Was Alger Hiss Framed?

Alger Hiss: The True Story

by John Chabot Smith
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 485 pp., $15.00

Since Alger Hiss was convicted at his second trial for perjury in 1950, most of the books on the Hiss-Chambers case have been written by partisans of Hiss who believe he was framed; and most have largely rehashed the very evidence available at the trials, using it to attack Chambers’s defense of himself in his book Witness. Important new evidence on the case has now become available—not only from FBI and other government files that were previously classified but from the defense records that Hiss himself has opened to me and to other researchers, including John Chabot Smith, the author of Alger Hiss: The True Story.

Unfortunately, Smith’s book follows the familiar pattern. He uses little of the new material released by the government. What is worse, he fails even to mention many of the documents in Hiss’s own files that undermine Hiss’s claims to have told the truth. Smith tells us that he covered the two Hiss trials for the New York Herald Tribune and has believed ever since that Hiss was the innocent victim of McCarthyite witch-hunting. In this review I shall try to show why the new evidence in the case—as well as the old record Smith often ignores—demonstrates that this claim is false and that Hiss has been lying about his relations with Chambers for nearly thirty years.

Smith’s book may attract attention because he presents some new “revelations.” Hiss recently “confessed” to Smith that he had been inhibited in his defense because he had been concerned to protect two people from embarrassment: his wife Priscilla, who had had an illegal abortion before they were married, and his stepson Timothy Hobson, whose homosexuality might have been revealed if he had testified on Hiss’s behalf.

This confession, however, does not bear directly on Whittaker Chambers’s charges that Hiss was a Soviet agent. The abortion occurred years before the two men met, and Hobson’s homosexual episodes took place long after they stopped seeing each other in the 1930s. Smith nonetheless accepts Hiss’s view: “many things that happened at Hiss’s perjury trials were influenced by Hiss’s knowledge of this secret [Priscilla’s abortion] and the way he protected it.” Hobson might or might not have helped the defense by testifying that he never saw Chambers at Hiss’s house. But neither Smith nor Hiss provides convincing evidence to support this account of Hiss’s selflessness, although it may doubtless console a few wavering partisans.

The heart of Smith’s book is his analysis of Whittaker Chambers; Hiss’s credibility Smith wholly accepts. To summarize the case for readers unfamiliar with it: in 1948, Chambers, then a senior editor of Time, accused Hiss, who had resigned from the State Department in 1946 to become president of the Carnegie Endowment, of having been a fellow Soviet agent during the Thirties. Chambers first mentioned Hiss in 1939 in a long list of alleged communist agents and sympathizers within the government which he revealed in an interview with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, Roosevelt’s chief adviser…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.