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Alger Hiss and the Battle for History

Alger Hiss and the Battle for History

by Susan Jacoby

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A tough, evenhanded investigation of changing public perceptions of the Alger Hiss case and why it has served as a litmus test of American political loyalties for sixty years

Books on Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss abound, as countless scholars have labored to uncover the facts behind Chambers’s shocking accusation before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the summer of 1948—that Alger Hiss, a former rising star in the State Department, had been a Communist and engaged in espionage.

In this highly original work, Susan Jacoby turns her attention to the Hiss case, including his trial and imprisonment for perjury, as a mirror of shifting American political views and passions. Unfettered by political ax-grinding, the author examines conflicting responses, from scholars and the media on both the left and the right, and the ways in which they have changed from 1948 to our present post–Cold War era. With a brisk, engaging style, Jacoby positions the case in the politics of the post–World War II era and then explores the ways in which generations of liberals and conservatives have put Chambers and Hiss to their own ideological uses. An iconic event of the McCarthy era, the case of Alger Hiss fascinates political intellectuals not only because of its historical significance but because of its timeless relevance to equally fierce debates today about the difficult balance between national security and respect for civil liberties.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300164411
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/30/2010
Series: Icons of America
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susan Jacoby is an independent scholar and best-selling author. The most recent of her seven previous books is The Age of American Unreason. She lives in New York City.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Passions as Prologue 31

Chapter 2 The Eye of the Hurricane, 1948-1950 93

Chapter 3 Competing Narratives and Public Amnesia, 1950-1965 119

Chapter 4 The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, 1970-1980 140

Chapter 5 The Rise of the Right and the Cold War at Twilight, 1980-1992 166

Chapter 6 The Enemy Vanishes, 1992-2008 183


Passions as Epilogue 202

Chronology 225

Notes 231

Selected Bibliography 239

Acknowledgments 243

Index 245

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Fascinating, accessible, and persuasive, Susan Jacoby makes it clear why the Hiss case and the diverse responses to and uses of it matter." —-Harvey J. Kaye, author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America


A conversation with Susan Jacoby

Q:  Why did you title your book Alger Hiss and the Battle for History?

A:  What Alger Hiss actually did sixty years ago—and I do believe he was guilty of both the stated charge of perjury and the unstated charge of espionage—is less important than the fact that his case has come to stand for very different views about American history. For the political right, the Hiss case remains a symbol of the alleged weakness and naïveté of the left about foreign and domestic threats. To the left, the willingness of the right to discard constitutional safeguards in times of threat—both perceived and real—is symbolized by the rush to judgment about Hiss even when the evidence against him was much less convincing than it is now.


Q:  Is it possible to believe that Hiss was guilty and oppose the methods of what has come to be known as the McCarthy era?

A:  Of course. The fact that Hiss turned out to be guilty does not justify the violations of constitutional rights by the House Committee on Un-American Activities or by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee. There are many political liberals who once believed that Hiss was framed but have now concluded that he was guilty. But they also deplore the violations of civil liberties of the McCarthy era in the same way that they deplore violations of the Constitution in the war on terror today. The right, however, says, “Wrong about Hiss, wrong about everything.”

Q:  What role have the media played in this dispute?

A:  A good deal of my book is devoted to analyzing the ways in which the media have helped keep the Hiss case alive for sixty years. I look at both left- and right-wing publications, but much of my attention is focused on middle-of-the-road magazines and newspapers. The mainstream press, at any given time, reflects received opinion, and I’m particularly interested in the way received opinion about Hiss changed over time.

Q:  Why should anyone care about the Hiss case today?

A:  We should care because many of the issues surrounding the Hiss case, and the entire postwar hunt for Communists, are extremely relevant to the current battle over the appropriate balance between national security and civil liberties.

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