BOOK REVIEW: ‘Alger Hiss’

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ALGER HISS: WHY HE CHOSE TREASON
By Christina Shelton
Threshold Editions, $26, 352 pages

Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason” rehashes the historical episode we aficionados call “The Case.” In 1948, Alger Hiss, an up-by-his-bootstraps veteran of the U.S. State Department, was accused by journalist Whittaker Chambers of passing classified information to the Soviet Union. Chambers, an ex-communist who had been a courier for Red Army intelligence, knew whereof he spoke. Hiss was being vouched for by fellow diplomats and others in the Washington establishment, but he turned out to be one of several concealed communists who assisted Moscow and were revealed through Chambers.

Archives from the former Soviet bloc nations have shown over the years that at least three other people corroborate Hiss‘ role as a Soviet asset, a role he fulfilled before, during and after the 1941 to 1945 wartime alliance of Russia and the United States.

All of this was established before Christina Shelton took up her pen. Ms. Shelton, a retired intelligence agent, has tried to make the subject her own, but most of her additions seem like filler - digressions from the subject of Hiss. Most venturesome is her claim that Hiss, a member of FDR’s delegation at the Yalta conference in 1945, not only divulged U.S. policy to a foreign power but was instrumental in setting that policy. As Ms. Shelton is too honest not to mention, Hiss occupied midlevel posts in which he “never dealt directly with the President.”

In arguing that he was nonetheless able to steer the talks to the advantage of Josef Stalin, she relies on an obscure 1956 account by a State Department research historian who, according to a biography in the Northwest Digital Archives, was also active in the John Birch Society. (Not a dangerous group, to be sure - contrary to the myth stirred up about it - but its members’ reputation for making things up was well deserved.)

The book re-packages others’ research but not deftly. A typical sentence: “In this context, given this reaction on a systemic level, it comes as no surprise that on the level of one person - Alger Hiss - the same reaction by some had occurred: No matter what the facts and evidence, he could not be guilty; the charges were all merely anti-Communist rhetoric.”

Infelicitous but true. Historically, “The Case” has been decided; politically, some still want to dispute it. Even after so much confirming evidence has come in, those who detest the anti-communist Chambers avoid finding fault with Hiss or noticing the strangeness of his long quest to prove he’d been framed for something he actually did. One historian I know has settled on Hiss being henpecked by his wife, the true Bolshevik zealot of the family, and also being victimized by a mean and deranged (if basically accurate) Chambers. The latter contortion goes to show that communism fell but anti-anti-communism probably never will.

Hiss spent more than three years in prison for perjury, and as Ms. Shelton implicitly acknowledges, the real mystery is not “why he chose treason” but why, after his release, he filed endless legal appeals. He chose to help the Soviet Union because he believed in the Soviet model and wanted it for America. That is clear. But why spend decades thereafter seeking exoneration?

This is the question that continues to fascinate. There are a couple of possibilities. Ms. Shelton hints at the ideological one - that Hiss perpetually threw himself against U.S. criminal justice (he lost at every level including the Supreme Court) so he could keep lodging critiques of an unjust and corrupt system. It’s weak tea, but if you are a revolutionary whose cover was blown, you might well fall back on serving the revolution in whatever limited way you can.

Then there are the complications of the human heart - for Hiss was one of those who combines a rebellious spirit with a craving for conventional prestige. The journalist Murray Kempton was best on this aspect, describing how a widowed Mrs. Hiss had raised her children alone after the suicide of Hiss‘ father. A social stigma attached to such a situation, which this “rising son of Lanvale Street” never forgave but was determined to erase.

Erase it he did, clawing his way to a privileged education and building an impressive resume in New Deal Washington. Then the communist controversy derailed him. He was now scorned as a Red by the same sorts of judgmental know-nothings who had sold him short back in Baltimore. Who were they to disesteem someone as superior as he had shown himself to be?

Understood this way, his defiance loses a good deal of its strangeness. It goes under the general rubric of, “How dare they?” Or, to put it in Biblical terms, the sin of pride.

Lauren Weiner was a speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates from 2007 to 2010.

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