When exposed Soviet Spy Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury 96 years ago this month, the far Left, personified by the American Communist Party, denounced the verdict and championed Hiss as merely an innocent New Dealer framed by fascists.
Fifties’ era liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a fervent defender of the New Deal, and one of the founders of post-war liberal anticommunism, refused to play that game. Along with other liberals (John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist who served in the Kennedy administration, John F. Kennedy, then a senator, and such literary heavyweights as Leslie Fiedler and Lionel Trilling), Schlesinger accepted Hiss’ guilt as having spied for the Soviet Union.
The contemporary history lesson promoted by liberals was that these beliefs were shared by all liberals save the Nation Magazine.
But like that other false liberal narrative, that, before the fall of the Soviet Union, liberals of all stripes supported then-President Ronald Reagan’s strategy to bankrupt the Russians, the actual record was that several liberal heavyweights in the 1950s defended Hiss.
Prominent among them was former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite evidence mounting against Hiss during Congressional hearings, she still proclaimed him innocent. In her 1948 “My Day” syndicated column, she used Hiss’ government service in the State Department during the FDR era as proof alone that he couldn’t be a spy:
“Smearing good people like…Alger Hiss and others, is I think, unforgiveable…Anyone knowing…Mr. Hiss…whom I happen to know fairly well, would not need any denial on their part to know they are not communists. Their record proves it.”
This belief was shared by her daughter, Anna Roosevelt Halstead, who also used her relationship with Hiss, who she knew very well, as reason enough for his innocence. Like other liberals and leftists of the day, she regarded Whittaker Chambers as “utterly contemptible and probably a psychopathic liar.”
Even former presidents and presidential candidates supported Hiss. President Harry Truman, initially dismissed the Hiss Case as “a red herring,” designed by Congress to take the public’s mind off its sorry record. An urban legend peddled by Richard Nixon, credited by many (including President Dwight Eisenhower who Nixon served under as vice president) as the “man who got Hiss,” was that Truman eventually came around when presented with persuasive evidence
But the reality is that Truman never wavered in his view that Hiss was innocent. Six years after the verdict in a 1956 interview he still championed Hiss. Adlai Stevenson, twice a Democratic Presidential candidate, believed even into the sixties that Hiss had been framed.
Liberal championship by high government officials was not confined to America. William Earl Jowitt, former Lord Chancellor and an attorney general in the British government, attempted to exonerate Hiss in a 1953 book entitled The Strange Case of Alger Hiss.
Chambers, confined mainly to conservative circles, nevertheless encountered a pro-Hiss liberal when trying to make a living as a writer. When seeking a publisher for his 1952 account of the case, Witness, his book was turned down by Ken McCormick, editor in chief of Doubleday. Believing the book a guaranteed best-seller, McCormick nevertheless chose politics over profit because he believed Hiss innocent, and Chambers “a bad guy.”
It is true that today there is an overwhelming consensus among liberals that Hiss was a spy. But this was not always so. Although a handful, the liberals who championed Hiss during the case and after were high government officials.
It confirms the conservative view then and now that Chambers was truly a David fighting a liberal Goliath.