November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
Almost fifty years after Whittaker Chambers first told a government official that Alger Hiss was a Communist, and forty years after Chambers’s charge was finally made public, Hiss has written Recollections of a Life (Seaver Books/Henry Holt), billed by its publisher as “his long-awaited memoir.” No one’s frank memoir would be more welcome; many, even among those who believed Hiss innocent, also believe he had been unable to tell the whole story in court.
Chambers, a pudgy, rumpled confessed ex-Communist, first tried to warn the White House about Hiss, who was then a minor State Department official, shortly after the Nazi-Soviet pact had been signed in 1939. Nine years later, on August 3, 1948, Chambers repeated his accusation before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The charge seemed wildly implausible, and the forty-four-year-old Hiss indignantly denied it. Lean and aloof, he was a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School and had been a protégé of Felix Frankfurter and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., as well as secretary-general of the conference that drew up the charter of the United Nations. He had only recently been appointed by John Foster Dulles as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Hiss first testified that he had never even known “a man by the name of Whittaker Chambers,” then began grudgingly to equivocate, and finally admitted a slight acquaintance with Chambers, but under a different name and several years earlier than his accuser alleged. Otherwise he remained adamant and dared Chambers to repeat his charges outside the legal sanctuary of the hearing room.
He did so, on “Meet the Press,” and three weeks later Hiss sued him for libel. Chambers then produced documents that showed Hiss had been more than a Communist sympathizer; he had also provided classified State Department documents to Chambers, who had himself passed them along to the Soviets.
Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury—for denying he had seen Chambers after 1937 and for denying that he had turned over classified papers to him. (He would have been indicted for espionage, too, had the statute of limitations not run out.) His first trial ended in a hung jury; a second jury found him guilty, and he was sent to prison for forty-four months.
From that day to this, Hiss has consistently denied ever having done anything wrong. There is not room enough in this column—or in this magazine, for that matter—to offer all the arguments and counterarguments involving Oriental rugs and missing teeth, underground aliases and allegations of forgery by typewriter that were central to this case, but I believe the most dispassionate, step-by-step account of it is still Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (Knopf, 1978). Weinstein began his work suspecting that while Hiss may have been less than totally forthcoming about his friendship with Chambers, he had been innocent of both Communist sympathies and espionage, and he ended it nine years and 674 pages later convinced that Hiss had been guilty as charged. “There has yet to emerge from any source,” Weinstein concludes, “a coherent body of evidence that seriously undermines the credibility of the evidence against Alger Hiss.”
From the first, Hiss chose to portray himself as the blameless victim of reactionaries bent on discrediting “recent great achievements of this country in which I was privileged to participate,” thereby making himself a rallying point for those liberals who, as Walter Goodman once wrote, “could not concede that many New Dealers, including F.D.R. himself, had been slow in taking the Communists as seriously as they deserved to be taken. Those who...associated themselves with the sad cause of Alger Hiss made an error for which the liberal cause would pay in the next half dozen years,” years during which zealots took the Hiss conviction as a license to look for more Hisses in places where none existed.
Because Richard Nixon, a member of HUAC in 1948, had always claimed more credit than he should have for trapping Hiss, the chronic mendacity that in turn later trapped him lent a fresh, if specious, credence to Hiss’s ancient denials. If Nixon was a proven liar, Hiss and his most ardent loyalists seemed to argue, those whom he had accused of lying must be truthful.
Hiss once vowed “never to write an autobiography...because I hold certain strong views about privacy.” Unfortunately, in Recollections of a Life he has remained true to that pledge; it is a slender collection of reticent sketches, as well tailored but curiously distant as the man whom the jury chose not to believe almost forty years ago. He reveals no more than is absolutely necessary, withholding even the maiden name of his second wife. One whole chapter is devoted to an aunt who read aloud to him as a child, another to a singularly uneventful summer he spent in France, still another to having read aloud to Justice Holmes.
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 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.