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.
And here is where the past meets the present, because the battle over the proper role of government in the current economic crisis, as well as over civil liberties issues, reprises many of the attempts to link the accusations against Hiss with his history as an enthusiastic New Dealer. The right's long-term attempt to conflate liberalism with socialism and communism, beginning in the 1930s, has always made it difficult for liberals to separate the particulars of the Hiss case from the more general violations of civil liberties in the postwar hunt for "Reds."
Because Hiss was a soldier in the New Deal from its inception, his case was tailor-made for hard-line conservatives who wished to besmirch the memory of Roosevelt. Anti-communism was part of the right's strategy to denigrate the New Deal at a time when the majority of Americans revered the memory of FDR not only as a wartime leader but as the president who gave them hope during the darkest days of the Depression. If Hiss was really a lying Communist Party member taking his orders from the Kremlin, he could be and was used as exhibit A in support of the long-held right-wing contention that if you scratched a New Deal liberal, you might just as easily find a communist or a socialist.
Consider this blast from the Chicago Tribune after Hiss' conviction in 1950: "So we find this traitor hobnobbing through the years with the mightiest of the New Deal mighty." The editorial asserted that "the guilt is collective" and "spreads over the New Deal, which sponsored and protected this monstrous conspiracy against America." Collective guilt — there's a concept to live by! There is really no difference between the 1950 anti-New Deal screed in the Tribune and that immortal 2003 tome Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism by Ann Coulter, the Wicked Witch of the Right.
I am convinced that one of the reasons anti-communist fever began to burn itself out by the mid-1950s was the unwillingness of the majority of Americans to buy into the conflation of communism and the New Deal. The public had already accepted the New Deal's domestic legacy, including Social Security and the GI Bill.
Now, when most Americans (Huckabee's blather notwithstanding) realize that communist ideology exerts almost no influence in the world, Republicans are once again claiming that the New Deal didn't work — and therefore, Obama's attempts at government intervention in the current economic crisis are doomed.
In fact, although unemployment was still around 15 percent before the American economy ramped up for World War II, that was a major improvement over the 25 percent unemployment rate at the beginning of Roosevelt's first term in 1932. The banking system had been stabilized, and industrial production, which fell by half after the 1929 stock market crash, had regained its pre-crash level by 1937.
Conservatives are betting now that the socialist label-libel will be useful in tarring Obama's proposals, although the frequent use of the word did not work for the McCain-Palin campaign. However, the use of the phrase "socialized medicine" was extremely effective for those who torpedoed Bill Clinton's health care reform plans in the 1990s — and we will surely hear it again as Obama unveils proposals that will, inevitably, call for more government involvement in health care.
What links this new rhetoric with the old anti-communist rhetoric surrounding the Hiss case in particular and the New Deal in general is the attempt to paint advocates of government intervention in the economy as "un-American" and alien. "Americans are just genetically opposed to socialism," says Matt Kibee, president of Freedom Works, a far-right advocacy group.
Even the idiotic but persistent Internet rumor that Obama might not be an American citizen because he was born in Hawaii and his father was Kenyan is part of the alternate universe in which there is always some alien conspirator working from within to undermine American interests.
What makes the return of rhetoric from the early 1950s so strange is that the actual circumstances of American life, and America's position in the world, could not be more different today. Hiss was convicted at a time of expanding prosperity, and the only challenge to the postwar Pax Americana was the very identifiable Soviet Union. Today the nation is in deep economic trouble and our chief antagonist is not a nation-state but an amorphous, violent entity transcending national borders.
There were no traitors in the State Department during the Bush years (unless you count traitors to the Bill of Rights), and there is no worldwide communist conspiracy (with a small "c" or a large "C") that can be linked with any particular economic event.
Who would have thought that in the first decade of the 21st century, the main argument mounted against any sort of new New Deal is the hoary right-wing contention that the "failed" old New Deal was really a disguised attempt to impose communism or socialism on Americans? Since there is no Alger Hiss today, perhaps the right will try to invent one.