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Alger Hiss -- a case for our time

For the left and the right, the story remains an emblem of their values.

March 22, 2009|Susan Jacoby | Susan Jacoby is the author, most recently, of "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History."

Fifty-eight years ago today, Alger Hiss -- the defendant in an emblematic Cold War prosecution once called "the trial of the century" -- began serving a federal prison sentence for perjury. Until his death in 1996, Hiss maintained that he had never been a Communist or a spy and had been framed by the U.S. government.

When I told my 86-year-old mother that I was writing about the long intellectual controversy over the Hiss case, her response was, "You'll have to explain why anyone under 80 would still care about that."

One obvious reason the case remains so important to right-wing and left-wing political intellectuals is that it stands, symbolically and in real time, at the beginning of the era that now bears Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's name. Only two weeks after Hiss -- once a rising star in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's State Department -- was sentenced for perjury, McCarthy made his famous "I have here in my hand" speech, charging extensive communist infiltration of America's foreign policy establishment. And McCarthy remains very relevant today. Ask people what they think about the McCarthy era today and you have a good idea of where they stand on civil liberties violations associated with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts today.

The legacy of the Hiss case also sits atop a domestic fault line dividing those who believe in the kind of government activism that defined the New Deal from those who consider government interference with "the market" an insult to American capitalist values. As the nation struggles with its worst economic crisis since the Depression, we are witnessing a revival of right-wing, anti-New Deal, anti-socialist and even anti-communist rhetoric that seems to belong to another era in the distant past.

To make a very long story short, Hiss was a lawyer and committed New Dealer, first in FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Administration and then in the State Department. He was in charge of administrative arrangements for the 1945 Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met to discuss plans for a postwar world, and of the San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations Charter.

In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor and repentant ex-Communist, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (known as HUAC) that Hiss had once been his best friend in the Communist Party. Hiss initially denied having known Chambers, but then admitted that he had been acquainted with his accuser under another name. Eventually, Chambers led FBI investigators to a cache of microfilm, supposedly of government documents passed on by Hiss, in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm. Hiss' chief HUAC antagonist was the future vice president and president, Richard M. Nixon, then a congressman from California.

Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 after two trials, and was never charged with spying (the real political accusation against him) because the statute of limitations had expired. His conviction perfectly suited the right's contention that if you scratched a New Deal liberal, you would find a socialist or a communist.

It is impossible, in a short article, to evaluate all of the doorstop-weight books that have been written about Hiss and Chambers over the last 50 years, but after reading most of them, I have concluded that Hiss was guilty of perjury and am 95% certain that he did pass on government documents.

And here is where the past meets the present. It has always been difficult for liberals to look objectively at evidence pointing to Hiss' guilt, because the case cannot be separated, then or now, from the right's contempt for the New Deal and its unending attempts to conflate liberalism, socialism and communism.

Who would have predicted that right-wing Republicans would respond to the current economic crisis by insisting that President Obama's stimulus efforts won't work because "everyone knows" that the New Deal didn't work? Tell that to people who fondly remember getting a paycheck from the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and who depend on Social Security -- the permanent New Deal legacy -- in their old age.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in February, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declared that "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff." Obama's economic stimulus package, Huckabee added, would help create "socialist republics" in the United States. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) ceased to exist in 1991, but a bumper sticker decrying "Comrade Obama" labels the president as someone who wants to turn the United States into the "USSA."

On what planet are these people living?

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