Review by Geoffrey Wawro
The Alger Hiss case has never really rested. Former Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern declared in 1996 that he continued to believe that Hiss—convicted of perjury on espionage charges in 1950—had been innocent, and Anthony Lake ran into trouble during his confirmation hearings to be Bill Clinton’s Director of Central Intelligence in 1997 for having said (on Meet the Press) that he too had doubts about Hiss’ guilt.
Hiss’ principal accuser, the defecting Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers, famously produced the “pumpkin papers”—typed copies of State Department documents from 1938 relating to the Spanish Civil War, Hitler’s Anschluss and the Soviet Union—to make the case that Hiss had spied for the Soviets. Congressman Richard Nixon championed Chambers—a devious man—in the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings—and vaulted himself to the national prominence that would make him a senator, vice president and president (hence, in part, McGovern’s continued doubts about the whole process).
Hiss served 44 months in jail, got out in 1954 and spent the rest of his life—he died in 1996, at age 92—trying to clear his name. He did secure the release of U.S. and Soviet intelligence files, but nothing—including Venona, NSA decrypts of cables from KGB operatives in the U.S. to Moscow that were made public in 1995—conclusively proved his guilt or innocence.
Christina Shelton, a former intelligence analyst, is in no doubt as to Alger Hiss’ guilt. She assumes that “ALES”—a top Soviet operative referenced in Venona—was Hiss, and accepts Hungarian claims from 1949 that Hiss was a Soviet spy (even though the principal Hungarian source recanted the accusation in 1957). Shelton is certainly not going out on a limb here; many experts take for granted that Hiss was a spy.
The book is on more solid ground in its depiction of the rather negligent atmosphere of the FDR administration. Hiss had been under suspicion of espionage since the late 1930s, yet FDR approved his attendance at Yalta, where Shelton places Hiss at meetings with his Soviet handler during the conference. Hiss is alleged to have betrayed all of the Anglo-American positions on Poland, Eastern Europe, French involvement in the occupation of Germany and Soviet intervention in Japan on the eve of Yalta, so that Stalin knew in advance where the British and Americans would stand firm and where they would bend.
Roosevelt was old and tired; his wife liked Hiss, and so did Dean Acheson and FDR’s powerful and pro-Soviet adviser Harry Hopkins. Shelton also points to a permissive cabal of liberal New Dealers like Hiss’ brother Donald or Treasury’s Harry Dexter White. Since Hiss, a bright graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law, fit comfortably among them, no one suspected him, even when credible suspicions were voiced.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1998, “belief in the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss became a defining feature of American intellectual life.” It still is, and Christina Shelton has rendered her verdict—guilty—in a crisply written account of the man and his age.
Hardcover Book : 352 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc. ( April 17, 2012 )
Item #: 13-528932
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 0.88inches
Product Weight: 19.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
I anxiously started to read--& was immediately thrown off as the author attempted to define Hiss's background--family etc. Her emphasis on his mother's attempt to enter a "class" she couldn't quite reach. A "family" of 11 children in a large house, with kids going off to ivy league schools--all during/after the depression, just turned me off. As a child of the depression who grew up in MA. I kept thinking, "this author along with devotion to Chambers is still determined to hang Hiss. My family couldn't handle my explosive outbursts so they took the book away from me. I remember those days---seeing families going to get their commodities with milk buckets--enough for me. . .I had to quit--
Reviewer: Reen P
Very good account with deep research and lot of new information. Should convince Hiss's strongest supporters
that he truely was a traitor,