Conrad Black’s Vitriol Masks His Own Historical Blindspot

The late military intelligence historian Eduard Mark, whose 1998 analysis identified FDR “co-President” Harry Hopkins as “Source 19” in a cable putatively authored by Soviet spymaster Iskhak Akhmerov, lamented,

the indifference of American diplomatic historians to intelligence and of their predominantly liberal political orientation which has led them to ignore the whole question of the relationship between internal security and foreign policy as smacking of ‘McCarthyism’

Irrespective of Conrad Black’s current political orientation, his vitriolic attack on Diana West, and her book American Betrayal, epitomizes the mindset identified with rare candor by Mark—who was not a political conservative.

Black’s 2003 Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom includes this bowdlerized characterization of Alger Hiss, allegedly redressing “lurid allegations” by McCarthyite bogeymen, while trivializing Hiss’s influence at the seminal 1945 Yalta Conference (pp. 1079-80):

Because of the lurid allegations by McCarthyite Republicans in the early fifties, a word must be said about Alger Hiss, who attended the Yalta Conference as a junior State Department official specializing in international organizations. Hiss was eventually revealed as a former member of a Communist espionage ring in the United States, and was convicted of perjury on the dogged examination of Congressman Richard Nixon. Roosevelt had never met Hiss before Yalta, and never spent one minute alone with him at Yalta, according to [FDR interpreter Charles] Bohlen, who was with Roosevelt throughout as interpreter and counselor in Soviet matters, Hiss’s chief contribution at the conference was a sensibly reasoned argument against giving the Soviet Union three votes in the international organization. In this, as in all other matters, while he was competent and unexceptionable in his functions, Hiss had no influence whatever on Roosevelt or American policy at Yalta.

Black does not provide a single footnote for any of these assertions, including his final statement about Hiss’s alleged lack of influence. Fortunately, there is a well-documented corrective to Black’s sanitized court history account of the role Alger Hiss played at Yalta, written, collaboratively, by Cold War scholars par excellence, Herbert Romerstein, and M. Stanton Evans. In Stalin’s Secret Agents, which was just published this past November, 2012, they dedicate a chapter to the actual role Alger Hiss played at Yalta, dubbed eponymously, “See Alger Hiss About This,” based upon a telltale quote by former FDR Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.

Romerstein and Evans open their discussion by explaining how it came about that Hiss, whom the authors acknowledge, circa January, 1945, was “of fairly junior status—a mid-level employee who wasn’t even head of a division”—was in fact singled out by President Roosevelt himself as someone to accompany the President to Yalta. Citing the diaries of Edward Stettinius Jr., US Secretary of State at the time of Yalta, one month before the conference convened, they record how FDR told Stettinius,  “he did not want to have anyone accompany him in an advisory capacity, but he felt Messrs. Bowman and Alger Hiss ought to go.” (A note added by Romerstein and Evans clarifies that Dr. Isaiah Bowman was a Stettinius adviser  who had been involved with the post- World War I Versailles Conference, but did not go to Yalta.)

Before elucidating the significant role Hiss in fact played at Yalta, Romerstein and Evans remind us, rather understatedly, who Hiss was:

Alger Hiss…was a secret Communist serving in the wartime State Department, identified as a Soviet agent by ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers, a former espionage courier for Moscow’s intelligence bosses. This identification led to a bitter quarrel that divided the nation into conflicting factions and would do so for years to follow. The dispute resulted in the 1950 conviction of Hiss for perjury when he denied Chambers charges under oath, denials that ran contrary to the evidence then and to an ever-increasing mass of data later.

Contrary to Black’s glib assertions, both the incomplete Yalta compilation published by the State Department, and more clearly, the Stettinius papers, demonstrate Hiss’s central role at Yalta. A revelatory State Department official entry documents the wide-ranging authority Stettinius conferred upon Hiss:

At the Secretary’s staff committee meeting of January 10, the Secretary asked that all memoranda for the President on topics to be discussed at the meeting of the Big Three should be in the hands of Alger Hiss not later than Monday, January 15.

As Romerstein and Evans observe,

This was just nine days after FDR and Stettinius discussed having Hiss go to Yalta, in which span he had somehow risen from obscurity to become custodian of “all memoranda for the President” on topics to be considered at the summit—not bad positioning for a Soviet agent whose nominal chieftain, FDR, would soon be meeting with his real one, Stalin. Nor was this the only indication in the records of the role played by Hiss and his skill at collecting information. 

But it is Secretary of State Stettinius’s diaries and other confidential papers which reveal how intimately he and Hiss worked together at Yalta, and how heavily Stettinius leaned on his junior colleague’s expertise on a broad range of issues. Romerstein and Evans provide this overview:

The documents indicate that Hiss was an outspoken participant in the Yalta sessions, addressing a wide array of topics and at times dealing virtually as an equal with British foreign secretary Anthony Eden and other high officials. As Hiss was the American on the scene most conversant with U.N. affairs, he of course had a lot to say about that subject, but his role was by no means limited to such matters.

Among the topics on which Hiss held forth, often in authoritative manner, were the conduct of China policy by the Allies, establishment of a high commission to govern peacetime Europe, the role of France in the postwar era, and occupation zones in Germany once the Nazis had surrendered. The Stettinius diaries likewise depict Hiss as a knowledgeable source on one of the most contentious issues raised at Yalta—the use of German compulsory labor as a form of human “reparations.” Along with other data on such matters, the Stettinius papers show there were few subjects at the meeting on which Hiss wasn’t a significant player.

Romerstein and Evans also illuminate how Hiss’s consummate ability “to  position himself at the crossroads of information” throughout his tenure at the State Department, even as a junior staff member (in 1936), impressed his fellow Communists:

…one KGB report quoted State Department official Laurence Duggan, himself an oft-identified pro-Soviet agent, as saying Hiss was “the one who had everything important from every division on his desk, and must be one of the best informed people,” in the department. The KGB lamented that Hiss was already spoken for by the rival GRU (military intelligence) saying that if the KGB had such a source at State “no one else would really be needed.”

Conrad Black’s willful blindness to Hiss’s well-documented machinations, before and during Yalta, should give serious pause to those who accept Black’s warped characterization of Diana West and American Betrayal at face value.

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