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FP: Your thoughts on the Left’s continuing denial? And why does the silence surrounding Hiss’s guilt continue?
Shelton: The Hiss case was a high profile espionage case representing two distinct ideological perspectives. Battle lines were drawn when the case broke in 1948 with two opposing views and little middle ground. The right championed Chambers; he had a lasting influence on the fledging conservative movement of the 1950s that was launched by William F. Buckley. For its part, the left viewed any attack on Hiss as an attack on the New Deal, Roosevelt, Yalta, and the UN. However, as the evidence unfolded and became more compelling and cumulative, some on the left (Leslie Fiedler, I.F. Stone, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger, Murray Kempton, and later John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan) started deserting Hiss. And today, especially after the release of the KGB files, Hiss’s band of supporters has greatly diminished. Yet those few, with their blind spots, who hold on to their version of reality, continue to deny Hiss’s guilt because they still believe his guilt would cast a dark shadow on the New Deal and Roosevelt. The Hiss case became the touchstone for many intellectuals on the left. Rather than assimilate the body of evidence against Hiss, they focused on what he stood for — his message and advocacy of collectivism and the need for government control over society –and not his actions — committing espionage.
FP: Why do you think Hiss went to his grave denying what he had done?
Shelton: Well, since one cannot get inside Hiss’s head, the next best thing is to understand the mindset of a Communist. The former managing editor of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker from 1940-1945, Louis Budenz, claimed Hiss’s defiance was a result of Party discipline. He claimed Communists needed to be “steeled” – this was Communist morality derived from the interests of the class struggle. Budenz maintained that Communist morality means employment of illegal or illegitimate methods to conceal facts. He said the Communist is not a pathological liar, but, referring to Hiss, claimed he resorts to perjury and lies when on the witness stand in the interests of the Party; it is done under Party orders and for Party purposes. This is a cardinal feature of Communist morality. If Budenz is correct, and I think he is, then it is a measure of Hiss’s commitment that he pursued for a half century a persona of righteousness. From his perspective, he was supporting the side he believed to represent social justice and equality and therefore he was not guilty. He was truly a committed Communist, and maintaining his innocence was important to serving the cause.
FP: Will the files of Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, Hiss’s employer, ever be opened?
Shelton: I do not think they will be made available in the foreseeable future, especially as long as the current political situation in Russia exists. Even with the US promoting its policy of pressing the “reset button,” Moscow is still not cooperating with either the US or the UN with regard to Syria and Iran, for example. In the foreign policy article “Russia and the Changing World,” Putin accused the West in general and the US in particular of meddling in the internal affairs of states to induce regime change under the guise of “promoting democracy,” and of destabilizing the Middle East by supporting “the so called Arab Spring.” Putin opposes any additional sanctions on Iran or any sanctions against Syria. US interventionism is given as the main reason nations like Iran or North Korea may be seeking nuclear capabilities to essentially defend their sovereignty. The only true path to effective nonproliferation is, according to Putin, the containment of the US global threat (Moskovskiye Novosti, February 27).
This political mindset as well as the background of President-elect Putin (who takes office in May 2012) – that of a former KGB official and product of that mindset – would seem to mitigate a policy of any transparency regarding Soviet military intelligence files. The political environment in Russia, I think, would have to change dramatically for Moscow to ever reveal GRU files. The GRU is organizationally part of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense and has its own record of accomplishment independent of the KGB/FSB/SVR. The Russian military is quite proud of the GRU’s successes and is not about to break faith with its history and recruited assets, even if they are long dead like Hiss. Moreover, probably next to USSR Politburo files, military files are viewed as sacrosanct. Finally, it must be stressed that Russian intelligence operations (including those of the GRU) against the US and NATO, are at Cold War levels. Why would they start opening their operational files?
FP: What do you hope your book will help achieve?
Shelton: To return to my answer on why I think this book adds to the body of Hiss literature:
I would hope that the Hiss saga will be seen not just as a spy case but in a larger ideological and historical context — that Hiss will be examined against the Communist ideology that determined his actions and behavior. Integral to this story is the fundamental fascist nature of the Soviet system and the historical realities of the crimes of that belief system. Despite Stalin’s mass murders, Moscow had seduced many Americans, including Hiss, to support the Soviet Union; to place internationalism above national loyalty. I would also hope that Hiss is seen as an important historical figure of the 20th century, and that his actual role at Yalta will become accepted. He wasn’t an ordinary run of the mill spy. He was a top-level government official who from his position at the State Department was able to do more than steal classified material; he was able to function as an agent of influence to serve Moscow’s foreign policy objectives. Of course he wasn’t operating alone in a vacuum to affect policy. Others, such as Harry Dexter White at Treasury and the pro-Mao lobby at State Department, as well as the many Soviet sympathizers throughout the Roosevelt administration, also were acting as agents of influence, whose operations were coordinated by GRU operatives and requirements. Taken together, this capability of influence operations to affect US policy has been an important adjunct to the conduct of Soviet foreign policy.
FP: Christina Shelton, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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