ALGER HISS by Christina Shelton


Why He Chose Treason
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A vigorous reappraisal of the Hiss-Chambers espionage affair, leaving no doubt of Hiss’ guilt.

Retired U.S. intelligence analyst Shelton provides a systematic chronicle of the affair, introducing the events to a generation who, she suspects, knows little of that fraught era, when left-leaning academics and intellectuals flirted with Soviet Communism before the extent of Stalin’s totalitarianism was generally acknowledged. The book encompasses familiar biographies of Alger Hiss, a Baltimore-raised brilliant student of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School who went on to become a high-level U.S. State Department officer, and Whittaker Chambers, a Columbia University dropout of exceptional writing ability who became a senior Time editor. By contrast and comparison, Shelton reveals how Hiss used his upper-middle-class German breeding, fancy education and good looks during his two perjury trials to discredit the more slovenly, dumpy Chambers. Hiss, a committed New Dealer, as many communists were, met Chambers when he was recruited during the mid ’30s into the so-called Ware Group, a communist cell in Washington, D.C. As a high-placed government lawyer, Hiss had access to classified information and passed it to Chambers, who had the documents copied then delivered to his Soviet superior. However, Chambers’ crisis of conscience over Stalin’s crimes by 1938 prompted him to quit the party, going underground to save himself from assassination. Until the mid ’40s, Hiss’ activities were apparently known by many in the State Department and FBI, and Shelton confirms the fact (made unfashionable thanks to the subsequent “red scare”) that communists had indeed “infiltrated” many agencies of the U.S. government. The author makes a good case for the willful blindness practiced by the pro-Hiss involved, delving carefully into the literature and documentation.

A solid look at the specifics of the case as well as a useful overview of the ideological debate gripping America.

Pub Date: April 17th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4516-5542-1
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2012


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