Flowers for Alger Hiss

What if they gave a funeral for a cold-war icon -- and no one came?

By Dan Kennedy

Published November 19, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

by the time Alger Hiss died, on Friday at the age of 92, just about everyone conceded that he was guilty; that the brilliant, suave, well-educated, well-connected lawyer-diplomat had indeed been a Communist and a spy for the Soviet Union during the 1930s and '40s. Allen Weinstein's massive 1978 book, "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," had convinced even pro-Hiss liberals of that.

Hiss, whose misfortunes had once evoked such passions, and whose innocence was at one time an article of faith in left-wing circles, not only died without the vindication he had long sought, but also without much hope of a posthumous reconsideration. Indeed, just last spring the National Security Agency released old KGB files that showed Hiss was almost certainly a Soviet agent who supplied the Kremlin with crucial details of the U.S. negotiating position at the Yalta conference of 1945. Hiss' defenders have dwindled to a small handful of true believers; their arguments have taken on the strident tones of the conspiracy theorist.

Indeed, the front-page obits that appeared on Saturday in such supposed bastions of the liberal establishment as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe were striking in their dispassionate acceptance of Hiss' guilt (a "near-certainty," wrote Mark Feeney in the Globe). Even more striking is that not a single editorialist has yet seen fit to weigh in on the case in any of the three papers. (The Times today did offer an op-ed by Sam Tanenhaus, who's writing a sympathetic biography of Hiss' persecutor, Whittaker Chambers.) And on the ultraconservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, no one has bothered to offer so much as a pro forma "we told you so." Time magazine, Chambers's former employer, ran a brief piece alongside a thumb-sucker by columnist Lance Morrow; Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" awarded Hiss the big cosmic down arrow.

Too bad, in a way. Because the mid-century showdown between Hiss and fellow-traveler-turned-accuser Whittaker Chambers — and, more to the point, between Hiss and a young congressman named Richard Nixon — was a supremely important episode in a centuries-old culture war that even today shows no signs of being settled any time soon. The truth, though, has robbed the Hiss-Nixon confrontation of its controversy, and thus of much of its mythic power.

Chambers was a shambling wreck of a man, an ex-Communist who'd become a writer for Henry Luce's rabidly anti-Communist Time magazine, when, in 1948, he leveled a spectacular charge: that he and Hiss had served together as party members in the 1930s, and that Hiss had supplied him with numerous secret documents. The patrician Hiss, a former top State Department official, a protégé of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, was an unlikely villain. He denied the charges, and so did most liberals. "Suspecting Alger Hiss was somehow, on the face of it, indecent," the journalist-historian Garry Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1978.

But Chambers eventually triumphed, and in the bizarrest way. He led investigators to his Maryland pumpkin patch, where he'd hidden film of the documents Hiss had given him, produced on a typewriter traced to Hiss. The statute of limitations for espionage had expired, but Hiss was tried for perjury. Following a first trial that ended in a hung jury, he was convicted at a second trial in 1950. He served nearly four years in prison.

The driving force behind the investigation was Nixon, then a first-term Republican on the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Imagine the impression Hiss, who moved in the highest circles with ease and grace, must have made on Nixon, even then a bitter man who nursed the poverty of his youth like an infected sore, and who despised those he perceived as his social superiors.

Tom Wicker, in his biography of Nixon, "One of Us" (1991), relates a flip remark Hiss reportedly made to Nixon that must have cut to the bone: "I graduated from Harvard. I heard your school was Whittier." If Hiss had intended to ensure Nixon's undying hatred, he couldn't have done better — and Nixon's own writings on Hiss betray not just his belief in Hiss' guilt, but his overwhelming sense of resentment. Hiss "was rather insolent toward me," an angry Nixon wrote in a memo, "and from that time my suspicion concerning him continued to grow."

Nixon was perfectly clear in understanding the real significance of the Hiss investigation. Even putting aside the serious crimes Hiss almost surely committed, his case stood as a classic example of the populist rabble rising up against the cultural elite, whom they suspect — sometimes rightly, sometimes not — of having secret plans in store for them that will not be to their liking.

"Alger Hiss was just the perfect symbol," Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley was quoted as saying in the New York Times' Hiss obit. "He epitomized everything that the reigning Democratic, liberal, elitist establishment seemed to be. Bringing him down was a way of bringing the whole thing down."

It's a theme that goes back to the late 1700s, when the agrarian Jeffersonians wrested power from those effete Federalists; to the 1830s, when Andrew Jackson and his supporters dismantled the Bank of the United States; to the 1890s, when William Jennings Bryan ran against the Eastern establishment banking interests that were emblematic of the modernity he loathed. And this populist resentment continues to have considerable power, erupting in strange ways in the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, on Rush Limbaugh's radio show (which regularly lampoons "elitists" in the Clinton administration), and in the paranoid delusions of the far right about the Trilateral Commission, black helicopters, and secret "Zionist" plots.

Allen Weinstein once attributed Hiss' remarkable staying power to the putrescence of his enemies. "For Hiss, generations come and go, and since his accusers were [J. Edgar] Hoover, Chambers and Nixon, he can always revive his own myth," he told The New Yorker's David Remnick in 1986. Well, Hoover, Chambers, and Nixon are gone; and now so is Hiss, too.

Sort of.

When I did an AltaVista search for "Alger Hiss," the very first item I turned up was the Web site of a band by that name. "Alger Hiss grafts arty harshness onto modernist progressive rock. Or maybe modernist progressive rock onto arty harshness," the promotional copy effuses. No explanation for the name, but clearly the mythic power of the Hiss case, though diminished, still lingers — albeit in strangely mutated forms.

Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy is the media reporter for the Boston Phoenix.

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