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Alger Hiss: The Left's Religious Icon By: Ron Capshaw
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 04, 2007

In the Nation tradition of Fred Cook, Victor Navasky made a career out of clinging to the innocence of Alger Hiss.  His latest speech, as one of the many pro-Hiss conference speakers at the recent Hiss symposium held at NYU, sought to take an uncharacteristically wider view of the case than simple guilt or innocence. He spoke of how the case has taken on a religious faith for both sides.

Within his speech, however, Navasky reverted to familiar methods practiced by the pro-Hiss crowd for more than 50 years. The basic modus operandi of this group has always been the character issue over evidence.  The Hiss defense team first used this tactic even after the Pumpkin Papers appeared as Exhibit A.


This consisted of emphasizing Hiss' impeccable New Deal resume, parading stellar character witnesses of the caliber of Felix Frankfurter and Adlai Stevenson (but not, incidentally, James F. Byrnes, who put him under surveillance at the State Department and eventually eased him out) and then juxtaposing all of the above with Chambers' grubby background.


Navasky has retained the Chambers assault, arguing how a religious right-winger like Chambers is not to be trusted on accusations (the old-prostitute-cannot-have-good-eyesight approach of defense attorneys everywhere). Indeed, a majority of his speech deals with Chambers and his supporters’ religious zeal.


But not all religious zeal involves Quakerism or right-wingers.  An article of faith with the Hiss people for 50 years has involved rejecting empirical data (Pumpkin Papers, defector testimony, decrypted Russian cables) and, instead, embracing the most un-empirical data of all – namely Hiss’ continued campaign for his innocence.  Such a quest is offered by the Left as Exhibit A, without considering for a moment that Hiss might have been in denial or recognized that painting himself as an innocent New Dealer hounded for his beliefs would greatly benefit his own cause.


In contrast to Allen Weinstein or Sam Tannenhaus on Chambers, no pro-Hiss person ever dared commit the heresy of psychoanalyzing Hiss.  Such an approach in the hands of those less religious might have yielded valuable clues as to what motivated a spy or martyr or both (And Alger and Priscilla inadvertently dropped some: Hiss's admission of never having felt guilt about anything he had ever done, an incredible statement from anyone; Priscilla's late 1960s breakdown which lead to her screaming about being “tired of all the lies and cover-ups.”).


So in thrall are they to impeccable Russian sources (a sort of Bible to be cited) and so wicked is any source coming from the American government (a sort of bureaucratic anti-Christ) that a fundamentalist self-editing process is at work. Only Russian sources such as Volgnokov asserting Hiss' innocence (which he later reversed himself on, citing undue pressure from the Hiss people) are allowed in, and out goes the decrypted Venona telegrams, one of which mentions Hiss by name.  Anything coming out of the American government is axiomatically untrue, such as the State Department leaks stopping once Hiss was eased out.


But an important component of any religion, even the leftist secular version, involves recognizing a false prophet.  And the Left is famous for worshipping them, from Lenin, to Stalin, to the Rosenbergs, to Hiss.  What Navasky and company need more than any perestroika is a Martin Luther emerging in their midst.


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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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