- Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass War: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy
G. Edward White, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia, has written what is in some respects the most interesting of the long line of books devoted to Alger Hiss, the diplomat, spy, and—to some—martyr. What distinguishes this work from its predecessors is White's plausible reconstruction of Hiss's internal life. White devotes little effort to establishing Hiss's guilt. Although the book does review the evidence bearing on that question, White's position is essentially that one may safely regard the matter as settled, for neither Hiss himself nor his defenders have ever succeeded in refuting the evidence that led to his conviction. Just how, for example, could Whittaker Chambers have obtained extracts of diplomatic cables written over a span of several months in Hiss's hand without Hiss's complicity? Why would the diplomat have prepared summaries of documents pertaining to military matters that bore no relation to his work for the Department of State but that surely would have interested [End Page 157] his putative second employer, the Soviet Union's military intelligence organization (GRU)? And could the FBI really have created a typewriter cable that perfectly duplicated the famous Woodstock when all subsequent efforts to create such a Doppelgänger have failed?
White is content to apply Occam's Razor to the matter of Hiss's guilt and to move on to more interesting questions. What particularly fascinates him as an attorney is the strange shift in fortunes Hiss experienced after being released from prison in 1954. Although no exculpatory evidence ever appeared, and Hiss's original defense remained as improbable as ever, he had by the 1970s convinced a sizable portion of the public that he was an American Dreyfus, framed and falsely convicted. How was this possible? White finds a clue in Hiss's extraordinary behavior in 1948 after Chambers testified before Congress that Hiss had been a Communist in the 1930s. In this initial testimony, Chambers had refrained from disclosing that Hiss had been a spy as well. Hiss never would have come to trial had he not rashly decided to sue Chambers for libel. That ill-considered action left the impoverished Chambers no recourse but to make public the documents he had kept as a "life preserver" against possible revenge by the GRU—documents showing thatHiss had been a Soviet spy as well as the Communist whom Chambers had reluctantly described to the congressional investigators.
White might have contented himself with the observation that this chain of events put paid to the conspiratorial theories adduced over the past half-century by credulous partisans to explain Hiss's indictment for perjury after he had denied having known Chambers as Chambers. (Under the pressure of mounting evidence, Hiss grudgingly acknowledged that he had known Chambers as a panhandler named "George Crosley" who was recognizable by his bad teeth, which Hiss condescendingly examined as one might the mouth of a horse.) But White, declining to belabor the obvious, finds in the first days of Hiss's misadventure clues to both his downfall and his ephemeral redemption: his ability to deceive and manipulate others. White cites evidence early in Hiss's life of intellectual gifts as well as "self-control and self-fashioning" (p. 10). These traits served him well as a person who thrived on deceit and deception. White detects early signs of these characteristics in Hiss's repeated manipulations of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes when Hiss worked as the justice's secretary (pp. 20, 23–25). Hiss was a man of many accomplishments who possessed some virtues. But these accomplishments and virtues were, in White's view, the instruments of his deceptions. Elegant and self-possessed, Hiss resorted to what White calls a "reputational defense" when confronted by Chambers. In effect, Hiss said look at me and see a distinguished citizen for whom the great and good vouch; look at Chambers and see a scruffy...