Table of Contents
the Hiss Case
Read: Witness by Whittaker Chambers. This is quite an voluminous book . Plenty of food for thought.
Usually, the media boil the story of Whittaker Chambers down to the Hiss Case. Here is a case in point. The discussion then focuses on the guilt / innocence of Alger Hiss.
Hiss’ innocence has both defenders and detractors. This was true in 1948 and remains true today. Defenders of Hiss’ innocence then go on to claim that the HUAC was a witch-hunt organized by Nixon & McCarthy targeting liberals.
But this narrative misses Chambers’ larger point. Perhaps deliberately so…
Chambers’ larger points were:
- Communism was an evil and irreconcilable with Christianity and America,
- Roosevelt’s liberals were in fact fellow-travelers,
- Many fellow-travelers were active in espionage for the Soviet-Union.
Sixty years after publication of Witness, we can conclude that Chambers was mostly right:
The cold war proved that, indeed, the Soviet-Union and America were destined to become enemies, unable to co-exist.
We can not look into the hearts of Roosevelt liberals. Some, perhaps most, never wavered. But quite a few held that the Soviet Union represented the future, and that it worked.
Other than the dozen spies denounced by Chambers, there were other spy rings like Elizabeth Bentley‘s, the Rosenbergs and David Greenglass. Many came from Harvard, or other Ivy Leagues. All in all, no less than thirty-three were convicted;
So looking at the larger picture, the guilt or innocence of one Alger Hiss is hardly relevant. By and large, history has proved Whittaker Chambers right.
Neither Chambers’ nor Hiss’ stories appear watertight. Chambers has a tendency to quote metaphysical reasons and religious experiences as a way of glossing over the his weak points. That does not convince me.
Perhaps Chambers is telling the truth about the Baltimore documents, and the infamous pumpkin papers. But it is hard to believe that he is telling the whole truth.
Hiss’ story is, of course, so rambling and unbelievable, that it got him convicted for perjury.
When looking back at either Chambers’ or Hiss’ behavior, one easily falls into the hindsight fallacy. We tend to overlook that human behavior is mostly chaotic in the here and now. Thus, we should accept a large degree of inexplicable or seemingly random choices made by both sides.
Nevertheless, Hiss’ choices both in his legal strategy and in (the court of) public opinion simply do not make any sense. For one, it is hard to see that Hiss would gain anything by his libel suit against Chambers. It is this suit that kept the Hiss case alive. It is very probably that without it, Hiss would never have been indicted for perjury.
Moreover, given the holes in Hiss’ testimony at that time (the apartment sub-lease and the Ford automobile), it is inconceivable that Hiss would have won that libel suit.
Perhaps Hiss was given to hubris. Perhaps he deluded himself. Certainly he deluded his own legal council (otherwise the Woodstock typewriter would never have been submitted by Hiss’ defense.)
There is, however, one explanation that does make a lot of pieces fall into place. For this, we should consider that if Chambers succeeded, this would be disastrous for the chances for future Soviet espionage. If Chambers walked away as the victor, there would be a continuous and indefatigable pull on any Soviet spy to “do a Chambers.” Any chance for discipline in the Soviet espionage apparatus would be gone.
From this perspective, the Hiss strategy does make sense. It was meant to damage Chambers as much as possible; making it unattractive for anyone to follow in his footsteps. Even though the strategy was legally disastrous (it landed Hiss behind bars), it was largely successful in damaging Chambers (especially in the court of public opinion). It limited the damage to other espionage apparati.
Of course, this implies that the sensational news that Alger Hiss was a spy for communism in the 1930’s was the real “red herring“. The real sensation was that Alger Hiss was still a communist in 1948; and was still obedient to communist underground discipline. It would also follow that presidents Roosevelt and Truman sided with an active Soviet spy; as did Adlai Stevenson and two supreme court justices.
Granted, all of this is just conjecture…