Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Alger Hiss and the Battle for History

Alger Hiss and the Battle for History

Susan Jacoby
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Alger Hiss and the Battle for History
    Book Description:

    Books on Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss abound, as countless scholars have labored to uncover the facts behind Chambers's shocking accusation before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the summer of 1948-that Alger Hiss, a former rising star in the State Department, had been a Communist and engaged in espionage.

    In this highly original work, Susan Jacoby turns her attention to the Hiss case, including his trial and imprisonment for perjury, as a mirror of shifting American political views and passions. Unfettered by political ax-grinding, the author examines conflicting responses, from scholars and the media on both the left and the right, and the ways in which they have changed from 1948 to our present post-Cold War era. With a brisk, engaging style, Jacoby positions the case in the politics of the post-World War II era and then explores the ways in which generations of liberals and conservatives have put Chambers and Hiss to their own ideological uses. An iconic event of the McCarthy era, the case of Alger Hiss fascinates political intellectuals not only because of its historical significance but because of its timeless relevance to equally fierce debates today about the difficult balance between national security and respect for civil liberties.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15584-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    As a child in the 1950s, I first heard about the Alger Hiss case because my father was an accountant with the unprofessional habit of writing down important figures on scraps of paper and promptly losing them. “Bob, go out and look for them in some pumpkin patch,” my mother would invariably say, as Dad searched futilely for the errant papers around the house. Understandably bewildered by what the adults considered a joke, I asked what my father’s missing papers had to do with pumpkins and was treated to a brief synopsis of the 1948 House Committee on Un-American Activities...

  4. ONE Passions as Prologue
    (pp. 31-92)

    It was not entirely true, even in 1950, that Alger Hiss was being judged primarily on the basis of what he had done in the 1930s. Unless a former Communist Party member had thoroughly repudiated his past and turned against his one-time friends and political associates, he was suspected in the late forties and early fifties of still being a secret Communist—or, at the very least, a communist sympathizer known as a “fellow traveler.”* In Hiss’s case, the real suspicion underlying the indictment for perjury was that he had betrayed his country while serving as a State Department aide,...

  5. TWO The Eye of the Hurricane, 1948–1950
    (pp. 93-118)

    On August 2, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and named the names of several former government officials with whom he claimed to have been on intimate terms as a member of an underground Communist “apparatus” in Washington. One of those named was Alger Hiss. Chambers was subpoenaed by HUAC to corroborate the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, a former school-teacher who had named a great many names herself (though not Hiss’s) and claimed to have been a courier between government officials and Soviet agents. Bentley, despite her willingness to name coconspirators, was exceedingly vague about...

  6. THREE Competing Narratives and Public Amnesia, 1950–1965
    (pp. 119-139)

    In the closing days of the 1952 presidential campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon launched a direct attack on the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, for having testified as a character witness on behalf of Alger Hiss at his first trial. Stevenson, who had known Hiss briefly in 1933 when they were both young New Deal lawyers at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, had testified that Hiss’s reputation was “good.” In a nationwide television broadcast, Nixon concluded that Stevenson’s “actions, his statements, his record disqualify him from leading . . . the fight against Communism at home and abroad.” The...

  7. FOUR The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, 1970–1980
    (pp. 140-165)

    At the height of the Watergate scandal in July 1973, theNew York Timespublished an op-ed piece, titled “My Six Parallels,” by Alger Hiss. The headline was, of course, an allusion to Richard Nixon’sSix Crises, and Hiss’s short essay explicitly compares the conduct of the HUAC investigators at his own hearings with the illegal tactics used by Nixon’s henchmen against Democrats and opponents of the Vietnam War. The appearance of Hiss’s byline in such a prominent mainstream forum was one indicator of how far he had come, since the days when he could only get jobs selling hair...

  8. FIVE The Rise of the Right and the Cold War at Twilight, 1980–1992
    (pp. 166-182)

    Ronald Wilson Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States, was, as is well known, a liberal Democrat and a supporter of the New Deal during the 1930s. He was thirty-seven years old in 1948, when Whittaker Chambers launched his spectacular charges against Alger Hiss, and the future president was among the majority of Americans who concluded that Hiss was lying. The Hiss case marked a turning point in Reagan’s political loyalties, and in 1952 he supported the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket. Reagan considered Chambers a true hero and described his story as representative of “a generation’s disenchantment with statism and its...

  9. SIX The Enemy Vanishes, 1992–2008
    (pp. 183-201)

    The very wordambiguityinfuriates the political right when applied to Alger Hiss, because it suggests that there is still some doubt, however minuscule, about his guilt. When Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Boris Yeltsin and the Soviet Union came to an official end on December 31, 1991, Hiss’s defenders and detractors both had reason to hope that access to long-classified espionage documents, in the Soviet Union as well as the United States, would write a conclusion not only to Hiss’s case but to many other disputed episodes in the Cold War. Yeltsin himself promised to open previously closed archives...

  10. CONCLUSION Passions as Epilogue
    (pp. 202-224)

    On the Fourth of July weekend in 2000, theNew York Timespublished a conversation about patriotism between Norman Podhoretz, the longtime neoconservative warrior and editor ofCommentary, and Victor Navasky, who, as publisher of theNation, was as strongly identified with the political and cultural left as Podhoretz was with the right. In one exchange, the moderator quoted Samuel Johnson’s remark that patriotism “is the last refuge of a scoundrel” and asked both men whether patriotism had “gone out of style” in the United States. Podhoretz, as befitted the author of a forthcoming book titledMy Love Affair with...

  11. Chronology
    (pp. 225-230)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 231-238)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 239-242)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 243-244)
  15. Index
    (pp. 245-256)