Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason

Christina Shelton's new book nails Hiss against the communist ideology that determined his actions and behavior.

[](/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/05/algerhiss.jpg)Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Christina Shelton, a retired US intelligence analyst; she spent the major part of her thirty-two year career (twenty two years) working as a Soviet analyst and a Counterintelligence Branch Chief at the Defense Intelligence Agency. She is the author of the new book, Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason.

FP: Christina Shelton, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Shelton: Thank you, Mr. Glazov.

FP: Let’s begin with you telling us what inspired you to write this book.

Shelton: I have always had an abiding interest in both the Soviet Union and the intriguing world of espionage.  For the first major paper I wrote in high school a very long time ago, I chose the subject: “Stalin’s Forced Labor Camps.”  My interest continued at George Washington University where I studied at the Sino-Soviet Institute.  This led to a career in the Intelligence Community that covered counterintelligence in general and Soviet military and intelligence services in particular.  For a couple of years before I retired from the government in 2009, I thought about writing a book, despite the fact that I had spent thirty-two years writing intelligence assessments.  And the subject of Hiss “came to me” in a very natural way.  Except for the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss is probably the most famous American spy of the 20th century.  The case has all the trappings of a great story–a struggle between two titans (Hiss and Whittaker Chambers), a fallen idol, a divided nation over Hiss’s innocence or guilt, all occurring against the background of the important years in American history during the Great Depression and World War II. This story has drama – unlike the current cases where an individual spies for money.

FP: Share with us some of the evidence that has surfaced over the recent years that confirms Hiss was a spy.

Shelton: The most important evidence in recent years on Hiss’s role as a Soviet spy was revealed in KGB files and Hungarian state security records. The KGB archival material represents a significant breakthrough in shedding light on the KGB’s extensive penetration of the US government during the 1930s and 1940s.  In 1993, former KGB official Alexander Vassiliev was given access to KGB files.  After he defected, he had a friend send his notebooks of transcribed KGB documents to him.  Based on this material, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Vassiliev wrote Spies: the Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (2009).  Even though the material was from KGB files, there was some information on the GRU’s asset, Hiss.  In some cables, Hiss’s cover name was used, in others his name was cited in clear text. (Hiss had several cover names, among them ‘Jurist,’ ‘Leonard,’ and ‘Ales.’) One of the most damning KGB cables included a March 1950 document that noted  “the trial of the GRU agent ‘Leonard’ (Hiss) a division chief at the State Department and member of ‘Karl’s group’ (Chambers), had ended in his conviction at the beginning of 1950.”   Hiss was convicted in January 1950. It doesn’t get clearer than that!

Noel Field, a Communist, and former State Department colleague and friend of Hiss during the 1930s was arrested in Eastern Europe after the war and charged with being an American spy. Stalin had falsely accused him as part of his overall campaign to purge Eastern Europe’s Communist leaders. In 1992, Hungarian archivist, Maria Schmidt found the original transcripts of Field’s interrogation by Soviet and Hungarian state security.  In it, Field acknowledged that Hiss tried to recruit him in the 1930s in Washington DC.  Field said he told Hiss – in a moment of poor tradecraft – that he already worked for the Soviets as part of a KGB network (run by Hede Massing). This story of the attempted recruitment of Field by Hiss was corroborated by Chambers, Massing, and was in the KGB archival material.

FP: What does your book do that no book has done before?

Shelton: Most other books on Hiss focus on “the case.” In this book, I attempt to provide a strategic perspective, unique in the body of Hiss literature, by examining the case in the context of ideology. To understand Hiss and his actions, they must be seen from the perspective of what motivated his behavior – that is, his ideology.  I also emphasize the historical significance of the story based on Hiss’s role in foreign policy, specifically his importance in the founding of the UN and at the Yalta Conference.  Conventional wisdom is that Hiss was peripheral at Yalta; a low-level note taker.  In fact, evidence points to the centrality of his role at Yalta, as manifested in Secretary of State Stettinius’s diaries and personal papers.  In addition, I was able to portray the personal side and human dimension of Hiss with regard to his relationship with his first wife Priscilla and especially his son Tony. This caring, affectionate person is reflected in the hundreds of personal letters given to the NYU Tamiment Library by Tony Hiss.   His father was an inveterate letter writer and the library folders contain hundreds of letters written in the 1930s and during his 44 months in Lewisburg Federal prison.  As far as I know, this material, recently turned over to NYU, is not included in any other book on Hiss. And finally, although the most recent material from the KGB archives was covered in a book on overall espionage in the US in the 1930s and 1940s, for the first time all available evidence on Hiss is in a book specifically about Hiss.  This book contains the recent KGB information with regard to Hiss as well as material from the Hungarian archives.

FP: What damage did Hiss do to America?

Shelton:  Alger Hiss spied for the GRU (Soviet military intelligence).  Because GRU operational files never have been made available, the extent of Hiss’s damage is difficult to measure.  A damage assessment can be made directly only on a very small body of documentary evidence – documents of confidential military, State Department, and Navy cables Hiss gave to Chambers in the early months of 1938 (i.e. the so-called Pumpkin papers). These included, among others, summaries of cables by Ambassador Bullitt detailing pre-war events in Europe; activities of members of the anti-Comintern Pact, particularly in Asia, and detailed developments in China.  Therefore, because only a small amount of the many documents Hiss passed during several years are available a damage assessment also must be based on deductive reasoning. We know Hiss was a spy and we know he had access to highly classified material.  He had means, motive, and opportunity.  From his post at the State Department, Hiss had access to classified material on many issues, including US-China policy.  One specific example of deductive reasoning involves a State Department document relevant at the Yalta Conference.  Secretary of State Stettinius placed Hiss in charge of the “black books” – all the position papers for FDR on US strategy on issues to be discussed at Yalta. All this State Department material was to go directly to Hiss. One position paper noted that the State Department strongly opposed turning over to the USSR the southern Kurile and Sakhalin islands.  This memo never made it into the Yalta briefing books; Roosevelt thus was not aware of it, and therefore of State’s position.  Roosevelt conceded these territorial demands by Stalin.  But Stalin knew this position from his spy networks; a copy of this State Department memo was found in the Russian archives after the fall of the USSR.  So it was not only what Hiss gave to Moscow, but in this instance what he withheld from the US side that allowed him to influence plans and policy.

From Moscow’s assessment of Hiss, one could also deduce his value as an asset and the significance of the information he turned over to the Soviets. The GRU considered Hiss to be one of Moscow’s most important spies; evidence indicates he presumably was among the 5 GRU assets from the Washington DC apparatus that, according to Red Star, received Soviet decorations following the Yalta Conference in February 1945.  Moreover, following GRU defections and Stalin’s purges in his intelligence services in the late 1930s, GRU networks were in chaos and spies were being transferred to the KGB.  But not Hiss.  Indeed, a Soviet official in the KGB archives noted that if the KGB had ‘Jurist’ (Hiss) “no one else would really be needed.” Clearly, the GRU wanted to retain their high value asset.  This judgment of Hiss would have been based on the quality of his information and his ability to influence US policy toward Moscow from his post at the State Department.

Moreover, it was of great value to Moscow that it was able to use the documents Hiss had turned over to his GRU contact to break the State Department codes and tap into American diplomatic traffic.  This access, alone, to State Department plans and intentions prior to the onset of war would be invaluable to the Soviets. Sumner Welles, undersecretary of State (1937-1943) testified that the documents Hiss turned over to Chambers were critical to US security and specifically valuable to Moscow’s efforts to break US diplomatic codes.

FP: Your thoughts on the Left’s continuing denial? And why does the silence surrounding Hiss’s  guilt continue?

Shelton: The Hiss case was a high profile espionage case representing two distinct ideological perspectives.  Battle lines were drawn when the case broke in 1948 with two opposing views and little middle ground.  The right championed Chambers; he had a lasting influence on the fledging conservative movement of the 1950s that was launched by William F. Buckley. For its part, the left viewed any attack on Hiss as an attack on the New Deal, Roosevelt, Yalta, and the UN. However, as the evidence unfolded and became more compelling and cumulative, some on the left (Leslie Fiedler, I.F. Stone, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger, Murray Kempton, and later John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan) started deserting Hiss. And today, especially after the release of the KGB files, Hiss’s band of supporters has greatly diminished.  Yet those few, with their blind spots, who hold on to their version of reality, continue to deny Hiss’s guilt because they still believe his guilt would cast a dark shadow on the New Deal and Roosevelt. The Hiss case became the touchstone for many intellectuals on the left. Rather than assimilate the body of evidence against Hiss, they focused on what he stood for – his message and advocacy of collectivism and the need for government control over society –and not his actions – committing espionage.

FP: Why do you think Hiss went to his grave denying what he had done?

Shelton: Well, since one cannot get inside Hiss’s head, the next best thing is to understand the mindset of a Communist.  The former managing editor of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker from 1940-1945, Louis Budenz, claimed Hiss’s defiance was a result of Party discipline. He claimed Communists needed to be “steeled” – this was Communist morality derived from the interests of the class struggle.  Budenz maintained that Communist morality means employment of illegal or illegitimate methods to conceal facts.  He said the Communist is not a pathological liar, but, referring to Hiss, claimed he resorts to perjury and lies when on the witness stand in the interests of the Party; it is done under Party orders and for Party purposes.  This is a cardinal feature of Communist morality.  If Budenz is correct, and I think he is, then it is a measure of Hiss’s commitment that he pursued for a half century a persona of righteousness.   From his perspective, he was supporting the side he believed to represent social justice and equality and therefore he was not guilty.  He was truly a committed Communist, and maintaining his innocence was important to serving the cause.

FP: Will the files of Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, Hiss’s employer, ever be opened?

Shelton: I do not think they will be made available in the foreseeable future, especially as long as the current political situation in Russia exists. Even with the US promoting its policy of pressing the “reset button,” Moscow is still not cooperating with either the US or the UN with regard to Syria and Iran, for example. In the foreign policy article “Russia and the Changing World,” Putin accused the West in general and the US in particular of meddling in the internal affairs of states to induce regime change under the guise of “promoting democracy,” and of destabilizing the Middle East by supporting “the so called Arab Spring.”  Putin opposes any additional sanctions on Iran or any sanctions against Syria.  US interventionism is given as the main reason nations like Iran or North Korea may be seeking nuclear capabilities to essentially defend their sovereignty. The only true path to effective nonproliferation is, according to Putin, the containment of the US global threat (Moskovskiye Novosti, February 27).

This political mindset as well as the background of President-elect Putin (who takes office in May 2012) – that of a former KGB official and product of that mindset – would seem to mitigate a policy of any transparency regarding Soviet military intelligence files.  The political environment in Russia, I think, would have to change dramatically for Moscow to ever reveal GRU files. The GRU is organizationally part of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense and has its own record of accomplishment independent of the KGB/FSB/SVR. The Russian military is quite proud of the GRU’s successes and is not about to break faith with its history and recruited assets, even if they are long dead like Hiss. Moreover, probably next to USSR Politburo files, military files are viewed as sacrosanct.  Finally, it must be stressed that Russian intelligence operations (including those of the GRU) against the US and NATO, are at Cold War levels. Why would they start opening their operational files?

FP: What do you hope your book will help achieve?

Shelton: To return to my answer on why I think this book adds to the body of Hiss literature:

I would hope that the Hiss saga will be seen not just as a spy case but in a larger ideological and historical context – that Hiss will be examined against the Communist ideology that determined his actions and behavior. Integral to this story is the fundamental fascist nature of the Soviet system and the historical realities of the crimes of that belief system. Despite Stalin’s mass murders, Moscow had seduced many Americans, including Hiss, to support the Soviet Union; to place internationalism above national loyalty. I would also hope that Hiss is seen as an important historical figure of the 20th century, and that his actual role at Yalta will become accepted.  He wasn’t an ordinary run of the mill spy.  He was a top-level government official who from his position at the State Department was able to do more than steal classified material; he was able to function as an agent of influence to serve Moscow’s foreign policy objectives. Of course he wasn’t operating alone in a vacuum to affect policy.  Others, such as Harry Dexter White at Treasury and the pro-Mao lobby at State Department, as well as the many Soviet sympathizers throughout the Roosevelt administration, also were acting as agents of influence, whose operations were coordinated by GRU operatives and requirements.  Taken together, this capability of influence operations to affect US policy has been an important adjunct to the conduct of Soviet foreign policy.

FP: Christina Shelton, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

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