Bambi vs Stalin

Susan Jacoby's book on the Alger Hiss case might easily be subtitled: Give It a Rest Already. The "It" in question is the tendency among some to make sweeping assumptions about anyone's beliefs or motivations based on whether or not they believe Alger Hiss was a spy or was guilty of perjury or was framed, etc. I've been fascinated by this case since I first saw the great PBS miniseries "Concealed Enemies" in the early 1980s. That fascination has led me to read many books on the topic, some good (Alger Hiss's Looking Glass Wars), some bad (fratricide) and some genuinely life-changing (Perjury). Jacoby's book is both good and eye-opening; in spots it is genuinely entertaining.

Jacoby is a self-described liberal who has written this book out of frustration at seeing the Hiss case still used as a litmus test of sorts. The liberal point of view has been under represented in this case since Verona so it is good to have another side weigh in. She states up front that she believes Hiss was a spy and she also states that very few liberals have thought Hiss was innocent since Weinstein's book. She also admits to finding Hiss himself to be rather noxious, an impression I share. Jacoby sketches the outlines of the HUAC hearings, the libel trials and Hiss's attempts at rehabilitating his image before addressing how the Hiss case is used today.

Jacoby inadvertently identifies another thing about this case that has got to go. As with so many books on the case, there are more fresh insights offered as to the impact of homosexuality on espionage and the criminal justice system. Long time Hiss aficionados will be familiar with the theory that Whittaker Chambers framed Alger Hiss because Chambers had a homosexual yen for Hiss. The daisy chain gets extended further here when Hiss's stepson publicly regrets that he couldn't' testify for Alger (and thus exonerate him) because he was homosexual and it would have been used against him on the stand. So, to recap, Chambers framed Hiss because he was gay, his stepson Timothy couldn't save Hiss because he was gay, and his son Tony alleges he became gay for a while because he lived for too long with his mother (Hiss's ex-wife Priscilla) who was bitter about the case. What's next? Claims that communism makes you gay? I'm eagerly awaiting the pronouncement that the Soviets weren't so much marching as mincing toward world domination. Can't we please, please dispense with these ridiculous stereotypes, too?

Jacoby does make a few missteps in my mind. I can't agree with her contention that the pursuit of Hiss was grounded in a desire to smear FDR and the New Deal. Maybe that was in the minds of some of the participants but HUAC had been around since World War 1, FDR was dead and the New Deal was old news by 1949. Jacoby also seems to embrace the notion that Hiss engaged in espionage because the Soviet Union was the only country openly opposing Hitler. A "cooler" less impassioned alliance, as she sees it. This theory has been around for a long time and for some reason it seems more palatable to many than the idea that Hiss (or any other American with communist sympathies) might have actually believed in the tenets of communism. Certainly this was the motivation for some but why is that any more plausible than the idea that Hiss thought the misery wrought by the Depression demanded radical change? White makes a convincing case that we can't know why Hiss gave his allegiance to the Soviet Union. Any theory is as plausible as the next.

She gives much credit to Weinstein's book but, weirdly, questions how Weinstein could have started out thinking Hiss guilty of lying to HUAC but innocent of espionage as one would cancel out the other. That's not so irreconcilable to me, in fact, I'll give you a theory straight from that old Hiss standby: "I was gay at the time." Jacoby even goes so far as to imply that Hiss was so cool, patrician and awesome that Chambers must have been attracted to him. Please. For all we know, Chambers' taste ran to tall, blond Tom of Finland types. The most unfortunate misstep is when she snidely follows up Chambers story of his "conversion" from communism after pondering the perfection of his baby daughter's ear with a note that Chambers was still having gay one night stands. Does she really mean to imply that one cannot love one's child or have spiritual beliefs if one is gay? I hope not.

The core of this book however, is Jacoby's call to stop using the Hiss case as it was in the 1950s when it was a "real indicator of which side you were on." Whether you believe that Hiss case was Bambi vs. Stalin (Chambers was the original translator of the Bambi story from German to English) or Harvard vs. Tricky Dick, the fact remains it is history, not current events. For me, the Hiss case is no more an indicator of broader beliefs than the case of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Historical puzzles, yes; continuing conspiracy? Not so much.

This book is not for everyone. It is definitely not for the beginner. It doesn't offer new information about the case but it does offer a different point of view. For me, that additional point of view makes essential reading for anyone deeply interested in the understanding the Hiss case and it's impact. It isn't likely to settle the debate, just broaden the discussion.

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