america was not concerned about communist spies -- 9/30/16

Today's selection -- from True Believer by Kati Marton. In the 1930s, faced with the brutal agony of the Great Depression, the seeming collapse of capitalism and success of communism in the Soviet Union, some well-meaning Americans became communists. Given their idealistic bent and predisposition to activism, some of these went to work for the United States government, including the U.S. State Department. A small number of these were seduced by European and Soviet intelligence agents into becoming spies for the Soviet Union. What was remarkable was the lack of concern shown by the U.S. during the 1930s and early 1940s regarding this development -- even by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and FBI director J. Edger Hoover, since the U.S. was allied with the Soviet Union in its war against Adolf Hitler. One of the most notable American Communists who served as a Soviet spy was Alger Hiss -- named after Horatio Alger, the author of a series of famous Gilded Age rags-to-riches novels. Hiss rose to become president of the prestigious and powerful Carnegie Endowment, was convicted only of perjury, and spent the twilight of his life trying to rehabilitate his reputation:

"On September 2, 1939 -- the day after the outbreak of war -- [communist spy-turned-whistleblower] Whittaker Chambers drafted a memo. He listed Noel Field, Larry Duggan, and Alger Hiss among those State Department officials spying for the So­viets. ... He handed his memo to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, charged with security at the department. In the tumultuous days following Hit­ler's invasion of Poland, Chambers's memo did not get much atten­tion. President Roosevelt dismissed it with a brusque 'I don't want to hear another thing about it!' FDR was gearing up the nation for war against Hitler, not Stalin. More surprisingly, J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, didn't much care about 'reds' in the highest reaches of government either. Germany, not the Soviet Union -- considered weak and backward -- was the immediate threat to world peace. Deemed least credible was Chambers's charge against Alger Hiss. When asked if Hiss, his former protege, could possibly be a Soviet agent, Justice Felix Frankfurter snorted in disbelief. ...

Hiss-Chambers Trial, 1950

"The national mood was different a decade after Adolf Berle showed FDR and J. Edgar Hoover Whittaker Chambers's list of Communists in the highest reaches of the government -- only to have the president dismiss it as a distraction from the war effort. The war was over and Americans were shocked by their erstwhile ally Stalin's brazen power grab in Central Europe. Other events converged to raise anti-Soviet fears in Washington. Canadians unmasked a Soviet spy ring operating in Ottawa. Most significantly, Republicans won control of Congress for the first time since Herbert Hoover, giving the largely marginalized House Un-American Activities Committee a new shot of life.

"On August 18, 1948, federal agents delivered Chambers a sub­poena to appear before a New York grand jury. Chambers named Alger Hiss as part of the Ware [spy] group -- provoking Hiss's categorical denial and an aggressive counterattack against Chambers. Back and forth, the two former comrades lobbed charges and countercharges at each other, as each struggled to salvage his own reputation by destroying the other's. ...

"Hiss, a gifted public performer, coolly requested permission to examine Chambers's teeth to identify­ and degrade his old comrade. But he overplayed his hand. Hiss's denial of ever having known his accuser provoked Chambers into re­vealing much more than he originally intended. His back against the wall, Chambers now unmasked the Soviet spying operation for which he had been a courier and Hiss a spy. Chambers produced microfilmed copies of classified State Department documents he had hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm -- the famed 'Pumpkin Papers' -- traced to Hiss. ... Ultimately, Hiss was convicted of perjury, the statute of limitations on spying having expired. It amounted to much the same thing. Alger Hiss had perjured himself by denying he was a Soviet spy. ...

"Remarkably, Hiss continued to enjoy the unflinching support of the American establishment. Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, and Felix Frankfurter all leaped to the defense of the man partly responsible for drawing up the UN Charter. (California congressman Richard M. Nixon doggedly pursued Hiss and kept the investigation alive.) ...

"Alger Hiss strode out of Lewisburg [Penitentiary] on November 27, 1954, healthy and determined to 'prove' his innocence. ... [though] now barred from practicing law. Alternating periods of unemployment with low-paying jobs as a salesman, his marriage to Priscilla suffered and, in 1984, ended in divorce. ...

"[Years later,] to a new genera­tion, Nixon embodied the McCarthy era's shameful excesses, while Hiss became the symbol of endangered liberals and New Dealers. ... There were those who simply refused to believe that Alger Hiss could betray his country. 'Even if Hiss himself were to confess his guilt,' said a Columbia University professor, and neighbor of Hiss, 'I wouldn't believe it.' "


Kati Marton


True Believer: Stalin's Last American Spy


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2016 by Kati Marton


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