“We're a long way from the end of this”

Alger Hiss' son talks about his new memoir, "The View From Alger's Window," and the espionage case that wouldn't die.

Topics: Espionage, Books,

Was Alger Hiss a dedicated public servant or a spy, a victim of Cold War hysteria or a secret communist? For half a century the question has roiled public debate, shaped discourse about honor and justice, split liberals into warring camps and rallied conservatives around the faith of anticommunism.

Hiss was the embodiment of New Deal liberalism. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he had clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court’s venerable Oliver Wendell Holmes and had given up a promising career in New York to join Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He rose high in the State Department and served as secretary-general of the founding conference of the United Nations. By 1948, when he was accused of spying for the Soviets, he was president of a prominent philanthropic foundation, the Carnegie Endowment.

His accuser, Whittaker Chambers, presented a far cloudier image. An admitted ex-communist, the Time magazine writer packed a pistol at the office, harbored a secret homosexual past and muttered about the decline of Western civilization. Nevertheless, in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where Richard Nixon was an ambitious young unknown, Chambers laid Hiss low. Hiss fought back, accusing Chambers of slander. But following a first trial that ended in a hung jury, Hiss was convicted of perjuring himself about his involvement in espionage.

From March 1951 to November 1954, Hiss was confined in the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pa. After his release, his reputation in tatters, he found work as a salesman for a Manhattan printing firm. Though he always insisted on his innocence, he remained remarkably free of bitterness. He died in 1996 at the age of 92.

Tony Hiss, 57, a former staff writer at the New Yorker, recalls the once-a-month treks to Lewisburg that he and his mother, Priscilla, made to visit the famous father he barely knew. His new memoir, “The View From Alger’s Window” (Knopf), is a devoted son’s attempt to portray a man whose impeccable character made treason inconceivable. But the book is coming out at a time when scholarly opinion about Alger Hiss is increasingly hostile. Newly opened files from Soviet, U.S. and Hungarian sources have provided evidence that, some historians say, links him to Soviet espionage. And despite the lack of any smoking gun, this is also the conclusion of a trio of recent books: “Whittaker Chambers,” a 1997 biography by Sam Tanenhaus; the just-published “Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America” by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr; and “Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case” by Allen Weinstein, first published in 1978 and again two years ago in an edition that incorporates newly available archival material.

The contrary stance in “The View From Alger’s Window” is based largely on a cache of 2,500 letters, including 445 Alger Hiss wrote during his imprisonment. They show a man who reads the New Yorker and the Bible, sings in the prison choir, delights in classical music and teaches a small-time mobster to read. Out his window, his eyes feast on sunsets and stars. To his wife, he vows to make use of imprisonment as “a large opportunity for learning and growing.” To his son, he writes touching letters designed to impart lessons in coping and growing up. Buddha, Shakespeare and FDR show up in these letters, but there is not a word about Marx or communism.

My interview with Tony Hiss took place at the Greenwich Village apartment where he spent much of his early life. He lives there now with his wife, the young-adult novelist Lois Metzger, and their 7-year-old son, Jacob. Hiss pointed with pride to a handsome 18th century mirror that Justice Holmes willed to Alger Hiss. For the Hiss family, the mirror isn’t merely an antique — it’s an emblem of loyalty to American tradition.

If the charges against your father were false, do you have any idea why Chambers would have singled out your father?

In the ’60s a San Francisco psychiatrist named Meyer Zeligs wrote a quite interesting book, a joint psychobiography of Chambers and Hiss, “Friendship and Fratricide.” He turned out to be quite a good reporter. He discovered a fascinating fact: that this was not an isolated incident in Chambers’ life. He had a pattern of befriending someone, idolizing them, rejecting them and then trying to ruin them.

Allen Weinstein’s “Perjury” was begun with the assumption of your father’s innocence but concluded that there was “persuasive but not conclusive” evidence of his guilt. First published in ’78, it was acclaimed by both conservatives and liberals.

It received great acclaim from Cold War liberals. You have to remember that once the Cold War became part of everyone’s psyche, a whole generation of liberals came of age within that context. Many of them made it part of their self-definition that no one could pin the pinko label on them by accusing them of having sympathies for Alger Hiss — people like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Yes, the book was hailed by those who had already accepted that notion, and it got a free ride as a result. It’s a very argumentative book. It is stuffed with footnotes, so it has the apparatus of scholarship. He would be happy to take any scrap of information, ambiguous as it is, and turn it to Alger’s disadvantage. There are Hungarian files released by Noel Field, a troubled person who had had a complicated relationship with Eastern European and Soviet forces. It’s true that he seems to have made some statements to communist interrogators in Hungary implicating Alger Hiss. But it also seems true that he made those statements while being tortured. Both before his imprisonment and after his release, he also made statements which repudiated those accusations.

The biography of Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus accepts the Noel Field statements implicating your father.

Well, he’s writing a very sympathetic, warm biography of Whittaker Chambers. Again, he’s not feeling much of a need to probe Chambers’ stories very deeply. It’s always been a desperate search to find material that might corroborate Chambers, because it’s always been one man’s word against another’s. To feel confident in a perjury case, you’re supposed to have two witnesses. Here there’s only one. So it’s always been a search for documents.

Yale University Press has just published “Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America” by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. It concludes that there is “little doubt” that Alger spied for Soviet military intelligence, not only in the ’30s but into the ’40s, when he was a high official in the State Department.

That’s because there is this one cable that was intercepted and decoded [by the National Security Agency] that talks about a spy code-named “ALES.” It came with a footnote supplied by the FBI that said “probably Alger Hiss.” That cable said that “ALES” had a network [of spies] of his own, that this consisted primarily of his “relations” — you don’t know whether “relations” is a code name or family. It also says he was in touch with another code-named agent, who has been identified as Gregory Silvermaster. No one has ever shown any ties between Silvermaster and Alger.

The story just gets more and more complicated. For example, it’s now known that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was in fact so penetrated by Soviet agents that for five or six years, during the time that Chambers said Alger was a spy, pretty much any document from Washington went straight to the Soviets. There were plenty of other candidates for being “ALES.”

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Given these attacks, do you feel more besieged than ever?

Alger’s in more trouble than he ever was, and he’s no longer around to deny it. But I think that’s temporary, because rather than having this vast landscape of information around us, we have a vast sea of misinformation or lack of information. It’s going to take a long time before the water drains away and we know what we’re talking about.

Even Weinstein admits the “evidence is persuasive but not conclusive.”

They’re all very careful not to say that it has been demonstrated with certainty. I think it can be helpful to take a closer look at the man accused of these monstrous crimes and see what kind of a person he was. If you wish to be filled with some substance, you’re most vulnerable if you’re empty of some other set of values and convictions. Whereas my father was already full to the brim with purpose and vigor and history and tradition. He thought he was fighting the good fight.

The other dimension of my dad was someone of great resilience and resourcefulness who could find his way through what so easily might have been a devastating experience of losing his job and his reputation — sitting in the slammer and actually making something of it. I admire enormously someone who could say, and mean it, “Three years in jail is a good corrective to three years at Harvard.”

Are you still angry about what you and your parents had to go through?

It’s still an injustice crying out for remedy, but it is not something that I personally feel angry about, partly because my father seemed so amazingly transmuted and was never a bitter person. He always tried to learn from whatever experience came his way. That phrase by Malachy McCourt that I used in the book resonated with me: “Resentment is like taking a poison and waiting for the other fellow to die.”

You write that your son’s 7th birthday was very difficult for you. You had a terrible headache.

Because my own 7th birthday was the day for me when the troubles had begun. It was typical of my father’s headstrong nature that, for all his rationality, he met troubles head-on. That was the day he chose to go to Washington to go before the House Un-American Activities Committee to deny the charges that had just been made by Whittaker Chambers rather than come up to Vermont and be at my birthday party.

Why publish a memoir now?

His death certainly brought things together in my mind in a way we really don’t anticipate beforehand. And the interest in him has intensified in the last few years. So much of the hostile attention, it seemed to me, has to do not with the man I knew but with this strange, monstrous caricature that had formed in some people’s minds. I realized that the only story I could tell was about the person I got to know best, ironically, when he was in jail. I finally had him all to myself.

I assume you wanted to show a different Alger Hiss to the world, a gentle, playful Alger contemplating the nature of happiness and art and so on?

I wanted to write a personal book. I did not want to become just a part of the politicized debate about this case. I realized there was a separation between Alger as he presented himself to the world — often quite stuffy, cold and formal, lawyerly — and the man I had gotten to know, who was very playful, even silly and sweet, and fascinated by people and things around him, birds and sunsets. I think some of this inner Alger, ironically enough, welled up at this point, trying to come to terms with incarceration.

There was no suggestion in any of these letters that Alger was either a communist or a spy?

There’s not even any interest in the rubric of Marxism as a way of explaining the world. He got fascinated in Freudianism. There were countries that appealed to him as in some ways farther advanced than America, but they tended to be [places like] England and France. He was impressed by the English as communitarian and carrying forward the New Deal spirit. If he had been a spy, there’s an enormous irony: He certainly took incredible pains to bring me up to despise all the values that he was accused of having embodied. Loyalty and honesty and trustworthiness were the bedrock of what he was trying to instill in me.

As we know from the British scene, some of the famous Soviet spies, such as Kim Philby and Anthony Blount, were cultivated, well-educated gentlemen. Isn’t it possible that a man as devoted to social justice and as opposed to fascism as your father was would have turned to communism and even come to define spying as an honorable choice?

Yes. But it’s hard to remember that for others the challenge of the ’30s could also be met by what they considered the very radical action of joining the New Deal. This was not half-hearted, lily-livered, pusillanimous. Here was a young lawyer who deliberately left a high-paying, prestigious law firm in New York, took an incredible pay cut and stayed in Washington for about 14 years in order to help put his country back on its feet. He had been summoned by his mentor, professor Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law School, who sent him a telegram: “On basis national emergency, you must report for duty.” Throughout his life, he boasted about being an unreconstructed New Dealer. This was in the tradition of the man who meant the most in his life, Oliver Wendell Holmes.

I’ve talked to people who were underground communists and asked them, “Is it possible, if that’s what you were, never to have confided in anyone?” From their point of view, this was psychologically an impossibility. You would have been so proud of it that you would have wanted someone to know about it.

From your point of view, might it have been easier, psychologically, if your father had been guilty and paid the price for his crimes? Now you’re in this limbo, as evidence of your father’s guilt mounts.

There have been a few selectively released documents that, when you sift through them, may or may not implicate him. The waters are in fact no less murky than they have ever been. The most astonishing and most overwhelming fact is that there is a huge amount of material, both in the former Soviet Union and in America, that is still under lock and key. The closed-door hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee after 1944 are not scheduled to made public until the year 2026. In Russia, there are at least five major archives that are still off limits. The KGB files, where a few scholars have had sort of a dollars-for-documents access, are completely controlled by the KGB. Given all this, the scholars who will have all the evidence laid out in front of them and can dispassionately sift through it are probably undergraduates today. We’re a long way from the end of this.

Dan Cryer is a book critic for Newsday.

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