Troy Media – by Pat Murphy
In 1960 Ireland, my late father enthusiastically followed John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency. Like many, he was enthralled at the idea of an Irish-American Catholic being elected to the world’s most powerful office. But he also had a level of affinity for Kennedy’s opponent, Richard Nixon.
There were a couple of reasons for this. One, he and Nixon shared a precise date of birth – January 9, 1913. And two, he had substantial admiration for the role Nixon, then a young congressman, had played in the case of Alger Hiss.
Hiss was the epitome of well-bred establishment liberalism, a Harvard Law graduate who’d clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes before going into government service in 1933. Subsequently joining the State Department, he rose in the ranks and accompanied President Franklin Roosevelt to the critical Yalta Conference in 1945. After that, he was an insider at the foundation of the United Nations.
Questions about his loyalty were first raised in 1939, but allegations of his being a communist were denied and brushed off. They surfaced again in 1948 when Whittaker Chambers, a self-admitted former communist, testified to a congressional committee. Hence the involvement of Richard Nixon.
In the resulting vigorous back and forth, Hiss denied the charges and sued Chambers for slander. In turn, Chambers raised the ante, accusing Hiss of having been a Soviet spy in the 1930s. He also produced evidence to back-up the claim.
The statute of limitations on espionage having expired, a grand jury indicted Hiss for perjury. The first trial resulted in a hung jury – eight to four in favour of conviction. The second trial found him guilty and he was sentenced to five years in prison. He was paroled in November 1954.
Until his death in 1996, Hiss continued to protest his innocence. And he had his defenders. Indeed, he became something of a left-wing martyr and minor campus celebrity. He was even readmitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1975.
But, on balance, time hasn’t been good to him.
More than 30 years ago, the historian Allen Weinstein delivered a significant blow. Initially a Hiss believer, Weinstein set out to write about the case. In the process, he had cooperation from Hiss and access to FBI and Justice Department records. But his 1978 book, Perjury, concluded that Hiss had lied.
The end of the Cold War also hit Hiss hard.
The Venona Project was a classified endeavour whereby U.S. intelligence intercepted and decrypted Soviet diplomatic messages during and immediately after World War Two. Released in the 1990s, the Venona files incriminated Hiss. So too did material from Hungarian and KGB archives.
While there are still some remaining Hiss defenders, the ranks have thinned. Even “the dean of the anti-anti-communist historians” – Professor Ellen W. Schrecker – accepts that he was guilty of espionage.
Still, a variety of excuses are put forward for Hiss and others like him, one being that they were really just “utopian idealists.” As the beneficiary of their activities was Stalin’s Soviet Union, that seems to be a bit of a stretch.
Another rationalization is that, at the end of the day, they did little or no harm. But if so, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The man who aims and fires a loaded pistol can hardly claim exculpation by virtue of the fact that the gun didn’t go off.
Undoubtedly, his fall from grace caused grief for Hiss and his family. And their trials and tribulations didn’t end with his release from prison.
However, other mid-20th century traitors paid a much stiffer price. Convicted of atomic espionage, the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair in 1953.
And in 1945 Britain, the fact that his father had been Churchill’s wartime Secretary of State for India didn’t protect John Amery from charges of pro-Nazi treason. Although his politically-connected family tried frantically to save him, it was to no avail. Pleading guilty, Amery was dignified at the end – so much so that the executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, commented on his bravery. But he was still hanged.
So sympathy for Alger Hiss should be taken in moderation. After all, he died of natural causes at the beginning of his 93rd year in 1996. Perhaps he was a lucky man.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics. Pat writes twice a month (more often if he gets riled) putting current events into an historical perspective.
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