The Hissiad: A Correction

The Hissiad: A Correction
National Review – May 9, 1959
By Whittaker Chambers

Alger Hiss' 1924 passport photo

The author of Witness denies saying Alger Hiss ‘has paid his penalty.’ Far from it: ‘The wound is there, and its poisons continue to drain through the system.’

The ever-helpful press has been at it again, this time in the matter of Alger Hiss’ decision to go to Europe, and the State Department’s decision to issue him a passport for the purpose. Press treatment of this news reached a fine blossom in the paragraph with which Newsweek (April 20) wound up its story about the Hissiad: “At the weekend, endorsement of Hiss’ travel plans came from an unexpected source. ‘Alger Hiss is an American citizen who has paid his penalty for the crime of perjury,’ said Whittaker Chambers. ‘He has every right to apply for and receive a passport.'”

Whatever the intention, the effect of this paragraph is mischievous. Still, left to myself, I should probably have let it pass without comment. Why single out one item more than another from the quota of distortion that daily passes for news? But good friends insist that this one will deeply puzzle, and even dismay, many people. I am afraid that anybody of whom this may be true is in for a good deal of nervous shock, though for better cause, before this century ends. But I also agree that there are matters about which people have a right not to be puzzled and dismayed unnecessarily. So, for what good it may do, here goes.

Newsweek‘s paragraph begins with a fumble (“endorsement”), and ends, I am afraid, with a misquotation. Perhaps it can be said of government that it “endorsed” “Hiss’ travel plans” to the extent that issuance of a passport supposes a considered decision. It cannot possibly be said of me. I have no competence whatever to “endorse” the Hiss plans, no means, no desire; nor, for that matter, any particular interest in a project about which I know nothing beyond the wispy report. I may (and do) speculate that this journey was a predictable next step in that public reorbiting of Mr. Hiss which is so precious a cause to his partisans, among them certain fairly formidable national figures. Beyond that speculation, the report that Alger Hiss is going abroad excites me no more than the news that several thousand other tourists are, even now, poised for the annual pilgrimage (“Ah, Venice — the Leaning Tower!”)

Of course, I was aware from the first buzz what fanciful chigger would be inflaming the press just below the skin. For have we, even yet, learned anything that matters about these things, and how they work, and why? I seriously doubt it. Anyway, telephoning newsmen promptly produced the expected chigger in the form of the expected question: “Is he going behind ‘the Iron Curtain‘?” I said: “Of course, he isn’t going behind ‘the Iron Curtain’.” Question: “Why do you say that?” Answer: “I must ask you not to press me on the point. You can easily figure it out for yourself.” In short, if, for a decade, and in spite of everything, you had been insisting that you never were a Communist, you would scarcely, at first chance, streak for the Communist Empire. Mr. Hiss could find little that would serve his turn in going to Moscow; and neither would Moscow.

My guess would be that Hiss will home on London, to lay a wreath (figurative, at least) on the grave of the late Lord Chief Justice, who, for somewhat cryptic cause, was moved to write a handsomely slanted book in his favor. 1 In Britain, Hiss has long had many partisans, literate, righteous, opinionated, and, in this case, completely muddled, as only clever English minds can sometimes be. There will be an epergne on the luncheon table.

Now to that part of Newsweek‘s paragraph in which I claim to be misquoted. It consists of the words: “[Alger Hiss] has paid his penalty for the crime of perjury.” I do not believe that I said this because I do not believe it (except in the shallowest legalistic sense) to be true. So I am as certain as anyone can be, in the absence of transcript, that I could not have said it, even in the haste and annoyance of answering foolish questions. That is not the way the matter presents itself to my mind.

Hiss and the Truth

History and a lengthening lifetime have left me too uncertain on the general subject of society, and the question of debts to it, or penalties, for me to have put the case like that. Society and the least man in it are too bafflingly manifold, the chances of birth and heredity, of time, place, environment and history, too incalculable, for such easy packaging. Moreover, the Scriptural injunction not to judge is not only compassionate; it is almost self-servingly prudent. We never pass judgment on anything or anybody without, by that act, in the same instant, defining our own human limitation. The act of judging always, mercilessly, judges, first of all, ourselves. 2

Of course, it is true — life does not permit us to live, for the most part, in such terms. We live on the world’s terms, and act within their web of reverend compromises. But, in those terms, I can think of few men of whom it seems to me less possible to say that he has paid any effective penalty than Alger Hiss. In his case, a penalty was exacted, and a suffering was incurred. But the horror of it derives only in the last instance (though it sounds heartless to say so) from Hiss’ suffering as an individual man. The true horror of it lies in the fact that, on his side, the penalty and the suffering were sheer waste. There is only one main debt, and one possible payment of it, as I see it, in his case. It is to speak the truth. That, to this hour, he has defiantly refused to do. Worse, he has spent much time and contrivance to undo the truth.

If this were a matter touching only him and me, it might be of little moment. Obviously, it goes far beyond any individual man. We are not playing games; we are dealing with the lives of “children’s children” in the world we are preparing for them. There are insurrectionists of the 1956 revolt, sitting in Hungarian jails, and in the night that falls when hope fails absolutely, whose fate is touched by Hiss’ defiance. And I find it difficult in the extreme to understand how certain of his perfervid partisans can pay lip-service to those resisters and their cause, and not make the basic equation between his defiance and their suffering. Beside it, his own, however immeasurable, loses scale. “With every dawn,” Camus tells us of our time, “masked assassins slip into some cell; murder is the question before us.” 3 An historic lie on this scale helps turn the key that lets the murderers in.

A Central Lesion

But we do not need to travel so far as Budapest. That celebrated defiance touches much closer home. It divides the minds of some of the best men and women among us at a point on which, in this juncture of the human crisis, they need to be (and we need that they should be) most clear: the point of truth. Hiss’ defiance perpetuates and keeps from healing a fracture in the community as a whole. And this is particularly true of that part of the community which is (or should be) the custodian and articulator of its collective virtue, i.e., its mind. For when you accept a lie and call it truth, you have poisoned truth at the source, and everything else is sickened with a little of that poison. If you are looking for its monument, look around you.

You may say that all this is past and tiresome, try to sweep it largely out of sight and mind, and resolve briskly to get on to more pressing things. Your resolution remains chiefly bustle. The least, brushing touch (like this of Hiss’ travels) shows that the wound is there, and fresh, and that its poisons continue to drain through the system. That is why the Hiss Case, though it has become modish in certain circles to glance away, though its dimensions in themselves are small among so many greater lesions, remains a central lesion of our time. That is why, ultimately, I cannot say (however differently I should prefer to get at it, at another level) that Alger Hiss has paid any effective penalty. For precisely he can end the lesion at any moment that he chooses, with half a dozen words.

Freedom to Travel

So much for that part of the direct quotation which I claim to be misquoted, and which, in any case, does not reflect my view. The rest of the quotation is fairly reported: “Alger Hiss is an American citizen. He has every right to apply for and receive a passport.” This does reflect my view, though it was chiefly chance that it was said about Alger Hiss. I suspect that the misleading words were inserted (no doubt, with the best intention) by some newsman, trying to explain, for his own heart’s ease, and his readers’, how so bizarre a view came to be held by me.

The reason, if dismaying to some, is simpler than the one dreamed up. I am a bug on the question of unrestricted travel, as I am against the obscenities of wire-tapping, mail tampering, and related mischiefs that, in the name of good intention, are helping to pave the road that leads to 1984. 4 I hold strongly that it is a right of man and of the citizen to travel freely where and when he will, and that any extensive restriction of that right is among the usurpations that feed the Total State. Of course, I know the arguments from expediency; here security is “the question before us.” 5 I have seen scarcely a shred of evidence, by contrast with the many sweeping arguments, that convinces me on this score. It is not the known Communists whose travels need greatly alarm us. Let them travel where they will, and let us observe their travels. They will take us to their leader, and possibly many NCO’s en route. A dozen secret services, not only ours, must exist to watch them. It is the unknown Communist (or sympathizer) whose travels may work us harm; and to him a passport would be issued without question, in any case, because we do not know who or what he is.

So strong has this argument from expediency (or fear) become, that we have all but forgotten how recent travel restriction is. My generation grew up in an almost passportless world. In those days, the Russian Autocracy and the Turkish Sultanate were considered semi-barbarous, in part because almost alone, they inflicted on their nationals the uncivilized indignity of passports. To me travel restriction seems chiefly to multiply the files behind which bureaucracies always gratefully barricade and entrench their positions, and fiercely defend them.

No doubt, in some quarters on the Right, such views will put me in a lonely minority. I can only urge most careful reflection on the matter. A little shift in the political weather, and it may be the spokesmen of the Right whose freedom of travel is restricted — with a certain smugness. The grounds will be expediency, of course. The precedent will be almost unassailable. Anti-Communists will have promoted it.

I think I can hear a crescent rumble rising: “Why, the man is talking like a Liberal.” I have scarcely any interest in invective tags. My concern is not for the political geography of this or that position, but whether or not the position taken makes sense, and is, to that degree, as we say: justified. And of course I know too: Woe to those who grope for reality, and any approximate truth that maybe generalized from it, in the No Man’s Land between incensed camps. History and certain personal experiences leave me in little doubt about the fate of such seekers. They are fair game to the snipers of both sides, and it is always open season. But while Mr. Hiss hurries to his plane or ship, and the snipers wait for the man to reach, in his groping, the point where the hairlines cross on their sights, I may still have time to sort the dead cats into tidy piles – those from one camp, here; those from the other, there. As one of my great contemporaries put it: “Anybody looking for a quiet life has picked the wrong century to be born in.” 6 The remark must be allowed a certain authority, I think, since the century clinched the point by mauling with an axe the brain that framed it.

(Image source: Flickr)

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  1. Chambers refers here to John Chabot Smith, author of Alger Hiss: The True Story (Princeton obituary)
  2. Chambers refers to Luke 6:37: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (King James Bible)
  3. Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (New York: Knopf, 1956). A fuller quote reads: “Ideology today is concerned only with the denial of other human beings, who alone bear the responsibility of deceit. It is then that we kill. Each day at dawn, assassins in judges’ robes slip into some cell: murder is the problem today.”
  4. Chambers refers to the dystopian world described by George Orwell in his most famous book, Nineteen Eightfour
  5. Chambers is using a phrase typically used by politicians in Washington and often used during the McCarthy Era to redirect attention on whether or not one was a Communist.
  6. Attributed to Trotsky in one of his letters (need details)

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