For the left and the right, the story remains an emblem of their values.
By Susan Jacoby
March 22, 2009
Fifty-eight years ago today, Alger Hiss -- the defendant in an
emblematic Cold War prosecution once called "the trial of the
century" -- began serving a federal prison sentence for perjury.
Until his death in 1996, Hiss maintained that he had never been a
Communist or a spy and had been framed by the U.S. government.
When I told my 86-year-old mother that I was writing about the long
intellectual controversy over the Hiss case, her response was,
"You'll have to explain why anyone under 80 would still care about that."
One obvious reason the case remains so important to right-wing and
left-wing political intellectuals is that it stands, symbolically and
in real time, at the beginning of the era that now bears Sen. Joseph
R. McCarthy's name. Only two weeks after Hiss -- once a rising star
in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's State Department -- was
sentenced for perjury, McCarthy made his famous "I have here in my
hand" speech, charging extensive communist infiltration of America's
foreign policy establishment. And McCarthy remains very relevant
today. Ask people what they think about the McCarthy era today and
you have a good idea of where they stand on civil liberties
violations associated with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts today.
The legacy of the Hiss case also sits atop a domestic fault line
dividing those who believe in the kind of government activism that
defined the New Deal from those who consider government interference
with "the market" an insult to American capitalist values. As the
nation struggles with its worst economic crisis since the Depression,
we are witnessing a revival of right-wing, anti-New Deal,
anti-socialist and even anti-communist rhetoric that seems to belong
to another era in the distant past.
To make a very long story short, Hiss was a lawyer and committed New
Dealer, first in FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Administration and
then in the State Department. He was in charge of administrative
arrangements for the 1945 Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Winston
Churchill and Josef Stalin met to discuss plans for a postwar world,
and of the San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations Charter.
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor and repentant
ex-Communist, testified before the House Un-American Activities
Committee (known as HUAC) that Hiss had once been his best friend in
the Communist Party. Hiss initially denied having known Chambers, but
then admitted that he had been acquainted with his accuser under
another name. Eventually, Chambers led FBI investigators to a cache
of microfilm, supposedly of government documents passed on by Hiss,
in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm. Hiss' chief HUAC antagonist
was the future vice president and president, Richard M. Nixon, then a
congressman from California.
Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 after two trials, and was never
charged with spying (the real political accusation against him)
because the statute of limitations had expired. His conviction
perfectly suited the right's contention that if you scratched a New
Deal liberal, you would find a socialist or a communist.
It is impossible, in a short article, to evaluate all of the
doorstop-weight books that have been written about Hiss and Chambers
over the last 50 years, but after reading most of them, I have
concluded that Hiss was guilty of perjury and am 95% certain that he
did pass on government documents.
And here is where the past meets the present. It has always been
difficult for liberals to look objectively at evidence pointing to
Hiss' guilt, because the case cannot be separated, then or now, from
the right's contempt for the New Deal and its unending attempts to
conflate liberalism, socialism and communism.
Who would have predicted that right-wing Republicans would respond to
the current economic crisis by insisting that President Obama's
stimulus efforts won't work because "everyone knows" that the New
Deal didn't work? Tell that to people who fondly remember getting a
paycheck from the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and who
depend on Social Security -- the permanent New Deal legacy -- in
their old age.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in
February, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declared that "Lenin and
Stalin would love this stuff." Obama's economic stimulus package,
Huckabee added, would help create "socialist republics" in the United
States. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) ceased to
exist in 1991, but a bumper sticker decrying "Comrade Obama" labels
the president as someone who wants to turn the United States into the "USSA."
On what planet are these people living?
In a sense, they are living on the same planet as the editors of the
Chicago Tribune after Hiss' conviction in 1950. "So we find this
traitor hobnobbing through the years with the mightiest of the New
Deal mighty," the Tribune declared, asserting magisterially that "the
guilt is collective" and "spreads over the New Deal, which sponsored
and protected this monstrous conspiracy against America." Time
marches on, but ideological anti-rationalism does not.
The conspicuous trait uniting those who are still obsessed with Hiss
(whether on the left or the right) is the need to vindicate not only
their verdict on American history but the governmental policies they
On the left, the reluctance to let go of the Hiss case has a pedigree
extending from the 1930s: The right was wrong about the threat of
Nazism, wrong about the existence of an internal communist threat in
America and wrong about the Vietnam War. Finally, of course, liberals
believe that the right is wrong in its willingness to sacrifice civil
liberties, and to deliberately ratchet up public fear, in the
legitimate cause of fighting Islamist terrorism.
The right-wing line goes something like this: Liberals were wrong
about Stalinism in the 1930s, wrong about the Vietnam War and wrong
about the Soviet threat. So it stands to reason that liberals must be
wrong today about the war in Iraq, wrong about the use of torture on
detainees, wrong about the need to protect civil liberties and wrong,
wrong, wrong about the desirability of government intervention in the economy.
By referring back to Lenin and Stalin today, the right is betting
once again that Americans can be swayed by the identification of
government activism with alien, "un-American" ideas. This turned out
to be a bad bet in the 1950s, when, in spite of their fear of
communism, most Americans went right on thinking that the New Deal
stood not for Reds but for red, white and blue.
My guess is that these tactics will backfire even more swiftly today.
Sane Americans, in spite of our ahistoricism, really do know that
Leninism and Stalinism are dead. And the emblematic traitor of our
day is not a left-wing intellectual figure like Alger Hiss but the
capitalist crook Bernard Madoff.
Susan Jacoby is the author, most recently, of "Alger Hiss and the
Battle for History."