New York University has just launched a Web site dedicated to the proposition that the late Alger Hiss was innocent. Hiss, you’ll recall, was the former State Department official who in 1948 was accused by Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist agent, of spying for the Soviet Union. As a result of Chambers’ charges, Hiss ended up being convicted of perjury and going to jail. At the time, there were a fair number of people, most of them on the left, who felt that Hiss was an innocent victim of the McCarthyist hysteria that engulfed the country during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Today, most people who think about Hiss at all, even on the left, tend to think that Hiss was guilty, partly because of two influential books about the case (Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case and Sam Tanenhaus’ Whittaker Chambers: A Biography), and partly because of additional evidence that’s trickled out during the past decade from a Hungarian archive and the U.S. National Security Agency.
Among those who thought Hiss was guilty even at the time was a clutch of liberal anticommunists affiliated with the Tamiment Institute and the publication it funded, The New Leader. The Tamiment Institute had grown up around the Rand School, a socialist school in New York founded early in the century, and both the institute and TheNew Leader were home to people who believed in socialism but were fervently opposed to the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. Sol Levitas, for example, who was editor of The New Leader for several decades, was a Russian emigrant and Menshevik who was bitterly opposed to Bolshevism. During the 1950s, the New Leader, like several other organs of the anticommunist left, accepted some funding from the Central Intelligence Agency. These were not Hiss’ kind of people.
It was therefore a matter of no small annoyance to Mitchel Levitas–son of Sol, former editor of the New York Times Book Review and the Times op-ed page, and a board member of the Tamiment Institute–when he learned that the Tamiment Library at NYU (to whom the Tamiment Institute three decades ago gave the now-defunct Rand School’s archival material on radical movements in America, and tens of thousands of dollars in financial support) would herald spring’s arrival with a March 21 launch party for NYU’s pro-Hiss Web site. “To have the Hiss banner flown from the Tamiment flagstaff was just an insult,” Levitas told Chatterbox. According to Myron Kolatch, executive editor of the New Leader, the Tamiment Institute is now conferring with its attorney. “We do plan to register our feelings about this,” Kolatch says.
Chatterbox asked Chambers biographer Tanenhaus to check out the site. “I think this belongs in the ‘it’s a free country’ category, and Hiss’s supporters have every right to push his case by whatever means please them,” Tanenhaus wrote in an e-mail.
My only concern would be that the academic/institutional aegis, and the educational angle, might mislead some into supposing this is a balanced, scholarly web site. It is not. It’s a blatantly pro-Hiss operation whose agenda is to advocate his innocence. Most of the documents highlighted give his side of the story, and there’s not much effort to camouflage this bias. For instance, the site stresses connections with Hiss’s defense fund and with his papers (at the Harvard Law School Library), while other troves, less favorable to him (e.g. 40, 000 plus pages of FBI testimony and my papers, which are at the Hoover Institution), are slighted.
Neither Jeff Kisseloff, the oral historian who serves as the site’s Web master, nor Tony Hiss, who oversaw the project from his perch as visiting professor at NYU’s Taub Urban Research Center, disputes that the site is dedicated to proving Hiss’ innocence. (Tony Hiss, a writer, is Alger’s son.) “The function of the site is to present online the defense of the Hiss case in a scholarly and responsible archival fashion, and to make that information more easily obtainable by the public,” Hiss told Chatterbox. The Tamiment Library’s precise role in creating the site is a little unclear, because the library’s director has been gravely ill and unreachable by phone for some time. But Hiss assured Chatterbox that the project was approved by higher-ups in the NYU Library well before it came to the attention of the library’s Tamiment division, and that neither the Tamiment Library nor NYU had contributed financially to the Web site, which is run out of Kisseloff’s Westchester home. (The money came from a foundation affiliated with the Nation magazine, which is pretty much the last general-interest magazine in America that remains committed to the idea of Hiss’ innocence, and another foundation located in, of all places, Arizona. According to an “About This Site” page on the Hiss Web site, however, the Web site was “created for New York University Libraries,” and its URL begins “nyu.edu.”) As for the party, Hiss said, it was thrown at the Tamiment Library because “it was a space within the [larger Bobst] library that was just about the right size.”
There doesn’t seem to be much the Tamiment Institute can do to protest. Its funding, which in recent years was derived from the sale of a resort it used to own in the Poconos, is virtually all gone. The Rand School archives now belong to NYU, and it seems doubtful that they can (or even should) be yanked back. Conceivably the Tamiment Institute could request to have its name removed from the Tamiment Library, but it’s not clear that NYU would allow that, and besides, doing so would make it unlikely that anyone would remember Tamiment’s existence even 10 years from now. And, of course, the principle of academic freedom deserves a lot of deference. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Tamiment is getting screwed.
[Update, Mar. 27: The aforementioned “gravely ill” director of NYU’s Tamiment Library, Debra Bernhardt, passed away on the very day this item was posted, according to an article in today’s Washington Square News, the NYU student newspaper.]