Michael Zak

My Meeting with Alger Hiss

Michael Zak is a venture capitalist in Waltham, Massachusetts. He wrote this brief recollection in January 2000.

I met Alger Hiss only once, and so can only claim to have a two-day snapshot of the man in my mind. The event has nevertheless stayed with me for 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 1975, and 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 never read 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 FDR’s behavior there. This, in itself, seemed an amazing piece of first-hand information – since, by 1975, Hiss was the sole surviving senior American participant 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, Alger 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, very impressed, and frustrated that our system of law and politics could have squandered such a resource as Alger Hiss. The raw intellectual power he possessed could have been so much more usefully deployed on behalf of our great 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 that.

He 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 that had so hurt him, and for the lack of bitterness he had toward Richard Nixon, who had just recently been exposed for what he truly was. Most inspiring for me was the optimism Alger Hiss had: After all he had been through, 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 today.