When Andrew McCarthy drew a parallel between the treatment of State Department official (and Soviet spy) Alger Hiss in the 1940s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin Weiner today it reminded me of an interesting discovery from my own research, as documented in my history of the State Department, Secrets of State. As Andrew McCarthy notes, after Hiss was accused of being a Soviet spy and convicted of perjury, Secretary of State Dean Acheson–a friend and colleague in his law firm of Hiss’s brother–defended the accused spy. This doesn’t mean that Huma Abedin Weiner–whose father, mother, and brother were very active in the Muslim Brotherhood and who herself worked for Brotherhood front groups–is guilty of any misbehavior. On the other hand, Alger Hiss’s brother, Donald, was a respected lawyer and a partner of Acheson about whom there were also some suspicions. A key influence in Alger’s life were the political views of his wife, Priscilla. And while Huma’s spouse, Anthony Weiner, has certain personal issues being a Muslim Brotherhood person isn’t one of them. On the other hand, though, Alger, unlike Huma–to continue the analogy–was never an official in a Communist front group and she has no shortage of relatives who were deeply involved in the Brotherhood.
Yet the Hiss case does offer us a lot of lessons for today.
After World War Two ended the State Department had to decide how to convert back to peacetime work. It did a thorough security review of 3000 employees to check for security risks and identified 285 people as possible problems. Most of them had either already quit; were forced to resign or encouraged to go elsewhere as soon as possible. A lot of them went to work for the United Nations.
On July 26, 1946, Secretary of State James Byrnes released a detailed report going through these cases. The Truman Administration also fully cooperated with the House of Representatives, which issued its own detailed report on these investigations in March 1948. Remember that there was not enough proof to prosecute anyone and in many cases the information against them was minor and even clearly false, far less than we know for a fact about Abedin Weiner. Having a relative with Communist sympathies was enough to get someone fired though. In the end, about 50 of those who had been investigated but against whom there was no reliable evidence–in some cases just statements by personal enemies–were allowed to remain at junior posts at the State Department.
But in one case, the 1948 House of Representatives’ report said that a certain man was “the greatest security risk the Department has [ever] had.” He wasn’t identified by name but it was noted he resigned on a specific day. It was the date Hiss resigned. Obviously, he was the person being referred to in the report. Every high official in the State Department had to know that Hiss was deeply implicated in espionage.
Many people know the story of Whittaker Chambers and his warning about Hiss to State. What they may not know that by 1945 and certainly by early 1946 both the State Department and the FBI was convinced of Hiss’s guilt. Secretary of State Byrnes was informed. In March 1946, the State Department security staff recommended Hiss should be given a choice between being fired or resigning but also noted that they did not believe they could prove Hiss’s guilt in court. So a Republican with impeccable conservative credentials, the future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, stepped in and offered Hiss a job as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss accepted and resigned.
Hiss’s guilt was thus no secret within the government. One can understand how, lacking proof before Chambers produced pilfered documents, that they might have chosen to remain silent. To defend Hiss publicly, though, was both morally wrong and politically suicidal. Here is a graphic precedent for high-ranking officials knowing there was a real danger and yet loudly denying that any problem existed.
I’m not going to repeat the story of Chambers and Richard Nixon and the “Pumpkin Papers” because you presumably know about this or can easily research it. An intriguing question, though is this: Why is it that the Truman Administration did a good job of rooting out Communists and spies but did not publicly acknowledge this, even when it came under attack from Senator Joe McCarthy and others? Remember that the pro-Communist left hated Truman and ran against him in 1948 under the Progressive Party banner?