Less of a Jerk but Still a Perjurer

A new book on the Alger Hiss case inevitably raises the question of  “why” among those familiar with the case, and there are valid reasons for that response. For one thing, all the protagonists are residents of various cemeteries or urns and have been so for quite some time; for another, settled opinions on the matter are unlikely to be changed at this point. Even for those who use the case as a litmus test of sorts have to be bored by the whole thing.

What drew me to Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason was not a rehash of the question of Alger Hiss’s guilt but the more intriguing and still open question of why Hiss so vigorously maintained his innocence. Post self-professed liberal Susan Jacoby’s book “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History” declaring that today almost no one on the left believes Hiss was innocent it was probably inevitable that someone of a more conservative persuasion would weigh in on the topic. Christina Shelton has stepped into the fray and her book is surprising on many fronts.

Shelton, a former Soviet analyst, has a distinctly anti-communist nearly neo-con point of view. (She doesn’t claim to be unbiased and that works for me just as it did for Jacoby’s book.) The first surprise is that Shelton actually met Hiss and found him to be pleasant company. The second is that Shelton goes to greater lengths that even the most pro-Hiss books to present a him as a caring, three dimensional human being. For the first time in reading nearly two dozen books on the case I got a sense of a man who could inspire such devotion and loyalty. I also encountered someone whose concern for his fellow man could make the hope presented by socialism/communism appealing.

A less pleasing surprise are Shelton’s blanket statements about the “failure” of socialism and the refusal of American universities to admit that communism wasn’t such a great idea in practice. I studied political science at a liberal arts college in New England in the 1980s and my well-known professors never pretended that the Soviet Union was anything other than a repressive mess. I wouldn’t argue that communism was thriving but there’s a world of difference between a Social Democrat in Sweden and Leonid Breshnev. Shelton is on firmer ground laying out the similarities between Stalinism and Fascism, but while demolishing a retrospective claim that Hiss was doing good by supporting Stalin against Hitler this isn’t hugely additive.

Shelton does an admirable job of assembling all the evidence against Hiss. It isn’t thrilling reading but it is comprehensive. In it’s totality it is compelling. Also compelling is Shelton’s thesis that Hiss maintained his claim to innocence because it was more useful to the cause of communism than an open embrace of his beliefs. Shelton’s version of Hiss is much more appealing (and human) than the dissembler (he’s a master spy!) of Allen Weinstein’s Perjury or the serial-deceiver (he just plain likes to lie!) of Edward White’s Looking Glass Wars or the cold-fish (he’s a jerk!) – all worthy, readable books that have their place.

Taken as a whole Shelton’s book makes a contribution but it’s not for everyone. I got the feeling that she’d like those who supported Hiss for decades to admit they were had but that’s not likely to happen and, for me, it’s beside the point. Recommended for anyone very interested in the Hiss case but not as the first book on the subject.

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