Alger Hiss Yet Again
by Richard Kostelanetz (September 2013)
It’s good to see a third edition of Allen Weinstein’s Perjury (Hoover Institution) some thirty-five years later, because it has survived as definitive, to use an encomium more persuasive to academics than the rest of us. Thanks to exhaustive research, Weinstein concluded decades ago that Alger Hiss did indeed spy for the Soviet Union and thus was indeed guilty of perjury.
One question he still leaves open is whether Hiss had any significant secrets to pass on. I’ve written before that while Julius and Ethel Rosenberg wanted to channel significant atomic information onto the Soviets, they were finally far less successful than the physicists Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall in passing crucial plans for making thermonuclear weaponry. With this judgment in mind, consider a question that Weinstein doesn’t answer: Was Alger Hiss as a major Soviet agent or nothing more than a wanna-be with information about diplomatic strategies that Soviet could have guessed or learned from other sources? (A nuclear physicist Hiss wasn’t.)
Otherwise, this third edition is suspiciously peculiar. Nowhere does either the author or his publisher account for how it differs from the second edition (1997) or the first, which I own. If Amazon bills the second edition as 622 pages and thus 52 pages shorter than the first, this at 753 pages is certainly longer. As many of the old chapters have the same opening and closing paragraphs in the new edition, I couldn’t readily find new material, and Weinstein didn’t guide. By contrast, I recall Gilbert Seldes’s adding new stuff between dingbats for a 1957 edition of his classic The Seven Lively Arts (1924), but Weinstein as an author isn’t so thoughtful. What Weinstein didn’t do either was exploit the unprecedented opportunity available now to an author wishing to rewrite his book from scratch, adding and omitting to computer-scanned pages available on the writer’s screen to produce an entirely new text. [This is how I’m currently rewriting my SoHo (2003).]
Since I own a heavily annotated copy of the first edition, I could notice that in the preface to the new volume Weinstein acknowledges different editorial helpers. In the first edition he credits for his first contract Angus Cameron (1908-2003), a sometime Red who had been a top editor at Little, Brown in the late 1940s. Refusing to reject his politics, Cameron resigned in 1951, cofounding independent book presses containing his own name. Reinstated in the late 1960s by Alfred A. Knopf, Cameron expected young Weinstein (b. 1937) to find Hiss innocent. For his initial research Weinstein received a grant from the Rabinowitz Foundation, which supported young scholars predisposed to Hiss’s innocence, among other biases. (I could also notice my reluctance to slog through all of Weinstein’s detail some thirty-five years later. Though my copy of the first edition contains two pages of my handwritten notes, in this new edition there was little about which to remind myself.)
As the first edition of Perjury appeared, Weinstein was taken up with New York neo-conservative “intellectuals,” some of whom gave his book rave reviews. Then a Smith College history professor he subsequently had a DC career initially during the Reagan years at an entity called the Center for Democracy, which he founded and directed. During the Dubya administration he became the federal archivist, which I assume might be a top job to some.
Instead of becoming an independent critical historian, Weinstein switched sides. About such a move some can legitimately be more skeptical than others. Since this third edition comes from the Hoover Institution, neither Cameron’s name nor Rabinowitz’s appear where they were before. Too bad, as Weinstein once judged they helped him.
What should we think of historians who rewrite their own histories? More consequentially, does such revised framing cast a different light on his book? To what degree does publication by a famously biased press change the status of Weinstein’s conclusions? Similarly, would the first edition of Perjury have been regarded as so definitive if it came not from Knopf but from Hoover or a like-minded publisher?
These issues of publishing framing lead to some further questions: To what degree would Karl Marx’s Capital, say, be a different book if initially published by the Hoover Institution? What would be the credibility for Marx’s text if it had only my name as its author? Or St. Augustine’s? These are provocative concerns, subtle to different degrees, raised by this new Perjury, even if the answers can’t be glib (and I won’t offer any here).
Because I discussed Hiss vs. Chambers some fifteen years ago in a review acknowledged by no one, not even subsequent authors of Hiss books, as far as I can tell, I’d like to recycle unfamiliar thoughts slightly revised:
I grew up in “progressive New York,” among other people who believed Hiss innocent of everything long after he got out of prison. I remember reading detailed articles in The Nation proposing that the FBI forged evidence—articles that had a certain credibility to anyone as skeptical (as I) about the FBI. I think I met Hiss once or twice but am unsure because he didn’t make much impression beyond his slight figure and affable smile, perhaps because I was not important enough to be impressed.
He might have connected my surname to that of a lawyer who around 1948-49 had been assigned by the Democratic National Committee to investigate Chambers, on the grounds, initially credible, that he was a Republican flack. (My father remembers running into other gumshoes at the Time-Life building who would ask one another, “Are you FBI or DNC?” The DNC soon dropped the lawyer along with Hiss.)
I knew into the 1990s people who spoke of Hiss reverently, as one would of a martyr or a saint, I guess as the last fellow traveler who, true to his stripe, still denied ever having been a Soviet agent. I remember as late as 1995 someone speaking of “all the good he might have done” if he had not been discredited. Chambers, if mentioned at all by these people, was customarily characterized as “loathsome.”
I remembered enough about the case to notice that Hiss, who died in 1996 just after his 92nd birthday, had outlived his antagonists—not only Chambers and Richard Nixon, who gained prominence by supporting Chambers, but by a few weeks Tom Murphy, the Fordham-educated government prosecutor who blew out Hiss’s team of fellow graduates of Harvard Law School. Surviving your enemies, especially being able to read their obituaries, is any embattled intellectual’s fortuitous revenge.
Some sixty-plus years later, the conflict between these two men assumes different, less ideological lines, at least for me. I see two kinds of people, each reflecting a different kind of character. Hiss on the surface was the focused bureaucrat, a favored young man who began his postgraduate career as a clerk for a chief justice of the Supreme Court, who climbed rapidly through government positions, thanks to his highly developed skill at impressing his elders.
Calculating in his dealings with the world, he was probably something of a self-conscious butt-kisser, who repressed a lot of feeling and opinion during his climb. It was not for nothing that his most stalwart defenders at the time included such elders as Dean Acheson, then the Secretary of State, and the columnist Walter Lippmann, both of whom typically gave their appraisal of Hiss’s character in lieu of any refutation of Chambers’ charges.
Chambers, by contrast, was an independent intellectual who had quit college to become a Communist organizer, whose youthful translation of Bambi is still used, whose 1931 story “Can You Hear Their Voices” was called a proletarian classic, who had moved frequently from job to job (“going nowhere,” rather than rising), until he became in the 1940s an editor and writer at Time magazine.
Chambers was impulsive, mercurial, suspicious, courageous, and brittle, the experience of the Hiss trials reportedly contributing to the heart attacks that ended his life at sixty. Chambers mentioned Hiss’s Communist past to VIPs early in the 1940s, only to find that no one cared. He spent several years frustrated by a lack of influence, which pains a passionate intellectual more than a bureaucrat. One issue in this battle of Hiss vs. Chambers is whether you prefer intellectual artists over bureaucrats who were purportedly—no, probably—double-dealing.
Chambers was by trade and temperament a hyperbolic writer—not necessarily a classic writer in the literary sense but someone whose command of inflated prose was special. To read only at random from his autobiography Witness is to find a man who knew the stylistic truth, familiar to all great essayists, that opinion needs style to be distinguished, while mundane language, its superficial acceptability notwithstanding, makes no impression. As many Chambers’ sentences have striking turns, even his unsigned Time articles reflect his profound command of language—much as certain painters have a superior understanding of representation and certain musicians can play whole pieces at first sight and then replay them from memory.
Chambers’ prose reminds me of Thomas Merton, who wrote many fluent books in a few hours of each monastic day that he was allowed to work by himself; it is indicative that both Merton and Chambers were favorite students, a decade apart, of Professor Mark Van Doren at Columbia College.
Read the book(s) of Alger Hiss and you find, needless to say, the common prose of a bureaucrat always striving for the widest acceptability. From this distinction alone, you wonder about artists and intellectuals who find Hiss more sympathetic than Chambers—you rightly wonder if they lack respect not only for their kind but also for themselves.
As a writer opening himself to public scrutiny, Chambers was predisposed to tell truths, while Hiss as a bureaucrat was required to practice subterfuge. The integrity of the former only highlights the deviousness of the latter. From an upbringing no less troubled than Chambers’, for instance, Hiss behaved as though he epitomized normalcy. He made his university degrees, his distinguished references, and professional résumé become the measure of his character. Precisely because fakery was his nature, he fed information to a competitor—in this case, Stalin’s Soviet Union—while working for the American Government. This kind of deceit is morally acceptable only to those beholden to the competition.
What got Hiss into legal trouble was his confidence in his dishonesty. Let me suggest a theme not seen elsewhere about his continuing appeal decades later. He is still especially beloved by those who persist in taking secrets to their grave, or those admiring those who do. (One of my favorite Hiss admirers claims to have attended a prestigious university that has no record of her. Another has persistently fibbed not only about his age but his ethnic identity.)
If Hiss’s first fault was a disingenuous personality, his second sin, which seems forgotten, was that he sued Chambers for libel. I’ve argued elsewhere that if you disagree with anything someone has said about you, then you should dispute him or her in kind—with words. Only people who cannot feasibly use words, usually because they know they are wrong or fear exposure for lying, resort to hiring thugs to silence their accuser(s). In this respect hired-guns called “lawyers” are no different from gun-toting street toughs. The fact that one kind of thug is socially more acceptable than another is a deceit invented by those rich enough to hire those wearing suits and white collars. (Nouveau-riche gangsters are never so smart about public relations.)
It follows, to be frank, that anyone suing another human being for libel, slander, defamation, or anything similar is ipso facto loathsome, to recall the epithet more often used for Chambers, and that any misfortune that befalls them is simply deserved, as was Hiss’s. In an appendix clearly new to this new Perjury, Weinstein quotes in passing the once-prominent Soviet spymaster, the legendary “J. Peters,” then in Hungary, judging in the 1970s that Hiss erred in suing for libel. Decades later even Peters thought that stupid and wrong!
Memories are short, even for modern history, I know; but I’m surprised that few remember the damming hypothesis posited by The New Yorker writer Richard Rovere, among others—that common suspicion of Hiss’s likely guilt implicitly justified Joseph R. McCarthy’s miserable career. Quite simply, when McCarthy claimed in a 1950 speech in Wheeling, WV, that the State Department was filled with Communists, he had no evidence—no current names, in spite of a boast to the contrary.
What made his claim publicly credible at the time was a man named Alger Hiss who had worked at the State Department several years before, was, thanks to a recent trial, thought to have been a Soviet spy. The fact Hiss’s character witnesses included Dean Acheson, then the current Secretary of State, gave credibility to McCarthy’s fantasies.
That means that if Hiss had not sued Chambers for libel and not gotten a lot of publicity for himself—if Hiss had taken his lumps—McCarthy’s fantastic charges would have died at the end of his tongue, terminating one of the most lamentable episodes in modern American history.
That accounts for why I think, regardless of your opinion of Communism, Hiss in the end belongs with Joe McCarthy in the garbage can of American history.
Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.
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