Why Alger Hiss never confessed

March 21, 2004|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy, by G. Edward White. Oxford University Press. 297 pages. $30.

The facts in the case of United States of America v. Alger Hiss have never been in serious doubt. Hiss, a lawyer from Baltimore, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., worked in the State Department under Roosevelt and Truman, ran the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- and spent his off hours spying for the Soviet Union.

Whittaker Chambers, another Soviet spy, who broke with his masters and became a top editor at Time magazine, confessed his sins to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948 and named Hiss as one of his agents.

Hiss denied the charge under oath, was subsequently convicted of perjury and went to prison. Though the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming, he went to his grave denying that he had handed over U.S. government secrets to the Russians -- and his denials were taken at face value by journalists and intellectuals who refused to believe that a good New Deal liberal like Hiss could have betrayed his country.

Unfortunately for Hiss, the National Security Agency had intercepted and decoded Soviet cables naming him as an espionage agent, and when they were declassified after his death in 1996, his flimsy story (he claimed to have been framed) collapsed altogether.

By then, of course, the Soviet Union had also collapsed. Not only had Hiss spent the whole of his adult life living a lie, but his efforts ended up being pointless.

So why did he do it? The question is all the more puzzling because Hiss contrived throughout his career to act like the perfect bureaucrat. How could so impeccable a paper-pusher have been a secret agent? Not surprisingly, most books about the Hiss case have been dominated by Chambers, his tortured, self-doubting accuser. Now Hiss himself is the subject of a concise, coolly objective biographical study that seeks to do for him what Sam Tanenhaus did for Chambers in his superb 1997 biography.

White, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, can't make Hiss more interesting than he was, but he can and does describe in rich and fascinating detail his half-century-long crusade for vindication. It worked, too, at least among politically correct types who dismissed anti-communism as declasse: Bard College named a chair of social studies after Hiss, and he was readmitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1975.

But what made Hiss hold out even after the evil empire he served caved in on itself? The explanation, Mr. White suggests, is to be found not in the realm of ideology but in the annals of abnormal psychology: "He represents the rare example of someone who thrived on living a secret life of betrayal and deceit. 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. There have been and there will be others."

And -- lest we forget -- there will always be fashionable fools who choose to believe their lies.

Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of A Terry Teachout Reader, out next month from Yale University Press, and the editor of Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959. He blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.

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