Fifty-eight years ago today, Alger Hiss -- the defendant in an emblematic Cold War prosecution once called "the trial of the century" -- began serving a federal prison sentence for perjury. Until his death in 1996, Hiss maintained that he had never been a Communist or a spy and had been framed by the U.S. government.
When I told my 86-year-old mother that I was writing about the long intellectual controversy over the Hiss case, her response was, "You'll have to explain why anyone under 80 would still care about that."
One obvious reason the case remains so important to right-wing and left-wing political intellectuals is that it stands, symbolically and in real time, at the beginning of the era that now bears Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's name. Only two weeks after Hiss -- once a rising star in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's State Department -- was sentenced for perjury, McCarthy made his famous "I have here in my hand" speech, charging extensive communist infiltration of America's foreign policy establishment. And McCarthy remains very relevant today. Ask people what they think about the McCarthy era today and you have a good idea of where they stand on civil liberties violations associated with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts today.
The legacy of the Hiss case also sits atop a domestic fault line dividing those who believe in the kind of government activism that defined the New Deal from those who consider government interference with "the market" an insult to American capitalist values. As the nation struggles with its worst economic crisis since the Depression, we are witnessing a revival of right-wing, anti-New Deal, anti-socialist and even anti-communist rhetoric that seems to belong to another era in the distant past.
To make a very long story short, Hiss was a lawyer and committed New Dealer, first in FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Administration and then in the State Department. He was in charge of administrative arrangements for the 1945 Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met to discuss plans for a postwar world, and of the San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations Charter.
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor and repentant ex-Communist, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (known as HUAC) that Hiss had once been his best friend in the Communist Party. Hiss initially denied having known Chambers, but then admitted that he had been acquainted with his accuser under another name. Eventually, Chambers led FBI investigators to a cache of microfilm, supposedly of government documents passed on by Hiss, in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm. Hiss' chief HUAC antagonist was the future vice president and president, Richard M. Nixon, then a congressman from California.
Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 after two trials, and was never charged with spying (the real political accusation against him) because the statute of limitations had expired. His conviction perfectly suited the right's contention that if you scratched a New Deal liberal, you would find a socialist or a communist.
It is impossible, in a short article, to evaluate all of the doorstop-weight books that have been written about Hiss and Chambers over the last 50 years, but after reading most of them, I have concluded that Hiss was guilty of perjury and am 95% certain that he did pass on government documents.
And here is where the past meets the present. It has always been difficult for liberals to look objectively at evidence pointing to Hiss' guilt, because the case cannot be separated, then or now, from the right's contempt for the New Deal and its unending attempts to conflate liberalism, socialism and communism.
Who would have predicted that right-wing Republicans would respond to the current economic crisis by insisting that President Obama's stimulus efforts won't work because "everyone knows" that the New Deal didn't work? Tell that to people who fondly remember getting a paycheck from the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and who depend on Social Security -- the permanent New Deal legacy -- in their old age.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in February, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declared that "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff." Obama's economic stimulus package, Huckabee added, would help create "socialist republics" in the United States. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) ceased to exist in 1991, but a bumper sticker decrying "Comrade Obama" labels the president as someone who wants to turn the United States into the "USSA."
On what planet are these people living?
In a sense, they are living on the same planet as the editors of the Chicago Tribune after Hiss' conviction in 1950. "So we find this traitor hobnobbing through the years with the mightiest of the New Deal mighty," the Tribune declared, asserting magisterially that "the guilt is collective" and "spreads over the New Deal, which sponsored and protected this monstrous conspiracy against America." Time marches on, but ideological anti-rationalism does not.
The conspicuous trait uniting those who are still obsessed with Hiss (whether on the left or the right) is the need to vindicate not only their verdict on American history but the governmental policies they espouse today.
On the left, the reluctance to let go of the Hiss case has a pedigree extending from the 1930s: The right was wrong about the threat of Nazism, wrong about the existence of an internal communist threat in America and wrong about the Vietnam War. Finally, of course, liberals believe that the right is wrong in its willingness to sacrifice civil liberties, and to deliberately ratchet up public fear, in the legitimate cause of fighting Islamist terrorism.
The right-wing line goes something like this: Liberals were wrong about Stalinism in the 1930s, wrong about the Vietnam War and wrong about the Soviet threat. So it stands to reason that liberals must be wrong today about the war in Iraq, wrong about the use of torture on detainees, wrong about the need to protect civil liberties and wrong, wrong, wrong about the desirability of government intervention in the economy.
By referring back to Lenin and Stalin today, the right is betting once again that Americans can be swayed by the identification of government activism with alien, "un-American" ideas. This turned out to be a bad bet in the 1950s, when, in spite of their fear of communism, most Americans went right on thinking that the New Deal stood not for Reds but for red, white and blue.
My guess is that these tactics will backfire even more swiftly today. Sane Americans, in spite of our ahistoricism, really do know that Leninism and Stalinism are dead. And the emblematic traitor of our day is not a left-wing intellectual figure like Alger Hiss but the capitalist crook Bernard Madoff.
Susan Jacoby is the author, most recently, of "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times