Alger Hiss Rides Again
Spy case erupts; defenders turn to Nixonian tactics.
Once, I came close to joining the Hiss cause when pursuing a story about a minor Hiss-case figure—an early volunteer worker on Hiss' legal team, a German-born private eye, who turned out to be some kind of infiltrator for Hiss' opponents and may have had prewar contacts with the Abwehr, the Nazi foreign intelligence division. Some Hiss supporters believed he may have helped fabricate evidence against Hiss, even producing a "lost" typewriter that supposedly proved Hiss stole documents for the Russians.
In the course of pursuing this story (which I never wrote up, because I was not convinced by the fake-typewriter theory, and because the fact that Hiss' opponents may have been unsavory doesn't prove him innocent), I had a long lunch with Hiss. His charming, dignified, head-held-high facade gave me a sense of how he enlisted well-meaning volunteers into "the cause."
But on reflection it occurred to me that his role as defamed innocent may merely have been a continuation of his cover. An exposed spy like Kim Philby could escape to Moscow and proclaim, in effect, "I did it and I'm proud. My conscience is clear; I joined the party when the capitalist nations were appeasing Hitler, etc."
I had the feeling that on some level, Hiss might have wanted to say something similar, but knew if he did, he might validate the "anti-progressive" forces in America who sought to delegitimize all leftists as Soviet dupes or tools. An admission might give credence to allegations that liberals had been in denial about the presence of a communist Enemy Within during the Cold War, and perhaps jeopardize the lives of still-secret operations of clandestine colleagues and their families. And if Hiss was a secret communist, he might have decided he could best continue to serve the cause by portraying himself as a living embodiment of American injustice and anti-communist hysteria.
Navasky told me that in his address to the Hiss scholars' conference he'd quoted something I'd written to this effect and linked it to a line from Garry Wills, asserting that he wouldn't "pay [Hiss] the insult" of believing his protestations of innocence. In other words, a case could be made that Hiss was a liar—but still a man of principle. But it was a case Hiss himself couldn't make.
Navasky wasn't endorsing this idea in his address to the Hiss scholars' conference; he was merely enumerating it as one of no less than eight major theories of the Hiss case, which has become a Rorschach upon which people can project their views of America's half-century-long engagement in the Cold War.
The tide of opinion has shifted several times since Hiss left jail. After Nixon's disgrace, Hiss' star rose, then it fell when (current) national archivist Allen Weinstein, who started out believing in Hiss' innocence, published Perjury, a thoroughgoing re-examination of the case in 1978 that concluded Hiss was guilty. There was a brief moment in the '90s when a Soviet archivist claimed Hiss did not appear in a search of Soviet spy records, but the search seems to have been woefully incomplete.
Then Sam Tanenhaus' Whittaker Chambers succeeded in convincing even many on the left—including younger historians such as Rick Perlstein, author of the forthcoming Nixonland—that Hiss was guilty, although old-school loyalists like Navasky remained skeptical.
That's why the "VENONA decrypts" are so important. These coded Soviet spy cables seemed to confirm other evidence of Hiss' guilt. And they seemed to imply that he continued spying during World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R, former wartime allies, became enemies.
The "decrypts" were partially decoded fragments of communiques back and forth from agents in America and their handlers in Moscow. They were first decoded in the '40s and '50s, but not released till the mid-'90s, and were never used in open court against Hiss because the fact that we had cracked the code would have been rendered valueless had we disclosed it at the time.
In the decrypts for 1945, there are several references to a spy code-named "Ales" who, Hiss-accusers assert, must have been Alger Hiss.
In the American Scholar piece, Bird and Chervonnaya strike a pose of disinterested neutrality on the Hiss case overall: "We do not propose to address the larger question of whether Hiss was guilty or innocent of espionage."
Rather, they say, they will focus narrowly on the Hiss/"Ales" connection, seeking only to discredit the belief that Hiss was "Ales" in the VENONA documents—and to name the "real" "Ales."
They also frame their investigation as a kind of test case, a way to examine the standards of proof used in writing Cold War histories. "The historians who have maintained that [Hiss] was Ales turned an assumption and a few clues into a conclusion without bothering to determine if Hiss actually fit the profile of Ales. …" In other words, if the "Ales" "identification" can be shown to be based on shaky ground, how much of the other evidence against Hiss can be trusted? How much of the evidence against other alleged Soviet agents was dubious and driven by ideological predisposition?
Nonetheless, despite their protestations of scrupulous neutrality, Bird and Chervonnaya—in a paragraph left out of the print version of their American Scholar piece but which appears in the expanded online version—suggest that they, too, have an ideological predisposition, indeed an agenda behind their purportedly objective re-examination of the VENONA evidence.
The Web-only paragraph reads: "Even today, the Hiss affair remains a painful metaphor for the marginalization of left-wing New Dealers by anti-Communist crusaders, the weakness of the American Left for the last half century, and the less-than-courageous performance of American liberals during two generations of conservative ascendancy."
So the Hiss affair is a "painful metaphor." A curious, evasive use of "metaphor" that seems to elide the larger question of guilt or innocence. It's hard to read the rest of this paragraph as saying anything else but that Hiss was an innocent, smeared as a communist traitor to discredit the left and liberals who showed themselves too cowardly and intimidated to stand up for a falsely accused noncommunist left-winger. It's fairly clear from this paragraph that they do in fact have a position on "the larger question."
Otherwise, would they be berating left-liberals for failing to defend a lying, guilty traitor?
And so, after their disingenuous claim of ideological and forensic neutrality, and after damning the "marginalization" of leftists as Soviet sympathizers, they proceed to marginalize—virtually indict and convict—a hitherto untainted liberal as a "Soviet asset" in order to prove Hiss was not one.
Astonishingly, they do so by doing exactly what Nixon, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Joe McCarthy did: rely heavily on guilt by association.
I have to admit I was stunned. Let me try to explain their reasoning.
First, they claim that "Hiss had a firm alibi" that proved he wasn't the Soviet spy "Ales." In the past, the principal reason students of the case have believed Hiss was "Ales" was that the "Ales" travel itinerary in early 1945 matched that of Hiss: "Ales" goes to Yalta with FDR, travels from Yalta to Moscow with Secretary of State Stettinus, then heads to Mexico City for an international conference on the founding of the United Nations. So does Hiss.
But Hiss wasn't the only one who traveled that itinerary: The authors count nine officials who made the trip from Yalta to Moscow. Playing a variation of LeCarré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy elimination game, Bird and Chervonnaya examine the nine to see if any of them fits the movements of "Ales" better than Hiss.
In round one of this game, Bird and Chervonnaya rely on a new decrypt, the so-called "second Gorsky cable," which came to light in a 2003 libel suit in London. This is the smoking gun of their article, the one they believe gives Hiss a "firm alibi" that eliminates the possibility that he was the spy "Ales."
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Historical photograph of Alger Hiss courtesy the Library of Congress; 1992 photograph by Agence France Presse.