The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 13, 2015

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The Ongoing Campaign of Alger Hiss: The Sins of the Father
(MA 46:4, Fall 2004) - 10/27/08

It is important to note that during both perjury trials (the first trial ended in a hung jury) the Hiss defense conceded the authenticity of most of the prosecution’s evidence, including microfilmed copies of original State Department documents, those hand-copied by Alger Hiss, and those copied on his Woodstock typewriter. Given the formidable evidence against Hiss, the defense resorted to a smear job. “Surely we intend to smear Chambers in any event,” wrote attorney Harold Rosenwald in a defense memo. “I have no objection to such smearing and hope that it will be very thoroughly and effectively done.”5Indeed it was. But what is unusual about the smear of Whittaker Chambers is that it was—and remains—exclusively psychological. Hiss always claimed that Chambers was a “psychopath” and that “for some psychological reason that I did not understand he was trying to destroy me.”6The defense even hired a psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Binger, to testify that Chambers was a “psychopathic personality” given to mental delusions, a Marxist Walter Mitty prone to fabricating fantastic tales about himself and others.7In due course virtually every pro-Hiss study of the case has adopted the psychological angle; most notably, psychoanalyst Dr. Meyer Zeligs’s Friendship and Fratricide (1967), an “objective psychobiography” of Hiss and Chambers. Alger Hiss “cooperated closely” with Zeligs in the preparation of the book that ultimately provides additional clinical cover for the smear of Whittaker Chambers. In short, Dr. Zeligs argues that Chambers, whom he never met, was a psychologically disturbed man who conspired to frame Hiss out of jealousy and a host of “fratricidal impulses” formed during childhood. While Zeligs attributes to Chambers a “tragic incapacity to feel, suffer, or love any human object,” he finds Hiss to be a sensitive family man and loyal public servant whose manifest “saintliness” was a form of naiveté that made him susceptible to Chambers’s “sociopathic personality.”8

Conspiracy theories, often portrayed as the exclusive vice of the anti-Communist Right, are actually most common among Communists themselves, hence the periodic purges that characterize most communist organizations. Prior to Alger Hiss’s conviction, the Hiss defense never alleged any conspiracy, except for the lone “psychopath” Whittaker Chambers. It was only several years after Hiss’s conviction that broad charges of conspiracy and “McCarthyism” became central to the strategy of denial. By that time, Hiss could out-McCarthy anyone, for no conspiracy was so immense as the one that framed Alger Hiss.

“I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed,” Hiss told the court on the day he was sentenced.9Hiss’s favorite theory “conspiracy by typewriter” actually contained several ancillary theories: Chambers somehow stole the documents from the State Department, then crept into Hiss’s home to copy them on his Woodstock typewriter for the specific purpose of framing him; or Chambers actually constructed an exact replica of the Woodstock typewriter, perhaps with the help of the K.G.B. or the F.B.I. or Richard Nixon or the “right wing anti-Communists.” In order to legitimize this theory, Hiss’s attorneys even hired an authority on typewriter analysis to build an exact replica of the typewriter, but without success.10In his autobiography, Hiss alleged he was framed by an “Unholy Trinity” consisting of “Richard Nixon, the power-hungry politician; J. Edgar Hoover, the ultimate bureaucrat; and Whittaker Chambers, the perfect pawn.”11Somehow these three conspired individually and/or collectively to frame Hiss, though he cites no evidence for his allegation. “I have a theory here,” Hiss told an historian in 1959, “and a good deal of evidence to support it, though nothing conclusive.”12

For many years after Hiss’s release from prison, the Hiss campaign had little momentum. That all changed in 1974 when President Richard Nixon resigned from the White House. The Watergate conspiracy, such as it was, gave new traction to Hiss’s claim of being a victim of a “McCarthyite” witch hunt. Hiss received numerous public speaking invitations at universities and public forums, both in America and abroad. “Nixon is sort of an unofficial press agent for me,” Hiss admitted in a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone. The journalist conducting the interview was his very own son, Tony Hiss.13

For more than 30 years, Tony Hiss, a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker, has tried to be something of a Zola to his father. He has written articles on his father, conducted interviews with him, written reviews of books about the Hiss case, and even written two books of his own on the subject. In 1977,he published Laughing Last, a most unusual work in which Tony interviews Alger (referring to him as “Al”) about his life and his campaign for vindication. For example, Tony Hiss asks his father to explain his alibi regarding Chambersthat he invited a virtual stranger to stay overnight at his home, sublet him an apartment (with no lease and no references), and even gave him a free car. As it turns out, this exceptional generosity proceeded from power motives. “I hate to have to tell you this because personally I find it a bit creepy,” reports Tony Hiss. “Al felt sympathy for Chambers. . . . ‘I like people when they’re in trouble,’ Al said. ‘Because then they have to like youand you can feel powerful by helping them. I love to visit people in the hospital.’”14

Laughing Last also contains explicit details of Alger Hiss’s sexual history and a rather unflattering depiction of his wife, Priscilla. Alger and Priscilla Hiss separated five years after Hiss’s release from prison and Mrs. Hiss chose not to involve herself in her husband’s campaign, which caused a rift with her son, Tony. The rift is obvious when Tony Hiss casually details his mother’s private life, which apparently included a premarital affair that resulted in an abortion.15It is important to note that Priscilla Hiss, though never indicted, was at least a minor accessory to her husband. She most likely typed the documents that led to her husband’s conviction and certainly perjured herself during the trials. And yet there were always rumors that Alger Hiss was really covering up for his wifethe real culprit, as some of Hiss’s own attorneys suspected. One wonders if Alger Hiss was the source of these rumors since he had no problem repeating them years later and made only token attempts to rebut them. While pro-Hiss studies of the case typically depict Alger Hiss as both hero and victim, they also typically depict Priscilla as an idealistic socialistsomething she took pains to deny during the trialsand a neurotic millstone around the neck of her husband. “I asked Al recently,” writes Tony Hiss, “if he’d agree with me that maybe he went to jail to get away from Prossy.”16

Still, despite its peculiarities, Laughing Last reveals some interesting, though hardly exculpating, details about Alger Hiss. For example, while an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, one of Hiss’s favorite instructors was Broadus Mitchell, a one-time Socialist Party candidate for Governor of Maryland. Another favorite was Professor of Spanish Literature, José Robles. A good friend of John Dos Passos, Robles translated Manhattan Transfer (1925) into Spanish and served in the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War until he was murdered in a Marxist purge. Robles’s death was a watershed moment for Dos Passos that caused him to break forever with the Left. As an undergraduate, Alger Hiss apparently knew José Robles well enough to visit him and his family “in their drab little apartment,” but Robles’s death seems not to have troubled him.17Indeed, Hiss told one historian that he once considered leaving Washington to fight for the Communist-backed Republican cause in Spain.18

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