Hiss' suit against Chambers, on the case's 50th birthday The American intellectual world is still bedeviled by the residue of the 'stylish Stalinism' of the Cold War era.

September 27, 1998|By Lauren Weiner | Lauren Weiner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fifty years ago today, Alger Hiss filed a slander suit against Whittaker Chambers in federal court in Baltimore. Chambers, a former courier for Soviet military intelligence, had accused Hiss, Baltimore-born former U.S. diplomat, of being a Communist. Hiss indignantly denied it.

What looked like a feud between two men exposed a deep conflict among Americans and shaped the political allegiances of a generation.

Today it's clear Hiss was guilty. But in the fundamental battle for "hearts and minds," he won. It was a victory that affected and still affects the education and consciousness of many who were not alive during the Hiss-Chambers controversy.

That the case pitted right against left goes without saying. Those alarmed by Communism opposed those who were more alarmed by efforts to root it out, notably the efforts of a soon-to-be-famous senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.

But another split, this one within the left, was arguably more decisive for American politics and culture. Honest "Cold War liberals" readily admitted the likelihood of Hiss' guilt whereas true believers in the Soviet Union's revolution, convinced that Joseph Stalin would save the world, tried to save Hiss and to tar those who repudiated him.

The two left-wing factions - anti-Stalinists and Stalinists - fought over Alger Hiss, over whether to acknowledge a Communist underground, and ultimately over control of the intellectual journals and magazines of the left, like the Nation, the Atlantic, and other elite publications. The Stalinists won; their hold on American culture has lasted longer than the Soviet experiment itself.

In 1948, everyone was riveted by the spectacle of prominent people, on the East Coast and even in Hollywood, being accused of devotion to America's new postwar enemy: Soviet Russia. Who was telling the truth - Alger Hiss or his accuser? Had the former State Department official been part of a secret Communist unit trying, during the previous decade, to sway Washington policy in a pro-Moscow direction?

It was all about political influence, not espionage per se. Until Hiss sued, that is. Then it suddenly became a spy case. To defend against the charge of slander, Chambers produced what would become known as the "Baltimore Papers" (or "Pumpkin Papers," because some of the microfilm rolls were briefly stashed in a pumpkin on the Chambers farm in Westminster).

The government memos and cables were from Hiss and several other officials, handed to Chambers years earlier for delivery to the Russians. The documents clinched Chambers' story and helped send Hiss to prison for perjury, the statute of limitations on espionage having run out.

There were many who, if not exactly defending Hiss, were uncomfortable discussing a Communist underground on U.S. soil. Former Party members like Nathaniel Weyl and Henry Julian Wadleigh (one of the sources of the "Baltimore Papers") came forward to confirm its existence. Roosevelt liberals bristled, because this seemed to paint the entire New Deal an ugly shade of red. And there were others, including some conservatives, who doubted someone with Alger Hiss' sterling resume and clean-cut demeanor would work secretly for the Russians, no matter what the evidence seemed to say.

As one Cold War liberal and anti-Stalinist, the critic Leslie Fiedler, wrote: "It would be foolish to accuse the Democrats, who under Truman launched a creditable program of opposing Communism

abroad, with any real desire to protect Communists at home; but they did often choose to deny what they knew to be true in the interests of vote- getting; and after a while they came to speak of hysteria and 'witch hunts' as if the danger of Communist espionage were not merely exaggerated but non-existent."

Thus a look-the-other-way posture on the part of some, and a pro-Hiss stance by others, muddied the issue. So did the reckless aggressions, later on, of Senator McCarthy. Amid the confusion, an entire constellation of beliefs and tastes arrayed itself around a feeling of sympathy for Alger Hiss and a vague but powerful certainty that those who saw "Reds under the beds" were simply paranoid.

One of the first to notice this belief system taking shape was Whittaker Chambers, as his correspondence with Ralph de Toledano ("Notes From the Underground," Regnery, 342 pages, $24.95) makes clear. "The great tide of feeling was always with Alger Hiss, at least among literate people," Chambers wrote to his friend. "Even yet, the slightest hint that he may be innocent brings it quivering to the light."

In his splendid "Whittaker Chambers" (Random House, 638 pages, $35), Sam Tanenhaus observes: "The editorial writers did not simply pity Hiss. They seemed to identify with him and to despise Chambers." In her newspaper column, Eleanor Roosevelt scornfully implied Chambers was a stool pigeon.

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