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The final word on the original Cold War spy thriller
on April 20, 2012
Alger Hiss was a prominent State Department analyst accused of spying for the Soviet Union and working to favorably dispose American foreign policy towards the Soviets during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Hiss was convicted of perjury and sent to prison for lying to a Congressional Committee about his involvement in the American Communist Party.
Hiss thus played a larger-than-life role in Cold War history:
* He was the "Valerie Plame" of his day, a publicity magnet and a proxy for partisan political intrigues. Author Christina Shelton writes: "By virtue of his intelligence and highly successful academic career at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, as well as his distinctive charming manner, grace, good looks, and sophistication, he turned himself into an exemplar of the eastern upper-class liberal establishment." He was flamboyant in making himself a cause celeb with his friends in the Liberal-aligned media.
* The perjury charges that sent Hiss to jail were originated by none other than freshman Congressman Richard Nixon. The case brought Nixon to national attention. President Eisenhower chose him as VP, propelling him into the presidential elections of 1960 and 1968. The Hiss Case also goes far in explaining why the Liberal Press detested Nixon. They never forgave Nixon for originating the perjury charges against their friend. Nixon's never-ending war with the Liberal Press would later lead directly to the Watergate scandal.
* The drama of the case drew national attention. It began when Hiss was subpoenaed by Nixon's House Un-American Activities Committee, which Democrats regarded as a partisan vendetta bent on embarrassing President Truman by questioning the loyalties of his appointees. Hiss denied under oath ever having belonged to the Communist Party. He was contradicted by Whittaker Chambers, an editorialist at the then right-of-center Time Magazine. Chambers testified that he and Hiss HAD been members of a Communist Party Cell that spied for the Soviets. Instead of simply refuting Chambers' testimony, Hiss made a flamboyant denunciation of Chambers and the Committee.
* Hiss' theatrical denial raised the hackles of Congressman Nixon. Chambers provided Nixon with photographic and documentary evidence, including some in Hiss's handwriting, that convinced Nixon that Chambers was telling the truth about himself and Hiss being former Soviet spies. This evidence became known as the "pumpkin papers" due to the dramatic way that Chambers hid it (he thought that Hiss's friends might ransack his house to confiscate the evidence). Due to the statute of limitations Hiss could not be tried as a spy, but he was tried and convicted lying to Congress and spent almost four years in Federal Prison. He lived to the ripe old age of 92, always denying the charges.
* And so the case remains disputed to this day. Conservatives view the evidence as confirming Hiss to have been a Soviet spy, while Liberals portray him as an innocent victim of Nixonian "enemies list" vendettas.
I have known about the Alger Hiss Case since the 1970s. My father, who campaigned for Nixon in 1960, told me about it. I read Nixon's account of it in SIX CRISES. My opinion going into this book was that Hiss was almost certainly guilty of perjury and passing classified State Department documents to the Soviets.
So did this book educate me to anything I didn't already know about the case? Yes, it confirmed beyond reasonable doubt in my mind that Hiss was a Soviet spy and an agent of influence for them. Author Cynthia Shelton makes an exceptionally strong case for reaching these conclusions. She has thoroughly documented Hiss's life. She identifies many members of his family, friends, and colleagues in the Communist Party including Whittaker Chambers. She reports on the physical evidence including rental receipts, a typewriter, and samples of Hiss's handwriting that link Hiss to Chambers and both to a Communist Party cell. She presents evidence from the Soviet archives showing that the Soviet Union's intelligence agencies ran the Hiss/Chambers spy ring.
We next have to ask whether Ms. Shelton is credible in presenting this evidence. She is a retired Soviet Analyst of 32 years with the Defense Intelligence Agency, so she is certainly familiar with the Soviet methods of recruiting American spies in the 1930s. She is familiar with the documents in the Soviet archives that she says confirm that the Soviets used Hiss and Chambers to obtain classified documents.
She seems to be well-known in Washington as a Republican. However, it is interesting that Ms. Shelton was invited by Hiss' friends to his 75th birthday party in 1979. Hiss seemed to enjoy meeting people outside his usual circle of leftist intellectuals. She discussed the case with Hiss on friendly terms. She says Hiss took a liking to her, despite her being a right-winger in a room full of leftists and proud ex-Communist intellectuals. I think it speaks well of Ms. Shelton's objectivity to confirm that Hiss was a warm-hearted person who genuinely liked many people on many levels. He was obviously a complex and engaging personality.
Ms. Shelton also speaks well of Alger Hiss's positive traits, such his determination to make the best of his 44 months in prison --- which in those days was a "real" jail with convicted felons, not a "country club" like we have for white-collar criminals today. She quotes Hiss's son to the effect that his father devoted his prison time to self-reflection and thereby matured into a more selfless personality. Thus, Ms. Shelton does not appear to be writing about Hiss in any condescending or vindictive way.
The next question I wanted answered is whether or not Hiss's affiliation with the Soviets did any substantive damage to the U.S. Ms. Shelton addresses that in CHAPTER 8. THE STATE DEPARTMENT BUREAUCRAT and in CHAPTER 9. YALTA.
President Roosevelt is often charged by Conservatives of allowing Stalin to hornswoggle him at Yalta into acquiescing, over Churchill's objections, to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. Ms. Shelton points out that there were dozens of Soviet sympathizers in the British Foreign Office as well as our State Department. These appear to have briefed Stalin on the negotiating positions of Churchill and Stalin prior to the "Big Three" meeting in Yalta. But did that really matter? Did Roosevelt allegedly favor Stalin because State Department Communists like Hiss had his ear, or was it because he recognized that there was nothing he could do in any event to keep the Soviet Armies from overrunning Eastern Europe on their way to Berlin? The Yalta Conference was held just after the setback at the Battle of the Bulge, so the USA and Britain were not in as strong a bargaining position as they might have been. In fact Roosevelt was rather anxious to have the Soviets step up the timetables of their offensives. He did not go to Yalta intending to quarrel with Stalin.
Thus, the question of whether Hiss materially damaged U.S. interests is not clear in my mind. But it IS clear that he briefed the Soviets on our negotiating positions and post-war intentions.
This book was interesting in a number of perspectives:
1) It is a thorough biography of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers who testified against him.
2) It explains the motivations of people like Hiss to become Communists who spied for the Soviets.
3) It explains the political calculations of the USA, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II.
4) It explains why Hiss' testimony to Nixon's House Committee on Un-American Activities landed him in prison with a perjury conviction.
In all these regards, this book should be the final word on the epic Cold War thriller of Alger Hiss.