Review of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy
March 17, 2004
by Ronald Radosh
Except for a dwindling group composed mostly of Nation magazine readers and
What White accomplishes in this innovative and brilliant new book is not yet another attempt to show Hiss's guilt, but rather an examination of how Hiss managed to be both a gifted Soviet agent and "a successful publicizer of his innocence," able to convince so many people. Why, White asks, was Hiss seen as a sympathetic figure by so many who should have known better—and why did they ignore irrefutable evidence in order to go on believing him?
White starts from the premise that Hiss was both a dedicated Communist party member and an agent of Soviet military intelligence from 1934 to 1946, and then asks why Hiss lied about this so blatantly, for so long, and even enlisted friends and family in the lie. He had other options. He could—as his wife desired—have faded into the woodwork and led a private life. He could have admitted his guilt and sought to excuse his actions with the "idealistic" reasons that he thought at the time justified the betrayal of his own country—the rationale used today by left-wing historians to exonerate the
Instead, Hiss pursued a consistent path of categorically dissociating himself from the slightest connection with Communism, developing what White calls a false narrative that he would relate for the rest of his life. He was, he claimed, simply a loyal New Dealer and devotee of international peace, a man who was therefore accused by the New Deal's right-wing enemies for their own partisan purposes. He characterized those who accused him as liars and himself as their innocent and unwilling victim. Hiss's chosen narrative was nothing but a spy's cover story, repeated ad infinitum until many opinion makers chose to believe him.
His story necessitated that he adopt the pose of an outraged innocent, a man falsely accused by Chambers, whom Hiss portrayed as mentally unstable. From his earliest years, Hiss had had an aptitude for ingratiating himself with others, manipulating them single-mindedly until he achieved his goals. What Soviet espionage gave him was the ability to use these techniques on behalf of a larger cause—the dream of serving the new Communist utopia while obtaining the new sense of power that went along with a secret and controlled life.
The key Hiss adopted to convince others to accept his lies was what White terms the "reputational defense," using distinguished Establishment figures as character witnesses. His genius was to manipulate opinion so skillfully that each time incontrovertible evidence of his guilt emerged, he could turn the tables and produce worthies who would still swear to his innocence.
As White shows, there were many moments at which Hiss could have switched tactics. He could have admitted knowing Chambers, which would have made it easier for Chambers not to sue him for libel. Chambers, after all, had at first not testified to Hiss's espionage, only to his Communist affiliations. Yet Hiss obstinately used the risky tactic of outright denial. He claimed that the Woodstock typewriter on which he had typed State Department documents had been newly manufactured by the FBI—but the tactic backfired when the jury was convinced that the typewriter proved his guilt. "Instead of appearing as a person whose innocence was the natural inference of his integrity," White writes, "Hiss appeared as someone who was doggedly trying to keep others from learning about his secret past."
In prison, Hiss kept up the pretense. Not only did he spend hours helping illiterate Mafia prisoners learn to read, he never complained about any unfair treatment he may have received from prison authorities. Not only did he maintain his innocence if asked, he shrewdly avoided other "political" prisoners on the left, and assumed the persona of a regular guy—further convincing those who wanted to believe that he could not have been a spy. He became the quintessential "good con," a man who came to be revered by the worst of the prisoners.
Hiss had a fanatical dedication to vindicating his reputation. One of the major themes of White's psychological portrait is of how Hiss brought his son Tony, who had been estranged from him since childhood, into active participation in his fraudulent effort. He mended his fences with Tony in adulthood, and gained the loyalty of a family member who would carry on the effort to vindicate him even after his death. In effect, he betrayed the trust of loyal friends and family members, including his own son, to pursue the goal of helping the
What helped Hiss most was the changing moral and political climate. When he was imprisoned, most Americans undoubtedly believed in his guilt. But he maintained his charade long enough for the 1960s and Vietnam to come along and produce a new national climate, one in which many Americans came to believe the worst about their government—that, for example, the Justice Department and FBI would fabricate evidence to convict an innocent person. This skeptical climate enabled Hiss to gain near-vindication, as White puts it, "without his producing a shred of credible new evidence." His tale of partisan right-wingers and government officials orchestrating a frame-up won him fresh supporters among the emerging New Left.
Even Allen Weinstein's powerful indictment proved less than fatal to the Hiss steamroller. Weinstein's critics, White shows, managed to cast doubt on his scholarship by exaggerating the importance of some minor errors in his account, and they used those to allow Hiss to persevere. Hiss never had any solid legal defenses; he merely used the new anti-anti-Communism to convince many of his victim status.
Hiss, White concludes, was the perfect secret agent, a man who could easily lead a compartmentalized life. He was self-assured and possessed a fanatical devotion to his goals. By denying his secret life, Hiss could simultaneously demonstrate his loyalty to his Soviet controls and to those who continued the fight to prove his innocence. He was not an ambiguous figure, White stresses, but "the consummate spy." Hiss acted in a manner that allowed him to inspire his gullible supporters, and to provide a living example of how American Cold War policy led to injustice. All the while, he stayed loyal to the Soviets and their goals. It is the achievement of G. Edward White to have provided the final unmasking of Alger Hiss and, one hopes, put an end once and for all to the campaign waged on the traitor's behalf.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the March 22 issue of National Review.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
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