Alger Hiss

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Few trials have so divided politically aware Americans as did the prosecution of Alger Hiss during the Red-baiting days of the early Cold War. And, largely because of Hiss’s continued protestations of innocence, none has lingered for so long as a topic of highly emotional debate. John Chabot Smith, a journalist with a good eye for detail and an excellent feel for the texture of the times, has given us a spirited defense of Hiss. The result is a well-written volume which captivates the reader but which in the end fails to convince one of Hiss’s innocence.

Alger Hiss was a scion of Baltimore’s shabby gentility, and his early career was an exercise in success. After a dazzling undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins—Phi Beta Kappa, president of the student council, ROTC cadet commander—he went on to Harvard Law School and to the ultimate reward of a clerkship under Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. When the New Deal beckoned, Hiss left a good job with a prestigious New York law firm and enlisted in Roosevelt’s war against the Great Depression. His government service continued the pattern of achievement which had been the hallmark of his early years. He worked first in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and then moved on to a distinguished career in the Department of State. Once again, reward followed accomplishment, and in 1946 Hiss was named President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This unrelieved success story came to an end in August, 1948, when Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor of Time magazine, testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities that Hiss had been a Communist during the 1930’s. Chambers seemed in many ways to be the very antithesis of the accused: a physically unimposing man, a self-confessed Communist, a hopelessly brilliant derelict and ne’er-do-well before his belated rise in the Luce publishing empire. Hiss promptly denied the charge and told the House Committee that he had never known anyone by the name of Whittaker Chambers. When the Committee finally arranged a confrontation between the two men, Hiss admitted knowing Chambers but under a different name; he defied his accuser to repeat his charge in a public forum where he could be sued for libel. Chambers obliged, and in September, 1948, Hiss instituted a $75,000 defamation suit. Up to this point, the issue had been simply one of membership in a Communist study group, and the evidence to be judged was that of one man’s word against another’s.

The situation changed dramatically when Chambers produced copies of State Department documents, the famous “pumpkin papers,” which he claimed Hiss had passed to him in 1937 and 1938 for transmission to the Soviet Union. The matter was now one of Communist espionage. In December, 1948, a federal grand jury indicted Hiss, not for espionage—the statute of limitations for that crime had expired—but rather for perjury; the government accused Hiss of lying in denying that he had seen Chambers after January 1, 1937, and that he had ever passed official documents to him. After two lengthy trials (the first ended in a hung jury), Hiss was found guilty. Forty-four months later he emerged from the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, claiming as he has ever since to have been the victim of a government witchhunt.

In recounting all this, Smith makes no pretense of objectivity. He believes in Hiss’s innocence, and his history of the case is a partisan brief. His defense of Hiss rests, none too securely, on three interrelated arguments. The first is that Hiss’s sterling character and impeccable reputation make a belief in his guilt all but impossible. Quite simply, Hiss told the truth; a man of his ilk could not do otherwise. Accordingly, Smith’s portrait of his protagonist is an exercise in hagiography. To know this man is to know his innocence. When Hiss’s old friend and lawyer, William Marbury, startled by the unearthing of the pumpkin papers, came to believe in his client’s guilt, Smith merely concludes that they obviously could not have been truly close friends.

The corollary of this line of argument is that Chambers was a psychopathic personality and a compulsive liar. There is indeed some truth to both parts of Smith’s point: Hiss was respectable and likely a very nice man, and Chambers was a complicated individual whose personality was unusual in many respects. But what are we to make of this kernel of reality? We can hardly be expected to believe that good men never commit crimes, especially ones of personal passion or ideological fervor. And if Chambers’ bizarre background sometimes reads like a Gothic horror story, as Hiss’s psychiatric experts pointed out at the second trial and as Smith repeats now, Hiss too had more than a fair share of trauma in his upbringing. His father slit his throat when Alger was a toddler, a revered older brother died young, and his closest sister committed suicide after a marital spat by swallowing a bottle of caustic household cleaner.

That Chambers lied often does not rule out the possibility that he largely told the truth about his relationship with Hiss. Both men changed their stories as the case developed, but on crucial points the scanty documentary evidence available seems to favor Chambers. For example, the two disagreed about the disposal of an old car by Hiss in 1936. Hiss’s assertion that he simply gave the car to Chambers is controverted by the title-transfer papers, which support...

(The entire section is 2257 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Best Sellers. XXVI, June, 1976, p. 92

Commonweal. CIII, December 3, 1976, p. 791.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, April 1, 1976, p. 14.

New York Times Book Review. April 25, 1976, p. 31.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, January 12, 1976, p. 48.

Wall Street Journal. CLXXVII, March 22, 1976, p. 14.