The usual historiography of the Hiss case either makes the case for the prosecution, ever more valid with decrypted Russian documents, or argues for his innocence by asserting a right-wing conspiracy. The latter goes something like this: Chambers, spurned by the heterosexual Hiss, is the public face of the conspiracy, while HUAC, running out of time if Truman wins in 1948 and carrying out his campaign promise of abolishing them, provides the forum; Bernard Baruch, viciously cross-examined by Hiss in the 30s, bankrolls it; and the ant colony work, forgery by typewriter, dusting off intercepted documents, is left to J. Edgar Hoover and his g-men. It is not difficult to see why the Left finds this theory so attractive, for it fits in with all of their hatreds—of capitalists, of the FBI, and of ex-communist apostates.
But drowned out in all the screaming matches across the decades is an alternative theory that was, for a time, attractive to liberals eager to spin an anti-Communist reputation for FDR and Truman and still exonerate Hiss. The theory, first advanced by Ronald Seth in the 1960s, asserted that Hiss was framed by the Soviet Union and that Chambers was their willing instrument; Nixon and HUAC and the FBI, in a leaf from the Manchurian Candidate book, where the far-Right was an unconscious tool of the far-Left, were the unknowing tools of Moscow. The desired result, to stymie the Soviet Union’s true enemy, the liberal, bent on improving capitalism, was to distract them from this goal for generations and instead have them prove repeatedly they were not “soft on communism.”
The incriminating documents, according to this theory, those not bearing the imprint of the forged typewriter, were the result of data nabbed during the Amerasia raid by the bureau three years before the Hiss case. That Seth and others since are willing to admit that Phillip Jaffe, Amerasia’s editor, and contributor and diplomat John Stewart Service were Soviet couriers merely confirms how the Left has always been willing to sacrifice others for Hiss’s vindication.
Before immediately discounting his theory as desperation, it might be useful to consider it. The Russian delegation asking for Hiss to represent the US side during a wartime conference (by name) may have represented the early stages of setting him up, albeit a crude one. And for all the scaling down of his importance in the New Deal by his vindicators, Hiss was an important administration official, and hence important to knock down: he set up security for wartime conferences and came within a hair’s breadth of running security at State. Chambers’ initial inability to remember the year he defected, and then ascertaining it was 1938, not 1937, when the Pumpkin Papers extended into the 38 period, does hint at him being manipulated by someone or something.
But the problem with this theory is the questions it does not answer. Why was Hiss seeking atomic information in the 1945-46 period, when it was not within the purview of his duties at State? Why did the leaks coming out of State stop when he was eased out? How does Seth account for the memos Chambers gave to the prosecution bearing Hiss’ signatures and handwriting, which Hiss admitted were his? How does Seth account for Hiss’s refusal to take a lie detector test? Or his wrapping himself in the New Deal flag while surrounded by aged members of the Old Left in the 1970s? How does he account for Priscilla’s breakdown in the late '60s, in which she said she was “tired of all the lies and cover-ups?” Or the Venona telegrams, intercepted by Army intelligence during World War II and then stopped when the Russian found out the U.S. had broken the code, identifying Hiss by his name in one instance and his coded name in others? (A Soviet plot would not have canceled the telegrams coming in and out of Moscow once the US intercepted them, but kept them going). Or Khrushchev’s memoirs, written and smuggled out while he had been broken from power, naming Hiss as a spy? By then, Khrushchev was highly critical of the Soviet Union and would hardly aid in a communist plot.
Ultimately, this theory fits more with the current mood of liberals now than in the late '60s, when they are so desperate for political traction that Ronald Reagan suddenly becomes attractive, and they are more religious than the Right. Hiss as communist victim has yet to be discovered. Still it pops up from time to time, when Venona and more documents coming out of the Soviet Union leave less wiggle room for those committed to Hiss’ innocence.