Hiss case redrew political map, historians say Debate helped define Cold War divisions

November 16, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Susan Baer and Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

Even in death, Alger Hiss illuminates the lines of division that he drew for much of America during the Cold War, not so much as a man but as a symbol for the battles so bitterly waged at home.

Henry R. Luce, the founder of Time magazine, said just before World War II that the 20th century would be "the American Century." Instead, America found itself at odds with the Soviet Union, and the ideological conflict would define much of this country's internal politics from the mid-1940s until communism's collapse.

And Hiss, an elegant Baltimore-born-and-bred diplomat accused in 1948 of slipping secrets to the Soviets, was among the most vivid symbols of the Cold War, several scholars and chroniclers of that era said yesterday after hearing of Hiss' death.

"When Alger Hiss was accused of being a Communist, it was considered comical by all of us because of his background and the shabby nature of his accuser," said historian William Manchester, who was a reporter with The Evening Sun in those days.

Barkeepers in East Baltimore taverns set out jars to collect money for Hiss' defense, Manchester recalled, reflecting the loyalty many working-class people felt for New Dealers like Hiss.

But Hiss was convicted in 1950 for perjury for lying in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And that conviction spelled the end of the New Deal coalition of intellectuals, working class whites, blacks and farmers, Manchester said.

"When Hiss was convicted, it was the beginning of the turning of blue-collar America away from the Democratic Party," he said.

Walter LaFeber, a Cold War historian at Cornell University, describes the importance of Hiss' conviction in even more stark terms: "It shaped American foreign policy; it shaped American politics."

"It was the Hiss trial, among other [events] that triggered the McCarthy era," LaFeber said. "He was a symbol of the Ivy League Eastern establishment that [critics] claimed had sold the nation out with the New Deal and the postwar world."

Only after Hiss' conviction in 1950 did Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican seeking an issue for his re-election bid, make his famous speech in Wheeling, W.Va., attacking the U.S. government and particularly the State Department for harboring Communist spies.

Victor Navasky, editor of the leftist magazine The Nation, said he came to believe in the former State Department official's innocence chiefly by getting to know Hiss.

"You can be fooled," Navasky said yesterday. "But everything he did -- he talked, walked, lived like somebody dedicated to proving his innocence."

In researching the Cold War years for a book he wrote on the Hollywood blacklisting, Navasky said he found Hiss' accuser, Whittaker Chambers, "thoroughly unreliable" and the case against Hiss, like other high-profile spy cases of that era, "tried in such an overheated atmosphere it was impossible for a defendant to get a fair trial."

Despite Hiss' lifelong efforts to clear his name, Manchester said he was convinced as a young reporter and remains certain today that the evidence shows the former diplomat to have been a spy.

That was also the conclusion of Allen Weinstein, who sued the FBI to obtain the Hiss files in the mid-1970s for material on the trial which became his 1978 book, "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case." Chambers was the former Communist Party member whose accusations against Hiss became plausible as the inquiry led by then-Rep. Richard M. Nixon continued.

Weinstein, now president of a Washington think tank, said he started out thinking Hiss was probably innocent. "The evidence persuaded me otherwise," he said yesterday.

Hiss' son, Tony Hiss, a writer who has taken up his father's quest, predicts that vindication will come. "If anyone has any knowledge of history 40 or 50 years from now, then I think he will have an honorable and venerable place in [it]," Tony Hiss said.

LaFeber, the Cornell historian, is unconvinced that Alger Hiss was a spy, saying that hard evidence is scant. Plenty of Americans shared Hiss' apparent belief in the 1930s that the Soviet Union offered a bulwark against poverty and fascism, LaFeber noted.

"The real question is not whether he was a member of the Communist Party, or whether he sympathized with it. The real question is whether or not this guy passed secrets on to the Soviets," he said. "I think the argument over whether he's guilty or innocent is like the argument over who started the Cold War -- it's going to go on forever."

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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