In Oliver Stone's "JFK," the whistleblower about the government plot to kill Kennedy explains how conspiracy theories have misdirected the public: "Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, Castro. It's like a parlor game that keeps them guessing, keeps them from asking the important questions."
This same comment could be applied to the defense strategy of Alger Hiss, State Department official, the man who sat behind FDR at Yalta, the man who shook Harry Truman's hand on the United Nations' stage, and agent ALES of the fourth section of Soviet Military Intelligence. Exposed as a Soviet spy in his lifetime by the pumpkin papers and posthumously by declassified Soviet cables, Hiss responded by generating his own parlor game -- accusing forged typewriters, spurned homosexuals, anti-New Deal forces, FDR, Hoover, Nixon, and the China lobby as being all part of the vast, rightwing conspiracy that tried to frame him. Hiss’s parlor game was designed to obscure the most important questions: namely, why did he spy for the Soviet Union and why did he maintain his innocence for nearly 50 years?
In his new biography, Alger Hiss: The Looking Glass Wars, G. Edward White ignores the parlor game and instead focuses the spotlight on Hiss himself. He does well in offering a psychological portrait of a compartmentalizer who jealously guarded his secret life. But he is more interested in uncovering Hiss's psychological makeup than his ideology. He merely attributes Hiss's turn toward Stalinism in the early 1930s to his wife, Priscilla, a member of the Socialist Party at that time (White forgets the enmity between the CPUSA and the American Socialist Party in the early 1930s, which expressed itself during a famous dustup at Madison Square Garden in 1934).
Focusing solely on the ideological influence of Priscilla ignores an earlier event that may have politicized Hiss and served as a model for his own defense.
Hiss was a student at Harvard during a feverish campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti, the two Italian anarchists accused of murder. His mentor, Felix Frankfurter, led this campaign and would later write a book asserting their innocence. The pair's execution politicized an entire generation of leftists. Playwright John Howard Lawson would join the Communist Party because of it and go on to head the Hollywood branch. John Dos Passos, already a sympathizer with the Communist Party, would be pushed by the event as far to the left as he ever would, according to his biographer, Townshend Ludington.
During the protests, Dos Passos wrote that "the case has become part of the world struggle between the capitalist class and the working class, between those have power and those who are struggling to get it." Writer Robert Lovett said that the case "forced me to accept a doctrine which I had always repudiated as partisan tactics -the class war." Although Hiss never commented publicly on how this event affected him, his close friend, Harvard classmate, State Department confidant, and fellow cell member, Noel Field, spoke of his own conversion experience:
“...my wife and I sat beside the radio in our tiny Washington apartment and with waning hope followed the last-minute efforts to save the lives of Sacco andVanzetti. I remained true to the beliefs that began to take shape, oh, how vague and how slowly, during the ghastly wake, when hope changed to despair ....The shock of the Sacco-Vanzetti executions drove me leftward."
Soon after that, Field began the dual life of government official and Soviet agent. Hiss himself followed this same trajectory. His exposure to Sacco and Vanzetti may also explain the tactics he used to vindicate himself from 1948 on. Being a witness to, and possible participant in the campaign to save them, Hiss was undoubtedly aware of what a powerful recruiting poster for the Left the pair was, and how this power came from their continued protestations of their innocence (later evidence showed their guilt). To the Left, the propaganda message of two innocent immigrants executed by the government was a powerful indictment of a nativist, repressive society.
Hiss may have adopted a similar role of the innocent liberal whose imprisonment was an indictment of American society. Such a pose of innocence would require a lifetime commitment, one fuelled by either game playing or ideology or both. Evidence certainly points to ideology. Hiss's fellow cell members, Whittaker Chambers and Nathan Weyl, characterized Hiss as a dedicated communist. This dedication became apparent when he tried to obtain atomic information that was not part of his official duties at State, which was carried out while he was under investigation by the State Department's security branch. Part of this may have been recklessness, an O.J Simpson-like belief of being immune from consequences. But it may have also been powered in his mind by a desire to push history toward communism.
White highlights the self-serving aspects of the Hiss personality, but he ignores the propagandist who popped up at odd moments. During his investigation by HUAC, Hiss implied a favorable view of the Popular Front period, a period from 1936-39 when liberals and communists formed alliances to fight fascism. In the 1970s, Hiss was interviewed while surrounded by former members of his cell, John Abt and Jessica Smith. All the while, he spoke admiringly of FDR and the New Deal; the intended effect may have been to blur the distinctions between Soviet spies and the more respected New Deal -- the Party Line in the1930s.
Aware of Hiss's penchant for propaganda, one can ascertain why he was reportedly "exhilarated" at going to prison in 1950. Here was an opportunity to become a recruiting poster for the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti. The two had inspired a generation by both proclaiming their innocence and their status as political prisoners of a repressive America. Hiss did likewise. While inside and outside of prison, he played the role of political prisoner, reading Lenin's works behind bars and telling interviewers throughout his life that his trial was "contrived for political purposes." At the same time, he spent the remainder of his life asserting his innocence.
If Hiss' post-1948 tactics were intended for recruiting purposes, he certainly got his wish. The Nation Magazine from 1948 to his day deifies Hiss (recently, editor Victor Navasky has admitted Hiss's espionage but has tried to attach patriotic motives to it). Hiss had his own Felix Frankfurter in lawyer/activist John Lowenthal, who championed his cause in books and documentaries and by pressuring Soviet historians to clear Hiss. Today, Barnard College has an Alger Hiss chair in history. Like the pair that politicized Hiss, Hiss politicized others.
But Hiss also emulated Sacco and Vanzetti in a more long-lasting respect: he sent his followers out on a limb he knew would one day break.
Ron Capshaw is currently working on a biography of Alger Hiss. His work has appeared in Partisan Review and Liberty.