June 13, 2013
We can start with the spoiler. At the end of his newly released and massive revised edition of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Allen Weinstein makes the following observation: "As for the conspiracy theories themselves, we may expect that newer and perhaps more ingenious defenses of [Alger] Hiss may emerge, if only because none of the theories raised during the past six decades has proved persuasive. There has yet to appear, however, from any source, a coherent body of evidence that seriously undermines the credibility of the evidence against Alger Hiss."
There will never be produced such a body of evidence, because Alger Hiss was guilty. The relevant questions today are what his guilt means. On that score, conservatives as well as liberals may have something to learn.
The story is famous and well known to some, but increasingly forgotten by too many Americans. On August 3, 1948, a Time magazine editor and former communist spy named Whittaker Chambers came to Washington, D.C. On that day Chambers testified that Alger Hiss, a former high ranking State Department official and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a Communist and Soviet agent who had passed secrets to Moscow.
Hiss denied the charge and sued Chambers for libel. The resulting trials and media circus became a sensation in America. At the time and for decades afterwards, the left argued that Alger Hiss was innocent. However, in the last few decades documents released from KGB files have proven that Hiss was in fact a Soviet agent. This is outlined in one of Weinstein's previous books, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- the Stalin Era.
In the revised Perjury, Weinstein is absolutely microscopic in his examination of the case. The book is over seven hundred pages long, but it remains interesting all the way through. It's not surprising that Weinstein won a special award for Perjury from the Mystery Writers of America.
If there is a fact about the Chambers-Hiss case that needs clarification, Weinstein, a former Archivist of the United States, has attended to it. He reveals how unbelievable Hiss's story was, and not just when Soviet cables released in the 1990s proved his guilt. From the very beginning, it was obvious to rational people that Hiss was lying.
The first thing he did was claim he had never laid eyes on Whittaker Chambers -- only to reverse himself when it was shown that he had rented an apartment and given a car to Chambers, and that Chambers had been an overnight guest at the Hiss household. It just got worse from there, going through several phases and resulting in Chambers producing the famous "pumpkin patch papers," State Department documents that Hiss had copied in his own handwriting or on his own typewriter and transferred to the Russians. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury.
What Weinstein does not provide -- and this is not a criticism, as it is not what he set out to do -- is a literary and theological assessment of the case, specifically of Witness, Chambers's masterful 1952 autobiography. And this is where the continued relevance of the case for us today comes into focus. (It is also an important piece of the documentary I am producing on Chambers.)
One of the best examinations of Chambers and Witness is in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War by retired Princeton professor John Fleming. Fleming notes the irony of Chambers being a conservative hero in America when he had "a classical liberal education," could speak other languages (including German fluently), and was heavily influenced by European literature.
Chambers, notes Fleming, "was a genuine internationalist who worked for an international criminal conspiracy." Fleming persuasively argues that four European classics "left formal traces" on Chambers's own Witness: The Confessions of both Augustine and Rousseau, Goethe's Wahrheit und Dichtung, and John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
Chambers's theology was more Dante, Dostoevsky and Reinhold Niebuhr than Billy Graham. In one section, Fleming compares the journey of Chambers to the conversion of St. Augustine. When Chambers was contemplating Communism in the early 1920s he read a lot of dry theory about socialism, books by people like G.D.H. Cole and Christian socialist R.H. Tawney.
It wasn't until he came across Lenin's A Soviet at Work that Communism came alive -- "The reek of life was on [A Soviet at Work]," Chambers wrote. "This was socialism in practice. This was the thing itself." Similarly, Augustine had read many Platonic descriptions of God, but it was only when he came across the gospels and the claim that "the Word was made flesh" did he convert.
Fleming writes that even conservative champions of Chambers did not fully appreciate the depth of Witness. Richard Nixon said Chambers "was probably the greatest writer of this century," and Ronald Reagan pronounced that "as long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire." Fleming: "It is unlikely that the reputation of any writer could survive such a critical assault."
Fleming further adds that many conservatives have overreached in using Chambers and Witness to condemn all of liberalism: "To admit that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent need not imply the plenary acceptance of a comet's tail of allegorical implication: treason at the heart of the New Deal, the perfidy of all liberals, the historical necessity of Joe McCarthy, the absolution of Richard Nixon, and other various ideas, some suggested by the author himself, others easily spun from the threads of his text by eager and partisan readers."
Maybe. It's possible to speculate that Chambers, were he alive today, might not reject liberalism out of hand. Chambers had had homosexual encounters and was the son of a bisexual father. Today he may approve that gay people are not shamed and brutalized the way they were in his time.
But with the government telling religious organizations they have to buy contraceptives, with the multiple spying scandals involving the NSA and the IRS targeting groups with words like "patriot" and "constitution" in them, it makes one of Chambers's most famous quotes ring with contemporary truth: "The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades."
It was for this reason that liberals despised Chambers and Witness. To many of them, and to many of them today (though not all), the choice is between God and the State, and they are on the side of the State. They still believe in the religion of socialism, and it infuriates them when Chambers is evoked because he was not some hayseed easily dismissed, but what they see themselves as -- a genuinely wise spiritual soul and a worldly intellectual of the highest order.
Both Fleming and Weinstein go into detail about the hit job the left put out on Chambers, and it remains a repulsive and shameful spectacle. Leftists claimed Chambers had a homosexual obsession with Hiss, was a fantasist, or even was mentally ill. (Fleming's section on this attack is entitled "Chambers the Nutcase, Chambers the Queer.") A writer for the New Republic even claimed that Witness was poorly written, which is like saying Edward Hopper didn't know how to paint.
There certainly are both contemporary liberals and conservatives who believe we can still reach a sane balance between God and the government -- that history doesn't have to end in an apocalypse, either religious or socialistic, with a winning and losing side, as Chambers predicted. But these days they seem rare. And the socialistic ice cap Chambers warned of continues to creep.