Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, by Christina Shelton (Threshold, 352 pp., $26)
It is unlikely that we ever will have a proper reckoning of the American Left’s culpability in the worldwide Communist enterprise — the gulags and laogai, the Stasi, the Holodomor, the 100 million corpses. It is a testament to the perversity of human nature that in the two main political efforts to uproot Soviet agents from U.S. institutions, the villains in the popular mind are not those who enabled the enslavement of entire nations but the imperfect men who tried to stop them. We never had a Nuremberg trial for Communists — we would have had to hang too many veterans of the Roosevelt administration. Instead, we had the perjury case of Alger Hiss. And we keep having it.
Christina Shelton, a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, has produced a new study of the case. In the course of her rigorous and carefully documented analysis, she offers a persuasive explanation not only of why Hiss chose treason but of why so many others did as well. It is a rare thing: a good book about an important subject.
Shelton’s telling of the story is in a sense Nixonian. Hiss was the archetypal East Coast liberal-establishment man: son of an executive, Johns Hopkins, Harvard Law, a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, law clerk to Oliver Wendell Holmes, attorney at Choate, Hall, & Stewart, State Department, United Nations. But Hiss was a member of the most dangerous class: the barely-hanging-on elite. His father’s suicide left the family in a condition that biographer G. Edward White famously described as “shabby gentility.” He was a highly accomplished student but, in the judgment of Whittaker Chambers, a mediocre mind. As a young man, he learned to sneer at business while availing himself of every benefit to be derived from his wealthy and well-connected friends. He was a member of the self-loathing elite.
Like most of his kind, Hiss drew precisely the wrong lesson from the Great Depression — that the state should attempt to manage the economy — and was, like most New Dealers, prepared to endorse extraordinarily authoritarian steps to put that vision into action. Shelton insightfully identifies Hiss’s support of Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme as a critical indicator of his views:
Hiss’s advocacy of bypassing constitutional restraints and his open disregard for both the constitutional principle of separation of powers and for the precedent of an independent, nonpoliticized judiciary are astounding, and symptomatic of his leftist authoritarianism. Using the judiciary as a political instrument of state power is a characteristic feature of both Communist and Fascist regimes. Hiss felt that “we were entitled to think of ourselves — and we most certainly did — as a select few.” This claim by Hiss reflects the recurring elitism of a higher wisdom that is thoroughly embedded in the ideologies of the left: the “enlightened” know best; authoritative leadership is needed to direct the masses; a vanguard is required to advance the revolution; and so on and so forth. Alger saw himself and his colleagues as that vanguard.
Unhappily, the prose above is indicative of Shelton’s style when exploring the political relevance of Hiss’s views and activities — a bit clunky and blustery. Her tone and style are much more sophisticated when she is engaged in more straightforward reportage on the intricacies of Hiss’s world. One suspects that she is throwing in a bit of red-meat boob bait for marketing purposes. Her argument is well reasoned and often compelling, but her performance is occasionally nine-fingered.
Fortunately, she has a hell of a story to tell and many illuminating details and anecdotes to add. Like many liberals of his time, Hiss seems to have been radicalized in part by the Sacco and Vanzetti controversy, and he was drawn quickly to the subversive Left. Early in his career in government, he joined Lee Pressman — who would himself later be outed as a Soviet spy — in defending Franklin Roosevelt’s central-planning ambitions. Throughout Shelton’s telling of the tale, one cannot but notice that Hiss’s fellow traitors not only shared his ideological commitment but were in the main the same sort of people. That latter fact may be of more consequence than the former. The confrontation between Alger Hiss and Richard Nixon exposed a cultural fault line, and those who have been (and remain) sympathetic to Hiss and his ilk seem to do so not out of any sophisticated understanding of Marxist-Leninist doctrine or midcentury history but out of dread of aligning themselves with the loathsome likes of Nixon. It is unsurprising that Hiss, in the decades after his release from prison, found himself enthusiastically welcomed at New York’s New School for Social Research, where, as Shelton reports, he was a regular lecturer, and at other elite institutions, including Brandeis and Columbia. Nixon’s downfall coincided with a refreshed interest in Hiss among liberals.
Hiss gave substantial cooperation, including access to his papers, to historian Allen Weinstein, who began his researches holding the conventional liberal faith in Hiss’s innocence. The evidence convinced him of the contrary, and the publication of his book, Perjury, in 1978 was the occasion for a sustained campaign by The Nation and other leftist outlets to discredit him. Tribal ties are highly resistant to evidence (and apparently immune to shame), and that is why the case of Hiss continues to be newly litigated each generation.
Shelton makes a sledgehammer of a case that this is unnecessary. The strongest section of the book is titled simply “The Evidence,” and it is a sustained artillery assault: the GRU general who fingered Hiss, the U.S. ambassador who warned Roosevelt, the Soviet defectors who knew his secret, Whittaker Chambers and the other turncoats, the KGB operatives, the Communist-party members who plotted alongside Hiss, the U.S. State Department officials who corroborated Chambers’s evidence, the Daily Worker editor, the foreign intelligence operatives: The question has never been Hiss’s word against Chambers’s and the Pumpkin Papers, but Hiss’s word against a large and compelling body of evidence.
That evidence has in recent years been supplemented by the declassified Venona transcripts, by Hungarian intelligence documents, and, most damningly, by KGB documents. “Despite the existence of overwhelming evidence against Hiss,” Shelton writes, “there are still those today who cannot bring themselves to assimilate that evidence and acknowledge that Alger Hiss was a Soviet asset and guilty of espionage. They focus on Hiss’s message, not his actions.” Likewise, they focus on the character defects of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, apparently unable to distinguish conventional if severe human failings (Nixon’s megalomania, McCarthy’s dipsomania) from the moral depravity of men who were engaged in the greatest campaign of mass murder documented in the history of civilization.
It is just possible to understand the sympathy for Russian Communism in the context of the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany. But Hiss’s embrace was a broad and lasting one: As Shelton notes, he was denying the crimes of Mao and Castro as late as 1975. Hiss argued, among other things, that the scale of Mao’s killing must have been exaggerated, since so many Chinese opposed to Communism had left the country as he came to power, and therefore “the problem of liquidation which Mao would have undertaken must have been minimized.” Here Shelton cannot avoid a parenthetical: “Was Hiss really suggesting that Mao killed fewer people because there were less available to kill?” The Chinese who escaped the chairman’s terror are blessed not to have found out.
It is impossible to dispute Shelton’s overall verdict. The word “treason” carries a great deal of emotional weight, a sense of being the worst crime of which one could be guilty. But it is not: Benedict Arnold and Guy Fawkes were traitors — Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels were loyal to the end. Hiss and his associates did in fact choose treason, but treason was hardly the worst of their crimes. They chose to further the work of bloody-minded gangsters engaged in the mass extermination of nations and the permanent enslavement of the survivors. To make an average-sized gravestone for each of their victims would require 900 times more marble than was used in the dome of the Taj Mahal. They were the very worst men that modern civilization has produced, abetted by those who may have been among our brightest but were by no means among our best.