Republicans Have an Alger Hiss Problem Named Mariia
Alleged Russian spy Mariia Butina was arrested just a few days short of the 70th anniversary of the last major accusation of Russian infiltration in America’s political system: when on Aug. 3, 1948, Time editor and ex-communist Whittaker Chambers publicly accused former high-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss of being a Soviet agent.
Rattled Democrats, including President Harry Truman, handled the fallout poorly, hesitating to distance themselves from Hiss and unwittingly feeding a conservative narrative that they were soft on communism.
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Republicans are now having their own Alger Hiss moment. Butina’s alleged efforts to ingratiate herself with conservative movement organizations and the Republican Party shows that Russia’s interest in Trump is not an operation focused on one man. As explained in the Justice Department affidavit, in October 2016 Butina reported to her Russian mentor that Republicans “are for us” and Democrats “against.” This is not just about one seductive spy, or even one president; it’s about how intertwined Russia and the Republican Party are becoming, and whether the Republican Party is willing and able to disentangle itself.
Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950, for falsely denying in his 1948 congressional testimony that he gave Chambers confidential State Department documents to be delivered to the Soviets. He served 44 months in prison, then spent the next 42 years maintaining his innocence, ever after intercepts declassified just before his death strongly indicated Hiss was a Soviet agent for years.
Shortly before his fall, Hiss had risen high enough in the State Department to serve as the acting secretary-general of the United Nations, during the 1945 San Francisco conference that finalized the international organization’s charter. When rumors of his Soviet ties prompted his resignation at the end of 1946, his reputation remained strong enough for a Republican, John Foster Dulles, to engineer a smooth transition into the presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His guilt, while hotly debated for decades, left a lingering stain on the Democratic Party and on liberalism, making it difficult for the party to win the public trust on matters both foreign and domestic. If Republicans handle their Alger Hiss moment as awkwardly as Democrats did, they face a similar fate.
Why was Hiss such a touchstone for the Cold War era? Because for much of the left, he was an honorable man who served 14 years in three government departments during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, only to be smeared in a wave of anti-communist hysteria. For the right, he was proof that communists were crawling throughout our government and that liberal Democrats should be suspected of harboring secret, anti-American agendas. As Chambers wrote in “Witness,” when he fingered Hiss and “aimed at Communism,” he also struck out at “the forces of that great socialist revolution, which in the name of liberalism … has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.” Once Hiss served time – even though he was never convicted of espionage — the right had the upper hand in the argument.
The case marked the beginning of the post-World War II ideological fault lines that would shape American politics during the Cold War. The dueling testimonies of Chambers and Hiss to the House Un-American Activities Committee riveted the nation. The relentless pursuit of Hiss made a young congressman from California – Richard Nixon – a rock star in his party before there were rock stars. Days after Hiss’s conviction in 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy infamously took the anti-communist crusade to the next level, waving a long list of names he dubiously claimed were Communist Party members working in the State Department.
The Truman administration was blindsided, though it shouldn’t have been. The FBI had been investigating Hiss in 1945 and 1946, and then-Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes and Under Secretary Dean Acheson were fully aware (though Truman may have not been). That scrutiny led to Hiss’s quiet resignation. And yet, Truman condemned the 1948 hearings as “a red herring” that was “serving no useful purpose” and “slandering a lot of people that don’t deserve it.” After the conviction, Acheson, now secretary of state, remained loyal to his longtime friend. “Whatever the outcome of any appeal … I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss,” said Acheson, citing the Gospel of Matthew for good measure (“I was in prison and ye came unto me.”) All Truman would offer was a less dramatic “no comment.”
Their posture was politically devastating, especially since the Hiss case overlapped with the communist takeover of China. Truman and Acheson “lost China,” conservative Republicans thundered. One Republican senator even speculated that Hiss had shaped the State Department’s China policy.
The 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, suffered as well. In 1949 he had given a deposition for the perjury trial in which he said Hiss had a “good” reputation and that he hadn’t heard any speculation of communist sympathies. The Republican vice-presidential nominee, the newly famous Nixon, hammered Stevenson for bad judgment. The man at the top of the ticket, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, campaigned with McCarthy and charged that communism had “poisoned two whole decades of our national life.” Stevenson won just nine states.
The cruel irony was that Truman and Acheson were no softies when it came to communism. They were the architects of the anti-communist, quasi-militaristic “containment” strategy after World War II, a policy both credited for ultimately winning the Cold War and maligned for goading the U.S. into the messy Korean and Vietnam wars — hardly evidence of communist control of the State Department.
The Truman administration received little contemporaneous credit for “containment” at the time, thanks to the triumph of Mao in China and the unpopularity of the inconclusive Korean War. There’s not much Truman and Acheson could have done about those events (short of staying out of Korea and allowing it to follow China’s lead) but they could have taken the Hiss scandal far more seriously.
Acheson was blinded by friendship. Truman genuinely believed there was little to it, not just Hiss but the whole, in his words, “communist bugaboo.” A year and a half before the Hiss revelations, Truman had already been pressured to install a “loyalty” program for federal employees, which vetted three million people through 1951. Several thousand resigned, but no one was indicted for spying.
That wasn’t good enough in the wake of the Hiss conviction. In retrospect, Truman and Acheson would have had far more credibility – and perhaps could have even blunted McCarthy’s witch hunt – if they had expressed their own outrage after the Chambers allegations and renewed their vows to eradicate any communist traces in government.