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 agoand I do believe he was guilty of both the stated charge of perjury and the unstated charge of espionageis 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 threatboth perceived and realis 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.