Magazine article The American Conservative

The Spirit of Treason

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Spirit of Treason

Article excerpt

Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, Christina Shelton, Threshold, 352 pages

In his piercing Harvard Commencement Address of 1978, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the former prisoner of the Soviet Gulag who found freedom and truth within its strictures, of- fered a "measure of bitter truth" to his American audience. Solzhenitsyn referred to an "anthropocentric human- ism" that had enveloped the West in the modern period and shaped the understanding many Americans had of science, technology, government, and what it means to be a human being. Such a "rationalistic humanism" can be seen, Solzhenitsyn announced, in the "practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him."

Solzhenitsyn strikingly proclaimed that the West had actually joined with its Communist foes in affirming a rationalistic and materialistic humanism, leaving the West incapable of understanding the true enemy. Both East and West saw man "as the center of all" The West's late-modern humanism was cut off from its Christian heritage, Solzhenitsyn argued, and had no principled objection to the more extreme forms of materialism and rationalism that promised the human will the ability to construct a perfected political, social, and technological existence. Thus liberalism loses to radicalism, radicalism becomes socialism, and socialism gives way to communism. Solzhenitsyn's powerfully stated argument about the trajectory of modern rationalism supplies much of the answer Christina Shelton is reaching for in Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason.

Shelton's book probes a question many observers of Alger Hiss have long wondered about: why did Hiss doggedly maintain his innocence of charges that he was a spy for the Soviet Union, not only after he was accused by Whittaker Chambers in 1948, but after his federal conviction in 1950, even until his death in 1996? Shelton's verdict on Hiss's refusal to recant or apologize is that he believed as a matter of conscience in the rational constructive project of communism. For Hiss, the vindication of man rested in communist soulcraft.

There is no new factual information in Shelton's book, or none that I could detect. Quite simply, the ground has been trod, plowed, and sifted by so many that a book on Hiss must, of necessity, investigate the existential questions surrounding his life and character if it is to have value. Shelton retells Hiss's coming to Washington in 1933 as a concealed radical lawyer in the New Deal. He first worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, later transferring to the Justice Department and then to State, where he occupied several different high-level positions. Hiss joined the Ware Group at some point in late 1933 while working at the AAA. The Ware Group consisted of prominent civil servants in New Deal agencies and was ultimately controlled by the GRU, Soviet military intelligence. Although initially something of a communist study group, Ware's members were willing, as part of their commitment to Soviet communism, to engage in espionage on its behalf.

Whittaker Chambers assumed control of the Ware Group in 1934, his first covert assignment as a Soviet agent. Here began the ideological and personal friendship between Hiss and Chambers that would shatter when Chambers left communism and the Soviet underground in 1938. Most of what Hiss clandestinely provided to Chambers were copies--typed by Hiss's wife, Priscilla, on their infamous Woodstock typewriter--of documents and materials he procured from the State Department. Chambers then transferred these documents to other Soviet agents. Shelton provides these facts not to re-establish Hiss's guilt but to frame the depth of his belief and his willingness to aid the Soviet Union.

While Shelton's book is a philosophical and psychological investigation of Hiss, with sociological observations about progressive elites tossed in for good measure; her work stands on the shoulders of historical giants. Allen Weinstein's Perjury and The Haunted Wood, the latter coauthored with Alexander Vassiliev, are of great significance. …

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