Alger Hiss Why He Chose Treason

Title:                      Alger Hiss Why He Chose Treason

Author:                 Christina Shelton

Shelton, Christina (2012). Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason. New York : Threshold Editions

LCCN:    2011038985

E743.5.H55 S54 2012


  • The early years. — Growing up in Baltimore — Hopkins and Harvard Law — Priscilla Hiss — Supreme Court clerk and attorney-at-law — A committed communist. — The new dealer — The Ware Group — Whittaker Chambers — The State Department bureaucrat — Yalta — Fascism and communism — Accused and convicted. — The case — Lewisburg Prison — Attempt at vindication 1954-1996 — The evidence. — Testimonies — Venona program — Archival material: — A. Hungarian archives — B. KGB archives.



  • Introduction by Richard Pipes.

Date Posted:      February 25, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[1]

Author Christina Shelton, a retired DIA analyst, begins her study of Alger Hiss with an anecdote that actually adds something new to what she terms “the unending Hiss saga.” (p. 1) In November 1979, she attended Hiss’ 75th birthday party in New York. In a conversation with Hiss, she reports, he claimed he had never read Whittaker Chambers’s book Witness[2]. Astonished, since Hiss was a principal subject in the book, she asked, “How is· that possible?” Hiss never responded. Thirty years later, in a memoir by Hiss’ son, she read that Hiss had read the version serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. (pp. 6-7)

Carefully constructed responses to questions were characteristic of Alger Hiss. He maintained throughout his life that he was innocent of charges that he was a communist and a Soviet agent; he was just a victim of anticommunist hysteria. Shelton reviews the contrary evidence and raises the never-satisfactorily-resolved mystery that Shelton maintains has contemporary relevance, Why He Chose Treason.

In one sense, the book is a well-documented biography of Alger Hiss. Shelton writes of his early years, his time at Harvard Law School, his enthusiastic participation in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal politics, his activities as a committed communist, and the espionage activities that led to his trial and conviction. She goes on to include a description of Hiss’ time in prison and his subsequent campaign to vindicate himself, an effort that only ended with his death. Shelton ends the book with a review of the overwhelming evidence against Hiss, which many still refuse to accept. But all this has been said in the many other books on the Hiss case. For readers new to the topic, Shelton’s work provides a good summary. But those searching for a resolution of the mystery-as promised in the book’s title-will not find an answer here. It may just be that even Alger Hiss didn’t know.

[1] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 117-118). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

[2] Chambers, Whittaker (1952, 1997). Witness. New York: Washington, DC: Regnery Pub.

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