X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy By G. Edward White (Oxford University Press, 297 pages, $30) Clever Girl By Lauren Kessler (HarperCollins, 372 pages, $26.95) In the 1970s, I happened to be in court when a friend of mine tried a criminal case in which the defendant, a minor politico, was charged with accepting a gratuity. I had the impression there really was no defense to the case. It seemed that the defendant just felt that he could not enter a guilty plea. He would rather be found guilty than admit his guilt. He did not testify. He was found guilty. The defendant, after serving his sentence, returned to his hometown. His friends were convinced he was framed. As far as they were concerned, he was the same honorable person they had always known. I doubt he ever confessed. Even if he had wanted to, he would have had to consider the embarrassment it would cause to those who believed in his innocence and contributed to his defense. Such cases are not unique. This came to mind when I read G. Edward White’s “Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy.” White remains fascinated by the Hiss case. He marshals the evidence to demonstrate that Hiss was guilty of perjury in denying his role as a Soviet spy and that his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, was telling the truth and Hiss was lying. The trial ended in 1950 with a two-count conviction of perjury. Hiss served three years, eight months in federal prison. Hiss’ guilt was established long ago in Allan Weinstein’s 1978 book, “Perjury,” which goes into greater detail than any of the other books about this case that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the case of the century. What has got White worked up is that Hiss never confessed. Not only did he not confess, but also he made a career of not confessing. Many were willing to believe Hiss’ story in defiance of the evidence. This fascinates White as well as angers him. He wants to retry Hiss and prove that Hiss was not a good person even leaving aside the Soviet connection and the perjury. He also wants to show Hiss used great cunning in the way he managed his post-trial constituency. He was reinstated to the Massachusetts Bar, he lectured at colleges, and a chair was created in his name at Bard College. Alger Hiss’ life is a series of looking-glass wars, White explains, writing:
By that phrase I mean to suggest that Hiss’s life was a series of critical episodes in which a secret portion of his life — the portion concealed, as it were, behind the looking glass — was threatened with exposure. In each of those episodes Hiss sought to defend his secrets in a distinctive way. Understanding his distinctive response helps us understand why he chose to be a Communist and a Soviet undercover agent. And understanding the response also helps explain why he chose to fashion a lifelong narrative of innocence, in which he projected himself as a victim and a scapegoat, all the while knowing that this narrative was false. Finally, understanding Hiss’s approach to his several looking-glass wars helps make sense of the two largest puzzles of his life. Why did he enlist his strongest supporters and the most loyal members of his family, in perpetuating his false claims and how was he able to transform his public image from that of convicted traitor to that of someone who might have been one of the casualties of Cold War excesses?

The reason Hiss did not confess seems simple. If he had confessed, he would have embarrassed the loyalists who just would not believe that someone such as Hiss would ever connect up with someone such as Whittaker Chambers. This brings us to an interesting question: Why did Hiss became a Soviet agent? More about this later. Hiss was tall, handsome, elegant, and reserved. He came from a good Baltimore family. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He served in the Department of Justice and in the State Department. He was an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta. In 1945, he served as the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on International Organizations (UNCIO) that led to the signing of the U.N. Charter. In 1948, when Chambers accused Hiss of being a communist, Hiss was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now Whittaker Chambers. Chambers was a Columbia University dropout with a life full of disappointments, some bad acts and periodic bizarre behavior. He had, as someone said, a bus station look about him. In the early 1920s, he joined the Communist Party. In the 1930s, he became friendly with Hiss as part of Chambers’ espionage activities. Chambers left the party in 1937. He eventually joined Time magazine as a writer and was happy with his anonymity. He became public property when the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1948 called him as a witness. In those hearings, Richard Nixon was the key player. Without Hiss it is unlikely that Richard Nixon would have become vice president and then president. When Chambers accused Hiss of being a communist, it stunned Hiss’ friends who demanded that Hiss repudiate the charges. That is what he did. He went about it in an inept way that, in retrospect, assured his conviction. He appeared before HUAC and denied ever knowing anyone named Whittaker Chambers. From there on, Hiss had locked himself in the role of an innocent man. Now let’s get back to White’s effort to disclose why Hiss joined the Communist Party. Hiss was not one of those who joined the party to retaliate against the government because life had treated him unfairly. His career was one of vaulting ambition, success after success carried forward with traces of snobbery. He developed friendships among high-placed people, including Supreme Court justices, a number of whom testified as character witnesses. He was not known to be a student of the Russian Revolution. In his autobiography, he devoted a chapter to recalling the happy days he spent as Justice Holmes’ law clerk. He spoke of Holmes with reverence. Holmes was suspicious of ideologies and contemptuous of zealots. “I detest a man who knows what he knows,” he wrote in a 1930 letter to Harold Laski. Justice Holmes knew that the person who believed that a particular form of government could remedy the basic evil in all of us was a person who was not a reasonable man. Holmes’ letters, as White knows (White wrote an authoritative biography of Holmes), are filled with a skepticism directed at those who want to improve the human condition. What was it that turned Hiss away from Holmes’ standard of the reasonable man? White says Hiss was not the honorable gentleman he appeared to be, the elegant person at the cocktail party chatting with the attorney general and the secretary of state. White searches for clues in Hiss’ family life, his involvement with the New Deal, his frustration with the way the government was dealing with the Depression, his desire for adventure. Despite what White tells us, the evidence remains ambiguous. To take it where White wants it to go requires Freudian speculation. I suggest the answer may be found in Arthur Koestler’s comment in “The God That Failed,” the collection of writings by party members who left the party and tried to explain why they joined up. Here is Koestler’s colorful language: “A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith — but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act.” Koestler’s words may contain a clue. There is a woman in the case. Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, many thought, was the true believer, not Hiss. Hiss’ relationship with her awaits a novelist’s implementation. The Hiss case continues to attract attention. It may in part be because it represents the first of three cases (so far) in which politics intertwines with perjury. The Hiss perjury conviction cast a cloud over the Democratic Party. How could they have given such a person so many opportunities? While the Dems were nursing their wounds, Nixon stepped forward and gave the Dems a get-even perjury case, Watergate. Would the Dems return the favor? They would. The Bill Clinton impeachment. By the way, all three cases involved a lawyer as main character. Elizabeth Bentley (1908-1963) was identified by her Soviet handlers as “Clever Girl,” the title of Lauren Kessler’s biography. Bentley found her way to the House Un-American Activities Committee in a roundabout way. Bentley came from a proper New England family. She obtained a scholarship to Vassar, class of 1930. She enjoyed travel and meeting interesting people. During a trip to Italy, she took a good look at fascism and Mussolini, and she did not like what she saw. On her return, she had trouble finding a job. These were deep Depression days. Through friendships, she became acquainted with radical groups, where she met people who hated fascism as much as she did and who were kind to her. Although her family were Puritans and rock-ribbed Republicans, she had a social conscience that needed an outlet. She thought she found it when her friends led her to the Communist Party. She worked with Jacob Golos, a true Bolshevik revolutionary, who was to be her mentor and the love of her life. They lived and worked together. Their work was done in secret. They collected reports and classified information from so-called assets connected with governmental agencies. Golos worked himself to death, and when he died, Bentley was inconsolable. To add to her troubles, the party decided that the 80 or more Golos-Bentley assets should be shifted to others. Bentley did not like being pushed aside. She commenced re-evaluating her connection with the party. In this period, one of those strange things happened that restore one’s belief in the undertow of craziness in life. While drinking alone in a New York bar, she met a man named Peter Heller. A romance developed. Bentley got the impression that his mysterious comings and goings were connected with legal work or investigations. He diagnosed that she liked discussing intrigue. His sudden disappearances added to the mystery. One evening when they were together, she went through Heller’s wallet and found an identification card with a shield on it of a type police or agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation might use. In an apprehensive state of mind, she decided to go to the FBI and get some information about Heller. She learned that Heller had no connection with the FBI. She also learned he was married and had a family. He was a con man. Now that she had opened the door to the FBI, she eventually went back and told her full story. She gave names. She told of the Golos connection. She was put in touch with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her disclosures led the committee to review other files. In those files was an early report from Whittaker Chambers that disclosed his own connection with the party and his later hatred for it. Chambers was brought before the committee. He led to Alger Hiss. Bentley found herself in the headlines, nicknamed the Red Queen. She had a few years of celebrity, and then her life took a downward turn, which was the way it was until her death. I return to Arthur Koestler. Bentley’s enthusiasm for the Communist Party was not a reasonably considered evaluation of its methods. Her love affair with Jacob Golos was the most significant event in her life. It was emotional, with spying providing the setting. Golos believed in communism. Therefore she believed in it. When he died, her interest in the Manifesto died with it. Communism exploited personal relationships such as Golos-Bentley. Does the Hiss case have such an element? White makes the case that Hiss was drawn to the party by a cold analysis of the virtues of communism and the defects of capitalism. The reasonable man test. What do you think? Jacob A. Stein is a founding partner of Stein, Mitchell & Mezines. He is past president of the D.C. Bar and of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. His books include Legal Spectator & More.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.