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Remembering Alger Hiss in the Age of Russia-Gate

Photo Source Library of Congress | CC BY 2.0

In January 1950, Alger Hiss, a former State Department employee and Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was convicted of perjury after being charged with spying for the Russians. He was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary of which he served three and a half. The sentencing was the culmination of a frenzied political trial which catapulted Richard Nixon to fame and undergirded the advent of a period of domestic political repression known as McCarthyism.

Today, it is worth looking back at the Hiss case since we are living in another era of anti-Russia hysteria. Political figures, albeit of a more reactionary stripe, are again being accused of colluding with Russia to subvert democracy, with dubious evidence so far.

Alger Hiss was the embodiment of the liberal, New Deal establishment, which had promoted a major expansion of domestic social welfare programs. Educated at Harvard Law School, Hiss clerked for Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and worked for the State Department before moving on to head the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Supportive of Roosevelt’s policy of accommodation towards the Soviets, Hiss had been present at the 1945 Yalta conference, which resulted in a spheres of influence agreement. He also worked for the Nye Committee in the 1930s, a Congressional investigation into war profiteering led by Gerald Nye (R-ND) that exposed how United Aircraft sold commercial airplane engines to Germany for use in Luftwaffe fighter planes, how Nazi troops were armed with American guns, and that Union Banking Corporation had engaged in a cartel agreement with the German I.G. Farben company, soon to produce gas for the Holocaust extermination chambers.

Hiss thus had made many powerful enemies. The Republican Party at this time was looking to revive its fortunes through red baiting tactics that would deflect attention away from their anti-labor program. The Justice Department had also begun to investigate treasonous activities on the part of GOP power brokers.

Among them was former Office of Strategic Service (OSS) agent Thomas McKittrick, wartime president of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland, an executive with Chase Manhattan Bank, and Marshall Plan administrator who allegedly conspired with future CIA Director Allen Dulles to move looted Nazi gold to Argentina. Another was Senator Prescott Bush, a managing director of the Union Banking Corporation, who helped provide financing to Nazi industrialists in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act during World War II.

John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and his brother Allen had worked as attorneys for Sullivan & Cromwell, which according to journalist Stephen Kinzer “thrived on its cartels and ties to the Nazi regime,” and kept its business with its clients through the war. After supporting Nixon’s campaign in California’s twelfth congressional district against Democrat Jerry Voorhis in 1946, the Dulles brothers began to accuse their enemies of communist subversion in order to bury investigation into their nefarious war-time activities, and to undermine a plan adopted by FDR’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau to deindustrialize Germany and break the power of its banking cartel.

The first target of their accusations was Harry Dexter White, liberal postwar executive director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and an assistant to Morgenthau, who championed the German deindustrialization plan which had been adopted by President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill at the 2nd Quebec Conference in September 1944 (it was replaced by the Marshall Plan, a robust program of economic aid in 1947).

Alger Hiss was the second major target who fell victim to the deep state’s machinations. His case became a media sensation that effectively derailed critical scrutiny into treasonous wartime activity by plutocratic interests and provided proof for GOP voters that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were “dyed pink in Moscow.”

Hiss’ actual connection to Soviet espionage remains unproven, however. He never left any traces of even being a socialist. Unearthed with great fanfare by Nixon in a pumpkin patch, the documents Hiss is alleged to have smuggled were mundane and would have done nothing to harm national security. They included a synopsis about economic conditions in Manchuria, German trade policy in Brazil, and unclassified manuals for operating naval rafts, parachutes, and fire extinguishers which could have been found in the New York public library.

The Hiss case was marred by prosecutorial misconduct and illegalities. Hiss was entrapped by prosecutors who benefited from FBI surveillance of his witnesses and the sharing of information with the prosecution’s leading witness, Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor who said he had known Hiss in the mid-1930s.

Like other defectors from Communism, Chamber’s credibility is put into question by contradictory statements that he made, dubious claims about the spy-craft trade, and false testimony. William A. Reuben, who spent four decades researching the Hiss case, found that “the first thing to note about Whittaker Chambers’ confessions of communist underground work is that it has never been corroborated, either by documentary evidence or by the word of any other human being.”

General Oleg Kalugin, KGB chief of foreign intelligence department, stated years after the case that the “Russian intelligence service has no documents proving that Alger Hiss cooperated with our service somewhere or anywhere.” General Julius Kobyakov said Hiss “never had any relationship with Soviet intelligence.”

Hede Massing was a key witness for the prosecution who was threatened with deportation if she did not testify against Hiss. The government claimed that Hiss was part of an underground spy cell called the Ware group; however, Lee Pressman testified that this was actually a Marxist study group in the 1930s and that Hiss was not a member. It was claimed that Chambers and Hiss had been introduced by Josef Peters, alleged brain of the entire Communist underground; however, there is no record of this and Peters was mysteriously deported back to Hungary on the eve of the trial so he could not testify.  He  said he never met Chambers, except possibly once in the 1930s.

Hiss’ wife Priscilla allegedly typed some of the smuggled State Department documents on a typewriter that was traced back to the Hiss family. However, later it was found that the FBI had suppressed a lab report showing she could not have typed the documents.  The Woodcock typewriter serving as key government evidence was also possibly reproduced by the CIA or U.S. military intelligence. “Tricky Dick” Nixon alluded to this when he told aide Charles Colson, as recorded in White House tapes: “The typewriters are always key. We built one in the Hiss case.”

Hiss’ detractors believed they had their smoking gun years after the trial when encrypted Soviet cables released following the opening of the Soviet archives in 1991 (known as the Venona files) exposed a State Department spy code-named Ales who they believed to be Alger. However, a 2007 American Scholararticle by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya argues that a more likely candidate was Hiss’ colleague, Wilder Foote, because the information came from someone inside the Lend Lease administration, and a KGB operative placed Ales in Mexico City when Hiss was known to be in the U.S. The Soviets showed little interest in the political information Hiss could provide, since the Cambridge 5 (famed British spies) leaked the major secret documents related to Yalta. Ales does not appear to have violated the Espionage Act, which requires specific injury to U.S. national interest.

The Hiss case exemplifies the abuse of the judicial system and manipulation of public opinion by opportunists like Richard Nixon and elements of the deep state during the Cold War. Almost seventy years later, the media are again filled with stories of Russian subversion. John Birch style conspiracy theories are being directed against a president who happens to be one of Roy Cohn’s protégés (Roy Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer). History appears to be repeating itself in a way Karl Marx would have recognized as farce.

The deep state has always wanted Russia as an enemy in order to sustain huge military budgets and not allow it to control Central Asia’s oil and gas wealth. During the 2016 election, the party of Roosevelt ran a horrible candidate and undermined a more progressive one through undemocratic methods. Instead of recognizing the root causes of their failure in neoliberal policies and commitment to a fading brand, party powerbrokers sought to blame Russia for its embarrassing defeat and divert the public’s attention. They spread rumors of Russian electoral manipulation, which like the Hiss case has never been corroborated and probably could never be.

The Russia-gate investigation so far has many of the footprints of a politicized campaign reminiscent of the one that took down Hiss. The report the intelligence agencies released in January 2017 to prove the charge of election hacking was completely bereft of any evidence and focused mainly on attacking Russian Television (RT) as an alleged propaganda outlet.Gross negligence was apparent in the refusal to examine the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer server where the alleged hack of DNC chairman John Podesta’s emails took place, and refusal to interview witnesses like British diplomat Craig Murray who met with the alleged hacker who Murray believes was actually a leaker. The Mueller investigative team and media promoting the Trump as Manchurian candidate narrative further refused to engage with a study carried out by the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity that determined the speed of the dispatch implied the hack came from the East Coast of the United States and thus had to have been a leak.

The timing of the indictment of twelve Russian spies by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the eve of a summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump was also suspicious. Investigative reporter D. Gareth Porter found that the New York Times greatly exaggerated the number of Facebook posts the Russians allegedly made to foster divisions in the U.S. electorate. Porter has also raised doubts that Russian government operatives hacked into election databases or voter websites, as alleged in the Mueller indictment. These more likely derive from criminal groups or professionals who had been trying to hack election-related information since 2006. (The evidence in Mueller’s indictment suggests that a Russian agent searched for Republican Party emails only, which is not illegal or tantamount to hacking).

The major figures in Congress pushing for the Russia-gate investigation, Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Ben Cardin (D-MD), receive large scale funding from military contractors who stand to profit from a new Cold War. Businessmen with ties to the Democratic Party like William F. Browder, who made huge profits off the privatization bonanza in Russia in the 1990s but lost out under Vladimir Putin, have also been pushing anti-Russian hysteria and sanctions. Like the old Wall Street Republicans, one of their underlying aims is to deflect attention away from their commission of white-collar crime. In Browder’s case, it is tax evasion for which Putin prosecuted him.

Browder accused the Russian government of participating in a scam to rob his hedge fund Hermitage Capital of $230 million dollars and then of killing his lawyer, a whistleblower named Sergey Magnitsky. However, a documentary film by Andrei Nekrasov and studies by Alex Krainer and Lucy Kommisar have cast doubt on Browder’s narrative and suggest that he may have been the one to perpetrate the scam with Magnitsky’s help.

Krainer, author of The Killing of William BrowderDeconstructing Bill Browder’s Dangerous Deception (Monaco: Equilibrium, 2017), told me in an interview that Browder may be serving as a spokesman for powerful interests who made billions in Russia during the 1990s and who are trying to evade prosecution by the Putin government which began undertaking investigations into their illicit activity. These entities include HSBC Bank, which has also laundered money for drug cartels and the Bank of New York.

Krainer further pointed out that the sanctions policy under the Magnitsky Act is designed to weaken certain segments of the Russian elite supportive of Putin’s agenda; it has created barriers for Russians seeking to come to the West to investigate and build a legal case, and barriers in the judicial system and courts for prosecution. At the same time, it has helped create a public relations platform to demonize Russia for its alleged abuse of human rights.

Krainer stated: “Russia was supposed to have continued the course initiated by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s in turning over its industry and resources to Western interests and joining the New World order. However, Putin has done the opposite. He has asserted Russia’s sovereignty, blocked the theft of Russia’s resources including oil and asserted control over the Russian Central Bank.”

With the left driving Russo-phobic and politicized anti-Putin hysteria, some progressive publications are promoting a distorted history of the Cold War. Seth Ackerman, for example, wrote a piece in the leftist Jacobin Magazine denouncing Roosevelt’s Vice President Henry Wallace, who had advocated for détente with the Russians, as a communist dupe. Ackerman in another piece asserted that Hiss “was in facta communist spy” who was “reportedly awarded secret Soviet decorations in honor of his service.” Serious scholarship, however, even of an anti-Hiss bent, has acknowledged that Hiss’ guilt remains speculative, and no evidence of such decorations exist.

Joan Brady in America’s Dreyfuss: The Case Nixon Riggednotes that the “red scare whipped up around the [Hiss] case became for America what antisemitism had been to Germany [in the 1930s], a force to unify the people and deflect attention from an economic re-arrangement that could not function freely without chipping away at their rights.” Decades after the Hiss case, Alger remains a “bogeyman” who continues to serve as the embodiment what happens when we let our guard down.

These words resonate in today’s political climate where the Russian threat is again being invoked in order to undercut the progressive left and deflect attention away from pernicious economic arrangements and criminal malfeasance by powerful people. New bogeymen are being created and the old ones brought back in order to advance a confrontational policy towards Russia whose consequences may be even worse than in the first Cold War.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at Tulsa Community College and is author with John Marciano of The Russians are Coming Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018).

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Jeremy Kuzmarov is the author of The Russians are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce (Monthly Review Press, 2018). 

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