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Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (Icons of America) Hardcover – March 24, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


"There is a lifetime of erudition—about American society, the Soviet Union, and the way people bend their perceptions to fit their beliefs—in this wise and careful look at an episode that for decades inspired heated diatribes. Jacoby points out that those of us who don't believe in Hiss's innocence should still care about the issues of civil liberties that the case raised—and which are still highly relevant today."—Adam Hochschild, author of Half the Way Home and Bury the Chains

(Adam Hochschild)

“Jacoby offers a sprightly and thoughtful overview of the Hiss case, and considers its impact on several generations of liberal and conservative intellectuals. Her nuanced conclusions may not win the approval of either pro- or anti-Hiss partisans, but should prove all the more useful to the general reader.”—Maurice Isserman, Hamilton College
(Isserman, Maurice)

“Fascinating, accessible, and persuasive, Susan Jacoby makes it clear why the Hiss case and the diverse responses to and uses of it matter. She will upset, if not outrage, people on both sides of the political spectrum.”—Harvey J. Kaye, author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
(Kaye, Harvey J.)

"[The] book is most memorable for the passion with which Jacoby trumpets certain sensible but often overlooked truths."—David Greenberg, The Washington Post

(David Greenberg Washington Post 2009-05-31)

From the Author

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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Product Details

  • Series: Icons of America
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1St Edition edition (March 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300121334
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300121339
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.7 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,352,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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27 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on March 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having read many books on Alger Hiss, my first reaction to Susan Jacoby's new book on Hiss was to wonder why at this point in time is there the need for yet another treatment of the Hiss case. However, Jacoby has written some outstanding books I have reviewed on Amazon, so I took a chance. It must be made clear at the outset that Jacoby here is not refighting the issue of Hiss's conviction for perjury (with which she agrees) or whether he was a Communist spy (about which she is more skeptical). Rather her goal is to show how the Hiss issue has played a continuing role in American politics since the late 1940's in many unfortunate connections. For example, it has been used by the right she believes to try and conflate liberalism with Communism; to serve as a device for attacking the New Deal and its programs; and for converting once liberal folks like Irving Kristol into the neocons of today. In short, as she puts it, there are ideological fault lines in American thought that directly connect with the Hiss case.

Jacoby traces the case, explores the backgrounds of Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, sets the context by discussing Nixon and McCarthy, and relates Hiss to the postwar "witch hunts" and cold war mentality that kept many Americans on edge throughout the last five decades. Along the way, she throws out some interesting thought provokers: was Hiss just like Daniel Ellsberg?; what actual damage did the supposed Communist spy rings actually inflict?; does Watergate's disgrace of Nixon establish Hiss's innocence?; do recent releases from the Kremlin files exonerate or condemn Hiss? Again and again she returns to the central issue: why has this late 1940's episode played such a continuing role in American politics virtually up to the present?
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By MJS on June 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Susan Jacoby's book on the Alger Hiss case might easily be subtitled: Give It a Rest Already. The "It" in question is the tendency among some to make sweeping assumptions about anyone's beliefs or motivations based on whether or not they believe Alger Hiss was a spy or was guilty of perjury or was framed, etc. I've been fascinated by this case since I first saw the great PBS miniseries "Concealed Enemies" in the early 1980s. That fascination has led me to read many books on the topic, some good (Alger Hiss's Looking Glass Wars), some bad (fratricide) and some genuinely life-changing (Perjury). Jacoby's book is both good and eye-opening; in spots it is genuinely entertaining.

Jacoby is a self-described liberal who has written this book out of frustration at seeing the Hiss case still used as a litmus test of sorts. The liberal point of view has been under represented in this case since Verona so it is good to have another side weigh in. She states up front that she believes Hiss was a spy and she also states that very few liberals have thought Hiss was innocent since Weinstein's book. She also admits to finding Hiss himself to be rather noxious, an impression I share. Jacoby sketches the outlines of the HUAC hearings, the libel trials and Hiss's attempts at rehabilitating his image before addressing how the Hiss case is used today.

Jacoby inadvertently identifies another thing about this case that has got to go. As with so many books on the case, there are more fresh insights offered as to the impact of homosexuality on espionage and the criminal justice system. Long time Hiss aficionados will be familiar with the theory that Whittaker Chambers framed Alger Hiss because Chambers had a homosexual yen for Hiss.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The central question of this book is NOT whether Alger Hiss was guilty - either of espionage for the Soviets in the late 1930s and early 1940s or of perjury in 1948 concerning his relationship with Whittaker Chambers. Rather, the book examines why, over the decades, so many people on both the right and the left have been so exercised and strident over Alger Hiss and his prosecution. "What remains important about the Hiss case today is its ability to strike chords located along ideological fault lines that, in spite of many cultural shifts, extend from the 1930s to the present." By itself, the Hiss case would seem to be a rather minor matter, especially sixty years later. But the "Hiss Affair" (some have hyperbolically argued that it is this country's Dreyfus Affair) has become a lightning rod for larger issues, especially those relating to when, and how far, the government may infringe on individual civil liberties in the name of national security. As Susan Jacoby says early in ALGER HISS AND THE BATTLE FOR HISTORY, "Ask anyone what he or she thinks of HUAC or McCarthy and their effect on civil liberties in the years after the Second World War, and you don't need to ask where he or she stands on the Patriot Act today."

That, of course, is somewhat of a rhetorical overstatement, the sort no sober-minded historian should make but one perhaps acceptable in a work of political analysis. ALGER HISS AND THE BATTLE FOR HISTORY definitely belongs to the latter category and there is a fair amount of similar rhetoric. If you need to know in advance what Jacoby's political orientation is, she admits to being a liberal - though she never was a Hiss supporter or apologist.
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