Left for Red

William F. Buckley rehabilitates the image of Senator McCarthy; Tony Hiss defends his family name

Perhaps Buckley's deep emotional connection to the issues explains some curious lapses in style. Or maybe, despite a series of enjoyable and literate spy novels, he has decided that if he can't sell as well as Tom Clancy, he can certainly write as badly. Or perhaps Buckley's cultural politics collide with his geopolitics: His trademark grandiloquence--my favorite example in this book being the word anfractuosities, a monstrosity I have neither seen nor heard of anywhere else in my life--works against him, since McCarthy conspicuously cast himself against snooty Anglophilic Easterners. What's the difference between sissy Dean Acheson, who uses words like vitiates here, and our author, who's done a lot worse? In any case, the prose throughout this volume is hasty and flat; it feels desiccated, as if pinned to the page like a moth and left there to shrivel.

When J. Edgar Hoover sits McCarthy down for a meal and offers him the ABCs of anti-Communism, for instance, Buckley seems to be in a hurry to get to his own dinner: "The director went on through the cocktail hour, through dinner, and for an hour after dinner. He spoke of the loyalty/security problem in the federal government. That was of course basic, he said. But it went beyond loyalty/security."

And he didn't exactly slave over the dialogue either: "Good thing I've known you since Andover, Andrew. I might otherwise take offense. You've been reading too many of McCarthy's speeches, is my guess. They seem to encourage Americans to believe that when things get bad it's because we Democrats want them to get bad. But--to change the subject sharply: How's Alice doing?" Is this lazy or stupid? As the joke goes, I don't know and I don't care. Any way you slice it, The Redhunter is dubious as politics, skimpy as pleasure, and truly vicious in its declarations of love and hate--it's bad in every way a book can be.

I have in my hand a list of obscure words: Fanciful McCarthy defender William F. Buckley
I have in my hand a list of obscure words: Fanciful McCarthy defender William F. Buckley

Glancing across the battlefield, we might equally well ask, How's Alger doing? The Rosenbergs may have galvanized protests outside prison gates, but the Hiss case provided the clearest snapshot of the social chasm between the McCarthyites and their victims--and, not incidentally, gave us a redhunter named Nixon to kick around for more than four decades. Hiss's defenders included Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a character witness at his trials, and urbane Secretary of State Dean Acheson, also a longtime acquaintance. Even today Hiss's name can incite howls of outrage: When his son Tony was announced as the author of a regional conservation plan in northern New York State in the mid-1980s, one man in the crowd yelled, "You let that communist write your report!"

But there are hard questions to ask about Alger Hiss, not all of which his son answers in his new book The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir (Knopf). The recently released Venona Project files, the product of a top-secret counterintelligence operation that intercepted cable traffic between Washington and Moscow, reveal fairly conclusively that Alger spied for Soviet intelligence from his perch in the State Department. To which Tony Hiss only replies that if so, it's news to him: "There is no way to squeeze together the translucent father I got to know and the monstrous Alger that [Hiss's accuser, Whittaker] Chambers talked and wrote about." Both father and son lambaste Chambers, father as "seriously disturbed" and son as the writer of "a vendetta presenting itself as a life." Tony Hiss also suggests that his father was unlikely to be a Communist because he had already ascended into the educational and political elite and thus needed no group affirmation from left-wing cells. Further, he was warm, loving, generous to everyone he met, a good listener, "playful, sweet, and gleeful." In prison he taught mobsters to read, appreciated sunsets, and organized birthday parties. His worst traits, apparently, were a stiff public demeanor and an unswerving faith in the system and the general goodness of other people.

All of which may well be true. Any child would love to receive Alger Hiss's warm, caring letters from prison: He told stories that gently reassured his son about his inabilities and encouraged him to cultivate the best in himself. (This is the rare contemporary memoir in which family represents hope rather than disaster.)

All of which is also beside the point. Tony Hiss observes that his father had to "pay a price" only if he was actually guilty of something; an innocent man owes nothing to anyone. If Alger Hiss did prove to have been a spy, though--what then? Did he damage American interests? Did he betray freedom fighters abroad at the exact time that Stalin was consolidating his grip on Eastern Europe? Did he materially advance the cause of totalitarianism? Did his 44-month sentence exact sufficient punishment? Few voices in the current debate over the Communist past seem to have entertained such questions. Was he or wasn't he? we want to know, as if the simple yes or no is an answer in itself.

"People's affections," Tony Hiss writes at one point, "are stronger than those forces that might tear the world to pieces." His moving book, a fitting memorial to a seemingly decent man--and certainly a good father--rummages through the author's own youthful memories (with occasional detours to the present) to make that point admirably. But the essential question emerging from both books remains unanswered: How do we cope when affection and world-tearing events collide, when those we love also do great wrong? We now understand a great deal more about the postwar anti-Communist fever, but we still haven't resolved that controversy. Archives aren't the solution; this is something that must be worked out in our heads and hearts--and perhaps only when Communism itself has passed beyond memory.

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