ALGER HISS'S LOOKING-GLASS WAR: THE COVERT LIFE OF A SOVIET SPY
BY G. EDWARD WHITE
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 297 PAGES, $30
SAVE for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, there is no greater Cold War icon than Alger Hiss, the once high-ranking State Department of ficial who went to prison for denying that he'd passed government secrets to the Soviet Union.
Nearly 60 years after he was exposed before Congress by Whittaker Chambers, a communist underground operative who later became a senior editor at Time magazine, belief in Hiss' complete innocence remains an article of faith for the political left.
For anti-communists, Hiss remains the prime example of how the Kremlin infiltrated the highest ranks of the U.S. government. G. Edward White, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, has written an incisive history of the case that riveted America and launched the national career of Hiss' chief congressional foe, Richard Nixon.
White writes from a unique perspective: His father-in-law, John Davis, had been Hiss' lawyer during his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and remained an active member of the defense team.
Over the years, Davis remained unpersuaded by new evidence of Hiss' guilt, while White reached an altogether different conclusion.
White's history breaks no new ground for those who have followed the case in detail. It's real importance is the book's coverage of Hiss' life after his release from prison in the fall of 1954. White is the first to examine how Hiss spent the remaining 52 years of his life waging "a campaign for vindication" — and how, remarkably, that campaign largely succeeded.
Only since his death, in fact, has the tide begun to turn against Hiss, as newly disclosed U.S. and Soviet records have added to what was already an overwhelming case for his guilt.
As White writes: "Of all his contemporary Soviet agents, only Hiss was exposed, convicted, imprisoned and then nearly vindicated. And his near vindication came without his producing a shred of credible new evidence that tended to exonerate him."
Hiss was greatly aided by the changing tide of national politics: In the 1960s, anti-communism had been discredited in the public eye and the Left was culturally ascendant.
And, indeed, Hiss' campaign picked up steam when he made common cause with '60s-era radicals and following Nixon's self-destruction.
The other key to Hiss' campaign was his refusal to admit anything, always insisting that he'd been the victim of a monstrous political frame-up.
The most controversial part of Hiss' campaign was the public "exoneration" announced in 1992 by Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, who announced that his check of Soviet intelligence files had found no evidence of Hiss' espionage. It was front-page news; Hiss and his son Tony, a writer for The New Yorker, pronounced him "vindicated."
But Volkogonov had never checked the files of Soviet military intelligence, for whom Hiss worked. And his examination had been prompted by Hiss supporters. Needless to say, Volkogonov's retraction did not merit the same front-page and network news coverage.
The weight of the evidence is clear: Hiss was a Soviet agent and, when caught, lied about it. But most people aren't inclined to examine the evidence in detail.
That's why, says White, "Alger Hiss fooled a large number of people for many years, and it is worth reflecting on how that happened."