May 31 marks the 50th anniversary of the start of Alger Hiss’s first trial for perjury, during which the onetime advisor to FDR at Yalta and secretary-general of the founding session of the United Nations in 1945 managed to secure a hung jury, thanks to an all-out attack on his accuser Whittaker Chambers by his attorney Lloyd Paul Stryker. Shortly afterwards, a second trial was held, in which Claude B. Cross, who replaced Stryker at Hiss’s bidding, led the defense. The jury at this trial, given a less dramatic atmosphere, found Hiss guilty and he went to jail, still insisting on his innocence – as he continued to do until he died at age 92.
It has been more than a decade since Hiss’s death and nearly a half-century since Chambers passed away. 2013, four years from now, will see the 100th birthday of Richard Nixon, whose dogged determination to seek the facts of the case helped launch his political career. But in spite of all the decades that have gone by since Chambers appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and made his charges, the Hiss case still generates strong interest. Indeed, this month sees two new books about its principal figures from America’s two leading university presses.
Yale University Press has just published Alger Hiss and the Battle for History by journalist Susan Jacoby, and it’s reviewed in today’s New York Observer by Glenn C. Altschuler. The writeup is favorable, but I don’t know how keen I am to read the book. Ms. Jacoby is well known for her polemics championing the enlightened center of the political spectrum. Her interpretation of the case, in this context, seems to amount to the argument that sure, all the evidence points to Hiss’s guilt – as has been the general consensus since Allen Weinstein published his definitive book Perjury in 1978 – but the real question is, did the atmosphere of the times prevent Hiss from getting a fair trial? One somewhat wishes Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were still here to point out that Hiss got two trials, rather than the one that most defendants have to get by with, and that every attempt on his part to seek another trial was rejected by one judge after another over the span of three decades, right into the decidedly liberal era of the late 1970s.
A book that interests me rather more is by Michael Kimmage of Catholic University: The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, which Harvard University Press just released. Former New York Sun book reviewer Adam Kirsch discusses this volume at nextbook.org, and from what he says, it promises to be the most carefully considered examination of Chambers’s pivotal role in American political thought since Sam Tanenhaus’s landmark biography in 1997. Here’s how the HUP site describes it:
Kimmage argues that the divergent careers of these two men exemplify important developments in postwar American politics: the emergence of modern conservatism and the rise of moderate liberalism, crucially shaped by anti-communism. Taken together, these developments constitute a conservative turn in American political and intellectual life—a turn that continues to shape America’s political landscape.