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Deconstructing Alger Hiss By: Ron Capshaw
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 08, 2007


The reasonably certain authenticity of the Venona telegrams has provided historians with the opportunity to move beyond the tired old debates about Woodstock typewriters in the Hiss case and simply ask: Why did Hiss steal American secrets and pass them on to Stalin's intelligence service?

Hiss sympathizer Kurt Vonnegut has criticized detractors for hammering Hiss' personality into the mould of one-dimensional Stalinism, but the more thoughtful of these critics are frankly baffled by Hiss. Reviewing Hiss' post-prison book, Sidney Hook wrote, "one misses the passionate protest and burning sense of outrage usually found in the writings of those who consider themselves unjustly accused."

Richard Crossman complained, "there is not one paragraph or a line about the man Alger Hiss or his wife Priscilla." Even his supporter Dean Acheson pronounced Hiss an enigma.

But beneath the passionless facade, there was a personality. To those in his party cell, Hiss was a rather "romantic" communist. This description may explain Hiss' purported "exhilaration" at going to prison. Here was an opportunity, after years of hiding his ideology behind government service, to make a sacrifice. But the self-sacrificer also a sacrificed others (a noted Stalinist characteristic) — his colleagues, his friends, even his son — by allowing them to go out on a limb for him that he knew one day would break.

Hook's observance of a passionless Hiss may lead us to another area of Hiss' personality — one that is free of guilt. Hiss himself provided hints of such: "I can't understand people who tell me they are ashamed of something. I have done nothing of which I am ashamed." Hiss even admired the Mafiosi he did time with, pronouncing them "healthy" because they had no sense of guilt. Isaac Deutscher described the ex-communista saying,  "He is haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society."

But Hiss, as far as we know, never did express guilt over his communist espionage. And as for bourgeois ideals, he had no ethical problem with wrapping himself in the New Deal flag.

How could Hiss perform his two roles without snapping under the pressure? Other spies from the same period confessed to the overwhelming pressure of their double lives. Klaus Fuchs has written of a successful way of coping with this double life by establishing a trip wire that until crossed, could allow him to relax:

"I could be free and easy and happy with other people without fear of disclosing myself because I knew that the other compartment would step in if I approached the danger point."

This may have been the modus operandi of Hiss. Hiram Haydn, an editor at Random House, discussed an odd interview with Alger Hiss. Haydn describes how mask succeeded mask and role succeed role throughout the interview. At first, Hiss was quiet and dignified, then aggressive and authoritarian, and then, "he seemed abruptly defensive. There was fear and suspicion in his expression and he answered me in guarded monosyllables."

Still, the double burden of government work and espionage activity in the 1930s that became, after 1949, a triple burden with the addition of the victimized New Dealer role, had to have caused some form of pressure. But all of those who came into contact with Hiss remarked on Hiss' supreme confidence. Nathan Weyl, a fellow Soviet spy, remarked that Hiss was "always sure of himself." His government colleague, Jerome Frank, wrote that Hiss was "eminently well-balanced." This self-confidence, combined with his reported "deep commitment" to communism, may have given him the strength to juggle roles.

A compartmentalizer who knows no guilt — that may be a working description of the Hiss personality. By day, he worked in New Deal Washington; by night, he leaked documents to communist agents. At Yalta, he arrived with the American delegation; later, he was decorated by the Soviets for secret services rendered. Mask upon mask, layer upon layer.

Added to this portrait though was a playful, mocking Hiss, with a catch-me-if-you-can personality. Again, Haydn proves instructive:

"He became gaminlike, elusive, answering my questions with the manner of a shrewd, precocious boy who was playing games and admiring his skill at them."

There appeared time and again a Hiss who drops clues to his opponents during the verbal sparring. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was privy to this game, if not fully aware of it, when Hiss implied in his testimony that the 1930s were a much better era for relations between communists and liberals, the party line at the time of his questioning.

The clue-dropper appears in his autobiographical reminiscence of Stalin at Yalta, the same Yalta where he was decorated by the Soviets. In "Stalin, the Enigmatic Host at Yalta," Hiss followed the trajectory of his bizarre session with Haydn. He began with a mask of anti-communism (Stalin is a ruthless dictator who butchered his people) followed by a bold gesture, a peek behind the mask (Stalin is considerate and intelligent — the Stalin portrayed in the Hollywood film "Mission to Moscow"); more importantly, he was a populist who waited patiently in line behind his staff to go to the bathroom while the aristocratic Churchill retired to his privy in his suite. Finally, a retreat back to safety, the trip wire alerted him: Stalin is brutal.

But this portrait still does not supply us with why Hiss did it. Was it the ultimate game for him? The ultimate gamble? Or was he a deeply committed partisan as Whittaker Chambers has argued? Until documented admissions from Hiss' papers become available, the jury, unlike the one in 1949, is still out.

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Ron Capshaw has written for National Review, the New York Sun, Partisan Review and the Weekly Standard. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and is currently writing a biography of Alger Hiss.


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