Yesterday, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War hosted a day-long conference on a subject long since thought closed: the historical significance of Alger Hiss (1904-1996). An architect of the Yalta Conference, leading figure in the founding of the United Nations, paragon of Rooseveltian liberalism, Hiss—as was charged by Whittaker Chambers in 1948 and as archival evidence released from the ex-Soviet Union in the late 1990’s would confirm—was also a dedicated spy for the Communists.
“Alger Hiss and History”—for such was the conference’s title—included a number of luminaries among its panelists. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there, along with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Hiss’s son Tony, who has made a career out of his attempts to rehabilitate his father, as well as scholars in related fields.
The one quality these varied figures have in common is an apparently ineradicable attachment to the idea that Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury and his identification as a Communist spy are not the truly important facts in the case. Rather, what matters are the origins and consequences of the Hiss trial. That trial, the argument runs, was the fruit of a sinister conspiracy to discredit New Deal liberalism at home and liberal multilateralism abroad, and its aftermath ushered in an age of rampant paranoia and government repression that, in the form of the Bush administration, continue to this day.
It’s hard to imagine how seriously even the most committed advocate of Hiss can pursue his cause now, in the face of the overwhelming evidence about who he was and what he did. Over the decades, COMMENTARY has published much material on the Hiss case and its implications; this weekend we offer a selection.
Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us
Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Hiss: Guilty as Charged