Late President Richard Nixon would call it “gutsy.” Others called it “sisso,” the Finnish word for chutzpah. No matter how it was expressed, they were right about historian Allen Weinstein and his groundbreaking book on the Alger Hiss case published 35 years ago.
Today the consensus among scholars is that Hiss was, as two juries proclaimed in 1950, a Soviet spy. But in the 1970s, Hiss was riding high. Watergate allowed him to cast himself as Nixon’s “first victim.” Prior, Nixon had been the Congressional pursuer of Hiss during his testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And as Hollywood celebrated old leftists as merely New Dealers while defending the First Amendment, Hiss got both a martyr and a hero status.
In the process, he had even managed to convey a personality, a quality even his supporters at times found lacking. During the trials in 1948 through 1950, Hiss came across as evasive and haughty. His post-prison book, the robotically legalistic In the Court of Public Opinion (1957) baffled reviewers. Sidney Hook wrote, “one misses the passionate protest and burning sense of outrage usually found in the writings of those who consider themselves unjustly accused.” Richard Crossman complained, “there is not one paragraph or a line about the man Alger Hiss or his wife Priscilla.” Dwight MacDonald diagnosed him as “legalistic to the point of madness.”
By the 1970 though, history had moved in his direction. With so much going wrong around them, even the Silent Majority sought comfort in a wave of 1930s nostalgia, as evidenced by the popularity of films like Paper Moon and TV shows like the Waltons. With the young in tow, Hiss was able to come across as a living relic of that simpler time before it all went wrong with McCarthyism and then, Vietnam. At limousine liberal cocktail parties, the young — and the not so young — would literally sit at his feet while he reminisced about Franklin Roosevelt.
In our 9-11 world, it is difficult to understand the over 50 year old passions of Hiss defenders. The only link with our time period for the case was that it showed the lax internal security policies of the federal government. But much of left wing behavior applied to the John F. Kennedy assassination is now applied today with 9-11 groups asserting the American government knocked down the Twin Towers. And they now follow the pro-Hiss script, using anything, no matter how contradictory to the rest of the argument, to assault the official version, like Micheal Moore. And when evidence cannot be found, or evidence is found but it hurts the argument, assert conspiracy (i.e Oliver Stone).
Even today there are holdouts, although they wheeze and cluster around the Nation Magazine, the Politburo of the Hiss defenders. Apart from an inability to let go of youthful enthusiasms and thus have to admit that much of their life was marred by misspent energy, why would today’s defenders have such a considerable emotional investment in proving Hiss innocent when the evidence of 1950, and much since, clearly showed he wasn’t? The reason was linked to the McCarthy period and their belief that the Senator from Wisconsin’s rampage lead to Vietnam.“Without the Hiss case,” Historian Earl Latham wrote, “the six year controversy that followed might have been a much tamer affair, and the Communist issue somewhat more tractable.”
In spite of those who did admit engaging in espionage in Hiss’ cell, among them Lee Pressman, Hiss was regarded as the lone building block for McCarthyism. Given a fair trail, his innocence would have denied McCarthy any credibility. During the period, a reporter noted that liberals were reluctant to go out on a limb for the senator’s targets for fear those investigated might be another Hiss.
From this, Democrats, among them President Lyndon B. Johnon, would have not feared another Joe McCarthy red scare occurring as it did when the Harry S. Truman administration allegedly “lost China,” and thus sanity would have prevailed over defending South Vietnam.
Given the zeitgeist of the Watergate era, to write a book asserting Hiss’ guilt exposed oneself to charges of being a McCarthyite, or worse, a Nixonite. It did indeed take sisso to do so. And that brings us to Perjury. The backstory of this pivotal book was unique. Its author, Allen Weinstein, undertook writing the book and forcing the FBI to release its previously-classified files on the Hiss case, with the goal of clearing Hiss.
Such an approach of making the facts fit the theory would have been following the historiography of the pro-Hiss group. But Weinstein would prove to be more scholar than pundit. Canvassing the FBI files, he discovered that Hiss lied to and misdirected the FBI in their search for his Woodstock typewriter that would prove Hiss, or more likely his espionage partner wife, typed the secret State Department documents for Moscow use. He interviewed Josephine Herbst, who knew through her husband, another cell member, that Hiss was involved in underground work. He also uncovered that Hiss’ original defense lawyer, Edward McLean, withdrew his support because he felt that Hiss had not been honest with him.
Although highly praised by figures as ideologically different as William F. Buckley and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the defenders of Hiss would bring out the heavy lumber againt Weinstein. They called him, as expected, a Nixonite, a sloppy historian, and an opinion trustee of those unacquainted with the case. Victor Navaskly, Hiss’ proposed Dreyfuss, even staged a limited public relations victory over Weinstein by getting permission from the historian to examine his notes. But Weinstein recognizing that this was merely theater, withdring the offer.
Still, Perjury, to borrow a Marxist metaphor, derailed the Hiss’ history train speeding him toward complete vindication. But there would be a few more attempts to recapture the glory days of the 1970s.
In 1992, a Soviet historian, Dmitri Volganov, asserted that he found no evidence that Hiss spied for the Soviet Union. But in the months ahead, he would back away from this claim. In an interview, the historian stated that the Hiss people “pushed him hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced.” He admitted that he only spent two days “swallowing dust” in the KGB files. Later, lengthier research in the files along with the GRU ones would find damning evidence about Hiss.
In Libra, a retired CIA analyst, tasked by the agency to write the secret history of the Kennedy Assassination, is stymied into writer’s block because the documents keep coming
Not so with Weinstein.
Since 1978, the documents have kept coming, and they confirm this thesis. In 1996, thanks to the efforts of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the National Security Agency (NSA) released the Venona Telegrams, intercepted traffic between Moscow and their Soviet agents in the United States. One of their agents, condemned ALES, perfectly fit the background of Hiss. Another mentioned him by name, although the rest of cable is indecipherable.
The release of the 1949 Hungarian Secret Police interrogation of spy and defector Noel Field revealed he told them that Hiss did indeed spy for the Soviet Union. As part of a book publishing deal with Crown Publishing, KGB agent Alexander Vassilliev examined archival material concerning the Hiss case. He was allowed to take copious notes of the documents, which he claimed he copied verbatim. But when Vassilliev emigrated to Britain, he left the notebooks behind with trusted friends. Years later, he recovered them and then donated the documents to the U.S. Library of Congress. In them, was the most damning document of all, for it conclusively identified Hiss as a Soviet spy by using his real name. The head of the KGB station in Washington D.C., Anotaly Grosky, in a December 1948 internal damage assessment of KGB agents listed Alger Hiss as one who was danger of being blown.
Surveying the damage done by his notebooks, Vassilliev noted how little it affected the remaining members of the pro-Hiss crowd (by now, even anti-anti communist historian Ellen Schrecker had given up the ghost): “Alger Hiss is a religion, and there is no point in arguing with people about their religious beliefs.” As a former KGB agent who regards Hiss as a hero, he should know.
Perjury, with its objectivity, its willingness to question, and most important of all, the ability to change one’s mind, represents the best example of a secularist approach to the case. It has stood the test of time.