Commentary Magazine

Hiss and Oswald

To the Editor:

Michael Ledeen’s reflections on the Hiss and Oswald cases [“Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us,” May] quite properly include the role of Igor Gouzenko in the Hiss case. At the same time, Mr. Ledeen overlooks a major analysis of the meaning of the Gouzenko-Hiss situation, “Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White: The Canadian Connection,” by James Barros (Orbis, Fall 1977). Barros, through information obtained from Gouzenko and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police interviewing Gouzenko, makes it clear that the Truman administration was afraid to deal with the Gouzenko testimony. There was apparently no doubt in the minds of Truman, Acheson, and others that Hiss was a Communist spy; yet they made haste to insure that there would be no domestic American repercussions from the discovery of Hiss. This involved easing him out of the Department of State with a minimum of fanfare, and fobbing him off on an unsuspecting institution of some prestige where he would do minimal damage. The institution chosen was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Hiss was installed as President at the beginning of 1947. The ultimate impact of the Truman administration’s unwillingness to deal forthrightly with the “Hiss problem” on both the Carnegie Endowment and on the course of U.S. foreign policy since then cannot be clearly determined. As in many other cover-ups to follow, the Truman administration only calculated current changes in public confidence; the long-run damage to American interests was not considered.

We still live with the problem, too, in ways not mentioned by Mr. Ledeen. James Barros notes that

Gouzenko’s file in the State Department’s name-index file for 1945-50 (National Archives, Washington) may have been tampered with. Several years ago, the initial FBI reports from Ottawa to Washington dealing with Gouzenko’s defection were indexed in the file, though the reports themselves were not open for public inspection. The index cards have now been removed from the file. . . .

The same games go on.

Richard E. Bissell
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



To the Editor:

Michael Ledeen does the cause of truth no service when he describes Garry Wills as “another partisan” of Alger Hiss. He also tends to destroy his own credibility. To say that Allen Weinstein “has failed to shake Wills’s belief” in Hiss . . . is patently absurd. The whole Wills article is support for the Weinstein thesis. What Mr. Ledeen apparently objects to is allowing Hiss the “integrity” of being a dedicated Communist. But giving the devil his due hardly makes one “another partisan” (of the devil, of Hiss).

Harold Mager
New York City



To the Editor:

. . . In his article, Michael Ledeen calls Edward Jay Epstein’s book, Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, “dispassionate” and “scholarly.” Does the book deserve such praise? The claim of scholarship seems to rest on Mr. Epstein’s assertion that he and others interviewed many people and read many documents. The book also contains abundant footnotes, giving it a falsely learned air. If the tone is dispassionate—and that is debatable—the implications are not, for the reader is invited to believe that Oswald assassinated President Kennedy on behalf of the Soviets or of the Cubans. Mr. Epstein does not prove this assertion, but he puts it forward through a number of suggestions. . . . Nor is Mr. Epstein’s discussion of the Nosenko case dispassionate; it is, rather, one-sided and misleading. . . .

In a momentary seizure of skepticism, Mr. Ledeen doubts that Oswald helped the Soviets shoot down the U-2, as Mr. Epstein suggests. Also he brings up commonsense objections to Yuri Nosenko’s having been a “disinformation agent.” (The use of jargon in writing about intelligence matters—often incorrect use—serves as a plaster to cover defects in logic.) It is difficult, therefore, to understand why Mr. Ledeen so readily accepts the rest of what Legend no more plausibly alleges. . . .

Perhaps we shall have proof some day that Oswald was a KGB agent. So far the evidence indicates that he was not. In alleging and suggesting and implying and talking about what might have been, Mr. Epstein does nothing to change this fact.

The work of the KGB against the United States is serious, as Mr. Ledeen says. How can his praise of such a sloppy work as Legend serve to interest serious opinion?

John Horton
Hollywood, Maryland



Michael Ledeen writes:

There must be some technical term for people who criticize a position one does not hold, and it would apply to the letters from Messrs. Bissell, Mager, and Horton. Harold Mager thinks Garry Wills is only giving the devil (Alger Hiss, in this case) his due when he expresses admiration for Hiss’s persistence in lying about his guilt for thirty years. I hold a rather different view: given Garry Wills’s insistence that the truth be told, I should have expected him to condemn Hiss’s lies with the same passion he expresses for Allen Weinstein’s thesis that Hiss was in fact guilty. I suggest that Wills’s continued respect for Alger Hiss is incoherent, and shows that the “Hiss case” remains emotionally charged.

Richard E. Bissell reiterates what was said in my article: that despite the abundance of evidence in the hands of national-security experts, they preferred to deal with the Hiss case quietly, inefficiently, and with a considerable amount of bumbling. Mr. Bissell, citing James Barros, implies that was sinister; I think there is another explanation. Hiss was well-connected and well-protected; to move openly against him would have meant challenging the prestige of people like Dean Acheson, Walter Lippmann, and Felix Frankfurter. It was obviously preferable to handle the matter through the “old-boy” network, without risking the unpleasantness that finally emerged during the McCarthy period. As I argued, this ultimately turned out to be a fatal error, for McCarthyism was due at least in part to the reluctance of the American government to take action against Communist espionage agents. The failure to do this made it possible for McCarthy to claim that there had been a massive cover-up, thereby implying complicity at the highest levels of government. Of course there was no conspiracy; gentle treatment of Hiss was a reflection of social ambience rather than collusion in espionage. Yet the model which the Hiss case established has lasted a long time; there is still a great reluctance to face the reality of Soviet espionage in this country.

James Barros’s article is an important one, and those interested in pursuing the Gouzenko case further should read it. As for the suggestion that the index cards in the National Archives have been deliberately removed, I hope Mr. Bissell will inquire into the matter and advise us. Such matters should not be left in the air, especially in these heady days of the Freedom of Information Act.

John Horton has misread Legend. Edward Jay Epstein does not hold the views Mr. Horton ascribes to him. Mr. Epstein often presents the evidence he has gathered without insisting on a particular interpretation; this is the case regarding Oswald’s connection with the KGB at the time of the Kennedy assassination. Mr. Epstein’s point is not that Oswald was acting on behalf of Cubans or Russians (Mr. Epstein does not believe he was, but leaves the matter open); the question is whether the CIA and the FBI were acting responsibly when they accepted Nosenko’s claim that Oswald had no KGB link. Mr. Epstein thinks they should have looked more deeply into the matter, because it seems clear that—at a minimum—Oswald was involved with the KGB during the period he lived in the Soviet Union.

I did not have a “momentary seizure of skepticism” when I offered alternative explanations for the U-2 affair and for the claim that Nosenko was a disinformation agent. I used these examples to show that Mr. Epstein’s book-was of fundamental importance, even if some of his interpretations were incorrect. Mr. Epstein offers one interpretation, but the evidence he presents is so complete that other versions are possible—this is exactly the opposite of what occurs when someone writes a book which systematically excludes information which does not “fit” the author’s theories, and is a sign both of excellent scholarship and dispassionate analysis. Legend explores the functioning of the intelligence community at a dramatic moment in American history, and demonstrates that confusion reigned. Nosenko set us a problem which—under the most charitable explanation—we “solved” poorly. But such problems urgently require accurate solutions.

One final note: my article attracted not a single letter attacking the thesis that Soviet espionage in the United States is a serious problem, and that its gravity is insufficiently recognized by our political leadership and intellectual community. In years past, one would have expected some suggestion that this thesis was a form of anti-Communist paranoia. The absence of such criticism encourages me to believe that we may be emerging from the dark shadow of Joe McCarthy.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.