Alger Hiss redux, with filial piety

June 06, 1999|By JONATHAN COHEN | JONATHAN COHEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir," by Tony Hiss. Knopf. 241 pages. $24.

Fifty years after his perjury conviction, the mention of the communist spy Alger Hiss still has the power to ruin a dinner party. To disclose where one stands on the Hiss case is to instantly take a position on the role of Communism in the history of the 20th century.

Following a federal judge's order on May 13 to release the secret grand jury testimony that led to the trials in 1949 and 1950, it is clear that doubts and rationalizations of Hiss' guilt persist among "right-thinking" folks on the political left. But it requires concentrated effort to ignore the devastating additional proof historians have recently drawn from the formerly classified files of the U.S. government's Venona Project, as well as from KGB records in Moscow, and documents of the Hungarian secret police from before the collapse of the Soviet system.

Against this rising tide of weighty evidence and careful assessment comes now a slight memoir by Hiss' son, writer and journalist Tony Hiss. Through the loving lens of filial piety, it purports to help us see what we are to believe is the real Alger Hiss.

"A life speaks to us," writes Tony Hiss, "through so many more dimensions than a law case can, so maybe when, having been surrounded for a time by all its flavors and textures, we've at length got the taste of it down in our marrow, we could find we've gained a new capacity to weigh the likelihood of whether that individual life could have included the particular actions of which Alger stood accused."

The textures and flavors of Hiss' life are found in "time funnels" -- letters, heirlooms and wisps of memory that take the author "bobbing up and down through the second half of the twentieth century, which although only a thin layer of time is already dense and opaque."

Dense and opaque the process is, indeed. The dim shade of Alger Hiss is summoned forth as the gentlest of maligned souls -- a veritable saint. He appreciates, even from the confines of prison, birds and clouds and sunsets as no mere mortal can. He dispenses wise legal counsel to some fellow inmates while good-naturedly weathering the insults of others.

Despite his travail, he regularly sends nurturing letters to his wife and son, faithfully saluting them with the Quakerisms "thee" and "thy." Later in life he is seen variously as keeper of the memory of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the last true defender of the New Deal, and an avatar to questing youth.

While the promise of a new assessment of Hiss' life is never delivered, an endless train of "textures and flavors" just keeps coming. The result is a queasy sensation that Tony Hiss doesn't really know and cannot fathom the man he calls only "Alger."

A decent man rises to defend his father, whatever the circumstances. But a confused man cannot come to terms with the wrong his father has done. Tony Hiss has a good excuse for his confusion. The same cannot be said of the many others who for lesser motives than family loyalty still cling to the myth of Alger Hiss' innocence.

Jonathan R. Cohen, a former adviser to New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, is the publisher of Commentary magazine.

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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