This book, the work of a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, is an attempt to fathom the Alger Hiss phenomenon by a man whose father-in-law was among Hiss’s defense lawyers from 1948 to 1950 and who remained for years a quiet believer in the innocence of his client.  Hiss died in 1996 at 92, still seeking “vindication” and insisting on public acknowledgement that he was wrongly judged.  His half-century campaign of obfuscations, alleged frame-ups and cover-ups, alternative scenarios, ad hominem assaults, and small victories add up to a tedious battle of attrition.  The author saves the best for last: the documented chatter among the Soviet controllers of this American spy and traitor, as unearthed in Moscow’s archives.  Between pages 223 and 235, Alger Hiss blossoms forth in Technicolor, rendering 50 years of mendacity unworthy of any further serious consideration.

For those unfamiliar with the dreary tale, Alger Hiss was an official of the federal government who began spying for Soviet military intelligence (GRU) in the early 1930’s.  Although he was exposed in 1938 by Whittaker Chambers, the courier who carried his intelligence harvest to his Soviet spymasters, nothing came of the event.  Hiss quickly moved upward in the State Department, accompanying President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in 1945.

Shocking as it ought to seem, the Roo-sevelt administration was comfortable with communists, including spies.  The President’s closest aid, Harry Hopkins; another aid, Laughlin Currie; and top Treasury official Harry Dexter White were Soviet spies.  Henry Wallace, vice president of the United States during Roosevelt’s third term, was surrounded by active agents.  In 1948, Wallace was basically Stalin’s candidate for president of the United States when he ran for that office on the ticket of the communist-run Progressive Party.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt delighted in the company of communist agents such as Joe and Trudi Lash.  (Moscow asked Mrs. Lash formally to recruit the President’s wife, but she remained merely a volunteer “agent of influence.”)

Hundreds of other servitors of Stalin infested New Deal agencies.  There was simply no political will in the Roosevelt administration to remove them from the federal government.

Professor White addresses three questions: Why did Alger Hiss turn traitor?  Why did so many people so fiercely defend him?  And why did Hiss spend the rest of his life lying about his highly successful career as a spy for Stalin and a traitor to the United States?

The third question scarcely needs to be asked.  Spies are directed to deny everything.  Every person who could be induced to believe that Alger Hiss was an innocent martyr represented a victory for the communists and a personal victory for Hiss, who took care to deceive even his own son.  The second question is meatier, but not difficult to fathom.  Defense of Hiss was partisan warfare.  Certainly, from the 1930’s onward, leftism has been both fashionable and politically potent.  Hiss was consistently defended by those who knew and approved of his activities, as well as by those “intellectuals” so accurately described by Lenin as “useful idiots.”  Both professional Reds and “fellow travelers”—another felicitous communist phrase—spent the second half of the 20th century producing books, articles, plays, films, and television “documentaries” alleging or “proving” the innocence of Alger Hiss.  The reader can mine White’s endnotes for proper references to great numbers of them.  As a shortcut, however, pages 77-78 should be perused for a brisk summary of the story lines that were spun out and embroidered over the years.

Back in the late 1940’s, Washington’s A-list more or less succumbed to what White’s father-in-law termed “the respectability defense,” as Hiss attempted to face down the evidence of his espionage.  Surely not Alger!  And who is that dreadful Chambers creature?  Whittaker Chambers was a scruffy nobody of dubious morals.  No doubt there was also a subterranean hum: “My God, who else will be exposed.  We can’t let this go on!”

And let us not overlook, moreover, those of fragile ego.  America’s academic “tenured left” can never admit, even inwardly, to having been dead wrong about anything.  White quotes Thomas Powers, who concluded that “Hiss’ support by so many otherwise smart people was one of the great intellectual contortion acts of history.”  In fact, it was relatively trivial, the greatest contortion act having been to cheerlead for every despot and tyrant of the 20th century who chose to wrap himself in a Red flag.

After an epic two-year legal battle, the gentlemanly government official was convicted only of perjury, the statute of limitations having run out on the charge of espionage.

Now to the first question: Why did Hiss volunteer to serve Stalin in the first place?  Alger Hiss was the quintessential WASP, whose only known material reward for his invaluable service to the Soviet Union was a Bokhara rug and a Soviet decoration he could not really show off.  The most obvious answer is ideology.  Professor White struggles, not quite successfully, to probe deeper.

And so we learn that Hiss’s father committed suicide, his mother was bossy, and he could not get away to college but had to settle for hometown Johns Hopkins University, which offered him a scholarship.  And White finds Hiss to have been secretive and manipulative in character.  These are helpful traits in his chosen field of deception, yet they hardly constitute motivation.

Clearly, the ideological temper of the times was more to the point.  As New Yorkers, the Hisses read Walter Duranty’s disinformative dispatches from the Soviet Union in the pages of the New York Times.  They mingled with fellow Harvard Law graduates who, as Reds, swarmed into Washington after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933.  As Hiss reminisced in the early 1980’s, Roosevelt met them daily with the greeting, “Good morning, fellow socialists.”

Soon after settling in the capital, Alger and Priscilla Hiss (as well as Alger’s brother Donald) were spying for Stalin.  Why?  Perhaps the better question is, Why not?  The query is not so flippant as it sounds.  Lacking confessions from any of the three, we do not know whether they pondered the pros and cons of espionage as a career move, much less engaged in soul-searching.  We do know that their decision involved no substantial loss of time.  Stalin’s man “J. Peters” had been steered toward, and swiftly recruited, a real prize.

Cheka.  NKVD.  Terror.  Purge.  Liquidation.  To some people—the Hisses clearly among them—these words symbolized a Better World.  A Bright Tomorrow.  The New Soviet Man.  Yet Stalin’s atrocities were at flood tide.  In 1934, Hiss, as a member of the Ware cell, was a Department of Agriculture lawyer working to craft New Deal policy for America’s farmers.  Did Hiss ask himself what, exactly, was meant by the phrase “liquidation of the kulaks as a class”?  Stalin’s farm policy, initiated in 1929 and still being pursued in 1934, was to kill literally millions of the best farmers in the Soviet Union, to clear the way for collectivization.

As a lawyer, did Hiss question the methodology (torture, confession, execution) of the purge trials?  Shall we cross off altruism as a motive?  Stalin was allied with Hitler from 1939 to 1941.  There goes the “antifascist” excuse.

Stalin became our “glorious ally” after Pearl Harbor but fell into disfavor when he immediately enslaved the nations of Eastern Europe.  Far from disapproving of his actions, Alger Hiss was in an excellent position to assist in the oppression of 100 million Europeans.

In the 1980’s, Hiss was “asked whether he admired Stalin.  ‘Oh, yes.  In spite of knowing the extent of his crimes, he was very impressive . . . He was decisive, soft-spoken, very clear-headed.’”  In other words: a mass-murderer, yes, but aside from that . . .

After attending the February 1945 Yalta Conference with President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Hiss went to Moscow to receive from Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vishin-sky the Order of the Red Star “for defense of the Soviet Union in both peacetime and wartime.”  Do we really need to know any more than that?


[Alger Hiss’ Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy, by G. Edward White (New York: Oxford University Press) 297 pp., $30.00]