The Ongoing Campaign of Alger Hiss: The Sins of the Father - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Ongoing Campaign of Alger Hiss: The Sins of the Father

On November 27, 1954, Alger Hiss was released from the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, after serving forty-four months of a five-year-prison sentence for perjury. On that day, surrounded by friends, family, and the press, Hiss defiantly announced his campaign to “vindicate” himself, a campaign that continues to this very day, despite Hiss’s death in 1996 at the age of 92.1

“What is vindication for him?” Whittaker Chambers wrote William F. Buckley, Jr., the very day after Hiss’s release from prison.

It is the moment when one of the most respectable old ladies (gentlemen) in Hartford (Conn.) says to another of the most respectable old ladies (gentlemen): “Really, I don’t see how Alger Hiss could brazen it out that way unless he really were innocent.” Multiply Hartford by every other American community. For the C[ommunist] P[arty], that is victory. . . .And all that Alger has to do for this victory is to persist in his denials. 2

More than fifty years after Hiss was effectively convicted of treason, Chambers’s observation has proven remarkably prescient; concerning not only the strategy of the Hiss campaign, but also its persistence. “The Hiss campaign,” wrote Chambers, “is a permanent war.”3Perhaps the most interesting thing about this war is how little it has changed during the last half century; for not only has the Hiss campaign been permanent, so has the strategy.

When the House Un-American Activities Committee (H.U.A.C.) first questioned Alger Hiss in 1948, his initial strategy was to proclaim innocence by association. Hiss cited his impressive academic and diplomatic résumé, which included close work with many respected Americans such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmesnone of which was germane to the accusations against him. Still, the strategy proved effective with much of the press and the public, at least in the beginning.

Congressional investigators, however, remained skeptical due to longtime rumors of Hiss’s Communist ties. More importantly, it soon became obvious that Whittaker Chambers had known Alger Hiss very well, given his detailed knowledge of Hiss’s home and personal life. So Hiss then changed tactics and alleged to have briefly sublet an apartment to Chambers during the 1930s, and further alleged that Chambers had then claimed to be a “free-lance journalist” named “George Crosley.” This alibi also proved shaky for many reasons, the most obvious being that no one other than Mrs. Hiss could corroborate it. Still, in the absence of more tangible proof, Alger Hiss would have probably avoided criminal charges.

Unfortunately for Hiss, he has always been his own worst enemy. He had very publicly challenged Chambers to repeat his testimony outside of committee, where witnesses enjoy congressional immunity. After Chambers repeated his charge on “Meet the Press” that Alger Hiss “was a Communist and may be now,” Hiss had little choice but to sue for libel. But it was only during the libel suit that Chambers produced evidence of espionagepurloined State Department documentsthat led to federal perjury charges against Hiss.4

It is important to note that during both perjury trials (the first trial ended in a hung jury) the Hiss defense conceded the authenticity of most of the prosecution’s evidence, including microfilmed copies of original State Department documents, those hand-copied by Alger Hiss, and those copied on his Woodstock typewriter. Given the formidable evidence against Hiss, the defense resorted to a smear job. “Surely we intend to smear Chambers in any event,” wrote attorney Harold Rosenwald in a defense memo. “I have no objection to such smearing and hope that it will be very thoroughly and effectively done.”5Indeed it was. But what is unusual about the smear of Whittaker Chambers is that it was—and remains—exclusively psychological. Hiss always claimed that Chambers was a “psychopath” and that “for some psychological reason that I did not understand he was trying to destroy me.”6The defense even hired a psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Binger, to testify that Chambers was a “psychopathic personality” given to mental delusions, a Marxist Walter Mitty prone to fabricating fantastic tales about himself and others.7In due course virtually every pro-Hiss study of the case has adopted the psychological angle; most notably, psychoanalyst Dr. Meyer Zeligs’s Friendship and Fratricide (1967), an “objective psychobiography” of Hiss and Chambers. Alger Hiss “cooperated closely” with Zeligs in the preparation of the book that ultimately provides additional clinical cover for the smear of Whittaker Chambers. In short, Dr. Zeligs argues that Chambers, whom he never met, was a psychologically disturbed man who conspired to frame Hiss out of jealousy and a host of “fratricidal impulses” formed during childhood. While Zeligs attributes to Chambers a “tragic incapacity to feel, suffer, or love any human object,” he finds Hiss to be a sensitive family man and loyal public servant whose manifest “saintliness” was a form of naiveté that made him susceptible to Chambers’s “sociopathic personality.”8

Conspiracy theories, often portrayed as the exclusive vice of the anti-Communist Right, are actually most common among Communists themselves, hence the periodic purges that characterize most communist organizations. Prior to Alger Hiss’s conviction, the Hiss defense never alleged any conspiracy, except for the lone “psychopath” Whittaker Chambers. It was only several years after Hiss’s conviction that broad charges of conspiracy and “McCarthyism” became central to the strategy of denial. By that time, Hiss could out-McCarthy anyone, for no conspiracy was so immense as the one that framed Alger Hiss.

“I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed,” Hiss told the court on the day he was sentenced.9Hiss’s favorite theory “conspiracy by typewriter” actually contained several ancillary theories: Chambers somehow stole the documents from the State Department, then crept into Hiss’s home to copy them on his Woodstock typewriter for the specific purpose of framing him; or Chambers actually constructed an exact replica of the Woodstock typewriter, perhaps with the help of the K.G.B. or the F.B.I. or Richard Nixon or the “right wing anti-Communists.” In order to legitimize this theory, Hiss’s attorneys even hired an authority on typewriter analysis to build an exact replica of the typewriter, but without success.10In his autobiography, Hiss alleged he was framed by an “Unholy Trinity” consisting of “Richard Nixon, the power-hungry politician; J. Edgar Hoover, the ultimate bureaucrat; and Whittaker Chambers, the perfect pawn.”11Somehow these three conspired individually and/or collectively to frame Hiss, though he cites no evidence for his allegation. “I have a theory here,” Hiss told an historian in 1959, “and a good deal of evidence to support it, though nothing conclusive.”12

For many years after Hiss’s release from prison, the Hiss campaign had little momentum. That all changed in 1974 when President Richard Nixon resigned from the White House. The Watergate conspiracy, such as it was, gave new traction to Hiss’s claim of being a victim of a “McCarthyite” witch hunt. Hiss received numerous public speaking invitations at universities and public forums, both in America and abroad. “Nixon is sort of an unofficial press agent for me,” Hiss admitted in a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone. The journalist conducting the interview was his very own son, Tony Hiss.13

For more than 30 years, Tony Hiss, a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker, has tried to be something of a Zola to his father. He has written articles on his father, conducted interviews with him, written reviews of books about the Hiss case, and even written two books of his own on the subject. In 1977,he published Laughing Last, a most unusual work in which Tony interviews Alger (referring to him as “Al”) about his life and his campaign for vindication. For example, Tony Hiss asks his father to explain his alibi regarding Chambersthat he invited a virtual stranger to stay overnight at his home, sublet him an apartment (with no lease and no references), and even gave him a free car. As it turns out, this exceptional generosity proceeded from power motives. “I hate to have to tell you this because personally I find it a bit creepy,” reports Tony Hiss. “Al felt sympathy for Chambers. . . . ‘I like people when they’re in trouble,’ Al said. ‘Because then they have to like youand you can feel powerful by helping them. I love to visit people in the hospital.’”14

Laughing Last also contains explicit details of Alger Hiss’s sexual history and a rather unflattering depiction of his wife, Priscilla. Alger and Priscilla Hiss separated five years after Hiss’s release from prison and Mrs. Hiss chose not to involve herself in her husband’s campaign, which caused a rift with her son, Tony. The rift is obvious when Tony Hiss casually details his mother’s private life, which apparently included a premarital affair that resulted in an abortion.15It is important to note that Priscilla Hiss, though never indicted, was at least a minor accessory to her husband. She most likely typed the documents that led to her husband’s conviction and certainly perjured herself during the trials. And yet there were always rumors that Alger Hiss was really covering up for his wifethe real culprit, as some of Hiss’s own attorneys suspected. One wonders if Alger Hiss was the source of these rumors since he had no problem repeating them years later and made only token attempts to rebut them. While pro-Hiss studies of the case typically depict Alger Hiss as both hero and victim, they also typically depict Priscilla as an idealistic socialistsomething she took pains to deny during the trialsand a neurotic millstone around the neck of her husband. “I asked Al recently,” writes Tony Hiss, “if he’d agree with me that maybe he went to jail to get away from Prossy.”16

Still, despite its peculiarities, Laughing Last reveals some interesting, though hardly exculpating, details about Alger Hiss. For example, while an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, one of Hiss’s favorite instructors was Broadus Mitchell, a one-time Socialist Party candidate for Governor of Maryland. Another favorite was Professor of Spanish Literature, José Robles. A good friend of John Dos Passos, Robles translated Manhattan Transfer (1925) into Spanish and served in the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War until he was murdered in a Marxist purge. Robles’s death was a watershed moment for Dos Passos that caused him to break forever with the Left. As an undergraduate, Alger Hiss apparently knew José Robles well enough to visit him and his family “in their drab little apartment,” but Robles’s death seems not to have troubled him.17Indeed, Hiss told one historian that he once considered leaving Washington to fight for the Communist-backed Republican cause in Spain.18

In 1999, Tony Hiss published The View from Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir, a far more mature and informative work than Laughing Last. Hiss’s memoir consists of excerpts from his parents’ lifelong correspondence and his father’s letters to him from prison, punctuated with personal accounts of his father, in an attempt to portray Alger Hiss as a loving, benevolent man. “There is nothing in any of the six decades of letters,” writes Hiss, “that in any way either corroborates the accusations of treason and espionage brought against Alger or gives even a suggestion or hint that he was the kind of man willing to betray his country.”19The unspoken premise is that Communists are incapable of affection and kindness. Since Alger Hiss was an obviously kind manas his son’s memoir tries to showhe could never have been a Communist. But has anyone ever claimed that Communists were incapable of affection and kindness? Even Whittaker Chambers testified that Alger Hiss had a “great gentleness and sweetness of character.”20President Harry Truman, a man of celebrated personal integrity, once described Josef Stalin as an “honest man who is easy to get along withwho arrives at sound decisions.”21

Despite Tony Hiss’s assertions, his parents’ correspondence, or at least what little he quotes from it, is less than exculpatory. He tells us there is only one reference to the word “Communism” in the hundreds of letters his parents exchanged over the years. In 1930, while working in Massachusetts for the summer, Alger Hiss wrote Priscilla, who was then “teaching at an experimental adult education summer program at Bryn Mawr for women factory workers: ‘I loved thy calling Martha [their baby-sitter] Eeyore + did thee call thyself a Wobbly with an I.W.W. tongue in thy socialistic (I couldn’t bring myself to write ‘Communistic’) cheek.’” Tony Hiss, believe it or not, thinks this letter is evidence of his parents’ lack of sympathy for Communism. “Has thee seen Archibald MacLeish’s article on capitalism in last week’s Saturday Review?” Hiss wrote his wife in 1932. “Felix [Frankfurter] says it is soft thinking after Wilson.”22(MacLeish’s piece, “To the Young Men of Wall Street,” questions the legitimacy of the existing “capitalist order.”)23Tony Hiss also notes that his father had an airmail subscription to the leftist New Statesman while in prison, again apparently unaware that this was a popular publication among fellow travelers (his mother’s subscription “came by freighter”).24

In virtually all of his writings Tony Hiss assumes that evidence of being a socialist is evidence of not being a Communist, a point on which Whittaker Chambers would certainly disagree. “What else is socialism but communism with the claws retracted?” wrote Chambers.25Still, though Tony Hiss admits his mother was a socialist, he insists his father was not—he was a “New Dealer.”

Whatever its flaws, The View from Alger’s Window does provide some insight into just what attraction Communism may have had for New Dealers like Alger and Donald Hiss (Alger’s younger brother Donald, a former aide to then Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson, had also been named as a Soviet agent by Chambers and others).

Perhaps, considering all the voids in the Hiss family historyAlger’s father’s suicide was followed in 1926 by the early death of his older brother, Bosley, and two and a half years later by the suicide of his sister, MaryAlger, or Donie, too, might, even after the magic of meeting [Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes and enlisting in the Great Span, have found themselves susceptible, as some may have been, to the seeming solidarity offered by the Communist Party.26

This is one of the more revealing passages in Hiss’s memoir. Many communist activists and intellectuals were people who saw themselves, for whatever reason, as outside the fold of society. The Chambers family certainly had its share of voids, which included the suicide of Chambers’s younger brother Robert, vividly depicted in Witness. “I am an outcast. My family is outcast,” wrote Chambers of those years. “We have no friends, no social ties, no church, no organization that we claim and that claims us, no community.”27The communist utopiaa perfectly just world in which all people belong equallypromises to solve this feeling of alienation. Perhaps it is a similar void in his own life that compels Tony Hiss to carry on his father’s campaign, despite the ever-growing evidence of his guilt.

Whatever family voids Alger and Donald Hiss once suffered, Tony Hiss tells us they were able to fill them by joining the New Deal, a fact he considers proof positive that they could never have been Communists. This was actually one of Alger Hiss’s favorite innocence-by-association tactics. Hiss often portrayed himself as a devout New Dealer, apparently believing that this was a convincing rebuttal to the charge of being a Communist. Curiously, whenever Alger Hiss describes the New Deal, he invariably emphasizes not what it accomplished, but how being a part of it made him feel:

We were a homogenous lot, imbued from the outset with an esprit de corps. Our sense of community did not need to be stated. We assumed a solidarity and a spirit of comradeship; we took for granted a common set of values on which we tacitly based our daily actions. . . . We were inseparable. Circumstances formed us in small bands of roommates, associates in the same governmental agencies, and groups with similar interests like tennis or riding or square dancing or chamber music.28

It is hard to imagine that working for the Department of Agriculture, where Hiss’s duties included drafting milk-marketing agreements, was really that fulfilling. Clearly this New Deal camaraderie, with its strict ideological conformity, sounds a lot like the appeal of Communism. Perhaps that is because a group of influential communist agents known as the “Ware Group” was centered in the very agency where Hiss worked.29Incidentally, despite the fact that Hiss and his fellow New Deal “roommates” from the 1930s were “inseparable,” not one of them could corroborate his “George Crosley” alibi during the trials.

The fact that so many Communists found themselves at home in Roosevelt’s administration is hardly surprising, given the considerable ideological overlap between Communism and the New Deal. In 1934, George Soule’s The Coming American Revolution specifically equated Roosevelt’s New Deal with Stalin’s Five Year Plan.30In American Economic Life, Rexford Tugwell, Franklin Roosevelt’s chief economic advisor, argued that Communism was superior to capitalism because it was “able to produce goods in greater quantities than capitalism” so as to “spread such prosperity as there is over wider areas of the population.”31Indeed, Vice-President Henry Wallace, never gave up his belief that the Soviet Union and New Deal America shared the same goalsthat they “seem to tend toward the same end although they start from different points.”32

Whatever common ground the New Deal and Communism shared, however, the question still remains: how was Alger Hiss able to hoodwink so many reputable Americans, many of whom, such as Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, were certainly, if imperfectly, anti-Communist? In 1950, the German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs confessed to British authorities that he was a Soviet agent and had engaged in espionage related to the Manhattan Project. During his confession, Fuchs described his extraordinary ability to function undetected as a double agent as “controlled schizophrenia”:

In the course of this work I began naturally to form bonds of personal friendship and I had to conceal from them my inner thoughts. I used my Marxist philosophy to establish in my mind two separate compartments. One compartment in which I allowed myself to make friendships, to have personal relations, to help people and to be in all personal ways the kind of man I wanted to be and the kind of man which, in a personal way, I had been before with my friends in or near the Communist Party. I could be free and easy and happy with other people without fear of disclosing myself because I knew that the other compartment would step in if I approached the danger point. I could forget the other compartment and still rely on it. It appeared to me at the time that I had become a “free man” because I had succeeded in the other compartment to establish myself completely independent of the surrounding forces of society.33

Perhaps Alger Hiss was capable of a similar compartmentalization. Indeed, Tony Hiss writes that “Alger had led something of a double and sometimes a precariously balanced life before Lewisburg” and describes him as containing “two Algers.” The “first Alger” was “effervescent and playful” while the “second Alger” was “slower, more stilted, careful, cautious, polished, punctilious, and so lawyerly.” And then, there was a “third Alger,” the “shadowy” Alger described by Whittaker Chambers.34Chambers also describes Alger Hiss as kind, but with a cruel side. At one point in Witness, Chambers describes Hiss’s “unnumbered little acts of kindness and affection,” but when Chambers shared with Hiss his anxieties over the bloody purge trials then taking place in Russia, Hiss replied coldly, “‘Yes, Stalin plays for keeps, doesn’t he?’”35

In his campaign for vindication, Alger Hiss showed that he played for keeps as well, right up until the final years of his life.

In October 1992 Alger Hiss sent out a press release that contained a statement from General Dimitri Volkogonov, a Russian historian then in charge of Soviet archives. Volkogonov claimed to have searched K.G.B. archives and “found no evidence” that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. “Not a single document, and great amount of material has been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.”36However, the claim that no documents mentioning Hiss could be found in a single Soviet archive, even if true, is hardly an exoneration. But that did not stop Hiss from trumpeting his “vindication,” which was widely reported by the American media. USA Today’s headline read, “RUSSIAN FILES: HISS NEVER SPIED.”37

In a subsequent interview with the New York Times Volkogonov said that Hiss had written him a letter saying “that he was 88 and would like to die peacefully,” and that he “wanted to prove that he was never a paid, contracted spy” of the Soviet Union—something that was never alleged. James Lowenthal, an attorney and longtime Hiss stalwart, later traveled to Moscow to meet with Volkogonov and returned to America with a signed statement from the Russian historian. However, like every other Hiss defense claim, the story quickly fell apart. Volkogonov soon backed away from his statement, telling the New York Times, “All I said was that I saw no evidence.” In fact, he searched K.G.B. archives, not military intelligence (G.R.U.) archivesChambers always claimed he and Hiss worked for the latterand admitted that “many documents have been destroyed.” Volkogonov also said that “His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced” and admitted that he was in “no position to fully clear Mr. Hiss” and “perhaps no one ever can.”38He did not offer to make another search. After the Volkogonov fiasco, Russian officials reportedly searched relevant Soviet archives and removed all files regarding Hiss and Chambers.39

However, just as Soviet archives began to close on the subject of Hiss and Chambers, Cold War archives in Europe in America began to open. The revelations have not been happy ones for the Hiss campaign.

In 1992, a Hungarian historian, Maria Schmidt, discovered the Hungarian K.G.B.’s files on Noel Field, a former State Department official, Soviet spy, and friend of Alger Hiss. Field had been imprisoned in Budapest from 1949 to 1954. While in prison, Field gave the Communist Party a detailed accounting of his extensive work as a Communist, including Alger Hiss’s 1935 attempt to recruit him into the underground.40

A year later, the State Department made public a 1946 internal security probe which revealed that Alger Hiss had purloined several highly classified documents on matters of national security, including China policy and atomic energydocuments Hiss was not authorized to access, which were unrelated to his official duties at State, but of obvious interest to Soviet intelligence. Soon after the investigation was concluded, Hiss quietly resigned.41

In 1990, Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, a former high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer who defected in 1985, named Hiss as a Soviet spy with the code name “ALES.”42In 1995, the National Security Agency released the Venona cables, a series of coded wartime communications between Soviet intelligence in America and Moscow. One Venona cable names “Hiss” directly. Another cable refers to an agent “ALES” who served in Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius’s delegation at Yalta in 1944 and flew with Stettinius from Yalta to Moscow. While there “ALES” met with Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Vyshinsky, notable for being Stalin’s first Prosecutor General, the official in charge of conducting show trials. It was Vyshinsky who conceived the method of extracting written confessions from the accused, a popular and highly effective tactic of the Great Terror.43During his meeting with “ALES,” Vyshinsky personally thanked him for his many years of loyal service to the Soviet Union. The only member of Stettinius’s delegation ever suspected of being a Soviet spy was Hiss.44

This sudden avalanche of evidence against Hiss surely explains the overriding tone of fatiguein Alger’s Window. The lifelong strain of being the son of a convicted traitor forced Tony Hiss into many years of therapy, starting when he was a teenager. “How I had longed then to find even one small, no-way-to-get-out-of-it lie in a Whittaker Chambers story,” Hiss wrote of those years. His therapists often told Hiss then that he “would feel stronger and more grounded as soon as I move beyond denial.”45The pressure apparently gave rise to suicidal impulses and in the eighth grade Tony Hiss confided to his father that he “‘kept having urges to jump in front of subway trains and jump off the balcony of Carnegie Hall.’”46

Sadly, after all he has gone through, it is not clear that Tony Hiss really knows the man he refers to only as “Alger.” In fact, it was not even Alger Hiss who convinced Tony of his innocence, but Timothy Hobson, Priscilla Hiss’s son from her first marriage. Hobson, who was between eight and twelve years old at the time, is the sole surviving witness to the disputed events of the 1930s. A young man during the trials, Hobson apparently did not testify because he had been discharged from the Navy due to homosexual activity. In Laughing Last, Tony Hiss writes that Hobson’s childhood “was very lonely” and that “Tim felt that he didn’t know either Al or Prossy very well,” and “the household remains something of a blur to him.”47Whittaker Chambers also noted a curious “lack of warmth” in Alger Hiss’s relationship with his stepson.48And yet in Alger’s Window, Timothy Hobson’s “blur” of a childhood has suddenly become vivid and he eagerly corroborates his parents’ version of events for Tony. Today, when Hobson talks to Tony on the phone, he often provides “more specifics” that counter Chambers’s testimony, none of which are terribly consequential. In 1953, according to Hiss, his father’s attorneys interviewed Timothy Hobson while he was under the influence of a “truth serum”sodium amytaland “nothing in his interview contradicted or added to his conscious memories.”49

If true, this “evidence” raises many questions. First of all, despite their popular depiction in many Hollywood movies, there is no such thing as a “truth serum.” Sodium amytal is merely a barbiturate and individuals can lie or otherwise report misinformation under its influence.50Tony Hiss also neglects to mention that in 1948, Dr. Carl Binger offered similarly to question his father after administering him with scopolamine, another “truth serum.”51Alger Hiss declined the offer just as he, unlike Whittaker Chambers, declined to take a polygraph test during the trials, and for the rest of his life—still another inconvenient fact Tony Hiss never mentions.

The Hiss campaign’s latest offensive is, like any good conspiracy theory, on the Internet. “The Alger Hiss Story,” a website designed by Tony Hiss, contains some general information about the Hiss Case and a number of pro-Hiss articles and interviews. The content is mendacious in the extreme and ignores most of the damaging evidence against Alger Hiss. For example, Tony Hiss posts Volkogonov’s original letter “exonerating” his father, but not Volkogonov’s later retraction. Hiss also conducts an interview with Timothy Hobson about his “truth serum” testimony. In the future, the website promises a “teacher’s guide” so that students can learn about the case.52According to Hiss, one New Jersey grammar school “spent a year studying the Hiss case, and re-enacted Alger’s second trial in an ornate, restored, 1850s courtroom in front of their parents and almost all the judges from Ocean County.” The student rendition was “completely as-it-happened,” says Hiss (who never attended the original trials), except that the jury found the defendant “not guilty.”53

Clearly Tony Hiss has formulated few ideas of his own on the Hiss Case. Like his father, he maintains the fiction that Whittaker Chambers was Alger Hiss’s sole accuser, though other ex-Communists also fingered Hiss as a spy. Moreover, Tony Hiss has never openly disagreed with any of his father’s extravagant conspiracy theories and continues to ignore the growing mountain of evidence that supports Whittaker Chambers’s testimony. Hiss even regurgitates, à la Meyer Zeligs, the “psychopath” smear against Chambers his father invented over fifty years ago: “I’ve come to think that it was the idea of Alger that appealed to Chambersthat he felt drawn to Alger not so much because he wanted to be with him but because he wished he could somehow be him and possess his serenity.”54

It is hard to think of a moreglaring example of willful ignorance and family denial than The View from Alger’s Window. And yet, one can detect an undertone of doubt beneath Tony Hiss’s denials. “It would sadden me to learn that Alger was once a spy and had committed the crimes he was tried for,” writes Hiss, “but it is at least abstractly conceivable that the man who opened himself up to me could have been someone who had stolen government papers in his safekeeping.”55It is moments like this one in Hiss’s memoir that suggest he wrote it not so much to convince the reader of his father’s innocence as to convince himself.

In the end, Whittaker Chambers was half-right. Alger Hiss did persist in his denials, though they won him no lasting victory. The question now remains: How long can Tony Hiss persist in his denials? No doubt Tony Hiss wants to feel at home in his world, to fill the voids in his life, like the rest of us. And yet, sadly, Hiss thinks he must “vindicate” his father in order to do so, as if the sins of his father have been somehow passed on to him. In the meantime, Tony Hiss continues to wait and to hope for some new “evidence” that will one day emerge and exonerate his father, like Samuel Beckett’s tramps waiting for the meeting with Monsieur Godot that never takes place.

“One of the characteristics of the ruthless Alger, the ernste Mensch conjured up by Whittaker Chambers,” writes Tony Hiss, “was an ability to sacrifice both country and family without qualms to advance the cause of Marxism-Leninism”56But can there be any doubt that his father did exactly that? It is hard to believe Alger Hiss had any qualms about deceiving his country, his family, and his many friends and supporters. “I can’t understand people who tell me they are ashamed about something,” Hiss told a publisher after his release from prison. “I have never done anything of which I am ashamed. I always mean to do what I do.”57

More than fifty years after Alger Hiss’s conviction for perjury, his most enduring deception is not the one he perpetrated on his own country, but the one he selfishly sustained on his own son. “Had Chambers’s charges been true,” writes Tony Hiss, “had the third Alger been the real Alger, then Alger’s story would today carry an abiding balm and comfortthe knowledge that it now had ended, for better or for worseand could be laid to rest with his ashes.”58Perhaps only after Tony Hiss moves beyond denial can the world finally lay the Hiss Case to rest, along with the ashes of the Soviet Union on whose behalf Alger Hiss spied for so many years.



  1. New York Times, November 28, 1954.
  2. Whittaker Chambers, Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr. (Washington, D.C., 1987), 63–64.
  3. Ibid., 26.
  4. Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss Chambers Case (New York, 1997), 52.
  5. Ibid., 341.
  6. Ibid., 266.
  7. Perjury, 374, 432–438.
  8. Meyer Zeligs, Friendship and Fratricide: An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss (New York, 1967), xiv, 323, 283, 385.
  9. John Chabot Smith, Alger Hiss: The True Story (New York, 1976), 427.
  10. Perjury, 521–523.
  11. Alger Hiss, Recollections of a Life (New York, 1988), 202.
  12. Perjury, 525.
  13. Tony Hiss, “I Call on Alger,” Rolling Stone, September 13, 1973.
  14. Tony Hiss, Laughing Last: Alger Hiss by Tony Hiss (Boston, 1977), 87.
  15. Ibid., 41.
  16. Ibid., 142.
  17. Ibid., 37–38.
  18. Alger Hiss: The True Story, 104.
  19. Tony Hiss, The View from Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir (New York, 1999), 39.
  20. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (New York, 1952), 563.
  21. Richard J. Walton, Henry Wallace, Harry Truman, and the Cold War (New York, 1976), 64.
  22. Alger’s Window, 140–141.
  23. Archibald MacLeish, “To the Young Men of Wall Street,” Saturday Review, January 16, 1932.
  24. Alger’s Window, 140.
  25. Odyssey of a Friend, 44.
  26. Alger’s Window, 141.
  27. Witness, 148.
  28. Laughing Last, 75.
  29. Ralph de Toledano & Victor Lasky, Seeds of Treason (New York, 1950), 43–51.
  30. George Soule, The Coming American Revolution (New York, 1934).
  31. Rexford Tugwell, American Economic Life (New York, 1930), 771–772.
  32. Harvey Klehr & John Earl Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself (Boston, 1992), 115.
  33. Rebecca West, The New Meaning of Treason (New York, 1957), 187.
  34. Alger’s Window, 225, 43, 47.
  35. Witness, 70, 41.
  36. New York Times, October 29, 1992.
  37. USA Today, October 30, 1992.
  38. New York Times, December 17, 1992.
  39. Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers (New York, 1997), 600.
  40. Maria Schmidt, “The Hiss Dossier,” The New Republic, November 8, 1993.
  41. Sam Tanenhaus, “New Reasons to Doubt Hiss,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1993.
  42. Christopher Andrew & Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (London, 1991), 231.
  43. Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Alberta, 1990), 34, 131.
  44. Eric Breindel & Herbert Romerstein, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors (Washington, D.C., 2000), 136–137.
  45. Alger’s Window, 200, 52.
  46. Laughing Last, 141.
  47. Ibid., 73.
  48. Witness, 374.
  49. Alger’s Window, 56.
  50. G.B. Melton, J. Petrila, N.G. Poythress & C. Slobogin, Psychological Evaluations for the Courts (New York, 1987), 227–240.
  51. Perjury, 147.
  52. Tony Hiss, “The Alger Hiss Story,”
  53. Alger’s Window, 241.
  54. Ibid., 202.
  55. Ibid., 51.
  56. Ibid., 65.
  57. Perjury, 470.
  58. Alger’s Window, 57.

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