Sixty-five years ago last week, Alger Hiss—the protégé of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a rising star in the State Department, and a Soviet agent code-named “Ales”—was convicted of perjury for denying any involvement in Soviet espionage. This should have forever closed the case. For, as Sam Tanenhaus, the biographer of Hiss’s main accuser, Whittaker Chambers, stated, every mystery had been answered. There was compelling evidence, in the form of documents Chambers said had been given to him by Hiss, which were in Hiss’s handwriting, and those summarized by typing them had matched the “type” of the machine. This was enough to sway juries.
But not all mysteries had been answered. There was the question of motive. Whittaker Chambers was never able to supply this, for he was friends with Hiss well after Hiss joined Soviet intelligence. The most Chambers could offer involved tantalizing tidbits about Hiss’s personality, such as Hiss being a rather “romantic communist.” But his other offerings showed a cold blooded figure: mocking FDR’s polio as symbolic of democracy decaying, and reacting to Stalin’s Purge Trials by stating “that Joe Stalin plays for keeps.”
Hiss was hardly helpful. His lifelong assertions that he was innocent revealed a canny sociopath, fastening on any theory to clear himself. Examples: he asserted that Chambers, an admitted homosexual, testified against him out of revenge for being spurned by the heterosexual Hiss and/or that the damning typewriter had been built by anti-New Deal forces.
But within this vindication campaign he did drop clues, revealing a love of playing cat and mouse with his enemies. When confronting HUAC, he condemned the late forties and admiringly spoke of the thirties as a period when communists were not scapegoated. On the eve of going to prison, he felt “exhilarated,” and offered the world his view of being a political prisoner. While incarcerated, he reported that he read Lenin’s writings. Moreover, he helpfully gave grist to the mill that he was an inhuman sociopath by asserting that he “never felt guilt about anything.” Certainly, an ordinary human being who allowed followers, even his son, to go out on a limb for him that he had to know would one day would break might have felt guilty enough to confess.
Not only did the anti-Hiss forces try to locate when he “turned,” but his former friends did as well. Gardner Jackson, a fellow member of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, saw the Sacco-Vanzetti case as the motivator. A case involving two Italian anarchists accused of killing a banker in a hold-up and ultimately dying in the electric chair, it became a cause célèbre among leftists. Noel Field, a Soviet spy who later told his Hungarian interrogators (he defected there in the 1950s) that Hiss was his main contact in the cell, recalled the influence of this case on his politics:
… my wife and I sat beside the radio in our tiny Washington apartment and with waning hope followed the last-minute efforts to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. I remained true to the beliefs that began to take shape, oh, how vague and how slowly, during the ghastly wake, when hope changed to despair.… The shock of the Sacco-Vanzetti executions drove me leftward.
But although exposed to the case because of his work for future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a tireless supporter of Sacco and Vanzetti, Hiss never spoke of it (which in and of itself may be testament to its effect). Others saw the conversion courtesy of his wife, who by the early 1930s had joined the Socialist Party, and attended, along with Hiss, radical meetings, while working by day as a corporate lawyer.
Perhaps this was the beginning of his compartmentalization. Even Hiss’s first defense team believed that his outspoken wife, Prossy, was being shielded by him. Although never claiming this, Hiss did supply a clue that the meetings, as well as the conditions of the Great Depression, placed him on the “radical fringes” of the New Deal.
Hiss was never averse to wrapping himself in the New Deal flag. He always asserted that he was “the fall guy” for those who wanted to undo the accomplishments of the New Deal. At the same time, he tried to blur the distinctions between the New Deal and communism—the Party line of the 1930s—by speaking of “dear Franklin” while meeting up at parties in the 1970s with those in his cell. If behavior is any indication, he certainly believed the thirties’ political climate to be so favorable to communism—but alas, not enough to admit to being a Soviet mole—that he was attempting to recruit government workers such as Field to his network at very public cocktail parties (de-classified cables from Moscow showed that his controllers were angry with him about breaking cover).
Since Hiss, cheerfully reported, mere months away from death in 1996, that there would be no deathbed confessions, all we can do is theorize about when he turned. Thus, not all questions have been answered.