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July 12, 2022 31 mins

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Alger Hiss was a mover and shaker in the political sphere. Highly educated and deeply connected, Hiss worked as a lawyer involved in everything from the Justice Department to the United Nations. Until, that is, he was accused of being a spy -- a prime character in a vast conspiracy stretching from DC to the Soviet Union. In the first part of this two-part series, Ben and Noel join special guest, novelist and art historian David Adams Cleveland, to learn more about how these events informed David's newest novel, God of Deception.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Ridiculous History is a production of I Heart Radio. Welcome

(00:27):
back to the show, Ridiculous Historians. Thank you, as always
so much for tuning in. Let's give a big hand,
so long as you're not driving to our man, the myth,
the legend, the one and only super producer, Mr Max Williams.
You can give it one hand if you're driving, that's okay,
just for a second. Then go back to Tennant to

(00:48):
Tennant to um. Yeah. Max is our own kind of
god of deception here. He's a real low key esque figure,
a real puckish fellow. And uh they called me Ben,
you're oal and no, you and I have been excited
about today's episode for quite some time. We love stories

(01:09):
about espionage. We love learning these um often often like
obscured in the modern day tales of what really happened
behind the scenes. Well, it's so interesting now, especially, I mean,
you know, we're living in a obviously a different time
than the early days of the Cold War, but we're

(01:30):
grappling with some very similar paranoia either around you know,
things like existential threats like climate change. Obviously now with
with Vladimir Putin really kind of puffing his chest out
and and pushing forward into Ukraine. You know, when that
first happened, I think a lot of people are, well, well,
if he's gonna do that, what's he gonna do next?
And then what's what's he gonna do after that? And

(01:50):
then what are we you know, where do we fit
into this equation? So, you know, the Cold War was
a time where it was hard to trust people because
there was a lot of con learned that someone who
you might think was your neighbor could actually be, you know,
a Red spy. And how how I proposed that you
bring this up? No, because you and I have become

(02:13):
fascinated recently by a novel called Gods of Deception. And
as you know, fellow ridiculous historians, we like to go
to the source whenever we have questions, whenever we want
to learn more. We had, in full disclosure, kicked around

(02:34):
off the air a couple of ideas about episodes surrounding
a gentleman named Algier Hiss, which will be familiar to
some but maybe not all of our listeners today. And no,
you and I had this moment where we looked at
each other. We're talking about alger Hiss. We're talking, We're

(02:54):
talking about Hiss. We're talking about this book, and um,
we were fortunate enough, lucky enough to join with the author,
the historian, the creator of this and many other works,
Mr David Adams, Cleveland. David, thank you so much for

(03:16):
joining us on the show today. Oh, Benn, it's my
pleasure now you have. I don't want to make I
don't want to make it awkward. You and I were
talking before we started rolling today and I said, I'm
going to try not to fanboy too much. But um,
Noel and I are authors as well, and one thing

(03:39):
that has always impressed me is the pursuit of literary fiction.
Could you tell us a little bit about what inspired
you to create Gods of Deception and then tell us
a little bit about this story, because I hope I

(04:00):
not the only person who was unaware of this before
encountering your work. No, No, you got me too. I
was unnoying. Well, Ben, No, let me set just say
that the Aldre his affair has been something that's been
on my radar screen since I was a kid. I
can remember years decades past, Bill Buckley having various guests

(04:24):
on firing Line and arguing about the about the innocence
or guilt of Aldrew Hiss. It was a huge, huge
issue in this country. The trial was nineteen fifty, but
for fifty years afterwards it divided the country between those
who thought Aldre Hiss was an innocent paragon of the

(04:48):
of the New Deal, the State Department, he was president
of the Carnegie Endowment, and half the country who thought
he was a trader who had sat at the right
hand of Roosevelt during the y'all to give away of
Eastern Europe and a lot of other bad things. So
this has been going on for quite a while and
in recent decades. In recent years a lot of new

(05:11):
information has come out. And the long and the short
of it is that we now know that his was
not only guilty, he was guilty of crimes that went
far beyond what he was actually charged for in the trial,
which was passing State Department documents in the late nineteen

(05:31):
thirties to Whittwaker Chambers, who was his Soviet military intelligence contact. Right,
So we now know that that was just that was
just the ten percent of the iceberg of it was
below the surface. We know that his and his fellow

(05:52):
spies in the Treasury Department and the State Department and
the White House even there were five of them at
least Stalin's willing agents working in the thirties and forties
and early fifties to further the goals of the Soviet Union.
So there were five hundred spies and a number that

(06:13):
still boggles my mind. There were two hundred thousand members
of the American Communist Party in the day, and uh,
they provided the infrastructure, the underground, the background, the support
system for the five hundred Soviet spies that were instrumental
in the stealing of the Adam bomb secrets and a

(06:36):
lot of other bad things that led to the Korean
War and Pearl Harbor. So that's just a starter. And
this is of course before the McCarthy hearings. I mean
that was when you know, it became you were blacklisted
if you were a member, you were one of those
hundreds of thousands of Americans that were a member of
the Communist Party. So this is sort of like maybe

(06:57):
one of the big trials that led to that kind
of which hunt mentality or right, what's what do you
feel like that fits in to this story. Well, there's
no question that the conviction of Altre Hiss for spying
was a wake up call to America. It also happened
at the same time that the Soviets tested their first

(07:20):
atomic bomb. It was also at the time that the
Red Chinese Mouzi Tongue took over China. It was also
right before the outbreak of the Korean War, So all
of these played into UM the spy frenzy, the red
baiting uh nineteen fifties. The truth of the matter is

(07:45):
is that there were had been a lot of spies.
There were five hundred of them that we now know.
There were, in fact two hundred thousand Americans who have
been part of the Communist Party. By the nineteen fifties,
most most of those members had kind of slunk away
and disappeared into the woodwork, and most of the spies

(08:06):
had either been um had had been shown up and
so had also disappeared, or had been the few that
had been convicted. So by the nineteen fifties it was
kind of a done deal. It was over. The damage
had long been done, but they didn't know that. In
the nineteen fifties there was still a feeling that the

(08:28):
US was under threat. It wasn't as much under threat
as it had been but it was still there, so
it was a very ambiguous time. One thing that I
think is fascinating about his his early life or his

(08:50):
you know, his trajectory, that is I think quite an
informative here is that David he had as all the
makings of the ideal asset for a foreign intelligence agency.
I mean, this is a guy who was a clerk
in the Supreme Court. He was a oh he was,

(09:14):
of course, as you mentioned, involved a state department, later
became a u N official. He was also, I believe
a graduate of Harvard. Is that correct? And Johns Hopkins
not mistaken not to mention a real smoke show, real,
real good looking man. Yeah. The the the interesting thing
is that Aldre Hiss and a lot of his uh

(09:35):
underground colleagues, uh, we're all Harvard graduates. There were a
lot of them. He wasn't just yes. And that's something
I think that might surprise many people unfamiliar with the
story because often in the public sphere, when people think
in terms of espionage and spycraft, uh, they think in

(09:58):
terms of some kind of deep cover, very ordinary, possible
mid level bureaucrat. They don't necessarily think of people who
are at the wheels of the halls of power. Could
you tell us a little bit about um hiss is

(10:18):
evolution toward becoming a spy? As as you said, you know, Um,
there was a lot of information that only came out
after the fact. Is there a moment in this man's
life or a frame of time where he encountered some
sort of ideology or event that UM persuaded him turned him,

(10:44):
that turned him. That's a great question. And Uh, the
answer is is that nobody really knows for sure, because
his is unique among the great major spies. If you
look instance at the British Cambridge Five, the great spies,

(11:05):
Kim Philby, Donald McLean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, they all
fled to the Soviet Union. Uh. They all spent their
last days at their docas outside of Moscow. They admitted
that they had been spies and they were under such
pressure during the days of their spying. They were traders

(11:27):
to the country, they were traders to their to their class.
Uh that they were all alcoholics. They literally drank themselves
into early graves. So we have a pretty good idea
about when they became a Communists, mostly in their their
days at Cambridge. Uh, and they were active Communists, uh

(11:48):
and in in support of the Soviet Union from day one.
We don't know that much about altre His. He managed
to keep his affiliations under wraps. Only Whittaker Chambers, the
guy who found him out and who was he was
his spy handler, and who was was in the trial

(12:13):
against aldre His. He was the only person who really
knew algre His when he was reading up on Lenin
and in Marxist studied groups and that kind of things.
So we know that that went on, but we don't
know from algre His or any of his um contemporary

(12:33):
spies or agent or Communist party members exactly how that
evolution took place. But it was quite clear that for
his to get where he got in the highest reaches
of the State Department, he couldn't show any of that.
If he was caught reading the New Masses magazine or

(12:54):
the Communist Manifesto or the works of Lenin, that would
have come up in his security errands. So he was
obviously very careful um not to display anything like that
that would have brought issues in terms of his security clearance.
But the amazing thing is is that Alger Hiss maintained

(13:16):
his innocence literally to his dying day. He went to
jail for four years, he came out, and again he
tried to undo his conviction, and uh tried it again
and again to appeal his conviction. Was unable to do so. Um,
but to his dying day, with the greatest equanimity, maintained

(13:37):
his total innocence. And that was a conviction for perjury,
which is obviously a big deal, but it's not the
same as treason. Well, the conviction was for perjury about
lying about passing top secret State Department papers to Whittaker Chambers,
so it amounted to uh to espionage and a traitorous

(13:59):
active it even though the they got him on the
technical issue of perjuring. Yes, I see, I've always wondered,
you know, you talked about these two hundred thousand Americans
that you know, identified as members of the Communist Party
at that time. That doesn't necessarily mean, you know, complete
affiliation with the Soviet Union, or that they were spies,

(14:20):
or that they were in some way trying to bring
down the government of the United States. I mean, isn't
there some of those that just thought it was an
interesting philosophy and and found, you know, things in it
they were functional that maybe they wanted to read about
and that they were inspired by. It's a little bit
hard to say, because, uh, most of the members of
the American Communist Party UH just stated into the woodwork

(14:42):
and UH didn't admit anything about their past, and most
would say that, uh, they were idealists. And in fact,
the American Communist Party, it has to be said, was
in the forefront of trying to get civil rights reform
early in the UH. In the in the thirties and forties,

(15:03):
they were really in the forefront for calling for Voting
Rights Act and the desegregation all of that good stuff.
So there were a lot of good things that they
believed in. But in fact, the Communist Party was in
itself a secret organization dedicated to the overthrow of the

(15:24):
American government. It was not a democratic party. They believed
in revolution. They believed in overthrowing the US government by
one way or another. So even though a lot of
the fellow travelers Communist Party members believed in good things
and wanted good things for the country, they nevertheless provided

(15:49):
the underground, uh, infrastructure financing and what have you for
the for the American spies. So they were you know,
they had they had their side to them. That was
pretty anodyne. But on the other hand, uh, they also
provided the underground for almost all the Soviet spies, and

(16:12):
almost all the Soviet spies came out of the American
Communist Party. Is fellow travelers a thing like I've not
heard that term used in this context before. Yeah, fellow travelers,
uh is uh sort of those little bit betwixt and
between who are not quite members of the party. Um.
But on the other hand, we're cow towing to most

(16:35):
of the party discipline and the party's line, uh in
terms of their attitudes towards the Soviet Union and uh,
the communist movement around the world. So, I mean one
of alger Hisses spy compatriots was Harry Dexter White, who
worked in the Treasury Department. Now Harry Dexter White, among

(16:58):
other things, and wittered your chambers knew this very well,
was never actually a member of the American Communist Party.
And if you're a member of the American Communist Party,
you are under the discipline of the party, which basically
means you're under the discipline of Moscow Central and the
Soviet Union in Stalin and his his his band of brothers. Right,

(17:22):
So Harry Dexter White was not under the discipline of
the Communist Party, but he did. He did some of
the more damage in some ways than even an alger
his Just as a brief example, Harry Dexter White was
called into a meeting by his Soviet handler. This was
in the summer of nine. Victor Pavlov was his name,

(17:48):
was the Soviet handler in Washington, d c. And he
asked Harry Dexter White to have a meeting with him
at Old Abbott's Grill across the from the Treasury Department
in Washington. And Pavlov says, I'll be carrying a copy
of the New Yorker. That's how you will recognize me.
They never met in person. They had lunch together at

(18:11):
Old Eppit's grill, and Pavlov same Pavlov like the dog
you can remember that, pushed a piece of paper across
the table to Harry Dexter White and said, I want
you to memorize what's on this piece of paper. And
Harry Dexter White picked it up and looked at it
and read it, nodded, noted, nodded and was about to

(18:32):
put it in his coat pockets, and Pabble says, dog,
give it back to me, and he handed it back
to Pavlov, and Pavlov said, do you remember everything that's
on that piece of paper? And Harry Dexter White said,
I do, I remember, and I will follow the orders explicitly. Well.
What was in that piece of paper was known as

(18:54):
Operation White, as in Snow White. This was a plan
can acted by intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union to
get Harry Dexter White to influence the pot American policy
towards Japan at this very precarious moment before Pearl Harbor,

(19:16):
when the Japanese had been fighting the Soviet Union for
years along the Soviet borders with Mongolia and Manchuria. They
had had flare ups there and thousands of soldiers had
been killed. It was a big deal. It was it was.
It was a war by by any shape or form.
And so the orders that Harry Dexter Watt got was

(19:40):
to put pressure on the Japanese. He was the top guy,
one of the highest officials in the Treasury Department. Put
pressure on the more sanctions on oil, steel, war materials,
rubber of all kinds. Ratchet up the pressure, ratchet up
the pressure. And the idea was that at the US
ratcheted up the pressure enough, the Japanese, instead of going

(20:04):
west into Siberia north into Siberia, would go east into
the Pacific and would attack the US and go south
into Indonesia where the oil was. And uh, Harry Dexter
White pushed this policy for many, many months with his
colleagues in the State Department and Treasury. And what happened.

(20:28):
They ratcheted up the pressure on the Japanese precisely at
the time that the U. S. Navy brass was telling
Roosevelt was telling the State Department, do not put pressure
on japan. We are not in a position to fight
a war in the Pacific, much less the Two Front War,
which we expect to be fighting against Germany any day. Now. Nevertheless,

(20:52):
Harry Dexter White pushed this policy. We upped the anti
where the Japanese pushed them, and they made the decision
to fight and go south to Pearl Harbor and the Pacific.
So there is a specific example of a Soviet spy
influencing American policy that literally brought about Pearl harbor. Yes,

(21:22):
and this is this is something that I am. I
am so glad we're discussing today, because the geopolitical circumstances
of Japan building up to that great conflict were I think,
for for the people in the know, the writing was
on the wall. Japan was it was known, it wasn't

(21:45):
a secret. Japan was resource poor in several key areas,
and they would go inevitably. One could argue in one
direction or another. And the way that you are describing
this um, this influence, this finger on the scale right

(22:05):
of this fellow traveler. I believe it's a story that
needs to be told more often, and I'd like to
I'd like to return David to something that you mentioned
that I think is going to catch a lot of
our fellow ridiculous historians a bit flat footed here. So Aldre,

(22:27):
his four doesn't pass away until, as we always say,
history is closer than um. Many people would like to think, right,
perhaps Faulkner is right when he says the past isn't
even past. But the thing that I really was drawn
to is that the story doesn't end when his goes

(22:53):
to prison, he gets out of prison, and then people
involved in the litigation. Right, people involved in the in
the legal proceedings, by one way or another, seemed to
meet with some abrupt ends. Could you tell us a

(23:15):
little bit about Aldre his post conviction, you know, or
post incarceration, excuse me, when he when he gets out,
when he serves his time and let's see, he's released
in n Is that correct? That's correct? Yes, So he

(23:35):
is released, he's disbarred. He goes on to write his
own book, I believe, which is about like you said,
he maintains his innocence. But what was what was the
fallout of this great discovery? You know, at this point,
Uncle Sam has no choice but to acknowledge, Yes, there

(23:59):
is espionage occurring at the highest levels. Were there changes
in US policy regarding this um? Were there further consequences
for his what happened to some of the people? And
I'm thinking also specifically of the example of Lawrence Dugan.

(24:20):
If I'm pronouncing that correctly, who has a well, I
I don't want to I don't want to poison the
weld too much here, David, But I believe he falls
from a window under questionable circumstances. That's absolutely right, And
this is actually one of the things that my reading
of the history and doing my research for the book,

(24:44):
that I was profoundly amazed at. Uh. It was something
that was spoken of at the time, but not too
many people paid a lot of attention to it. But
the fact is that a lot of the people around
the his trial, potential witnesses disappeared in and unhappy ways.

(25:07):
For instance, you mentioned Lawrence Duggin. Lawrence Duggin was in
the State Department with his He was actually before his
he was the golden boy of Soviet intelligence. Uh. They
had a lot of money writing on Lawrence Duggan. They
thought that he would prove to be the hiss Um

(25:28):
in the State Department. But Lawrence Duggin got cold feet
after a while. He was a very nervous character. But anyway,
Lawrence Duggin would have been called as a witness to
the Aldre His trial, who had obviously known Aldre hiss
and had obviously known Aldre His as a communist and
as a and as a spy. But Lawrence Duggan never

(25:51):
made it. He somehow fell out the sixteen story window
on Street in New York and fell to his death. Uh.
They found him in a snow bank, very near death.
On his last breath, a Catholic priest came along and
gave him the last rites. He had one gum shoe

(26:13):
on and one gum shoe off. Very strange thing. Uh.
And at the time it was remarked upon people couldn't
understand what had happened. His wife Um said it wasn't suicide,
that he was fine, that he was that he was
in good shape. Um. But it was a strange death.
But it was also a death by falling, which was

(26:37):
a specialty of the KGB. They knew their way around this.
And there was yet another witness in the algae his
trial by the name of Marvin Smith, who was a
lawyer in the Justice Department and he somehow fell six
stories to his death on an inner stairwell in the

(26:58):
Justice department. He was the man who had signed the
transfer document on his his Ford roadster which he wanted
to contribute to the Communist Party. And uh he needed
to get a legal document signed, and Marvin Smith was
a friend of Algree his going way back, had been

(27:18):
the witness to that signing of that document. That document
would have fairly conclusively proved that his was a member
of the Communist Party if not a if not a
spy and Marvin Smith uh fell to his death. Harry
Dexter why who we just talked about, died mysteriously of
a sudden heart attack at his home in New Hampshire,

(27:40):
just days after testifying about Kiss, denied knowing if his
was a Communist Party member, denied being a spy himself. Um.
He died suddenly of an overdose of digitalis um at
his home in New Hampshire. And talk about straight aine
deaths Algre hissed when he was in jail just before

(28:03):
he got out, was in jail with another Soviet spy
who had been convicted of spying. William Remington was murdered
in Lewis Bird Penitentiary. Uh when when Hiss was in
there and he was bluntoned to death by a couple
of inmates uh and nobody had any motive for doing it. Uh.

(28:24):
It was assumed that they were after something in his cell,
maybe to grab cigarettes or money, but it made no sense.
Most likely William Remington's had been killed by by the KGB,
or these guys have been hired by the KGB to
murder him as a warning to Aldre Hiss that if

(28:46):
when he got out from prison just two weeks later,
that he better keep his head down and keep quiet,
because what happened to William Remington's what's gonna happen to Hiss.
So Hiss was under no doubt that he better keep
his mouth shut one way or the other, and he
maintained his silence throughout the fifties and sixties right up

(29:08):
to his death. Hold the phone, hold the phone? It again,
someone need to hold something. I don't know should I
hold the phone? Guys? Where that expression comes from? But
I like it. I use it like like I guess
the day of landline phones. Nobody has ever really told

(29:32):
me to literally hold the phone. But what we mean,
I think it means putting someone on hold. But the guys,
then there's the real question is where did the phrase
being on hold come from? Like where did that expression
come from? Like like the holder, I don't know they're
asking that, you're asking the big questions. We don't have
time to dig into that right now because it's been

(29:53):
too much time. We actually have to have to end
this episode. But we thought it was going to be
like kind of a single topic discussion about a book
ended up going so many other places with a very
fascinating David Adams Cleveland. Um, so we're gonna take a
pause for this episode and then we're gonna come back
with a whole another episode with David that goes into
everything from art history to geo state of geopolitics, and honestly,

(30:17):
I was just kind of blown away by the guys
off the dome, uh fact dropping. And this is uh,
you know, long time listeners of ridiculous history or stuff.
They will want you know, you know that that next
conversation is oo, mommy for me. Uh. We are not
blowing smoke. Uh. We are big fans of the book

(30:38):
and David Cleveland's work. We can't wait for you to
check it out. So stay tuned for later this week
on Thursday, when we'll come with part two of our
conversation with David Adams Cleveland on Gods of Deception and
much much more. Thinks as always to Mr Max Williams,

(31:00):
Thanks to Alex Williams, Thanks to Christopher Hasiotis, Jonathan Strickland
ak the Quister, Thanks to um listen, let's thank let's
thank everybody well. Thanks to Beetle Juice. I loved that
film the star or the or the fictional character both.
You know what, It's Friday. Thanks to the Cosmos for
make thanks for thanks for making it Friday. The Cosmos

(31:23):
Matt Frederick of course, because you know he is the
best among us. He is the best among us and
also the star of our Max with the Facts audio bumper,
So thanks for that. Thanks to you, ridicul story are
the best. We love you very much with all of
our little shriveled hearts. Speaking for myself anyway, well, you
know it's it's time for the end of the episode.
Can you do the line? We'll see you nextbooks. For

(31:52):
more podcasts for my Heart Radio, visit the I Heart
Radio app, Apple podcast, or wherever you listen to your
favorite shows.

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