The State Department official is accused of being connected to a vast foreign conspiracy, hostile to America. The official denies it, as the Establishment rallies around the accused official. Indeed, Establishmentarians not only dismiss any possibility of the official’s guilt or complicity, but they also ferociously denounce those who raise the possibility. After all, the official is a part of the in-group; it just isn’t possible to think that the official could do anything wrong. The Establishment is thus united around the proposition that the accused official is a good person, and that the accusers are bad people. And anyone who deviates from that orthodoxy risks being thrown out of the Georgetown-to-Manhattan golden circle of status and respectability.
Am I describing the case of Huma Abedin, the aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? No, I am describing the case of Alger Hiss, back in the 1940s. Hiss, who spent a decade working in the State Department, was accused of being a Soviet spy by Whittaker Chambers in 1948. And Chambers’ charges were brought before the Congress by a young House freshman, Richard Nixon.
President Harry Truman, called the charges against Hiss “a red herring”--that is, bogus. And he was joined by the rest of the Establishment, which, after two decades of the New Deal and Fair Deal, was solidly liberal and immune to the thought that a liberal could really be a communist.
Yet the evidence against Hiss--the so-called “pumpkin papers” cited by Chambers and Nixon--proved to be strong, and so he was indicted on perjury charges in 1949. Even then, liberal luminaries of the day, such as Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and then-Illinois governor and future presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, appeared on Hiss’s behalf in his trial as character witnesses. The following year, 1950, Hiss was convicted of perjury--that is, convicted of lying about his deep involvement in Soviet espionage--and sent to federal prison. Yet even then, Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared, “I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss.” Now that’s solidarity, Establishment-style.
Beyond the Hiss case, what was happening around the world during the previous five years? Was it possible to argue that Hiss’s masters in Moscow had benefited from their help in Washington? It was more than possible.
For starters, we might recall the Yalta Conference in February 1945, in which President Roosevelt, with Hiss as part of his diplomatic team, agreed to post-war Soviet control of Eastern Europe. Thus countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, which had suffered so greatly under Hitler, were left to suffer again under Stalin. In addition, the US agreed that the Soviets could play a major role in Asia, casting a benign eye on Red Army domination of Manchuria and the northern half of Korea. Admittedly, the Soviets were allies in WW2, and possessed a huge army, but at the end of a war for freedom, Uncle Sam was too quick to write off hopes for self-determination for hundreds of millions of people. Perhaps most spectacularly, China, which had been a US ally during World War Two, was conquered by communist insurgents in 1949, as the US stood by. How could this be? Why did the US abandon an ally? Perhaps it was because the “China Hands,” in and out of the State Department assured Presidents Roosevelt and Truman that Mao Zedong and his murderous communists were just a bunch of good-hearted “agrarian reformers.”
In other words, for all the success of the Marshall Plan and NATO, the US suffered five years of defeat from 1945 to 1949. Americans had plenty of reason to be outraged at Soviet espionage in the US, and plenty of reason to be furious at non-communist American leaders who nonetheless turned a blind eye toward such espionage.
So back to Hiss: after serving 44 months in prison, Hiss stoutly maintained his innocence for the rest of his life, gleefully telling eager audiences that he had been persecuted by the dreaded Nixon. Nevertheless, the 1978 publication of Allen Weinstein’s bombshell volume, Perjury, convinced most fair-minded observers that Hiss was guilty. Even so, Hiss still had plenty of friends; Bard College in New York endowed a professorial chair in his name.
The last nail in the coffin of Hiss’s guilt, however, came in the late 80s, with the release of the Venona files, decrypted spy documents that proved that Hiss and many others were guilty as charged. In other words, the Venona evidence proved that Nixon, and others, had been right: there was a vast conspiracy against the US--from within the US.