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Author Archive: "Susan Jacoby"

Who Owns American History?

When I began writing Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, before the start of the 2008 presidential campaign, I saw the case as a historical curio of interest mainly to intellectuals on both the right and left. However, the current economic panic and adversarial Washington political climate have produced an improbable revival of the issues and rhetoric (watch for bumper stickers castigating "Comrade Obama") that have fueled controversy over the Hiss case from the early days of the Cold War into the 21st century.

Republican leaders are trashing the New Deal, as they did after World War II, in an effort to "prove" that Obama's proposals will fail. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ceased to exist on December 31, 1991, but you would never know that from what former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas had to say at a recent Conservative Political Action Conference. "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff," Huckabee declared, describing Obama's economic stimulus plan as the basis for creating "socialist republics" in the United States.

All of this talk about government spending as an effort to turn the United States into the "USSA" seems to belong to some sort of science fiction alternate universe — but it is a recognizably American alternate universe that never quite goes away. The Hiss case, and the 60-year scholarly and media controversy over his place in Cold War history, has always belonged in the Twilight Zone.

For those who do not know the Hiss story — most likely, 90 percent of Americans under age 60 — Hiss was a committed New Dealer, first in Franklin D. Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Administration and then as a rising star in the State Department. He was in charge of administrative arrangements for the March 1945 Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill met to discuss plans for a postwar world, and of the San Francisco organizing conference that drafted the United Nations Charter.

In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor and repentant ex-Communist, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Hiss had been a spy and his best friend in the American Communist Party in the mid-1930s. Hiss denied ever having been a Communist and, initially, ever having known Chambers — but then acknowledged that he had been acquainted with Chambers under another name. Eventually, Chambers led FBI investigators to a cache of microfilm, supposedly of papers passed on by Hiss, in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. Hiss's chief HUAC antagonist was Richard M. Nixon, then a congressman from California.

To make a (very) long story short, Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950. He was never charged with spying, since the statute of limitations for espionage had expired. He served four years in jail and, until his death in 1996, maintained his innocence. In the 1970s, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed evidence, not released at the 1950 trial, that strongly suggested Hiss's guilt. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly available classified documents provided even more suggestive — though not conclusive — evidence.

I believe that Hiss was guilty of perjury and am about 98 percent certain that he did pass on government documents to more professional spies. That small percentage of uncertainty, however, makes me a member of the Flat Earth Society to those who are part of the right-wing anti-Hiss cottage industry. The 98 percent probability also doesn't sit well with those on the left who still believe — attributing far too much competence to the FBI — there is a good chance that Hiss was framed.

Hiss's prosecution, which stands symbolically and in real time at the beginning of the Red hunt that came to be known as the McCarthy era, touches on every fault line that has divided liberals and conservatives from the days of the now-defunct Cold War to the present era of transnational terrorism. The conspicuous trait uniting Hiss's dogged ex post facto media and scholarly bloodhounds and his die-hard defenders is the need to vindicate not only their verdict on American history but the governmental policies they espouse today.

The right-wing line goes something like this: liberals were wrong about Stalinism in the 1930s; wrong about the Vietnam War; and wrong about the importance of the Soviet threat. And so it stands to reason that liberals must be wrong today about the war in Iraq, wrong about torture, and wrong about the erosion of civil liberties associated with government's anti-terrorism efforts.

On the left, the reluctance to let go of the Hiss case also has a pedigree extending from the 1930s: the right was wrong about the threat of Nazism; wrong about the existence of an internal Communist threat during the hunt for American Communists in the late 1940s and 1950s; and wrong about Vietnam. Finally, of course, liberals believe that the right is wrong in its willingness to sacrifice civil liberties in the cause of fighting Islamist terrorism — just as the right was wrong in its contempt for civil liberties during the McCarthy era.

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