BOOKS: by R.J. Stove (reviewer)News Weekly
Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy, by G. Edward White
, May 22, 2004
Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy
By G. Edward White
Oxford University Press
Rec. price: $67.50"Audacity! Again audacity!
- Georges Danton during the French RevolutionWould you believe, New York's Bard College actually boasts an Alger Hiss Professorship of Social Studies.
Mere denizens of Planet Earth might find this concept only marginally (if at all) saner than an Enron Chair of Accounting, a Harold Shipman School of Medical Ethics, or a Sharon Tate Fan Club run by Charles Manson. Still, there is no denying the appeal of so bizarre a post to those gulls who continue to maintain that the Berlin Wall was built to keep Westerners out, or that Spanish Republicans in 1936-39 were fighting for anyone's "freedom" except Red gangsters'.
Probably such gulls are impervious to argument - the nailing of Hiss as a Soviet spy by the Venona documentation declassified in 1995 should have silenced even their poppycock - but anyone able to accept hard evidence will benefit from this volume, which belongs on any self-respecting Cold War historian's shelf alongside Sam Tanenhaus's 1997 biography, Whittaker Chambers
The tale of Hiss (who died in 1996 aged 92, hale in body and spirit till almost the end) is nowadays, therefore, not a whodunit but a whyhedunit.
With Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, motivations are much more easily discerned. That rancorous couple shared the outlook of Macbeth
's First Murderer: "so incensed that I am reckless what I do to spite the world." Espionage merely served as the objective correlative for their freewheeling grotesquerie.
Not so with Hiss. He remained as deficient in tempestuous sadism as in patriotism.
He never needed Moscow gold (just as well, since he never received any: his labours for Stalin all went unpaid). He had nothing about him of the born rebel. Though obviously intelligent, he conveyed no downright brilliance (for the crucial functions of treachery he performed at Yalta and in helping to set up the UN, downright brilliance would have been counterproductive).
Nor did his manner suggest fanaticism (Chambers, of all people, conceded that Hiss could exhibit "great gentleness and sweetness"). About Marxist dogmas' minutiae he appears to have known little and cared nothing.
While his sexual life had its complications, he eschewed the frantic buggery that characterised the leading British spies' male-bonding sessions (and, indeed, that enslaved Whittaker Chambers for so long). He had no convulsive, atavistic hatred of Christian social order.Why did he do it?
So why does a non-poor, non-rebellious, non-brilliant, non-fanatical, non-philosophising, predominantly non-perverted non-Christophobe pledge his loyalty to the Soviet slave empire; and, having pledged it, maintain for well over half a century his posture of injured innocence? Given that the evidence against him remained as strong in the 1980s as in the 1940s, would not the mask of his mighty deception have been bound to slip?
With Hiss, it never did; the bland, debonair Hiss persona stayed intact, as if his face had undergone repeated injections of ideological Botox. How could this be?
G. Edward White - law professor at the University of Virginia, and quite obviously neither pamphleteering nor voyeuristic - has supplied an answer at once ingenious and chillingly credible. Briefly, it is as follows. Hiss's treason derived from a cold, virtuosic genius for manipulating people.
That Hiss struck most people as exceptionally unemotional means, of itself, nothing. After all, any bookish male who has lost a father through suicide - and Hiss lost by this means not only his father but also his sister - is almost bound to cultivate an aura of quick-frozen detached intellectuality, Communism or no Communism.
But the manipulative appetite grows by what it feeds on; and well before Hiss had formally sold his soul to the USSR, he had succeeded in wrapping one of his earliest employers (Oliver Wendell Holmes, no less) around his proverbial little finger.Unusual character
Hiss, in Professor White's words, "exemplifies a comparatively unusual type ... one of those rare individuals whose traits and characteristics were complemented by, rather than conflicting with, the secret world of a professional spy ... [a] rare example of someone who thrived on living a secret life of betrayal and deceit." Professor White again:
"Not many people seek psychic integration through spying and lying. Even fewer are so good at those tasks that they come close to achieving their version of it. Alger Hiss was one."
In 1954 Hiss emerged from 44 months' incarceration at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where the prison library - this at the height of McCarthyist "terror" - included the collected letters of Lenin's widow. (Amid his wholesale sedition it is easy to forget that Hiss went to jail, not for his espionage, but for the much lesser crime of perjury.)
One publisher whom the newly freed Hiss approached, seeking work, described how it felt to have Hiss turning on the charm:
"For the first ten minutes of the meeting, I was much impressed ...
"More than an hour later I was bewildered. Mask succeeded mask, role role, personality personality. There was a half hour during which our actual situation was reversed, as though he had granted me an interview ... the authority with which he spoke suggested he was in charge.
"Suddenly something brought this phase to an end, and he became gamin-like, elusive, answering my questions with the manner of a shrewd, precocious boy who was playing games and admiring his skill at them. Another shift, and he seemed abruptly defensive."
The beauty of Professor White's explanation is that it solves enigmas left unanswered by more conventional accounts.
Take the Hiss household's Woodstock typewriter. It constituted his enemies' most damaging weapon. An ordinary criminal would have moved heaven and earth to destroy all indications of the typewriter's existence.Cock-and-bull story
Hiss did no such thing. With his habitual ingenuity he constructed a series of cock-and-bull yarns about a possible duplicate typewriter, used by the FBI (perhaps in collusion with Chambers) to frame him.
No trace of this mechanical Doppelgänger
has been discovered outside Hiss's rich fantasy life; but as long as Hiss had planted in his admirers' increasingly misguided heads the possibility of such a duplicate, those admirers' loyalty would continue.
Hitherto it had been conjectured that Hiss adopted this tactic as a chivalrous cover-up for the guilt of his wife Priscilla. Yet however nasty (and pro-Soviet) a piece of goods we know Priscilla - who died in 1984 - to have been, Hiss's eager co-opting of his own son Tony in order to further his fraudulent campaign for vindication shows that whatever drove him, maintaining family values played no part in it.
Professor White emphasises the curious parabola of Hiss's post-conviction repute. Non-doctrinaire Old Left intellectuals of Hiss's own generation (like Dwight Macdonald), or somewhat younger (like Murray Kempton), freely acknowledged Hiss's guilt.
Only with the rise of anti-Vietnam protest, with the increasingly erratic FBI management that marked J. Edgar Hoover's old age, and above all with Nixon's immolation by Watergate, did Hiss become a sought-out campus guru.
That role achieved, he soon obtained the government pension which his 1951 conviction had denied him, and regained his licence to practise law.
Then came Allen Weinstein's occasionally partisan but predominantly devastating indictment of Hiss, Perjury
(1978), which prompted even such veteran leftists as Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin to admit in print that perhaps "Saint" Alger had lied through his teeth after all.
In some respects the world that nurtured Hiss seems impossibly remote now, thanks to Hiss's WASP origins. The WASP hegemony over American culture is forever gone. But as Professor White warns us, "there have been and there will be others" with Hiss's lifelong cunning.
Considering what a treasure it has on its hands, Oxford University Press's lack of attention to this tome's proofreading disappoints.
This ought not, however, to prevent Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars
from entering the catalogue of every academic library. Especially Bard College's.- A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in The American Conservative