Thursday, April 05, 2007

Getting it wrong ...

... Alger Hiss was innocent! (Not)

I link to this because it gives me an opportunity to remind people that Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote a splendid biography of Whittaker Chambers, which I reviewed. In those days one could review a book at some length, so I won't quote the whole thing, just the last few graphs:

In 1992, Russian Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov announced that a search of KGB files offered no evidence that Hiss was ever a Soviet spy. But some weeks later the general admitted that the search had been cursory, that many files had been destroyed and that he could not, in any event, speak for other Soviet intelligence agencies. Moreover, evidence for Hiss' involvement did turn up in communist archives in Hungary. Then, in 1993, declassified State Department documents indicated that a security investigation in 1946 had revealed that Hiss had procured top secret reports - on atomic energy and China policy among others - that he was not authorized to see. Finally, a Soviet cable dating from 1945 made mention of a Soviet agent in the State Department who had attended the Yalta Conference - as Hiss did.
It is hard not to conclude that Harry Truman, who initially dismissed the matter as ``a red herring,'' was on the money when he later said of Hiss to Dean Acheson that ``the s.o.b. . . . is as guilty as hell. ''
So why did Hiss persist? Tanenhaus thinks that even
Chambers, who portrayed Hiss as ``a principled revolutionary, nearly heroic in his dedication to the great cause,'' failed to take the proper measure of the man. ``The salient fact of Hiss' career,'' Tanenhaus observes, ``was not self-sacrifice but opportunism. '' (Hiss' wife, Priscilla, later spoke bitterly of her husband's willingness ``to sacrifice other people, including me,'' for his vindication. ) As Tanenhaus sees it, Hiss' aim was simply to preserve ``an endangered reputation. ''
Still, to many, Hiss was a martyr and
Chambers a pariah. As Chambers noted in Witness: ``No feature of the Hiss case is more obvious, or more troubling . . . than the jagged fissure . . . between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think and speak for them. It was . . . in general the `best people' who were for Alger Hiss . . . the enlightened and the powerful . . . who snapped their minds shut. . . . ''
In attempting to explain ``this curious disjunction,'' Tanenhaus cites critic Leslie Fiedler, who traced it to ``the implicit dogma of American liberalism'' that in any political drama ``the liberal per se is the hero. '' The Partisan Review's Philip Rahv put it more bluntly: The pro-Hiss faction ``fought to save Hiss in order to safeguard its own illusions. ''

1 comment:

  1. It amazes me that so many people persist in the mistaken belief that Hiss was innocent -- despite the mounds of evidence to the contrary. This issue was dead and buried years ago.