A review of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy, by G. Edward White

On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He told the Committee that both he and Alger Hiss had been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Two days later, on August 5, Hiss, who had recently retired from the State Department to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, appeared before the Committee. "I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party," he declared. "To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947." 

On August 17, 1948, the Un-American Activities Committee met in executive session at the Hotel Commodore in New York. Among those present was a young Congressman, Richard M. Nixon of California. Hiss and Chambers were brought together, and after an interval of what Nixon called "comedy"—for it soon became obvious that the two men knew each other—Hiss admitted that he had once known Chambers, in a vague sort of way, as an impecunious writer named George Crosley. He had, he later said, fallen out of touch with Crosley in the mid-'30s—certainly before 1938. Hiss then challenged Chambers to make his charges "out of the presence of this Committee, without their being privileged for suit for libel." 

Ten days later, on August 27, 1948, Chambers declared on "Meet the Press" that "Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now." Hiss sued Chambers for libel; his lawyers asked Chambers to produce any documents Hiss might have given him. Chambers turned over typed copies of various classified State Department papers, all dated 1938. The papers were made available to the government. In December 1948 the FBI determined that the documents had been typed on a typewriter belonging to the Hiss family. 

On December 15, 1948, a federal grand jury in the Southern District of New York put the following questions to Hiss. Had he known Whittaker Chambers after 1936? And had he passed copies of stolen government documents to him? Hiss answered "no" to both questions, and shortly thereafter the grand jurors indicted him for perjury. Hiss stood his trial; Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson, and two Supreme Court Justices testified as character witnesses for the defense. The trial resulted in a hung jury. A second trial was ordered, and Hiss was convicted of perjury. On March 22, 1951, he began a five-year jail sentence. He was released in November 1954, having served forty-four months in federal prison. 

In his new book, Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars, G. Edward White argues that it is time to stop asking whether Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. There is no doubt, White says, about Hiss's guilt. He was not framed by J. Edgar Hoover or railroaded by "Tricky Dick" Nixon. Whatever uncertainties might once have lingered around the case have been resolved by books like Allen Weinstein's Perjury (1978) and Sam Tanenhaus's Whittaker Chambers (1997), as well as by the revelations of Soviet and American intelligence archives. Three important questions nevertheless remain. Why, White asks, did Hiss become a Soviet spy? Why did he so strenuously deny that he had been a spy long after he ceased to have any value as a secret agent? And why did so many intelligent people for so long insist on his innocence?

This last question is not without poignancy for White, a law professor at the University of Virginia and the author, among other books, of an excellent study of Oliver Wendell Holmes. White's late father-in-law, John F. Davis, acted as Hiss's counsel during several of his appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee; he remained a member of the Hiss defense until 1950. Many years later he continued to regard Hiss as "an admirable and sympathetic figure." How could a man like John Davis have been taken in?

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White's answers to the questions he poses in Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars boil down to this: Hiss was a liar—an unusually good liar. He was, by nature and vocation, a con man. He was habitually crafty. Hiram Haydn, a Random House editor, described a meeting with Hiss in the 1950s in which "[m]ask succeeded mask, role role, personality personality." The poet Delmore Schwartz said that Hiss "charmed everyone because he was so corrupt that he could tell anyone a lie and he could brazen out any lie." At Harvard Law School Hiss charmed Felix Frankfurter with a manufactured air of a patrician grace that disguised his plebeian birth. Lee Pressman, Hiss's Harvard classmate and fellow Communist, said that if Hiss were "standing at the bar with the British ambassador and you were told to give a package to the ambassador's valet, you would give it to the ambassador before you gave it to Alger. He gave you a sense of absolute command and absolute grace." Frankfurter arranged for Hiss to clerk for Mr. Justice Holmes; Hiss accepted the appointment; and the facile young man was not ashamed to play fast and loose with the venerable jurist. Hiss knew that Holmes required his clerks, as a condition of their employment, to remain unmarried during their tenure; but he feigned ignorance of the rule in order to marry Priscilla Fansler Hobson early in his clerkship. Tricky Alger.

White finds the incident revealing: "Hiss, at 25, was a person with a strong belief in his ability to manipulate others, and perhaps with an underdeveloped appreciation of the risks of being exposed." He "believed that he could fool Holmes and get away with it…." Yet such was the young man's aura—his good looks, his elegant manner, his high intelligence—that he did get away with it. White believes that Hiss came to find the act of deception to be itself pleasurable—the ecstasy of the con, the intricate artistry of contriving a false front. It was not surprising, White writes, that the lover of duplicity should have been attracted "to the secret life of an underground espionage agent." 

The world is full of crafty and intelligent people; many of them become politicians. Comparatively few become traitors. The puzzle of Hiss's treason becomes all the more perplexing when we learn that the private man was, in his transactions with other human beings, remarkably kind—a man, Whittaker Chambers said, "of great gentleness and sweetness of character." After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1926, Hiss set aside his own ambitious plans in order to nurse his bedridden brother, Bosley, who was dying of Bright's disease. He possessed what White calls an "instinctive desire to help persons in distress," and when he came to wed, he married a woman who, as a divorcée with a young child, was herself "a person in distress." The Soviet Union, White argues, was one more charity case for Hiss, "yet another altrusitic activity—in this case nothing less than the eventual betterment of humankind in some classless, international future utopia…."

This is too simple. Why Bolshevism? Surely American public life offered a duplicitous young man with a yearning to save the world opportunities enough to display his virtuosity. Hiss might have satisfied, in a conventional public career, both his urge to do good and his urge to deceive: the price would have come well short of treason. For all its virtues, Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars never quite makes the reader see how Hiss leapt from dissimulation and philanthropy to Soviet espionage; and as a study of character the book falls short of Chambers's own account of the Hiss Case, Witness. Communism offered, Chambers wrote, "what nothing else in the dying world had power to offer at the same intensity—faith and a vision, something for which to live and something for which to die." The Bolshevik faith demanded "those things which have always stirred what is best in men—courage, poverty, self-sacrifice, discipline, intelligence. . . ." The Communist Party was a "modern secular secret order" that required of its proselytes a fanatic purity; and it offered both Chambers and Hiss an heroic escape from the desperation of their middle-class boyhoods. 

Nor was it garden-variety desperation the two men sought to escape. Hiss was two-and-a-half when his father, Charles Alger Hiss, committed suicide; Chambers's father abandoned his family when Chambers was seven or eight. Chambers's brother, Richard, killed himself in 1926; Chambers saw him the next morning "lying with his head in the gas oven." In 1929 Hiss's sister, Mary Ann, killed herself by swallowing Lysol. In order to escape such domestic disorder, Hiss might, in another age, have become one of those Jesuits who, in one of their many costumes, toiled for their Church in the Protestant North. Or he might have become one of those Old Testament Puritans who went to the stake joyfully chanting the Psalms. But in the 1920s the old faiths were no longer in fashion; the leading intellectuals of the day regarded religious conversions with skepticism. Edmund Wilson, though he found the Bolshevik romance to be credible, doubted the genuineness of T.S. Eliot's Anglo-Catholicism: Wilson spoke for many when he said that he found in men "like Eliot a desire to believe in religious revelation, a belief that it would be a good thing to believe, rather than a genuine belief."

Yet though it did not issue in orthodox baptisms, the impulse that underlay both Hiss's and Chambers's conversions to militant socialism was a religious one. Bossuet speaks of "men who have lost the taste of God." Chambers replies that neither he nor Hiss had lost the taste of God; each still yearned for a purer and more encompassing compassion, a new heaven and a new earth. But each had fallen, Chambers argues in Witness, for the latest form of the oldest heresy: the belief that men themselves can "be as Gods" and build the new Jerusalem with their own mortal hands.

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Good as it is as a study of Hiss's duplicity, Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars is less successful in explaining why so many American liberals refused to accept evidence of Hiss's guilt and embraced instead a host of improbable exculpatory theories. The solution to the puzzle, Chambers suggests in Witness, lies in liberals' protectiveness of the New Deal. The New Deal, Chambers writes, was a "genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation." The revolutionary intent of the New Dealers was nowhere more evident than in their approach to the rule of law. Jerome Frank of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, one of the most influential New Deal agencies, was an advocate of "legal realism," a movement which attempted to overthrow the classical liberal ideal of the rule of law by insisting on the discretionary authority of judges and administrators to implement novel social and economic policies in the interest of the community. Hiss's mentor, Felix Frankfurter, shared Frank's enthusiasm for the new administrative state and recruited bright young lawyers to staff it. Hiss was one of these legal mandarins; he learned the art of rule by administrative fiat at the AAA under Frank before moving higher in the New Deal hierarchy.

Yet the New Deal revolution in law and politics was vulnerable, not least because some of its brightest stars—among them Hiss himself—were not only doctrinaire Marxists but actual agents of the Soviet Union. "Every move against the Communists," Chambers wrote, was therefore "felt by the liberals as a move against themselves." The liberals, "to protect their power," sought "as long as possible to conceal from themselves and everybody else the fact that the Government had been Communist-penetrated." When, in 1939, Chambers brought the existence of an underground espionage network to the attention of the Roosevelt Administration, the president declined to listen. Chambers spoke directly to Adolf Berle, an assistant secretary of state responsible for domestic security. Berle took the matter to Roosevelt. The result? "The President had laughed." When, Chambers writes, Berle insisted, the president told him, "in words which it is necessary to paraphrase, to 'go jump in a lake.'" Few presidents have been more adept at gathering intelligence than Franklin Roosevelt; one supposes that he knew what an investigation of Chambers's claims might reveal. In refusing to investigate those claims, FDR became the first New Deal liberal to sacrifice the truth in order to protect a program. He was not the last.

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Why did Hiss spend decades vindicating his lie? White devotes much of his book to answering this question; but I am not sure that his labors have been repaid with a commensurate degree of illumination. Hiss probably acted out of some notion of fidelity to the Revolution; but the question of what particular variety of revolutionist's honor upheld him in his elaborate charade is not especially interesting. White is better at describing his subject's efforts to redeem himself by exploiting the changing historical climate of the post-war decades. Even in his atheism Hiss might have been tempted to view the rise of the New Left and the fall of Nixon as godsends. The year after Nixon resigned, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reinstated Hiss's law license—implicitly endorsing his claim that he had never engaged in espionage or committed perjury.

For all its strengths, Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars does not, like Witness, force the reader to grapple with the largest, one might almost say the eternal, questions raised by the Hiss Case. It is true that the 20th-century wars against socialism resulted in socialism's defeat. National Socialism was defeated in 1945; the Marxist-Leninist socialism of the Bolsheviks died with the fall of the Soviet Union; the Fabian socialism of the Wohlfahrtstaat was checked, in its progress in America, by men like Chambers's admirer, Ronald Reagan, and his friend, William F. Buckley, Jr. But the belief at the heart of socialism—the belief that a class of men and women trained in the precepts of some esoteric science can, through the beneficent exercise of extraordinary coercive powers, create purer and more ideal communities—this belief survives.

Chambers thought of himself as a man of the Right, a "counterrevolutionist," rather than a conservative; he doubted the conservative's ability to understand and overcome the perennial heresy that in the 20th century took the form of socialism. He would, I think, have raised his eyebrows at the triumphalist tone of much contemporary conservative writing, would have been put off by the reek of self-congratulation. Yes, socialism has been more or less licked. But the war, Chambers would have said, will go on.

A difficulty for the conservative today is that he finds himself obliged to fight another, unlooked for war against radical Islam. That struggle now monopolizes his energies. But the threat of radical Islam, however great it may be, differs from the threat of the militant socialism of the last century in an important way. The ideals of the radical Mohammedans hold little appeal for Westerners, while those of socialism, embodying as they do an ancient Western heresy, have a great appeal—and nowhere greater than among the highly educated men and women who dominate the professional classes of the West. What form will the old heresy assume next? How can it best be resisted? Busy as they are fighting the Arabian war and patting themselves on the back for beating the social democrats, conservatives have neglected the questions raised by Chambers's book.

When Chambers abandoned the secular millenarianism of socialism and made his stand for God and liberty, he told his wife that "we are leaving the winning world for the losing world." The words have in retrospect been thought too pessimistic. But conservatism, however superficially optimistic it may be, must always be sustained by a deep core of pessimism. The conservative who wishes to prepare himself for the coming battles will find much instructive material in Edward White's book on the Hiss Case; but he will do even better to turn again to Whittaker Chambers's book, and relive that man's fall from grace and his ascent.