It happened today - November 27, 2015

On November 27, 1954, a ghost was released from prison. His name was Alger Hiss and he wasn’t technically dead. Indeed, he lived until 1996 and never ceased to protest his innocence. It’s terribly sad.

Not because he was innocent, a victim of the “Red Scare”. On the contrary, he was guilty, a fact established in Congressional testimony and in court at the time and confirmed by Soviet archives and serious researchers since. It is detailed in Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness and it cannot be evaded.

A child of privilege, a radical betrayer of the system that had given him so much, Hiss was not merely a communist but a Soviet agent. And when exposed he could not face the truth about himself.

In a deeper sense he had never been able to do so. He knew he was a Communist and must have suspected that his activities on behalf of his comrades amounted to spying. But he convinced himself it was all in such a good cause that somehow it wasn’t real and neither were the horrors of the Stalinist regime whose crimes he abetted.

The most compelling, almost heartbreaking comment on Hiss came from Chambers himself, who said at the time the “saddest single factor about the Hiss case is that nobody can change the facts as they are known…They are there forever. That is the inherent tragedy of this case.” And he meant it.

In testifying about Communist penetration of the U.S. government during what liberals sneeringly dismiss as the “Red Scare”, Chambers even perjured himself to avoid incriminating former comrades he felt were no longer an active threat, on the grounds that he had wandered so long in the darkness himself that he would do nothing to keep others from finding their way back to the light. The darkness he referred to was primarily internal, in his own case and theirs. And ironically, at one point he perjured himself to shelter Hiss, before Hiss’s own actions and the nature of the crisis forced him to come clean.

Chambers was always deeply sorry about what he had to do to Hiss. Sorrier, indeed, than Hiss himself ever was. Hiss could not bring himself to repent his own deeds; Chambers deeply repented having to expose them.

So it was that Chambers, who died in 1961 aged just 60, was a man during the comparatively few years left to him after the Hiss case, and Hiss was a ghost for decades, squandering the long years before his formal death at age 92.

It happened todayJohn Robson