Unregretfully, Alger Hiss

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Chambers himself once described Hiss as “a man of great simplicity, and a great gentleness and sweetness of character,” and on that point at least. Hiss himself seems to agree with his accuser. “...I just couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t love me,” he has said, trying to explain why he was so slow to gauge the trouble he was in, and he is still anxious for us to admire his rectitude. Describing his post-prison career as a stationery salesman, he is careful to say that he was a success, even though “I didn’t take my customers to lunch or give them whiskey or flowers at Christmas.”

He remains unfailingly gallant—Alger Hiss must surely be the only person ever to remember Eleanor Roosevelt (who thought it “rather horrible” that Chambers, not Hiss, had been believed) as a woman of “quick-witted repartee”—and eerily unworldly. His best friends in prison, whom he describes as “affectionate family men, quick-witted, and...personable,” were Mafiosi.

Unsubstantiated theories about the case endlessly proliferate. Hiss himself once produced a list of six more or less mutually exclusive explanations for why he had been singled out for persecution.

The case against him was “fabricated,” he now says in the most allinclusive explanation he has yet offered for his troubles, “by an unholy trinity bound together by the theology of anti-communism....They were Richard Nixon, the power-hungry politician; J. Edgar Hoover, the ultimate bureaucrat; and Whittaker Chambers, the perfect pawn.”

In his new book Hiss continues to maintain that Chambers was a “psychopath,” whose enmity stemmed from resentment that his homosexual attraction toward Hiss was not reciprocated (Chambers denied ever being so attracted). But something new has been added: Chambers was also a “cowed, timid creature...skulking and shambling,” under the shrewd manipulation of Nixon and Hoover.

Hiss attributes Nixon’s malevolence to naked political opportunism, sparked by resentment of the “mild irritation” Hiss himself displayed at the congressman’s “manner” at their first meeting. (In fact, Nixon was at first an equivocal harrier, as mistrustful of Chambers as he was suspicious of Hiss until he had the documentary evidence in hand.)

Hiss’s recollections are as well tailored but curiously distant as the man the jury chose not to believe forty years ago.

Hiss attributes Hoover’s role to “personal vindictiveness...because I had been one of the early New Dealers who had complained of his disloyalty to Roosevelt’s policies, for which I believed he should have been forced out of office.” This is apparently a brand-new notion; nowhere in the courtroom testimony, in Hiss’s own previous book, or in any other account of the case available to me can I find so much as a hint of his having previously claimed to have been so outspoken a foe of the Director, and since he was merely a lawyer for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration during the early New Deal, it is hard to see what would have motivated him to become one.

Nor does evidence elsewhere suggest that Hoover was a notably amenable co-conspirator. According to Weinstein and to Richard Gid Powers’s excellent recent biography Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (Free Press, 1987), Hoover initially wanted to prosecute Hiss and Chambers. As always, the Director’s first duty was to defend the FBI; he resented HUAC’s intrusions onto his turf, was angered when Chambers chose to cooperate with its investigators and other officials at the Justice Department rather than with his agents, and was so upset when the federal prosecutor let slip that the FBI had been unable to find the missing Hiss typewriter that he had G-men secretly search the prosecutor’s files for evidence that he was “unfriendly toward the Bureau.”

Alger Hiss is eighty-four now and nearly blind; younger people read aloud to him as he once did to Justice Holmes. But he is as eager as ever to wrap himself in the achievements of the Roosevelt administration, whose reputation he did so much to damage. “In the New Deal, in the wartime State Department, for the nascent United Nations, I did what I could toward the common goal of a better world,” he writes. “Since the war, in my adverse circumstances, the fact that I fought for my beliefs has been more than just a private good for me alone—I continue to meet people who take heart from what I stood for. I count as successful my efforts to live according to my goals and principles, and so I have no cause for bitterness or regret, nor have I ever felt any....In the words of Job, I have pursued my goals ‘in mine own ways.’ In that I am content.”

The rest of us, who had hoped at last to hear from Hiss what really happened between him and Whittaker Chambers in New Deal Washington half a century ago, will also have to be content.