ALGER HISS AND THE BATTLE FOR HISTORY
By Susan Jacoby
Yale University Press, $24, 272 pages
Reviewed by David Chambers
Susan Jacoby is a gifted writer. She is deft and light. As a grandchild of Whittaker Chambers (who was another gifted writer, if rarely so light), I looked forward to “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History.” How would she weigh in on the Hiss case?
Her latest book begins with a clever foil. She has her own mother ask of this book about the Hiss case, “Who cares about that anymore?” We should, Ms. Jacoby holds. People today need to avoid the “swift eclipses of historical memory” too common in American culture. They need to care about the Hiss case. Much of today’s fissured politics formed back then.
Ms. Jacoby writes in a conversational, even chatty tone that makes reading this slim volume a pleasure. She probably had in mind a book along the lines of the late Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country” (1998). However, at critical moments, she appears not to have thought through or stuck to her mission. The results are disastrous.
The main goal Ms. Jacoby sets for herself is noble. “The contradictory historical scripts about the Hiss case reveal much more about conflicting visions of what America ought to be.” These scripts are less about “what American communism actually was - or about who Alger Hiss was.” However, she rambles rather than guides or glides readers through the six decades since the Hiss case.
The drama features the usual suspects: Mr. Chambers, Richard Nixon, conservatives as demons: Mr. Hiss, Franklin D. Roosevelt and liberals as angels. Ms. Jacoby makes little if any attempt to reconcile contradictions either she or her subjects raise. She quotes Mr. Hiss when he calls Mr. Chambers a “latter-day Jack London,” but she herself can only call Mr. Chambers a liar and bumbling crackpot. Such smears come from the days of the case itself. Ms. Jacoby offers no insight into the case or its meaning.
She claims, “It is not my intention to re-examine or re-evaluate actual evidence in the Hiss case.” Instead, her book serves to expose her own prejudices more than explain the relevance of the Hiss case to this generation. She does not recommend other works on the case. (Perhaps she did not read enough to make such recommendations?)
She does not footnote all-too-often oblique references to sources, left or right. (Perhaps she wants to avoid “naming names”?) Most important, she sets off altogether on the wrong foot, seeking to explain the Hiss case only with an eye for Alger Hiss, not Mr. Hiss and Mr. Chambers, the two people at the center of the case. The left hand knoweth better than the right - because it knows better how to select history?
Ms. Jacoby’s aim is to “to re-examine the rise of the New Right in the 1980s.” “The intellectual architects of the Iraq war during the administration of President George W. Bush … cut their teeth during Reagan’s two terms of office in the 1980s.” So that is why Ms. Jacoby had to drag us through decades of Hiss case debate - to harangue the Bush administration. If so, she should have stated that upfront. Certainly, she is not even-handed: She makes no such attack on Democratic administrations.
Throughout runs a concern about American anti-intellectualism. This makes the book her third work on that topic. Among nine previous books, Ms. Jacoby’s previous two, “Freethinkers” (2004) and “The Age of American Unreason” (2008), examine American intellectual history more broadly. However, in this volume, she appears loath to delve into more specific topics like the Hiss case itself. Slim is not always good.
“The fictions, slurs, distortions, and inaccuracies about Hiss, some of them are sloppy,” she quotes one source saying. Unfortunately, Ms. Jacoby has added to all of the above, copiously. Some of the book’s errors jump out of the page. Chapter 2 opens with “On August 2 …” when the event under discussion occurred Aug. 3, 1948. It was an important date: The Hiss case started that day. Also, the “Pumpkin Papers” (the microfilm portion) did not make the news in November 1948 but December, an error she repeats several times. No detail is too small to hack: Mr. Chambers’ brother Richard was not an older but younger brother.
This book could never serve as a review of the Hiss case or its impact because its sloppiness undermines the credibility of the author’s arguments. At least when it comes to errors, however, Ms. Jacoby finally achieves some semblance of balance - she errs almost equally about Alger Hiss.
Perhaps strangest is this book’s omission of new findings by another recent Yale publication. “Spies” (May 2009) opens with the bold chapter title, “Alger Hiss: Case Closed.” It claims to seal the coffin (if not bury the grave plot) on Mr. Hiss’ guilt. Nothing from “Spies” appears in Ms. Jacoby’s book. According to “Spies” co-author Harvey Klehr, Yale’s editor Jonathan Brent offered her access to the book’s new findings. Apparently, Ms. Jacoby took a pass.
Overall, it is distressing to read this book. Clearly, Ms. Jacoby prizes secular, liberal intellectualism. Yet her book is compromised by the very type of bias she claims to despise in her intellectual opposites.
Ms. Jacoby finds no middle-ground audience, either. As a point of reference, Mr. Hiss defines her political spectrum. He is “a bogeyman for the right.” He is a “delusion for the extreme left.” “Right” and “extreme left” leave Ms. Jacoby’s middle decidedly left of center.
In today’s America, right reads not left, nor left read right. Who then will talk to the masses between extremes? I will, claims Ms. Jacoby at the beginning of her book, aiming at “people in their thirties, forties, and fifties.” Swiftly did her own memory eclipse in this volume. Quickly she winds up preaching to one half of the choir - left only, please.
“What each side truly hates is the other’s version of history,” she notes. Sad to say, she is as guilty as the rest.
David Chambers, a grandchild of Whittaker Chambers, is a management consultant.