My Lunch With Alger: Oh No, Not Hiss Again!

“Good Lord deliver us,” the incomparable Murray Kempton once

wrote. “Everyone seems to be talking about Alger Hiss again.”

That was 1978. That was after three decades of interminable,

tendentious arguments over the Alger Hiss case. And now, a quarter-century

later, good Lord deliver us (and this

time for real, please), they’re still

talking about Alger Hiss.

I’ve tried to stay away, I really have-but like Al Pacino in

Godfather III (underrated, I think), they’re pullin’ me back in. It’s one of

the eternal schisms in American culture-and I think I have a new perspective on

that to add.

It’s been more than a half century now since Hiss-the

brilliant, patrician Harvard Law protégé of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Felix

Frankfurter, rising star in F.D.R.’s State Department, architect of the U.N.-

found himself accused of being part of a Soviet spy ring. Convicted of lying to

a grand jury, sent off to Lewisburg federal penitentiary, Hiss spent the rest

of his life trying to prove his innocence. And when he died in 1996, he left

behind a loyal cadre of true believers who’ve devoted their lives to trying to

prove that he was framed by his chief accuser, Whittaker Chambers; framed by

his chief Congressional prosecutor, Richard Nixon; framed by the F.B.I., which

“forged” a typewriter to somehow fix the case against him (I never could follow

that one).

But Hiss is still with us. Hiss will not go away-because, of

course, Hiss has become larger than the Hiss case. Hiss has become a pawn in

the debate over the Cold War and American communism: Was the Party just a front

for a Soviet spy ring? Is there no way to distinguish the domestic arm of

Stalinism from, say, the domestic arm of Hitlerism? Or is it not possible to

conceive that some who joined the Party to fight for civil rights and labor

rights were unaware of the spying and the slave-labor camps?

But yes, the debate about Hiss still rages: The recent debut

of an N.Y.U.-sponsored pro-Hiss Web site prompted an anti-Hiss attack in The Weekly Standard which framed the

debate in very contemporary terms:

“The Hiss case, it becomes clear [from the N.Y.U. Web site],

was part of some tremendous and sinister effort-a vast right-wing conspiracy,

you might say-designed to frame Hiss, and led by that 1950s Kenneth Starr, a

young congressman named Richard Nixon.”

And so the ancient war of words goes on and on. It’s a war

I’ve tried to stay a million miles away from lately. I’ve come to think that

the cumulative weight of the evidence from Hiss’ own colleagues (the Noel Field

story!) makes it hard to escape the conclusion that Hiss was a spy, although I

respect the efforts of certain of Hiss’ more intelligent defenders, such as

Victor Navasky, to poke holes in the evidence, and I distrust some of the

blanket generalizations drawn from the Hiss case by those who believe he was

guilty.

For many on the right, Alger Hiss represents the true face,

the only face of the American

Communist Party, which they see less as a domestic party than a front for an

international spy ring whose members’ main purpose was to serve the ends of

Stalinism, making them morally indistinguishable from the guards in the gulags.

But I think it’s possible to believe that many who joined the American

Communist Party during the Depression- before the purge trials and the

Hitler-Stalin pact-did so out of genuine, if naïve, idealism. It was a time

when the capitalist nations were kowtowing to Hitler, and when the major

political parties in America tolerated a vicious, racist system in the American

South that was morally indistinguishable from apartheid.

Of course, it is these people who were the collateral

victims of Hiss and those elements in the Communist Party leadership who undeniably

were aiding and abetting Soviet

espionage, thereby discrediting the idealists in the field who risked their

lives to defend sharecroppers against lynch mobs. Hiss and his fellow Communist

Party moles made them vulnerable to the lynch mobs of McCarthyism.

But there’s no profit in such a mixed perspective on the

Hiss case and the Communist Party; you just make yourself a target of lynch

mobs of both left and right. And I wouldn’t be venturing back into the briar

patch of the Hiss case if the recent revival of the controversy hadn’t recalled

to me an afternoon I’d once spent with Alger Hiss. Recalled an intimation I had then of a perspective on the case

that has not, to my mind, been articulated. One unrepresented in the clash of

left and right over Hiss’ dead body-a perspective, I suspect, that Alger Hiss

himself may have shared, but one that he could never express while alive. A

better way of defending him than the denial his most vocal defenders have

locked themselves into. One that offers Hiss at least a semblance of dignity,

that rescues him from being made to seem, in effect, the real Richard Nixon-the

Richard Nixon of the left.

The position Hiss’ defenders take is that he didn’t do

it-didn’t collude with other Communist Party members to spy for the Soviets as

he rose from minor New Deal functionary to major figure in the State

Department, a key player in the creation of the U.N. and the diplomacy of that

crucial postwar moment when the wartime alliance between the U.S. and USSR

shifted to Cold War confrontation.

He didn’t do it, and it’s important to absolve him of the

charge because-and this is implicit in the rhetoric of almost all of Hiss’

defenders-it would have been irredeemably shameful if he did .

What I began to suspect about Hiss during my long-ago lunch

with him was that he did do it, that he was secretly proud rather than ashamed of having done it, that part of having

done it was maintaining his innocence-and the Party’s deniability in regard to

espionage-and that part of maintaining that deniability was stringing along his

well-meaning defenders, encouraging them to become unwitting collaborators in a

cover-up he believed was a principled necessity, a cover-up of a secret he

would carry to his grave.

But now that he’s dead, now that extensive revelations from

the files of the former Soviet Union have documented the Party’s complicity in

espionage, now that the Soviet Union is

“former,” perhaps it’s time for some of Hiss’ defenders to give him credit for-even to defend-the reality of what he did.

Let me briefly outline my own evolution in regard to the

Hiss case before my lunch with Alger. I was not a red-diaper baby; my parents

were relatively apolitical F.D.R. Democrats. But as an impressionable

12-year-old, I’d come across a copy of Hiss’ post-prison memoir, In the Court of Public Opinion , in my

local suburban library. It was my first exposure to the case, and it shaped my

view of it for some time. As, of course, did the key role of Richard Nixon and

the House Un-American Activities Committee. Something about the ugliness of

that epithet “un-American” had fired me up as a kid about HUAC; as a

ninth-grader, I’d gone to a showing in my high school of the pro-HUAC

documentary, Operation Abolition , and

stood up alone to protest the crude McCarthyite tactics of the committee. With

enemies like Nixon and HUAC, I was sure Hiss had to be a victim of a frame-up.

That was the problem with the Hiss defense: so much of it

depended on the creepiness of those pursuing him. Consider Horace Schmahl, a

world-class creep if ever there was one. It was an effort to investigate the

shadowy role in the Hiss case played by this shady character that led to my

lunch with Alger. Back in the late 70’s, a researcher had approached me about

doing a story based on some recently declassified intelligence-agency files on

Schmahl, a German-American private investigator who had played a highly suspect

role in the Hiss case.

Schmahl had initially volunteered to help Hiss’ defense

lawyers prepare for his perjury trial in 1949. After worming his way into the

counsels of the Hiss defense, Schmahl then switched sides and fed information

to the prosecution. Many Hiss-case followers believe he was not a defector but

a deliberate infiltrator, a spy trying to frame Hiss as a spy. A Hiss-case

mole. Hiss’ Hiss (if you believe Hiss was a mole). A call to longtime Hiss

advocate Jeffrey Kisseloff, who helped design the N.Y.U. Hiss Web site

(www.nyu.edu/hiss), refreshed my memory about further sinister aspects of

Schmahl’s files: He’d been under considerable suspicion for his involvement in

the kidnap-murder of Jesús de Galindez, a democratic

opponent of the Dominican dictator Trujillo. And most significantly, Mr.

Kisseloff believes, Schmahl may have boasted that he’d fabricated a typewriter

for the O.S.S.- possible corroboration for the longtime belief by Hiss

defenders that the typewriter evidence against Hiss had somehow been forged.

Whether or not you believe that, there’s no doubt Schmahl

was a major-league scuzzball, a window into

the James Ellroy –like underside of McCarthyite culture in the 50’s. But

he also epitomizes the problem: It isn’t hard to find any number of creeps and

snitches and liars among Hiss’ opponents, but that in itself is not evidence of

Hiss’ innocence. And so much of the rhetoric of the Hiss defenders has relied

on sneering at his accusers, sneering at all anti-Communists as if they were

all McCarthyites, sneering at Whittaker Chambers for his bad teeth and his

cheap suits and his sexuality. It’s also true that Hiss’ opponents on the right

have relied on deductive generalizations: The fact that Chambers was more

accurate in his assessment of Stalinism than Hiss-and most left liberals at the

time-is not dispositive evidence that

Chambers was right about Hiss’ guilt.

And it’s also worth remembering that there were a number of

savvy observers on the left who believed that Whittaker Chambers was telling

the truth about Hiss. Check out the Hiss-Chambers chapter in Part of Our Time , Murray Kempton’s

brilliant and invaluable memoir of Communists pro-, ex- and anti- from the 30’s

to the 50’s. Kempton, who had briefly joined the Party in the 30’s, and who

came from the same shabby-genteel precincts of Baltimore as Hiss, wrote in 1978

that he always thought the “[Hiss] jury was correct.”

“The terrible conflict between [Hiss’] private self [the

strains of his shabby-genteel class origins] and his public conduct is the most

compelling reason why he could have joined the Communist Party,” Kempton wrote

in 1955’s Part of Our Time , “for the

Communists offer one precious, fatal boon; they take away the sense of sin. It

may or may not be debatable whether a man can live without God; but if it were

possible, we should pass a law forbidding man to live without the sense of

sin.”*

I don’t know whether Alger Hiss had a sense of sin, but he

certainly didn’t seem to have a sense of guilt. Which is not to say he wasn’t,

well, guilty. So many of Hiss’ supporters who became close to him in his

struggle have cited his innocent-seeming demeanor as if it were somehow

convincing evidence. I, too, was struck by it when I met him: the absolute,

unruffled serenity of his composure, the aura of faintly world-weary innocence

he radiated.

Pale, ethereal, almost priest-like, Hiss appeared virtually

transparent, like someone who hasn’t a thing to hide. But, of course, one could

just as easily cite this as evidence of how skillful a mole he’d been, how

skillful an actor he was. Almost everyone who’d been fooled by the century’s

supreme mole, Kim Philby, spoke of his

unflappable composure both before and after the mole accusations (before he

fled to Moscow, of course), the way he too seemed transparent, without the

slightest sense of something guilty to hide.

Certainly Hiss evinced no sense of guilt about encouraging

generations of researchers, volunteers and true believers-a small army of

amateur investigators-to devote a good part of their lives to him and his

cause. And, in fact, almost all of them will cite this fact to you as further

evidence of his innocence: “You don’t think,” they’ll say, “that he would have

gotten all these people to work on the case for him if he wasn’t innocent?”

Well, of course he would have. If he was a mole, the same political convictions that led him to deceive

the people close to him when he was active might just as well have led him to

deceive those defending his innocence in “retirement.”

Still, there must have been a price for him-if he was a

mole-to maintain the position that it would have been deplorable to do what he did. To agree, in effect, with his

accusers about the indefensibility of what he was accused of in order to

maintain his denial of it.

There must have been a price at some level, one imagines, in

not being able to say to someone what

he couldn’t say to his earnest defenders: I

did it, and I’m proud of what I did.

I’m not sure what it was about the afternoon I spent with

Hiss-lunch at an Irving Place restaurant, then up to his apartment to go

through some files. But I came away thinking (well, wondering , anyway) whether that wasn’t what was going on behind his

faint, world-weary smile: I did it, and

I’m proud of it .

It was a memorable afternoon for me. I mean, innocent or

guilty, here was a guy who had become the singular focus of nearly a

half-century of bitter debate over one of the great questions of the century. A

question that went beyond Hiss’ guilt or innocence: He had become a symbol of

what Alistair Cooke called, in a book of that title, “a generation on trial.”

One of the great enigmas of American history.

He had survived trial, conviction and jail, had been forced

to eke out a living as a small-time stationery salesman for two decades,

virtually forgotten-only to see his chief accuser, Richard Nixon, driven from

the White House for lying and covering up. The logic of

if-Nixon-was-guilty-Hiss-is-innocent was winning Hiss a new audience for his

crusade to clear his name. All of which may have further locked him away from

ever defending-taking credit for-what he really did.

Kim Philby, after all, had gone through a similar

denial-limbo period. From 1951, when he was fired from the British intelligence

service under suspicion of being the so-called “Third Man” in the Cambridge spy

ring, until 1963, when definitive evidence forced him to flee to Moscow, Philby

had maintained the same posture of injured innocence that Hiss had. Philby,

too, accumulated defenders in and out of government who thought he’d been framed by a McCarthyite witch hunt.

But at last, after he turned up in Moscow, he could revel in

the truth, boast of his achievements (as he did in My Silent War , the memoir of his mole career that supposedly

inspired alleged F.B.I. mole Robert Hanssen). He could receive decorations from

a grateful government and explain himself as having been deceived out of noble,

idealistic convictions.

In a peculiar way, history has denied Hiss ever having that

satisfaction, that recognition , and

his well-meaning defenders continue to deny it to him after his death.  (Their posture is moles are bad and of course Alger wasn’t one. ) But I think it’s

somehow the final sadness of Alger Hiss’ life that his defenders seem committed

to the idea that, if he did it, there’s no defense for it. They’ve adopted the

values of Hiss’ accusers!

No one is making the kind of defense for Hiss that Graham Greene

made for Kim Philby: the “secret Catholic” analogy that Greene drew in his

famous, and famously controversial, introduction to Philby’s memoir.

Greene had worked with Philby in British intelligence during

World War II and may well have suspected there was more to Philby than met the

eye at the time. Greene seems to have refused a promotion that would have had

him working directly under Philby, but he also refused to rat on him-a

conflicted situation he seems to have been meditating on in his novella The Third Man .

Anyway, in that controversial introduction, Greene compared

Philby’s secret Communist allegiance to that of the secret Catholics in

Elizabethan England who risked torture to work for a restoration of Catholic

rule. They believed they were working for the salvation of mankind, despite the

unappetizing Inquisitional culture of the Popes they risked their lives for.

Similarly, Greene suggested, Philby could be seen as a true

believer, someone aware of the Inquisitional culture of the Stalinist regime he

served, but one who, like the secret Catholics, persevered in the hopes that

someday communism would produce the kind of figure Pope John XXIII had been for

Catholicism. (Philby died before Gorbachev-his John XXIII figure-was rudely

shoved off the stage of history along with Soviet Communism.)

One can reject this

defense as fatally flawed; one can loathe Philby and loathe Hiss; but I’d

suggest that it’s not impossible that Hiss viewed himself in this way: as a man of principled idealism, one who kept

the faith and kept his silence to protect not just himself but a salvific

future he still believed in. Even if it meant deceiving his own most active and

self-sacrificing loyalists.

Perhaps Hiss loyalists should consider whether they are in

fact no longer defending Hiss at this point, but rather perpetuating a cover

story he no longer needs-at the cost of denying him a truly principled defense,

a defense, at least, of the person he really was. My Lunch With Alger: Oh No, Not Hiss Again!