Sunday, October 13, 2013

What made Alger Hiss tick?

The facts are not really in question, but the motivations are.
In 1948, high-level U.S. State Department veteran Alger Hiss was accused by journalist Whittaker Chambers of passing classified information to the Soviets. (Chambers was a disillusioned ex-communist who had been a courier for Red Army intelligence.) Even after incontrovertible evidence to the contrary led to a federal conviction in 1950, Hiss stubbornly maintained his innocence, even until his death in 1996. (Right, in this Life magazine photo, a handcuffed Hiss leaves courtroom for prison.)
In her book Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, counterintelligence expert Christina Shelton weighs the whys and the wherefores of both Hiss's spying and refusal to admit it. As Lauren Weiner wrote in her review of the book in the Washington Times,
Archives from the former Soviet bloc nations have shown over the years that at least three other people corroborate Hiss' role as a Soviet asset, a role he fulfilled before, during and after the 1941 to 1945 wartime alliance of Russia and the United States. Hiss spent more than three years in prison for perjury, and as Ms. Shelton implicitly acknowledges, the real mystery is not why he chose treason but why, after his release, he filed endless legal appeals. He chose to help the Soviet Union because he believed in the Soviet model and wanted it for America. That is clear. But why spend decades thereafter seeking exoneration?.... The journalist Murray Kempton was best on this aspect, describing how a widowed Mrs. Hiss had raised her children alone after the suicide of Hiss' father. A social stigma attached to such a situation, which this rising son of Lanvale Street never forgave but was determined to erase.
Erase it he did, clawing his way to a privileged education and building an impressive resume in New Deal Washington. Then the communist controversy derailed him. He was now scorned as a Red by the same sorts of judgmental know-nothings who had sold him short back in Baltimore. Who were they to disesteem someone as superior as he had shown himself to be? Understood this way, his defiance loses a good deal of its strangeness. 
Above, Hiss working as Secretary-General of the United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco; Hiss being questioned re Chambers' allegations of treason. Below, the 1945 Yalta Summit, where Shelton speculates that Hiss's interface with the Soviets began. Hiss is to the right of Roosevelt; Churchill is in the foreground right, three-quarters back view; Stalin is in the shadows (far left). According to Cambridge professor and Soviet espionage expert Christopher Andrew, Soviet "files show that after the Yalta conference Hiss was secretly awarded the order of the Red Star during a visit to Moscow."
Congressman Richard Nixon, who battled strenuously for Hiss's conviction, is shown with a newpaper announcing the guilty verdict.
In the brief interview below, Shelton addresses several of the themes of her book, including the "titanic struggle between collectivism and individualism"; the KGB archives that later "put the final nail in the coffin," in which "Hiss is cited not only by his cover name but in clear text"; and his personal papers that she examined, which "showed a more humanistic side, his sweetness … his love for his wife and son shows through."


  1. Good summary. I wondered if you were going to turn this into a (pre-)Halloween story, because of Hiss and his pumpkin patch. (Not the same one, apparently, where Linus goes each year to wait for The Great Pumpkin.)

    1. Thanks RPS. I heard of the Pumpkin Papers but never knew about the pumpkin till now. What a hiding place--and a timely connection!

  2. This definitely seems interesting. I would love to try to understand the inner psyche of Alger Hiss.