One of the things Hugh Hewitt likes to do when he has a liberal journalist or thinker on his radio show—especially a younger one—is to ask first, “Do you think Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy?” He does this for two reasons. First, to test historical literacy. It is amazing how many young liberals know nothing of the Hiss case, and as such this question is a good proxy for determining the overall level of general ignorance of liberals who think World History began some time around Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Second, even for those who do know of the case, it often elicits contortions of agnosticism. Gosh, it’s hard to say. . . not really sure . . . room for doubt about the evidence . . . victim of McCarthyite witchhunts, Nixon! . . . I call such people “Hiss deniers.” (Heh.) Because there is no doubt at all as to Hiss’s guilt, and the principal reason for this conclusion was the thorough work of historian Allen Weinstein, who died yesterday at the age of 77. In its obituary today the Washington Post typically calls his blockbuster 1978 book Perjury “provocative,” but you could only say this if you still harbor some residual Hiss denial.
Weinstein began his project of reviewing the Hiss case with the opinion that Hiss was innocent. But as he gained access—for the first time—to FBI files and additional material on the case, he gradually came around to the conclusion that Hiss was guilty, and Hiss and his supporters at The Nation magazine and elsewhere were enraged at what they considered Weinstein’s betrayal when Perjury was published. Weinstein published a second, updated edition in 1997, after reviewing Soviet sources such as the VENONA intercepts, which removed any possible filament of doubt that Hiss was indeed an active Soviet agent.
With typical understatement, Weinstein wrote in the revised edition:
I had no occasion to describe my own last meeting with Alger Hiss, in which, amidst great tension on both sides, I tried to explain why my research had forced a change of judgment about his innocence.
One can only imagine how that meeting went.
One worthy aspect of Perjury is the three concluding chapters which trace out the larger effect of the case and its aftermath as it has played out in the decades since. (Especially notable in the revised edition is the thorough debunking of the contrived Volkogonov affair in 1992, where a Soviet general pronounced Hiss innocent. He recanted very quickly, but not until after Hiss had generated the headlines he wanted.) It is an amazing story, as it involved a large cast of characters beyond just Whittaker Chambers and Hiss. Even if you’re not interested in the fine points of the case against Hiss, Perjury is worth picking up for these three wide-ranging chapters alone.
And thus we should close out here with Weinstein’s last paragraph:
The case has ended for both Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, but their drama continues. Although arguments will persist in the court of public opinion, the body of available evidence proves that Hiss perjured himself when describing his secret dealings with Chambers, so that the jurors in his second trial made no mistake in finding Alger Hiss guilty as charged.