Susan Jacoby: Alger Hiss and the Battle for History

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Jacoby, Susan. Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009)

Much like recent conservative efforts to whitewash Reagan's presidency, the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers case has been important in bolstering their Cold War version of history. Susan Jacoby (website, Wikipedia) is somewhat surprised at the case's continued media resilience and political resonance:

It is extraordinary that Hiss's fate continues to generate controversy even though American communism, in both a practical and an intellectual sense, ceased to exist a half-century ago as anything other than a bogeyman for the right and a delusion for the extreme left. (p. 10)

Despite the fact that the battle the Hiss case is now more than sixty years old, the pro-Hiss and anti-Hiss intellectuals seem to hate each other as much as their predecessors did when Joseph Stalin presided in the Kremlin and Joseph McCarthy was waving around his list of covert Communists in the State Department. Many no doubt hate one another personally, but what each side truly hates is the other's version of history. (pp. 194-195)

As she writes later, "For both groups, the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss remains today what it was in the fifties--a symbolic and real indicator of which side you were, and are, on" (p. 26). Where does Jacoby stand regarding the case itself? She states clearly that "I believe Hiss was guilty of both perjury and spying, but I find evidence of the latter persuasive--very persuasive--rather than conclusive:" (p. 20)

It is not my intention, in this slim volume, to reexamine or reevaluate the actual evidence in the Hiss case; anyone who wishes to do so will be better served by the works of scholars who have, mirabile dictum, devoted years of their lives to poring over documents so endless (and often so dull) that it would be impossible for anyone but a Cold War junkie to read them without going blind or mad. (pp. 28-29)

Jacoby prefers to spare her readers both blindness and madness, telling a lively story and sprinkling the narrative with biographical bons mots such as this:

In 1930, while the Hisses were still living in Boston, Priscilla joined the Morningside Heights branch of the Socialist Party and began to engage in the seditious business of feeding the unemployed at soup kitchens on the Upper West Side. (p. 49)

Part of the case's continued relevance is definitional; the pundits' penchant for misrepresenting every economic position to the left of Friedman or Hayek as socialist or communist obscures what needs to be clarified:

The tendency of nonintellectual Americans to lump socialism and communism together was well established by the end of the First World War, and this conflation infuriated left-wing intellectual of every stripe. (p. 73)

Such imprecision--or deliberate misrepresentation, if you prefer--should concern anyone who cares about the veracity of arguments over political economy, but it is telling that only liberals seem concerned with rhetorical accuracy. (The recent effort by the Right to mischaracterize fascism as a left-wing phenomenon is another example.) That said, it is still possible in the narrower instance of the Hiss/Chambers case for actual espionage--of whatever magnitude--to have occurred without justifying the Red Scare that consumed America then and haunts it still. As Jacoby shows, this history lesson has been properly learned by neither side.


Dorothy Gallagher reviewed the book for the New York Times

Wikipedia has decent articles on both Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, but no separate article on the Case itself

Kai Bird's "The Mystery of Ales" at American Scholar questions the assumption that Hiss and the spy code-named 'Ales' are the same person; Ron Rosenbaum comments on that effort at Slate

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 29, 2009 7:21 PM.

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