Apr 02

Yale University Press has published “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History,” by Susan Jacoby. In the book, Jacoby asserts that Hiss was guilty. She also attempts to put the case in its historical context. As part of a two-part look at the book, we have posted my comments on the numerous errors and distortions in the text. A more general review will also be posted in the near future. Here’s the link to my article.

One Response to ““Alger Hiss and the Battle for History””

  1. david oberweiser says:

    I would like to comment that in this battle of the history — Chambers v. Hiss — we should pause before disregarding the role of conspiracy.

    Nowadays conspiracy theory contemptuously labels a belief outlandishly false; one held by a crank or member of some lunatic fringe. Allen Weinstein devotes some dozen pages of his appendix to Perjury (1997) “Six Conspiracies in Search of an Author” to refute “full-fledged conspiracy theories” ranging from doctored typewriters, faked microfilms, even homosexual revenge offered by divers writers from Meyer Zeligs, Chabot Smith to William Reuben. Weinstein’s clever slight of pen conflates conspiracy with conspiracy theory to dismiss the part that conspiracy played in the Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss case.

    Since the rise of the Web and especially after the 9/11/2001 attacks, conspiracy theories by the extreme Right and Left have run rampant. The history of bogus conspiracy theories dates at least from the French Revolution, deemed a Freemason plot, to the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, to the John Birch Society and Lyndon La Rouche warning that world government would control the US, to versions of a Cheney-Zionist directed sabotage of the World Trade Towers on 9/11.

    Nevertheless, well-documented records show both government and private conspiracies, such as the fraudulent take over of public domain by rail companies after the Civil War, the secret protocols of the Versailles Treaty, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on black men and the Watergate break-in. Recently, we have witnessed the abuse of opaque financial devices (e.g., credit default swaps and other derivatives) by a minority of speculators for fabulous gains. In addition, US law sanctions many kinds of criminal conspiracy. Clearly conspiracies, sanctioned or not, play a role in American life.

    There is little reason to dismiss the use of conspiracy in the role the Chambers-Hiss case played in the 1948 election. Proving how Chambers got the memos, documents and microfilm from the State Department, who typed copies of the documents and on which Woodstock typewriter sixty years after the trial, may not be feasible. However, careful scrutiny of the political activity of Chambers himself from 1932-1938 seriously undermines the credibility of the charges against Alger Hiss. In his own writings and in his collaboration with various anti-Stalinists, Chambers exuded a sharp antipathy towards pro-Soviet communists and especially toward liberals, sympathetic with the New Deal. He insisted that liberals were more dangerous to the American way of life than Communists. This, I believe is the main reason he testified falsely against Alger Hiss, publicly associated with the New Deal.

    In the late 1990s I briefly did research for the Nation Institute on the writings and political activity of Whittaker Chambers. This led me to the archives and special collections at the Hoover Institution, Columbia University and at Harvard University, as well as interviews with friends and relatives of a close friend of Chambers. From this research I wrote an article, “The Politics of Hoax: Chambers v. Hiss”. A portrait emerges of the “Witness” who was bitterly opposed to those sympathetic with Soviet style communism and the New Deal. At the same time Chambers masqueraded as a Communist to those outside his circle in an attempt to expose Communist skullduggery in government. Some suggest that Chambers was a double agent, working for and against the Soviet regime. However his flamboyant behavior and a penchant for histrionic spy stories, reported by his co-workers, effectively scuttle his suitability for espionage work.

    I hope that ongoing and future work in this area do not dismiss the likelihood that conspiracy, even criminal conspiracy, played a part in the conviction of Alger Hiss.

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