Customer Reviews: Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason
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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.
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on April 22, 2012
I know something about the Hiss-Chambers Case. I've written 3 scholarly articles about the Case and have talked about it twice at The Smithsonian.
This book is very good. For the general reader, it is an excellent, short summary of the whole Case. It is especially strong when it compares and equates Communism with Nazism; when it skewers (deservedly) the defenders of the traitor Hiss for their prejudice and blindness to facts; and when it goes through all the various incriminating documents about Hiss that have emerged from the ex-Soviet bloc. This book's largest contribution to the Case's scholarship is its description of exactly what Hiss did in the State Department in the 1940s, and at the Yalta Conference in particular. Ms. Shelton's book tells us more about these subject than any previous work; no doubt her background in government intelligence matters a lot here.
Thank you, Ms. Shelton!
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on May 18, 2012
This book is extremely important because it does not contain so much new material but is an excellent analysis of the case. Hiss was guilty of spying for the Soviets in the name of a false and horrible ideology , namely Communism, which was responsible for the killing of tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Ms. Shelton argues that Communism and Fascism were both sides of the same coin. She discusses in detail the two perjury trials of Hiss, his conviction and release and the battle Hiss conducted in order to vindicate himself, unsuccessfully. Hiss was a traitor who divulged a lot of secrets to the Stalin criminal regime, including some data on the American A-bomb.
Hiss became a secret agent of the adversary, because he was blinded by a false ideology, thus he chose to work for the GRU. As Ms. Shelton makes it clear, the case is far from being closed. The fact are that after the collapse of the Cold War, KGB archives containing relevant material on the case were opened, but GRU documents are still closed for inspection. This fact in itself limits the angle of the whole affair, in spite of the fact that so much is known.
Hiss was not alone; there were hundreds of Americans in the thirties and forties of the previous century who were spying for Stalin. The FBI secret service was impotent and could not discover them. Had it not been for Gouzenko and Bentley, there is doubt whether the extent of the Russian espionage throughout the USA would have been discovered.
The original part of the book contains evidence which was discovered quite by chance in Hungarian archives, linking Noel Field to Hiss. Field was recruited by Hiss to work for the Russians. Although the so many admirers of Hiss believed he was innocent, they did not-and still don't have- any evidence to contradict the solid evidence which argues that Hiss was guilty. Suffice it to mention that the VENONA project confirmed his guilt.
Hiss tried to close his mind and was blind to the inhumanity of Comunism.
The case is not over yet, but the verdict of history and the judicial one is final.
This is a compelling book and Ms. Shelton has written a very good and masterly one. It is another important addition to the growing literature of the role of intelligence in the history of the Cold War, a war which was in many ways a war of shadows.
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on February 9, 2015
"Why He Chose Treason" should be read, along with Stanton Evans' "Blacklisted by History", and Diana West's "American Betrayal", by everyone with an interest in U.S. history, and interested in the vulnerability of governments that claim to support freedom of expression. The author was a senior CIA analyst specializing in Soviet counterintelligence who has chosen to share some reality with her former employers, citizens, who mostly hadn't and haven't a clue about the truth of Soviet penetration. Today it is Muslim Brotherhood penetration for which the consequences have not yet played out. Ironically, or perhaps reasonably, since our current White House occupant was provided much guidance by an active Soviet Agent, Frank Marshall Davis, another former CIA Soviet specialist, Clare Lopez, has spoken with great clarity about Muslim penetration. The book, no surprise given all the writing CIA analysts must do, is a masterpiece of organization. It also reads like a spy novel, which should also be no surprise, except to the vulnerable activists on the left who still insist Hiss was framed and did nothing wrong, since Soviet KGB decrypted wires and former officers confirm that this is not fiction. (Your On Line Bookstore, an Amazon seller, sells brand new copies for less than the cost of shipping!)
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on September 23, 2014
This book is certainly worth reading. The author makes the point that fascism has much more in common with the communist left wing than it has in common with the democratic societies. She is far from the first to draw that conclusion. What I think the author misses, is that the Soviet international rhetorical support for the international proletariat hid their real agenda which was a new version of the old Russian imperialism. Like the National Socialists (Nazi party), the Russian communists were a national socialist party. The Comintern demanded subservience of all of the world's communists to decisions made in Moscow. Hiss was a traitor who served at a very high level, but his allegiance was to Moscow and not the international proletariat. The author rails against those in academia and I would add especially some in politics who refuse to admit that Hiss was a spy, including the former press secretary to Hillary Clinton, Karen Finney. She makes the same old McCarthyism arguments even though the Wisconsin Senator did not embark on his spies in high places crusade until after Hiss was convicted of perjury. The identity of Hiss as a spy has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt. In his 1998 book "Secrecy", then Democratic New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan points out that the evidence of spying by Hiss had been long known by the government based on classified secret documents, including the Venona Project, but kept secret for about 50 years. The question remains whether there needs to be a fundamental reassessment of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, not just because of Soviet spies in high places, but because of the high confidence FDR placed in unqualified people like Harry Hopkins. The really highly qualified professionals like George Kennan and Charles Bohlen were dismayed by the ineptitude of the Franklin Roosevelt administration in dealing with the Soviet Union. The first U S ambassador to the Soviet Union, appointed by FDR, William Bulitt, Jr, became completely disenchanted with the Stalin regime. He was later the U S ambassador to France and was warned by French intelligence shortly before the U S entered World War II that Alger Hiss was a spy. His successor as ambassador to Moscow was Joseph Davies whose only qualifications for being an ambassador were that he was an old chum and supporter of FDR and was married to the fabulously wealthy Marjorie Merriweather Post. He was completely bamboozled by Stalin's regime, attended one of the show trials and became convinced of the guilt of the accused even though he was a lawyer and should have known better. He was a willfully blind fellow traveler rather than a spy. Ambassador Davies was a complete embarrassment to professional diplomats and Soviet specialists including Charles Bohlen. So how great was the presidency of FDR? Roosevelt's support for Great Britain when it faced invasion and his somehat hidden agenda in preparing the United States for entry into Wotld War II secures his well deserved reputation as a great President. But the way the administration was run in the following years is the model of how not to run a presidential administration.
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on July 31, 2015
Good read about an obscure individual who once was part of government, who became a traitor, passing secrets to the Russians....
Book almost new, in perfect condition, arriving within scheduled time line.
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VINE VOICEon July 19, 2012
Even today, despite numerous pieces of evidence which have come to light, many on the left try to defend Alger Hiss as "a victim of the Red Scare" in America. In fact, Hiss was only charged after several other Soviet spies defected and others were caught. The author does an excellent job of of putting Hiss in context, his role in the Ware Group, a Soviet spy network from the 1930s established not just to collect intelligence on the U.S. but to INFLUENCE IT'S FOREIGN POLICY. Alger Hiss was the ultimate spy in that he was one of the WWII policymakers towards the USSR and was instrumental in the construction of the United Nations. When Hiss was outted by Chambers as a member of the Communist Party of the USA leftist sympathizers closed ranks around one of their own. Chambers then brought to light typed and handwritten copies of documents which were supposed to go to the Soviets, which revealed Hiss not just as a Communist but as a spy who sided with a foreign power over his own country, a country which provided him incredible opportunities. If that is not the definition of treason, I don't know what is.

This is the book to read if you are curious about this topic, because the author looks at the Verona intercepts which were kept secret for 40 years and which NAMED Hiss as a Soviet agent, the Hungarian secret police files in which a Hiss associate, suspected of being an American spy, revealed himself to be working for the Soviets (he named Hiss as a "reference"), and the testimony gathered from defectors. She addresses the latest round of excuses for Hiss and puts them for rest once and for all. EXCELLENT book.
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on July 18, 2015
An absorbing read.
An enormous amount of research done for this book.It gave me a new perspective about this era.Both before WW11 and the aftermath of the war.
It delved into the thinking behind Alger Hiss and his reason for being a traitor.
I am keeping it as a reference book.
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on April 23, 2012
What drew me to this book was not a rehash of the question of Alger Hiss's guilt but the more intriguing and still open question of why Hiss so vigorously maintained his innocence. Post self-professed liberal Susan Jacoby's book "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History" declaring that today almost no one on the left believes Hiss was innocent it was probably inevitable that someone of a more conservative persuasion would weigh in on the topic. Christina Shelton has stepped into the fray and her book is surprising on many fronts.

Shelton, a former Soviet analyst, has a distinctly anti-communist nearly neo-con point of view. (She doesn't claim to be unbiased and that works for me just as it did for Jacoby's book.) The first surprise is that Shelton actually met Hiss and found him to be pleasant company. The second is that Shelton goes to greater lengths that even the most pro-Hiss books to present a him as a caring, three dimensional human being. For the first time in reading nearly two dozen books on the case I got a sense of a man who could inspire such devotion and loyalty. I also encountered someone whose concern for his fellow man could make the hope presented by socialism/communism appealing.

A less pleasing surprise are Shelton's blanket statements about the "failure" of socialism and the refusal of American universities to admit that communism wasn't such a great idea in practice. I wouldn't argue that communism was thriving but there's a world of difference between a Social Democrat in Sweden and Leonid Breshnev. Shelton is on firmer ground laying out the similarities between Stalinism and Fascism, but while demolishing a retrospective claim that Hiss was doing good by supporting Stalin against Hitler this isn't hugely additive.

Shelton does an admirable job of assembling all the evidence against Hiss. It isn't thrilling reading but it is comprehensive. In it's totality it is compelling. Also compelling is Shelton's thesis that Hiss maintained his claim to innocence because it was more useful to the cause of communism than an open embrace of his beliefs. Shelton's version of Hiss is much more appealing (and human) than the dissembler (he's a master spy!) of Allen Weinstein's Perjury or the serial-deceiver (he just plain likes to lie!) of Edward White's Looking Glass Wars or the cold-fish (he's a jerk!) - all worthy, readable books that have their place.

Taken as a whole Shelton's book makes a contribution but it's not for everyone. I got the feeling that she'd like those who supported Hiss for decades to admit they were had but that's not likely to happen and, for me, it's beside the point. Recommended for anyone very interested in the Hiss case but not as the first book on the subject. (3.5 stars)
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on May 10, 2015
Christina Shelton has written the definitive book on the treasonous Alger Hiss. "Witness," Whittaker Chambers' autobiographical account of the His Perjury Trial was the excellent account from Chambers,' but was all too up-close and involved as his personal story. It didn't reveal the full extent of Alger Hisses' background and his deep Communist Conviction.
Christina Shelton's fine book fills in the missing information that allowed Hisses' admiring supporters and ever fawning media to chronically label Hiss as "the alleged" to the time of his death and still even today. Hiss was the suave, Harvard Lawyer, who worked for the New Deal's State Dept. He accompanied FDR to Yalta for the near end of the World War conference with Stalin and Churchill. This was the meeting that was to determine the spheres of influence and control for the post war world and for the United Nation's Charter. Hiss was the State Dept. adviser to FDR and a key author of the UN Charter. Hiss was also a devoted, ideological Communist, working for Stalin.
When Hisses' treason was exposed, it was denied, at the time, by some of the most influential members of the Truman Administration, academics and the press. Hiss was considered as one of them, by them. Hiss was accused of being a Soviet Communist Spy. He was! But he was able to honestly deny that he worked for the KGB. He didn't. Hiss was a spy for the GRU, Soviet Army Intelligence. This gave him and his supporters a dodge.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB files were open, the Venona Intelligence Descriptions were declassified and 'fellow travelers' confessed, Hisses' treason was definitely exposed beyond doubt. However, true leftist believers never let go of the fiction of the innocence of Hiss.
Christina Shelton's book is accurately and well researched, yet most readable and concise. She is refreshingly definitive and unequivocally declarative of Hisses' Communist convictions, his perjury and his treason. Her book is pleasure to read especial after more than half a century of hearing a disdainful tone used in relation to Whittaker Chambers and his "pumpkin papers," HUAC and the McCarthy witch hunt used to support the fiction that Hiss was innocent (McCarthy was after the Hiss Trials and had nothing to do with him).
Christina Shelton's book is refreshing after decades of hearing misguided support for Hiss. This was long ago, but we are still dealing with the unfortunate aftermath from Soviet Spies and their dirty work. We still face problems, in part, of their creation with the UN, the former Soviet Bloc, Ukraine, the Middle East and China.
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