Tuesday, June 30, 2015
History as a Detective Story
It began when Allen Weinstein was a young historian and typical East Coast intellectual -- and wasn't about to swallow that wild goose tale about Alger Hiss (Johns Hopkins, Harvard Law, Phi Beta Kappa, personal secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., protege of Dean Acheson and Felix Frankfurter) being some kind of Communist spy. Preposterous.
Were we talking about the same Alger Hiss who had represented the United States at one important international conference after another, and was now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace? Impossible.
The man was the very image of respectability, the opposite of this unkempt editor at Time magazine with the bad teeth and posture to match who had made the accusation, and then only years after the events now in question. And he did so not only late but only when obliged to. Even then he hung back, changing his sworn testimony from time to crucial time. An ex-Communist who confessed to having been a Soviet espionage agent for years, his fantastic tale defied belief. Indeed, perhaps the only reason to believe Whittaker Chambers was that nobody could have made up such a story.
Alger Hiss a Communist, and a Communist spy at that? Please. He was credibility personified, even his buoyant charm held in check by his impeccable manners. He could have stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad with his good taste and good looks, or a meeting of the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review.
To quote one observer and fellow civil servant, Lee Pressman: "I remember Alger Hiss best of all for a kind of distinction that had to be seen to be believed. If he were standing at the bar with the British ambassador and you were told to give a package to the British ambassador's valet, you would give it to the ambassador before you gave it to Alger. He gave you a sense of absolute command and absolute grace...."
But after going through the evidence for years with painstaking care, and even discovering much of it himself, from old apartment leases to everything the Soviet archives could reveal, not to mention conducting hundreds of interviews with the now widely scattered cast of characters in this historical drama, Allen Weinstein produced what is still the definitive study of one of the great political controversies and spy stories of modern American history.
Young but already experienced, Professor Weinstein's treatment of our own Dreyfus Affair was detailed but sweeping, humble but authoritative, and most of all absolutely fair to all concerned. Much too fair for Hiss partisans. And for a time it appeared everybody in the country was a partisan -- on one side or the other of this case that transfixed the American public at the height of the Cold War. The title of his book was "Perjury," which is just what Alger Hiss was convicted of after two trials and many a revelation.
The whole affair made a dramatic story, but Allen Weinstein's manner was anything but dramatic as he systematically went through Alger Hiss' ever changing and ever more dubious story, flaw by flaw. He paid scrupulous attention to each new defense the distinguished diplomat and his lawyers came up with -- till each fell apart one after the other. (See the entry in the book's wide-ranging, panoramic Appendix titled "Six Conspiracies in Search of an Author, 1948-1996").
Allen Weinstein performed many another service to American scholarship before his death the other day at 77, whether at the National Archives or the Library of Congress. At the Center for Democracy and as an advocate of freedom in general, he proved invaluable. But it is this detective story, this model of how to do history, that stands out among his many achievements. It has yet to be matched, let alone surpassed, when it comes to understanding one of the great turning points in American history. And it's doubtful it ever will be.
It has been said that "scholars dream of finding small facts pregnant with great progeny." Allen Weinstein did. And one suspects future generations will have the joy of rediscovering what he first uncovered -- with his infinite patience, absolute fairness and pure dedication. The final product would have done justice to A. Conan Doyle as a great detective story, or to C. Vann Woodward as a great work of history, for it was both, and much more. In short, a masterpiece.
No wonder, despite resolving every facet of a great controversy, Allen Weinstein's "Perjury" leaves behind a rare sense of peace in this contentious world. And admiration across the political spectrum -- from William F. Buckley on the right ("The most exciting piece of history in recent memory") to Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on the left ("The most objective and convincing account we have of the most dramatic court case of the century").
Professor Weinstein's 720-page masterwork was a ground-breaking, eye-opening, honest, detailed-laden book that still intrigues. And to think, he began as sympathetic to Alger Hiss ... but then had to consider the mounting evidence, the multitude of little clues that added up to only one verdict: guilty as charged. There was the prothonotary warbler, the Model A Ford with the sassy little trunk on the back, George Crosley's bad teeth, the microfilm hidden away in a pumpkin patch on the Chambers' little farm in Maryland (hence "The Pumpkin Papers"), the curious role of Priscilla Hiss in the affair, the Bokhara rug....
What a story. What a history, and what an historian. The reader closes the last page with admiration and satisfaction at a challenge superbly met, and then is likely to pay it the greatest of compliments: He opens the book to the first page, and begins to read it again, savoring every line as he begins to understand the whole puzzle, and how Allen Weinstein put it together.
A great history is both complete and to be continued, like a great house with many wings, door after door opened to the light at last. A great historian not only explores history, but his work makes history. For after Allen Weinstein, no fair-minded American could ever again doubt that Whittaker Chambers was telling the truth, or that Alger Hiss deserves the place in infamy that history, and a fine historian, has assigned him.