Alger Hiss and the Battle for History

The phrase “reaching across the aisle” tends to suggest a cheery postpartisan handshake. Susan Jacoby’s Alger Hiss and the Battle for History gives it a new meaning: she wants to give both sides of the aisle a slap across the face, if only to bring them to their senses. Her ostensible subject is the still-controversial espionage trial of Alger Hiss, but her brisk and persuasive study is, more generally, a reminder that a contested historical event can be misunderstood and misused by both sides. The Hiss trial, far from being a matter for the history books, vividly reflects present-day disagreements about patriotism and dissent in wartime.

Jacoby believes with 99 percent certainty that Alger Hiss, formerly a “rising star” in the State Department, did indeed spy for the Soviet Union. Many critics (on the Right) will call that 1 percent doubt bet-hedging or intellectual vanity, but that’s missing Jacoby’s point. Her doubt is a protest against the tendency to use belief in Hiss’s guilt as a political litmus test, a guarantor of one’s intellectual seriousness or even one’s patriotism. It is largely symbolic — Jacoby’s way of saying that she won’t be cowed into abandoning an inquisitive and receptive mind.

Jacoby, who once lived in the Soviet Union, despises communism and has very little patience, except in the investigative sense, for those who insist on pretending that Hiss was “framed.” She recognizes, with genuinely postpartisan insight, that such people only want to use Hiss to belabor the excesses and (she admits) relatively minor human cost of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red-hunting frenzy — that is, to maintain that the government’s prize example of Soviet infiltration was a fraud perpetrated by a lunatic and liar.

The “lunatic” in question is, of course, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers gave us a potent, if curiously manic, account of his break with the Party, Witness (1952), as well as one of the most memorable events in the annals of the Cold War. In a classic case of truth outdoing fiction, Chambers, on December 2, 1948, brought investigators for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to a pumpkin patch on his Maryland farm, where he produced a humble gourd containing Navy Department files. He claimed that Hiss had given him the materials, and thus commenced the trial that refuses to go away. (Jacoby relates that one incredulous G-man quipped, “What is this, Dick Tracy?” If only it had been that simple.)

Jacoby condemns Hiss, but she also notes that Chambers had initially denied any involvement in espionage, in order to skirt prosecution, admitting only that he and Hiss had been members of the American Community Party. President Reagan’s awarding a posthumous Medal of Freedom to Chambers upset many who, regardless of their views on Hiss’s guilt, saw Chambers as a liar and, by his own admission, a spy. Is this a fair criticism of the Right’s selective outrage? It seems disingenuous to argue as much, soft-pedaling the distinction between a traitor who went to his grave denying what all the evidence pointed to and one who eloquently rejected the most destructive ethos of the 20th century.

Those are the basics of the case, and much of Jacoby’s book consists of an easily understood — compared, she promises us, to the obsessive and byzantine accounts that she drew upon — delineation of the trial and subsequent revelations. But the basics are not Jacoby’s real concern. Her questions are, to put it bluntly, who cares, and why? Why does the popular imagination continue to fixate on a pair of relatively small-time agents? Did Hiss, or domestic communism, pose a serious threat to national security? If not, what is at stake?

Jacoby makes a compelling argument that the Left and the Right are concerned with everything but the facts of the case. The Left sees the prosecution — or persecution, if you like — of Hiss as an emblem of the abuse of civil liberties in the McCarthy era, and a warning against simlar abuses in the conflict formerly known as the War on Terror. The Right sees Hiss as proof that there was an internal communist threat, and that, whether or not McCarthy overstepped his constitutional bounds, he and others, from Reagan to Norman Podhoretz, assessed that threat intelligently and presciently. The Right also believed, in Jacoby’s telling, that “the New Deal was dominated by communist sympathizers attempting to further communist goals.”

“Liberal anti-Communist historians,” she writes, “most notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., made an effective case for U.S. government policy based on the principle that while Soviet Communism was a threat to America, communism was not a significant threat in America. The New Deal itself was seen, except from the far Right, not as an ideologically driven attempt to shift the balance of power from unrestrained business to government but as a pragmatic effort to correct some of the worst evils of unrestrained capitalism, such as the lack of regulation that had caused millions to lose their life savings in the stock market and failed banks.”

Whether Jacoby has proven that the threat of domestic infiltration was overblown (she buries in a footnote the fact that the Soviets had a spy in the Manhattan Project who “had access to classified scientific information about the making of the atomic bomb”), she seems satisfied that the threat of Islamic terrorism is exaggerated and that we are making Cold War–era mistakes as a result: “The identity of the enemy has changed, but the issues raised by the Hiss case about dissent, loyalty, and patriotism have not.” She goes on to suggest that “internal treachery was, and is, less of a threat to American intelligence-gathering capabilities than sheer stupidity.”

Given all this, the implication runs, we have no excuse for civil liberties violations (real and imagined) that have accompanied our latest world-historical struggle: domestic wiretapping, torture, secret prisons, and other abdications of executive responsibility. The trouble with this argument is that it isn’t the one Susan Jacoby wants to make. Her sop to the moral calculus of whether a threat is great enough to justify covert, unconstitutional, or otherwise unsavory action feels like just that — a sop. She could have said, as she seems to want to, that rules are rules and we can’t do without them without giving up a critical part of our national identity, no matter the circumstances. There is, in the end, really no postpartisan handshake — only a side in a fight. Had Jacoby taken her own with greater confidence, her Battle for History would have been a vastly more forceful call to arms.