- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004


By G. Edward White

Oxford University Press, $30, 297 pages


Having written the definitive biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and a sagacious dissection of the American sport of baseball, G. Edward White, the Harrison distinguished professor of law and history at the University of Virginia, has now turned his wide-ranging talents to another challenging project: making a conclusive appraisal of the Alger Hiss controversy.

In this enterprise he follows a horde of commentators dating back to 1948, when Hiss first appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in response to Whittaker Chambers’ charge that he had been a Communist. It was there that he made the denial that resulted, two years later, in a conviction for perjury and a three-year-and-eight-month term in Lewisburg federal prison.

Much of the factual ground has been traversed over the intervening years, with varying results, depending on the bias of the commentator and the information available at the time. As well as necessarily reviewing familiar commentaries, Mr. White makes use of the recent availability of vital, hitherto restricted evidence and offers an ingenious and persuasive analysis of Hiss’ personality.

He has produced a scholarly, dramatic and exhaustive study which is compelling in interest and bids fair to be the final, authoritative judgment on this famous politico-legal melodrama.

Alger Hiss was a remarkable figure, and a determination of his guilt (for the treasonable activities which the perjury verdict implied) requires an examination of what the author calls “his complex, troubled, ingratiating and formidable character.”

A tall and handsome man, he was a brilliant legal scholar and an effective and important government official, with a demeanor of courtly reserve which, even when he was a Harvard student, impressed Felix Frankfurter.

Whittaker Chambers spoke of his “gentleness and sweetness of character”; others described his talent for making strangers feel at ease and his capacity for random acts of kindness.

This reviewer had occasion to experience Hiss’ bearing when, some 20 years ago, he interviewed him. One remembers his courtesy, his friendliness, his orderly arrangement of material, accompanied by a slight, almost prissy reserve.

To such gentility of character was added a firmness of purpose, a powerful emotional control. This determination could be seen in his manner of dealing with the brutal experience of his prison term. He made a thorough advance study of potential problems, developed cautious relations with influential prisoners, never complained (though he received no favors and suffered discrimination) and acted as a voluntary attorney, advisor and tutor for scores of fellow inmates.

The contrast between this distinguished, cultured person and the rumpled, neurotic, disturbed liar and admitted former Communist, Whittaker Chambers, originally rallied supporters to the Hiss cause. But at the crucial point in the criminal case, the jury believed Chambers and not Hiss, and the mounting evidence over subsequent years has amply supported this verdict.

Since almost all experts now agree with the jury verdict and its treasonable connotation of giving aid to the Communist adversary, Mr. White, also in agreement, passes to the pertinent and intriguing question of why — in the face of clear, countervailing evidence and jury and court findings — Alger Hiss refused to admit his guilt. Instead, Hiss, assuming what the author terms “a reputational defense,” asserted his innocence at the first HUAC hearing and maintained this position to the end of his life.

In his defense, as Mr. White emphasizes, Hiss did not offer new evidence or seek to counter that which was provided by his accusers. He simply stressed, and ever more forcefully, that the typical “little old lady from Hartford” would never believe that a person of his background and social standing could engage in activities threatening national security.

This defense found few takers in the period of Hiss’ trials and imprisonment, but as time passed, the national ethos altered markedly with the Communist threat appearing less acute. Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, now revealed as malefactors, could be made to appear as partisan reactionaries persecuting a New Deal liberal.

Thus, in a series of reversals reminiscent of the old movie serial “Perils of Pauline,” Hiss’ repute now entered a middle period of acceptance and rehabilitation, with the reestablishment of his Bar membership, his work as a college lecturer, the restoration of his pension rights and his marriage.

Then, in another shift, the collapse of the USSR made Russian documents available and Hiss reached his peak of favor with the report of Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov that Hiss’ name appeared nowhere in the KGB records he examined.

However, a major anti-Hiss development had come in 1978 with the appearance of the Allen Weinstein book “Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case,” in which the author reversed his original belief in Hiss’ innocence; further investigation of witnesses and records had led him to believe that Chambers’ testimony was reliable while Hiss’ was subject to question.

After this change, adverse material began to flood in, especially when expert investigators became available to search the pertinent Moscow records.

In an important development, the Volkogonov vindication was shown to have been based on inapplicable files. The Venona code-breaking project revealed direct communications between the NKVD in Moscow and agents in the United States, communications that included Alger Hiss among those having covert relationships with Soviet intelligence agencies.

Comintern files provided details of the Russian-American spy network and confirmed the previously disputed testimonies of Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley and Igor Guzenko. Further evidence brought to light Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Vyshinsky’s post-Yalta expression of thanks to Alger Hiss for services rendered.

With this and other supporting evidence, Mr. White concludes convincingly that the Russian connection to Hiss “ha revealed itself by its own documents” and that the case is no longer “ambiguous.”

But the puzzling question remains. Why did Hiss act as he did?

Why did he, from the very first charge, persist in positive and unchanging denials of guilt that brought conviction, prison and shame? Why did he knowingly enlist the support of believing friends and the devotion of his loving son, Tony?

In a rather awkward metaphor, Mr. White by way of an answer suggests that Hiss was engaged in psychological “looking-glass wars,” where the glass divided his publicly revealed life from the secret one whose disclosure he vigorously resisted.

Having, perhaps in part from altruism, early committed himself to the ideals of communism, he clung with steadfast loyalty to this commitment until his death, regardless of changes in its form and its sinister threat to his country.

When he recklessly claimed in public that the inaccurate Volkogonov exoneration constituted final absolution, the Russian general’s subsequent retraction led to disclosure of Hiss’ secret worlds.

Although Mr. White recognizes that Hiss’ motivation “resists easy characterization,” he maintains that this recklessness was an integral ingredient in his character and one that was connected with idealism, fanatical devotion to goals and a mix of ingenuity and deceptiveness. When single-mindedness and self-confidence were added, the portrait of an ideal secret agent emerged.

Hiss found “integration” and psychological completeness in his successful pretense of innocence, Mr. White concludes. Spying, for him, channeled his altruism and bought self-fulfillment. With this in mind, his final classification, baldly stated, should be as one of the most successful spies in American history.

In this inclusive, impressive, deeply pondered and finely spun study, G. Edward White has provided a definitive analysis of the Hiss case. “Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars” should provide a welcome close to the controversy over this historic imbroglio.

John S. Monagan is a retired U.S. congressman from Connecticut. His books include “The Grand Panjandrum: Mellow Years of Justice Holmes” and his autobiography “A Pleasant Institution: Key-C Major.”

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