Meeting With Alger Hiss
Memories of a Cornell Seminar
met Alger Hiss only once, and so can only claim to have a
of the man in my mind. The event has nevertheless stayed with
a quarter of a century.
When I was an undergraduate at Cornell University, Alger Hiss
came to Ithaca
to speak to a graduate seminar on the Cold War. This was in
the "hot war" in Vietnam was drawing to a close.
I was well-informed on the
failure of our war on communism in Asia, but uninformed of
the similar damage
done by our Cold War against Russian communists. And I had
about the Hiss case or taken a position on it. It
was a very cold winter day; Alger Hiss spoke for one or two
hours. I remember,
in particular, his description of the Yalta Conference and
there. This, in itself, seemed an amazing piece of first-hand
- since, by 1975, Hiss was the sole surviving senior American
in those talks. His recollections and thoughts were so interesting,
and his articulation of them so useful to us, a group of 21-year-old
college students. After the session I was transfixed: To me,
Hiss was just a brilliant, thoughtful, reflective man who
was willing to
share his recollections of history-in-the-making.
Since that day, other than reading an occasional article about
Hiss, I have
not been a student of the facts of the case or of his long
battle with the
courts. But I walked away from that 1975 session truly inspired,
and frustrated that our system of law and politics could have
such a resource as Alger Hiss. The raw intellectual power
could have been so much more usefully deployed on behalf of
nation than it was.
I keep a memento of that meeting. I was able to attend a second
seminar Hiss gave during his Cornell visit, this time with
a paperback edition of his book, "In the Court of Public
Opinion." At the conclusion of the seminar, I spoke to
him for a few moments. My own parents, and in particular my
father, were ardent New Dealers and we talked about
took the book from my hands and inscribed the following for
my parents: "To
Mary Anne and Amiel Zak, From one unregenerate New Dealer
to others, and
to their son, Michael may he grow in their likeness."
And he signed and
dated it, March 14, 1975.
I will remember that day always for his brilliance,
his intelligence and insight.
For both the lack of bitterness that he had for the system
so hurt him, and for the lack of bitterness he had toward
who had just recently been exposed for what he truly was.
for me was the optimism Alger Hiss had: After all he had been
he still had consummate faith in the American system.
I'm now at an age where I can begin to look back at my life
as a series of encounters and events that in great measure
were unplanned and impossible to predict. I am grateful for
whatever the sequence of events was that put me in a seminar
room on a cold winter day in Ithaca. Because that was when
I met Alger Hiss and was moved in a way that I clearly recall
MICHAEL J. ZAK, January 2000
Zak is a venture capitalist in Waltham, Massachusetts.
to We Remember Alger