Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy
by G. Edward White
Oxford. 286 pp. $30.00
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, an erstwhile Communist-party member and Soviet spy, came forward to accuse Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, of having been a partner in espionage on behalf of Moscow during the 1930’s and 40’s. The charge stunned official Washington and indeed the entire United States.
At the time, Hiss was the suave, even elegant, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York and a pillar of the American foreign-policy establishment. Chambers was an uncomely and virtually unknown journalist. Yet at a trial two years later, the evidence persuaded a jury to believe Chambers; Hiss, the former State Department “golden boy,” was convicted of perjury and sentenced to confinement for 44 months in the U.S. correctional facility at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. (The only reason Hiss could not be tried on the more serious charge of espionage was that the statute of limitations had expired.)
Hiss died in 1996, having devoted the remainder of his life following his discharge from prison to a campaign for vindication. In one obvious sense, that campaign failed: across four decades, not only was Hiss unable to produce a single piece of evidence counteracting Chambers’s testimony, but in three successive attempts he was also unable to persuade higher courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, to overturn his conviction.
But in another sense, Hiss’s campaign succeeded quite brilliantly. The fruits included restoration of his government pension and his reinstatement as a member of the Massachusetts bar, the applause of adoring audiences on American university campuses, the creation of a chair in his honor at Bard College, and a mini-industry of magazine articles and books by authors eager to proclaim his innocence. In time, many patriotic, sensible Americans became convinced that Hiss had been the victim of a frame-up, and many more were persuaded, at the very least, to doubt the foundations of the government’s case.
How did Hiss achieve this sleight of hand? That is the question addressed by G. Edward White in Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars. Himself a distinguished legal scholar at the University of Virginia law school, White is also the son-in-law of an attorney who participated in Hiss’s defense at one of his two trials (the first concluded with a hung jury). He also reveals himself to be an accomplished historian of American political culture, with the Hiss case serving as a kind of arc along which he charts the evolution of elite attitudes toward Communism, the cold war, the FBI, and Richard Nixon, who as a freshman Congressman played a key role in bringing Chambers forward to tell his story.
In many ways, White’s book advances the work of three previous studies—Allen Weinstein’s Perjury (1978), Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers: A Life (1997), and most recently, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr’s Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999). But it also goes further.
White begins with a careful and somewhat skeptical investigation into Hiss’s background. This was far less genteel than the diplomat-spy would have others believe. Even as a young man, White shows, Hiss knew how to deceive and manipulate, partly through immense charm, partly through a remarkable degree of self-possession that translated into a formidable power of intimidation.
Despite his less than royal roots, Hiss’s professional ascent was dazzling. After graduating from Johns Hopkins and Harvard law school, where he became a protégé of Professor (later Justice) Felix Frankfurter, Hiss served for a time as secretary to former Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, went to New Deal Washington to serve in the Agricultural Adjustment Agency and then worked as an aide to Senator Gerald Nye, who conducted a sensational (or rather, sensationalistic) investigation of U.S. armament manufacturers. He finally moved to the State Department, eventually rising to become a key aide to FDR’s Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius.
Hiss was at Yalta with Roosevelt and at the San Francisco founding conference of the United Nations. He was openly being spoken of as a future American Secretary of State. Yet, in 1946, he quietly left the government for the Carnegie Endowment in order to avoid confronting certain rumors and suspicions that had floated to the surface following a number of defections from the Soviet spy network. Had Whittaker Chambers held his tongue, Hiss would in all likelihood have ended his career unblemished and full of honors.
What Chambers exposed was that, during all these years, Hiss had been leading a double life. In 1930 he had married Priscilla Fansler, a divorcee with a young son who was herself already knee-deep in radical politics. In 1933 or 1934 he joined the so-called Ware group, a cenacle of government officials who were secret members of the American Communist party. At about the same time that he moved over to the State Department, the Hisses formed a close family friendship with Chambers and his wife, a link solidified by their joint participation in espionage.
When Chambers decided to break with the party and the Soviets in 1938, he begged Hiss to join him; the latter refused. Ten years down the road, Chambers surfaced as Hiss’s accuser, and was able to produce copies of classified government documents that he had retained. These proved to have been typed on a machine known to be owned by the Hiss family. Hiss was never satisfactorily able to explain away this evidence; in many ways he never tried. Rather, as White writes:
He simply denied any Soviet affiliations, and asked the House Un-American Activities Committee whom they were inclined to believe, a highly credentialed government official with an impressive demeanor, or a fat, rumpled ex-Communist with bad teeth. His reputational defense required him to assume the posture of an outraged innocent, scapegoated by an unstable accuser for personal and political reasons. That was the posture he was to adopt for the rest of his life.
Upon his release from prison in 1954, Hiss resumed this line of attack—against the advice of many of his friends and even against the will of his wife Priscilla. (The two eventually separated over this issue). At first, he did not find many takers for his version of events—which is not to say, however, that he found none.
Ironically, his enemies helped him. In the late 1940’s, some Republican politicians seized upon the Hiss case as evidence not just that the apparatus of the New Deal had been rife with Soviet agents but that the Roosevelt administration itself was something close to a Communist plot from the start. Hiss thus benefited indirectly from extremism on the Right; he had to be innocent so that his accusers could be wrong about larger issues. It was in this context that even certified anti-Communists like Dean Acheson proved willing to step up to the plate on Hiss’s behalf.
Still, throughout the era when cold-war liberalism in the U.S. remained intact, Hiss’s campaign of vindication did not gain much traction. The big change came with the Vietnam war and Watergate. The former discredited anti-Communism among American liberals and to a large degree among a generation of American students, particularly at elite universities; the latter taught a broader swath of the population to distrust government in general and President Richard Nixon in particular, the man who had been Hiss’s chief congressional accuser two decades earlier.
More significantly, as White emphasizes, the cultural mood in the United States in the 1970’s was one in which the line between liberalism, Left-liberalism, fellow-traveling, and frank sympathy for foreign Communist governments became utterly blurred. In this environment, Hiss could be portrayed as innocent without raising the embarrassing question of why it was that so many of his supporters were people who would not have been the slightest bit troubled if in fact he had been guilty of espionage on behalf of the USSR.
White’s reconstruction also helps clarify how Hiss was able to sidestep or surmount several crucial setbacks along the way. In the early 1970’s, he granted full access to the files on his case to Allen Weinstein, then a little-known professor of American history at Smith College. Weinstein was initially seeking to establish Hiss’s innocence, but the FBI files that he obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, combined with the files of Hiss’s own defense team and the willingness of former Communist-party members and confessed espionage agents to corroborate Chambers’s version of the facts, forced the historian to revise his original presumption. When he informed Hiss that he could no longer stick with his original thesis—indeed, as a serious scholar he had no choice but to sustain Hiss’s guilt—the latter responded: “I always knew you were prejudiced against me.” With characteristic hauteur, Hiss would subsequently dismiss Weinstein as “a small-time professor for a small college trying to get to the big time through me.”
Weinstein’s involvement with Hiss constitutes an entire chapter of this book, and makes chilling reading. Far from pushing Weinstein aside, Hiss covertly mobilized an entire battery of left-wing ideologues, led by Victor Navasky of the Natwn, to attack his standing as a historian and if possible to destroy his career. Weinstein, still somewhat inexperienced in this sort of warfare, was slow to grasp what was happening, and responded in ways that seemed to undermine his case. Nonetheless, his book remains to this day a landmark study, and its findings have only been enriched by information about Soviet espionage that has come to light in the quarter-century since it was first published.
The next round was fought in Moscow, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. John Lowenthal, a lawyer, filmmaker, and left-wing activist, succeeded in getting General Dmitri A. Volkogonov, a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, to declare before cameras that he had searched the KGB archives and found no evidence of Hiss’s ever having been a Soviet agent. When pressed, however, Volkogonov admitted that he had scanned the massive KGB archive for only two days; nor was it surprising that he had failed to find anything—as White explains, Chambers and Hiss had worked for the GRU, a completely different agency under the control of the Soviet military. Volkogonov, indeed, subsequently retracted his statements, avowing that Lowenthal had “pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced.” But the retraction had little impact: none of the television networks that reported his “exoneration” of Hiss took note of his subsequent change of mind.
The final round took place in Washington, in the late 1990’s, when the National Security Agency finally released the Venona decrypts, transcripts of intercepted communications from Soviet intelligence operatives in the United States from 1942 to 1946. Among those identified as having a covert relationship with the Soviets was Alger Hiss. The information in these decrypts meshed perfectly with three other sources. All converged in establishing that Alger Hiss had been an agent for Soviet military intelligence in 1945, and that he had been an agent since at least 1937.
Moscow’s talent spotters had not erred. Were it not for the defections from their ranks in the 1940’s that first brought Hiss under suspicion, they might well have succeeded in lodging one of their valued agents in the position of U.S. Secretary of State, at a crucial moment of the cold war.
Where are we left, then? The facts of the Hiss case remain unaltered. Still, in some significant quarters of the political culture, the myth of Alger Hiss’s innocence persists. The reception accorded to G. Edward White’s remarkable account of how that myth was created may tell us whether one of the longest running skirmishes in our culture wars has finally come to an end.