Alger Hiss rides again.

Scrutinizing culture.
July 16 2007 7:20 AM

Alger Hiss Rides Again

Spy case erupts; defenders turn to Nixonian tactics.

Alger HIss. Click image to expand.
Alger Hiss, 1940s

Suddenly the Alger Hiss spy case—that seething and bitter Cold War battle, that interminable intellectual blood feud—has broken out into the open again. The occasion: A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has published an article attempting to discredit a key piece of evidence against the suspected Soviet spy whose case set Richard Nixon on the road to the White House.

I know: To some, such battles have the quaint, antiquarian feel of Civil War re-enactments.

So go ahead, call them Cold War "re-enactors" if you will, call this Cold War 2.0, but I'd argue that the controversy has urgent contemporary relevance; it reminds us that the failure to resolve divisive questions about the secret history of our time, the failure to address the ineptness of American "intelligence" in the past, the unresolved cases and bad judgments that riddle the record of our clandestine services have paved the way for contemporary intelligence fiascoes up to and including the failure to "connect the dots" before 9/11, and the claim that the case for finding WMD in Saddam's Iraq would be a "slam dunk."    

The Hiss controversy takes on even greater resonance at a time when the secret past is resurfacing with the CIA's release of its "family jewels," its compilation of embarrassing scandals, and with the release of New York Times reporter Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes, a remarkable record of CIA abuses as failures.  

The historian who has taken up the Hiss case is Kai Bird, co-author of last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I first learned about his thesis from Victor Navasky, former editor of the Nation, current chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, and long the most prominent evidence-oriented defender of the innocence of Hiss.

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It was something Navasky told me, ironically, at a party thrown by the New York Times Book Review. I say ironically because one of Navasky's chief opponents in the Hiss-case controversy, Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, happened to be standing a few yards away when an effusive Navasky made his case that the game was still on.

Tanenhaus' 1997 biography of Hiss-accuser Whittaker Chambers had solidified the consensus in the reality-based community that—back in the '30s and '40s—one-time State Department luminary Hiss had probably been guilty of some collaboration with the Soviets, and, more importantly, was part of a larger Soviet spy effort.

In any case, at the Book Review party, Navasky was bursting with enthusiasm for a paper he said Bird had delivered at a recent conference of Hiss-case scholars at NYU. The paper argued that there is a fatal flaw in what is widely believed to be the clinching evidence against Hiss—his apparent presence, under the code-name "Ales," in intercepted Soviet spy communiqués, the so-called "VENONA intercepts." Navasky told me Bird's argument would shock Cold War scholars by discrediting the notion that Hiss and "Ales" were one and the same.

Alger Hiss. Click image to expand.
Alger Hiss in 1992

A revised version of Bird's paper (co-authored with Svetlana Chervonnaya) is out now in the American Scholar (both in the summer 2007 print edition and—in expanded, footnoted form—at www.theamericanscholar.org). It's called "The Mystery of Ales: Was Alger Hiss really the Soviet spy named Ales, and if not, who was?" To my mind, it's shocking, but in a different way than Navasky implied. It's a shocking use of McCarthyite guilt-by-association methods to attempt to exonerate an alleged victim of McCarthyism.

To understand why this 60-year-old case is still capable of producing shock waves, let me review the context and explain why I think you should care what VENONA intercepts are and what they say.

In one of the few indisputable assertions in the American Scholar article, Bird and Chervonnaya point out that, "The Hiss case became the most controversial spy story of the Cold War—and for good reason." They quote historian Walter LaFeber, who said, "It was the Hiss trial, among other [events] that triggered the McCarthy era." And then Bird and Chervonnaya add, also uncontroversially, that the case "catapulted an obscure California congressman, Richard M. Nixon, onto the national scene." It was Nixon who thrust himself into the Hiss case as a freshman member of Congress and rode his rep as a "Red-hunter" to the Senate, the vice presidency, and beyond.

Alger Hiss, you'll recall, was a patrician-seeming favorite son of the American establishment: a Harvard-educated protégé of Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell Holmes * and Felix Frankfurter, a rising star of FDR's New Deal and the wartime State Department, present at the history-making Yalta conference, and a key architect of the United Nations.

Then, in 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a seedy Dostoevskian ex-spy and philosophe, made public allegations that Hiss spied for the Soviets in the years before the war, and Nixon pilloried Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Hiss maintained his innocence and was never charged with espionage, because the statute of limitations on spying (three years) had run out. Instead, a jury convicted Hiss of lying in denying he'd been spying. After he got out of jail, he spent the rest of his life working as a stationery salesman while devoting himself and a small army of volunteer researchers, archivists, lawyers, and writers to proving he was an innocent victim of Cold War spy hysteria.

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