July/August 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 7
A Father and a Spy
A son's memoir and Soviet cable decrypts provide different perspectives on Alger Hiss
by David Ignatius
I've never had much use for post-modern literary theories - which are always reminding you, usually in unreadable prose, of the rather obvious point that there's no "objective" meaning to a work of literature or historical event independent of its cultural context. That kind of theorizing makes me very glad I escaped graduate school before it was too late.
But these two books, both touching on the story of Alger Hiss, offer such radically different accounts that you can't help thinking that there really are different kinds of truth - conditioned by the different stances of the observers, derived from the differing nature of the evidence they cite, and ultimately incapable of speaking to each other. That's why some historical arguments never end, despite what one side regards as irrefutable factual support for its view. They can't agree on what "was" was.
Tony Hiss has written a loyal and loving memoir about his father, Alger Hiss, perhaps the most famous spy in modern American history. The book's title, "The View from Alger's Window," refers to the window in Greenwich Village from which the father would gaze, before he was sent off to Lewisburg Penitentiary on a perjury conviction, and from which the son would gaze during the 44 months his father was incarcerated. Tony Hiss calls it a "time funnel."
The memoir is based largely on the letters Alger wrote home to his family while he was in prison. Tony Hiss gathered the letters after his mother's death, and he has used them to recreate the kind of man his father really was - that is to say, the kind of man his son, through the letters, believes him to be. From a historian's perspective, they're the most subjective and unreliable record imaginable, since they represent Alger Hiss's attempt to explain himself to the people he loved. But they're endearing - if nothing else for Alger Hiss's absolute refusal to admit guilt, confess weakness, feel sorry for himself, or blame others.
Tony Hiss says of his father's letters: "They are a window flung open wide onto a life, a bird of the spirit springing into the air, a heart made plain." The son finds in the letters nothing whatsoever that would support any notion that his father was ever a communist, much less a spy. Instead, he finds a man who made up charming stories about the wily and resourceful Sugar Lump Boy to boost his son's spirits; a man who worked lovingly over those nearly four years in prison to teach his fellow inmates to read; a man whose greatest pleasure while in prison was the simple act of writing to his wife and son.
The Alger Hiss of these letters comes across as a starchy, WASP version of Roberto Benigni's character in "Life is Beautiful." It's almost as if he's inventing the world described in these prison letters to distract his wife and son from the horrific reality he was actually living through. It's touching, and you can see why Hiss' supporters stuck by him so doggedly over the years; he really does seem like a nice chap.
The son asks: How could such a man have been a spy? He tries to buttress his case with the recollections of his half brother Timothy, who remembered visits to the Hiss house in the 1930s by the man who later named Alger as a spy, the former communist turned red-hunter, Whittaker Chambers. Based on Timothy's highly personal and subjective testimony, Tony Hiss describes one of Chambers' key charges as "fabricated without even a seed of truth" and agrees with Timothy's conclusion that the whole spy story was "mostly poppycock."
The larger purpose of Tony Hiss's memoir, in addition to asserting his father's innocence, is to argue that prison may actually have been the best thing that ever happened to him. "Alger died a happier man with Lewisburg behind him. He got closer to other people, he got closer to his soul Š[J]ail is where Alger became a human being."
Perhaps the ultimate crime for a son is disloyalty to his father, and Tony Hiss has certainly escaped that fate. Indeed, what's weirdly admirable about this book is its doggedly loyal obliviousness to the factual evidence of his father's guilt. In that sense, Alger Hiss would be proud of his son, who has carried the refusal to admit guilt into the next generation.
The other sort of evidence - what most of us would regard as the "real" evidence, is contained in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. The book is a careful explanation of the greatest codebreak of the Cold War (at least, the greatest we know about) which was the National Security Agency's decryption of nearly 3,000 Soviet cables from the 1940s. These cables were encrypted with theoretically unbreakable one-time code pads (where the same code supposedly is never used twice). They were broken thanks to a ludicrous example of real life in Stalinist Russia - the need for code workers to increase their output when the Soviets entered the war against the Nazis. To meet the quota, the code workers apparently ended up duplicating some of the code pads. That doubled their output and got the commissars off their backs, but it rendered the codes vulnerable to decryption. The NSA spent more than 30 years decrypting these cables, tracking down the leads, and matching code names with real people. The existence of these intercepts became known to the public in the '80s, but amazingly enough the NSA didn't officially reveal the existence of the Venona Project until 1995.
Haynes and Klehr recount all the major espionage cases described by the intercepts. Anyone who still has a shred of sentimentality about the Old Left should read their account. "The deciphered cables of the Venona Project reveal that hundreds of Americans had formal ties to Soviet intelligence services in the 1930s and 1940s," they write. The Soviet spies included at least six people in the State Department (including Hiss); eight people at Treasury; a White House assistant; several prominent scientists in the Manhattan Project; at least one officer of the CIA's predecessor, the OSS; and many journalists. It's an appalling story. American Communists were used ruthlessly by the Soviets to advance their espionage agenda. And, it must be said, many of these Communists were eager enough to steal whatever Comrade Stalin wanted. The authors don't tell this story with much panache - the human drama tends to give way to page after page of names, dates, code-names, and cables. But when you stand back and consider what a cynical operation the Communist Party was, you begin to have more sympathy for the people who decided to name names. Ratting on your friends, as people like Elia Kazan did, wasn't admirable. But reading this account, you can't help but feel that it was justified.
The authors, in fact, think Venona shows the Soviets began the Cold War earlier than anyone had realized, at a time when Washington and Moscow were supposedly friends and allies. They write that "the Cold War was not a state of affairs that had begun after World War II but a guerrilla action that Stalin secretly started years earlier."
The evidence against Hiss, as laid out in the cables the Soviets were sending home, is quite devastating. Hiss' 1950 perjury trial showed that he had passed documents to a Soviet military intelligence (GRU) ring headed by Chambers during the '30s, when Hiss was a rising young star in the State Department. The Venona intercepts add damning evidence that Hiss continued helping the Soviets during the 1940s. Several cables discuss the spying activities of someone with the code name "Ales," who the NSA and FBI concluded was "probably Alger Hiss." Indeed, one of the cables talks about how their source Ales had been at the Yalta Conference and then went on briefly to Moscow - a description that, according to the authors, could only fit Hiss.
Communications intercepts like the Venona cables have a special status in the intelligence world. For spy buffs, it's almost a matter of epistemology - these intercepts are how we know what we really know. They're the highest and purest form of knowledge possible, since they recount what people said in their private internal messages. That's why I've always admired the NSA, and been vexed by the efforts of civil libertarians and computer-privacy freaks to block NSA's ability to intercept and decrypt communications. These are the people who really know things - the ones whose information might save us from a biological terrorist or alter the course of a future war. If they'd let us use the information, that is.
Codebreaking is the ultimate secret. The British allowed Coventry and other cities to be bombed, lest they tip off the Germans to the Enigma codebreak. The United States let many spies go unprosecuted, lest they reveal the extent of our Venona codebreak. Indeed, one can argue that U.S. officials allowed the horrors of McCarthyism to go forward, simply to protect the Venona intercepts. The Venona cables provided hard evidence of the guilt of the Rosenbergs, David Greenglass, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and many dozens of others. But this evidence was withheld. Even President Truman wasn't told the details of Venona. The public was left to wonder whether the allegations were part of a witchunt by J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. That uncertainty would have disappeared, for reasonable people at least, if the Venona evidence had been shared.
Rarely has secrecy had such disastrous political consequences. McCarthyism was a blight which brought a polarizing suspicion and intolerance - not simply of communist spies, but of people with unconventional opinions - from which the country is only now recovering. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others have argued, if our political leaders and the public had realized that the espionage charges were documented by the rock-hard evidence of communications intelligence, the story might have been different.
And yet, to read Tony Hiss's memoir is to be reminded that there is another kind of knowledge - for which intercepted communications might as well remain encrypted, for all the difference they make. The "truth" a son knows about a father is impervious to "fact."
And it's no less real for that. That's where the post-modernists have it right. As Janet Malcolm has observed, there is only one context in which events can have happened in precisely the way they're described on the page - and that's in a novel. Only fiction is irrefutable.
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