I just got back from a big party thrown by the New York Times Book Review and though there were many luminaries, my favorite encounter was with one of my favorite people, Victor Navasky, former editor of The Nation, now chairman of The Columbia Journalism Review
He told me that my theory of the case had been “point 8” in his recent keynote address to a conference of Alger Hiss case scholars held at NYU.
In his key note speech Navasky, one of the few sane holdouts for Hiss’ innocence (he conceded–this is hot news in some circles–that he now believed Julius Rosenberg was a spy though not the kind of spy who “stole” the “secret” of the atomic bomb), told me he’d enumerated the ten theories of the Hiss case.
There were the varieties of those who believed Hiss was guilty, the varieties of those who believed Hiss was framed by Nixon. And within this latter camp were those true believers who advanced as “evidence” the fact that Hiss continued to maintain his innocence until his death. Yes, it’s true, this is considered a strong point by many Hiss dead end true believers.
Why would he do that, they’d say if he weren’t actually innocent.
In point 8 Navasky summarized my opinion on the case: Hiss was guilty but in maintaining his innocence he was continuing to maintain the operational practice of spies: never admit anything, because your admission could incriminate those still operating, or give credence to those who believed that the kind of spy network Hiss (I believe) belonged to, was far more prevalent and influential on policy and history than those who operated the networks would want us to believe.
In other words, I believe Hiss spent his life after he was released from jail deceiving his own supporters in the Hiss-is-innocent movement into wasting their lives on a lie, because he was in fact guilty as sin. his very guilt was justification for his bad faith to his deluded followers.
This is not what Navasky believes and he told me he thought a forthcoming essay by Kai Bird in The American Scholar would cast further doubt on the Hiss verdict, particularly whether Hiss was in fact the code name “ALES” in the Venona papers. (If you don’t know the “ALES” controversy in the Venona papers–ALES was supposedly Hiss’s Soviet secret cable traffic code name–I just don’t have space to start explaining it, Go Google).
I look forward to the new “ALES” controversy. It’s a fascinating case. And I’m pleased now to think of myself as “point 8”.