Book Review -- Susan Jacoby's "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History"

By David Greenberg
Sunday, May 31, 2009


By Susan Jacoby

Yale Univ. | 256 pp. $24

In 1997, Anthony Lake was ending his term as national security adviser when President Clinton nominated him to lead the CIA. Not long before his confirmation hearings, a Sunday-morning talk show host asked him about, of all things, Alger Hiss -- the Roosevelt State Department official and emblem of New Deal liberalism who was convicted of perjury in 1950 after denying that he had passed information to the Soviet Union. Although most students of the Hiss case, including many erstwhile defenders, consider him guilty, Lake -- something, alas, of a stereotypical liberal ditherer -- couldn't bring himself on that morning to endorse such a conclusion. His failure to do so generated a Washington flap, ultimately helping doom his appointment at the hands of an opportunistic Republican Senate.

That incident, to which Susan Jacoby briefly refers in "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History," attests to the enduring symbolic power of what is still known as "the Hiss case." From the start, Hiss was important almost exclusively as a symbol. Not even Whittaker Chambers, the Time magazine editor whose accusations before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948 catapulted Hiss to notoriety, argued that Hiss materially harmed U.S. national security. The case sparked such scorching fires -- embers simmer even today -- because the two antagonists, Hiss and Chambers, seemed to embody two distinct and hostile political types: the debonair, well-prepped, handsome pinstriped New Dealer versus the mangy, apocalyptic religious zealot. The American subcultures they represented have never stopped warring.

Jacoby, a journalist who reported from the Soviet Union for The Washington Post and wrote the acclaimed "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" (2004), among other books, takes the essentially symbolic nature of the Hiss case as her focus in this new work. In her view, the whole episode has been kept alive by the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, drawing the wrong lessons.

Whereas the average person's view of the case today probably resembles that of Jacoby's octogenarian mother -- who, when her daughter told her of this book project, grumbled, "Who cares about that anymore?" -- those who do care often have an exaggerated personal investment in it, fused often to the simple and by now uninteresting question of Hiss's guilt or innocence. They tend to be either aging veterans of the domestic Cold War or writers and buffs so deeply immersed in the minutiae that they have taken on the emotional valences of their historical subjects. "It is extraordinary," Jacoby marvels, "that Hiss's fate continues to generate controversy even though American communism . . . ceased to exist a half-century ago as anything other than a bogeyman for the right and a delusion for the extreme left."

Jacoby, in contrast, admirably upholds what is both the common-sense position and the scholarly consensus: that Hiss was almost certainly guilty of both perjury and espionage, but also that his guilt hardly justifies the McCarthyite spy-hunting that flowed from his conviction. Admittedly, her defense of this eminently reasonable position gives her book a curious raison d'ĂȘtre: a fierce need to argue the agreed-upon, a burning insistence that the fervor surrounding a 60-year-old controversy is so overblown that the subject demands . . . yet another intervention. She urges "both the right and the left to let go of the Cold War," even as she enthusiastically dons the hat of Cold War historian.

That paradox is characteristic of "Alger Hiss," which is by turns digressive, intelligent, level-headed, vituperative, maddening and insightful. For all its frustrations, though, the book is most memorable for the passion with which Jacoby trumpets certain sensible but often overlooked truths. It is refreshing, for example, to hear her quote at length from such terrific but now-forgotten mid-century liberal journalists as Robert Bendiner, who wrote an article in the Nation eviscerating the fashionable notion (which some of his colleagues at that very magazine held) that Hiss was somehow framed.

Jacoby also offers an important insight in observing that many on the left wouldn't have stuck with Hiss if his chief persecutor hadn't been Richard M. Nixon. "There is no way to overestimate the importance of Nixon himself in the improvement of Hiss's public image in the late sixties and early seventies," she writes. "Tricky Dick was the bad actor who linked the two eras." Quite correct: Nixon's mendacity in Watergate and kindred crimes had the perverse effect of making all his previous victims seem virtuous -- even the scoundrels. In contrast, back in the 1950s, the many liberals who believed Hiss to be guilty grudgingly gave Nixon credit for his role in exposing the truth. "The prestige of his participation in the unmasking of Alger Hiss," wrote William Shannon in 1955, "is untarnished and not in dispute, but he cannot live on that forever."

Oddly, however, Jacoby has almost nothing but harsh words for another scholar who made a similar argument several years ago, the law professor G. Edward White. White's book "Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars" (2004) remains the best study of Hiss's fluctuating reputation and his importance as a cultural symbol. (One might even wonder whether White's volume loomed during the writing of this newer treatise as Jacoby's anxiety-of-influence book: the already published work that every author fears might render his or her effort superfluous.) Jacoby shows intemperance, too, toward other temperate writers -- a strange turn in a book that aspires to calm a roiling debate with cool detachment.

But despite her stout ability to resist the biases and thought-formulas of left and right, detachment isn't really what Jacoby is after. Rather, she seems hell-bent on destroying the fallacy that Hiss's well-established guilt somehow justified the mania it fed. A worthy cause it is. After all, conservatives, she reminds us, have exploited such illogic not only in refighting the Red Scare but also in our own day, as Jacoby contends in a final chapter that ranges zestfully if unsystematically over recent battles about loyalty and patriotism. So then, in the end we all have reasons why we don't want to let go of the Cold War. And come to think of it, why should we?

David Greenberg, a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company