There's some room for doubt, and plenty of room for suspicion, that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. But the interesting thing isn't the truth–it's the obsessive search for that truth and all the faux sociological, political, moral and who-knows-what-else rhetoric that followed the man's career. All this hubbub concerned a man who may have attempted to pass to the Soviets the designs of American naval life preservers.
Alger Hiss was a new dealer and high-level State Department worker who also had clerked at the Supreme Court for Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a top-level advisor at the 1945 Yalta conference that established the post-war political boundaries of Europe, and who organized the conferences that drafted the charter for the United Nations. In 1946 he became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1948 accusations surfaced that he was Soviet spy.
A series of congressional hearings and trials ensued that ended with Hiss convicted of perjury in 1950. The statute of limitations had run out on the espionage charges. But in the messy convolutions leading up to that conviction, California congressman Richard Nixon acheived prominence on the committee investigating Hiss. Nixon's obsessive thumping of microfilms discovered in a hollowed-out pumpkin on the farm of ex-communist Whittaker Chambers brought Nixon to national attention. In later years Nixon would say that without Hiss he never would have become President. Nixon would never reveal the contents of the "pumpkin papers." Only in 1975 was it revealed that they contained life preserver specifications.
Hiss' conviction also gave Joseph McCarthy an excuse to charge that there were hundreds of communists infesting the state department. Thus did Hiss, irrelevent of his guilt or innocence, unwittingly facilitate the rise of two of the great political shysters of the century
When Alger Hiss died Nov. 15, age 92, there was an outpouring of bile from the right. Conservatives profess allergy to class analysis, but in Hiss's case they make an exception. Essentially the conservative's view–expounded ad nauseum by such luminaries as George Will, William F. Buckley, Jr., and many others–is that Hiss was a member of the liberal establishment who had to be defended by liberals at all costs.
It is extraordinary how many references conservatives make to Hiss' wardrobe. He was "well-dressed" while his accuser Chambers (an admitted ex-commie) was "rumpled and tormented, with bad teeth and a worse tailor, he was as declasse as Hiss was elegantly emblematic of the governing class." (George Will) As if good dentists and tailors could have prevented liberals from commandeering the government for generations.
As far as the conservatives are concerned, Hiss became a defining issue. Accepting his guilt–on evidence much shakier than what emerged after the 1970–became tantamount to recognizing the savior early: rabid anticommunism saved the world! But the subtext is about who got invited to cool cocktail parties. Sensible people obviously didn't want to deal with these conspiracy-muttering boors who supported right-wing maniacs. After all, liberals were in the forefront of the postwar military competition that led the Soviet Union to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions (another Marxist-style analysis that conservatives routinely invoke).
So far as Goodbye! is concerned the conservatives can go fuck themselves. The obsession with Hiss' guilt was a red herring. Whatever he might have given the Soviets was immaterial. The conservatives were engaged in a pursuit of credentials of ideological purity that resembled the pursuit of ideological purity by their Soviet rivals. Let us be thankful that Nixon and McCarthy had no Gulag for people like Hiss.
President Reagan awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 1984 and then landmarked the farm where the pumpkin papers were discovered.
Hiss spent 44 months in prison and then spent the remainder of his life trying to clear his name. When Nixon died Hiss issed a brief statement saying that "He left many deeds uncorrected and unatoned for."
The affair generated many books and has provided a litany of splashy headlines over the decades. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet General Dmitri Volkogonov stated that an investigation of intelligence archives produced no evidence of any espionage by Hiss. However later discoveries cast doubt on this and Volkogonov recanted. Future revelations and counter-revelations are doubtless in store.
There is no doubt that Hiss was sympathetic to communism in the 30s But we may be skeptical that it will ever be revealed that Hiss materially harmed the west. Suppose Hiss really was a Soviet agent. He might have transmitted to the Soviets details of the American positions at Yalta. He could have communicated any number of things from State in the late 30s and early 40s. He helped found the U.N., which has pursued a primarily American agenda for 50 years. What did any of it ever benefit the Soviets? The conservatives are strangely silent on this score. Concretely, Hiss gave Nixon and McCarthy career opportunities, plus he provided right wing ideologues with a litmus test that helped them spread their paranoid ideology throughout America.
The conservatives should thank Alger Hiss for all the fine things he did for them.