Sixty years ago, at another fraught historical moment, the world and all its troubles seemed to be bound up in the relationship of two men. Between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers was a story so deep in political significance that it has remained a historical touchstone ever since; so personal in its mundane details — did Mrs. Hiss give Mrs. Chambers a lovely old linen towel to use as a diaper? — that thousands have labored to find the answer, as if the truth about the towel held the secret of the world. But I wax lyrical. Susan Jacoby, in her vigorously argumentative new book about the Hiss-Chambers case, is interested in the towels and the men only as they are reflected in the partisan passions with which the story has been told. For her own part, Jacoby, the author of “The Age of American Unreason” and other books, believes Alger Hiss was guilty of the perjury for which he was convicted; she is almost, but not entirely, persuaded that Hiss was also a Soviet spy. This strikes me as an odd quibble, but I see that it positions her outside the two camps of scholars who, she says, have used and often misused the tale to further a political agenda. “Indeed,” Jacoby writes, “the conspicuous trait uniting Hiss’s dogged ex post facto bloodhounds with his die-hard defenders is the need to be 100 percent right in order to vindicate not only their verdict on American history but the governmental policies they espouse today.”
more from the NY Times here.