The Death of Alger Hiss
Jude Wanniski
November 18, 1996

 

Memo To: Website fans
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Death of Alger Hiss

Most of us come of political age when we are about 13. Somehow we know, the way grownups treat us, that we are expected to put childish things behind us and take an interest in grownup ways. One of which is politics. I was 13 in June of 1949, living in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y. I could not have known what was going on, but I knew about the trial of Alger Hiss. It was also the first time I heard the name Richard Nixon, who came to national attention in the Hiss case. My political birth came in that era, in the earliest days of the Cold War, when it became clear to a boy that being a Communist was not a good thing in America. It was an unusual circumstance for me, though, as my mother's father, John Rusinskas, had held communist sympathies from the early 1920s, when he worked in the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. In 1949, he lived in Jackson Heights in Queens, and when I visited him I read the New York Star, which in that year had a brief life as a leftish political tabloid. It was my introduction to a columnist named Max Lerner, who went on to write columns for the New York Post and became one of my minor heroes, a liberal who managed to see both sides of the coin. With the death of Hiss this weekend at the age of 94, Nixon having passed away earlier this decade, we can now close this chapter in our history. I got to know Lerner a bit, through correspondence and a few telephone calls, before he died several years ago. I can still see something of my style in the column he wrote on January 30, 1950, on the conviction of Hiss on a perjury charge. It was my first month in high school. Many years later I became totally persuaded that Hiss was guilty as charged, but at the time, it caused me no end of confusion. Here is how Lerner saw it on the spot:

"The Political Whodunit"
By Max Lerner, The New York Star
January 30, 1950

TO INTERPRET the Hiss verdict politically is to dwarf its meaning. There are those who will try to use it as proof that New Dealers were spies and perjurers, and the Roosevelt Administration in a pact with the devil. The Whittaker Chambers partisans, who saw their hero as a St.George fighting the Red dragon, should have almost as little cause for comfort as the devoted Hiss partisans who saw their hero as the victim of another Dreyfus frameup.

A jury has found Hiss legally guilty of perjury. The case has proved one of the most desolating tragedies of our time. It is the tragedy of the destructive waste of talent, the wrecking of lives, the poisoning of human relations at the source.

I accept the jury verdict for what it is a legal verdict, based on a trial conducted with fairness by Judge Goddard, powerfully prosecuted and ably defended. But there is a difference between the legal verdict of a jury and the moral verdict each of us must render to himself. I should feel clearer in my own mind if the machinery for getting at the legal guilt or innocence of Hiss had functioned under circumstances of greater fairness. It has taken a thousand years of the Anglo-American judicial tradition to fashion that machinery, painfully, at the cost of heroism and martyrdom.

It involves more than a fair-minded judge, and an orderly courtroom, and scrupulous rules for admitting or excluding evidence, and a jury of one's peers. It involves also a prosecution as interested in getting at the truth as in getting a conviction, and a social atmosphere in which men can think with coolness and clarity and without the overhanging shadow of fear. How far we are from that atmosphere, in this era of the cold war, was shown at the end of the first Hiss trial, when both the judge and those few jurors who dared hold out against a conviction were subjected to a scrofulous press campaign. After that happened, it would have taken great courage in the second trial for a juror with genuine doubts about Hiss's guilt to have clung to them and brave a similar ordeal. Few men and women are fashioned of the stuff of heroes.

That is part of the poison the case has generated ~ the poisoning of the social atmosphere within which the legal processes work. But there is also the poisoning of human relations, the turning of former friends into pursuer and pursued. Whittaker Chambers has been vindicated by law, and Alger Hiss has been sentenced to a five-year prison term. But both men will be forever entangled with each other before their consciences. What mixture of motives it was that led Chambers to the implacable pursuit we cannot know. Those he has given us were given within the framework of that pursuit. It is hard to separate what was due to contrition, what to a newly found patriotism, what to vindictiveness.

As for Hiss, a prison term is now added to the agony he has been through. If he is innocent, he should have the inner strength to endure that agony. If he is indeed guilty, then he will have only the grim satisfaction of having acted out his false masques to the end.

But for each man the final arbiter will be a conscience from which he cannot escape, though he flee it "down the arches of the years, down the labyrinthine ways of his own mind, and in the mist of tears."