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An Interview with David Adams Cleveland: Author of GODS OF DECEPTION

June 24, 2022

Gods of Deception is the brilliant new work of historical fiction by David Adams Cleveland, who takes the reader on an epic, revisionist sweep through post-war American history. The nonagenarian Judge Edward Dimock is writing his memoirs. The most troubling episode is his role as the defence attorney to Alger Hiss in the ‘trial of the century’. Dimock’s conscience is stricken at the thought that Hiss could have been guilty of espionage. Dimock enlists his grandson, Princeton astrophysicist George Altmann, to research the case. It’s the beginning of an investigation that could change their understanding of America’s Cold War history.

David Adams Cleveland is a novelist, historian and former correspondent and arts editor for Voice of America. I had the pleasure of talking to him about Gods of Deception. Interviewing David is a joy. It’s like sitting back with a snifter of brandy and listening to Gore Vidal or E.L. Doctorow wax lyrical about American history. Enjoy the interview and buy the book.

Interviewer: What motivated you to write Gods of Deception?

I found the Alger Hiss spy trial—the “trial of the century” as it was known, to be fascinating on many levels, especially for a fictional treatment.  In Alger Hiss (and we now know for a certainty that he was guilty of spying) you have a spy’s spy who never, to his dying day, admitted his guilt, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  In this, he was very unlike the infamous British spies, the Cambridge Spies: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby who were plagued by fear of exposure and so escaped to the Soviet Union where they died early of alcoholism in their Moscow dachas.  Hiss maintained his equanimity to the end, refuting his accusers and seeking redemption.

Equally mesmerizing was the clash of Hiss and his accuser and one-time GRU (Soviet military intelligence) handler, Whittaker Chambers, who testified in intimate and telling detail about his days photographing top secret State Department documents passed to him by Hiss, many copied by his wife, Priscilla Hiss, on their Underwood typewriter. In the trial and later in his memoir, Witness, Chambers wrote at length about their relationship—everything from trade craft, to renting summer homes together, to rearing their children and bird watching. And yet Alger and Priscilla Hiss denied everything, only admitting that they might have known Chambers under a different name and for a very short time. These clashing stories—parallel universes in which both parties claimed to be telling the truth, were catnip for a writer trying to sort fact from fiction.

And then there is the astonishing way the guilty verdict returned against Hiss divided the country for almost five decades. Half believed vehemently in his innocence, that he was framed by Whittaker Chambers and the FBI and perhaps Richard Nixon as well; the other half believing he was a spy and a traitor. How could opinion be so drastically divided? For some, the elegant well-spoken Alger Hiss represented the ideals of the Eastern establishment and Roosevelt’s New Deal, and so the accusations levelled against him seemed an attack on the very foundations of liberalism. While his accuser, Whitaker Chambers, an admitted ex-communist and spy, was, oddly enough, seen by those of more conservative views as a soul who had confessed his sins and so offered witness to the dark underside of socialism in the guise of Stalin and the totalitarian state. As a subject of fiction such competing world views and how they played out in three generations of one family seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the mystery of how humans are drawn to various ideological viewpoints and often dragged down by a misbegotten allegiance.

David Adams Cleveland

Interviewer: Our understanding of the Alger Hiss case has changed with time. By telling the story across three generations of the same family do you find it easier to portray the complexity of that change?

What changed over the decades since Hiss’s conviction in 1950 was the very slow accumulation of new evidence confirming Hiss’s guilt along with changes in attitudes toward Stalin and the Soviet Union. These shifts certainly lent themselves to fictional exploration over three—actually, four generations of the Dimock family. Even during the two trials (the first ending in a hung jury) these tectonic shifts in public opinion were taking place with the imposition in Eastern Europe of the Iron Curtain and the test of a Soviet atom bomb in August of 1949, followed by the outbreak of the Korean War and the Soviet invasion of Hungry in 1956 and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes.  Support for the Soviet experiment and the American Communist Party (numbering 200,000 at its height) declined rapidly. And with it an uneasiness among the far-left supporters of Hiss and the possibility that he may indeed have flirted with the communist party or worse. The most damning evidence of Hiss’s guilt didn’t come out until the mid-90s with the release of the Venona decrypts of Soviet cable traffic from the 1940s, and the brief opening of Soviet intelligence files during the Boris Yeltsin presidency of Russia. The cumulative evidence was damning.  Not only was Alger Hiss a spy but an agent of influence who sat at Roosevelt’s right hand at Yalta, where he was debriefed each morning by his Soviet handler—giving away the US and Allied negotiating position. Hiss and his fellow spies in the White House, Lauchlin Currie, and Treasury, Harry Dexter White, had done Stalin’s bidding throughout the war years and beyond. On his way back from Yalta, Hiss and members of the Yalta delegation stopped in Moscow, where Hiss was taken aside in a secret ceremony and given the Order of the Red Star for his service to the Soviet Union.

I designed my narrative to flesh out this often-complex changing perspective on Alger Hiss by having my lead protagonist, George Altmann, a Princeton astrophysicist, explore the Hiss affair by questioning his grandfather, “the Judge”, who had been on Hiss’s defense team. Through George’s eyes, and his grandfather’s memoir, along with the Judges three daughters, the reader becomes aware of how attitudes towards Alger Hiss have evolved over time, a changing picture that is reflected not just in the characters’ lives but that of the country as well.

Interviewer: The novel implies Soviet penetration of the US government at the highest level which affects key events in American history. Did your research into the case inform this narrative approach?

When I began my research on the Alger Hiss case, I assumed that Hiss was probably guilty as spelled out in his perjury conviction: passing top secret State Department documents to his GRU (Soviet military intelligence) handler, Whittaker Chambers, in the late thirties. I was stunned to find that the real damage Hiss and his confederates did was as agents of influence, along with close to 500 of Stalin’s willing spies who infiltrated the US government and related war industries. We now know that Harry Dexter White, an undersecretary at Treasury, did Stalin’s bidding by pushing for harder and harder sanctions on the Japanese in 1941—Operation Snow, in hopes of provoking the Japanese to attack south into the Pacific rather than continuing to attack Soviet positions in northeastern Asia along the border of Mongolia and Siberia. Pearl Harbor was the result.

Another Soviet agent in army intelligence, William Weisband, tipped off his KGB handler that the US had broken Soviet military logistic codes, at which point the Soviet military changed their codes, so leaving the US in the dark as Stalin shipped war materials to North Korea. If Truman’s White House had been able to monitor this movement of supplies, tipping off the US about the buildup for a North Korean attack, the US might well have been able to warn off Stalin and prevent the invasion of South Korea and the Korean War. Of course, the story of the Rosenbergs and how their ring of spies stole US atomic bomb secrets is well known. But I speculate in the novel, based on my research for Gods of Deception, that Soviet fears that their technical spy networks might be compromised and uncovered caused them to do everything in their power to prevent Alger Hiss’s conviction, which they feared, as indeed was the case, would open a Pandora’s box of spy fever, and so endanger their ongoing operations to steal details about the hydrogen bomb, then in development. There were a number of unexplained deaths and disappearances of potential witnesses in the Hiss spy case, ambiguous falls from buildings (a KGB specialty), or exile behind the Iron Curtain, much remarked on at the time, which I have explored in Gods of Deception. A title that references the fervent self-image of many American followers of Lenin and Stalin who saw themselves in the vanguard of history.

The 1950 conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury, even if only for passing top secrets documents to the Soviets in the late thirties, alerted the country that they had a very real problem with Stalin’s KGB and GRU spy networks. The great irony is that by the time this had all sunk in with what is now known as the “Fifties Red Scare”, most of the damage was long done and Stalin’s spies had either been exposed or had slunk away never to be heard from again.

Interviewer: Tell us a little about your journalistic background. How did your experiences inform the writing of Gods of Deception?

My years working for Voice of America covering the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China during the perestroika-glasnost period left me with a pretty good understanding of how totalitarian regimes employ the big lie and disinformation to hold their societies in check, while falling back on force and repression when all else fails. This made the Alger Hiss case all the more problematic for me: how was it that at least 500 other Americans were so willing to do Stalin’s bidding (they were not paid but were eager supplicants). Not to mention the 200,000 members of the American Communist Party, which served as a recruiting ground and underground infrastructure for these spies and their handlers.  Except for Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography, Witness, and a few other spy memoirs very little about these people and why they chose a path of subversion has surfaced, even seventy years later. This seemed inviting territory for a fictional exploration of the motivations of these American spies, the compromises they made, the lies they lived, and the pain and loss bequeathed to their families.

Interviewer: With Putin fighting a hopefully unwinnable war against Ukraine, what happens next in the US’s relationship with Russia? Is a military confrontation between Nato and Russia inevitable?

It has been eerily strange for me to have Gods of Deception come out with the onset of Putin’s war against Ukraine—Dracula pulling out a silver stake and walking the earth again. Everyone thought that Putin, trained in the dark arts of the KGB, could not reconstitute the terrifying days of Stalin’s Soviet Union with its use of the “big lie” and false flags, repression backed by brutal force, and—even with the internet, imposing state sponsored propaganda to mold public opinion. It looks like Putin has managed to bring down another Iron Curtain—if not another Cold War, at least for a time, possibly a fleeting moment in the great sweep of history, but a moment for which the Ukrainian people are paying so dearly.

I’m hopeful that the Russian people will soon realize that Putin is a tyrant intent on bringing about another dark age in Russia, and so find a way to replace him and his circle of aging ex-KGB sycophants. Putin’s military is looking more and more inept even as they inflict horrific suffering and destruction. So, I don’t see the war in Ukraine spreading any wider, especially since recent advancements in military technology now seems to favor the defense. Sad to say, when I started Gods of Deception it seemed a story about a distant past—now, suddenly, a cautionary tale for our times.

Gods of Deception is published by Greenleaf Book Group

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