The realities of history diminished my enthusiasm [for the project]. . . .
The view that only a war economy can save a capitalist society from what Hiss calls “alternating glut and scarcity” is the ABC of Marxism-Leninism. And there is also something “Marxist” about the very fact of dropping an academic undertaking because it refuses to confirm a preconceived thesis. Once again, it would seem, we have—if only briefly—Hiss without the mask.
On the personal front, Recollections of a Life offers us the familiar, even-tempered Alger Hiss, a man devoid of any sense of outrage, even while claiming that a miscarriage of justice destroyed his life. This very trait—Hiss’s failure to act like a man who has been wronged—has helped persuade some observers over the years that he must, indeed, have been guilty as charged. One acquaintance—who spoke to Hiss by telephone the morning after Chambers first testified—later wrote that Hiss sounded like someone who had “prepared himself for years for the moment when the story would break.” The acquaintance was a man who had reason to know about such things: Michael Straight. It would emerge many years later that Straight, one-time owner of the New Republic and an FDR speechwriter, had himself been recruited for secret work by the Soviets.
In Recollections of a Life, we find Hiss discussing his new, post-prison career as a stationery sales man much as he might have described his appointment, say, to the post of Secretary of State: “I enjoyed the work, with its technical challenges and the variety of men and women I met in the offices. . . . My experience . . . at Lewisburg stood me in good stead in coping with the great number of standard stationery items.” (Hiss had worked in the storerooms while in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg.) He reports with pride that a stationery-industry official, commenting on his sales efforts, said he “had not seen the city covered so thoroughly since the Great Depression.” And Hiss insists that while working in his new field, he always held to principle:
I didn’t take my customers to lunch or give them whiskey and flowers at Christmas. Notwithstanding my unorthodoxy in these matters, I developed a loyal list of friendly customers. Before long, I was able to achieve some success in my life as a salesman.
In his personal aspect, clearly, Alger Hiss is stiff, dogged, unemotional—and very tough. So tough, indeed, that it becomes easier and easier to understand how, in spite of everything, he stood his ground, held to his absurd story, and never cracked—not in court; not in jail; not while unemployed; and not during his gray days as a stationery salesman (before he became a late-60’s campus hero).
But is he still a Communist? It is impossible to know for certain, but my own guess is that he never left the party, and that at every turn in his life he served the cause as best he could. In the Roosevelt administration, this meant passing documents. From 1948 on, it meant posing as an “American Dreyfus.” Now it means he must stand fast, which is exactly what he does in this book.
1 Holt, 240 pp., $19.95.
2 An offshoot of the ACLU, formed in the early 1950's by those who felt the parent group was not doing enough on behalf of Communists under investigation.