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.

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."

The "Gorsky cable" was sent by a Soviet attaché/spy in Washington, D.C., to someone in Moscow. It contains an "important clue," they say: Gorsky states that as of March 5, 1945, when the cable was sent, "Ales" had not come back from Mexico City.

And yet Bird and Chervonnaya introduce persuasive evidence that Hiss arrived back from Mexico City on February 22 and was in Washington to make a radio appearance on Friday, March 3, and speak at a press conference on Sunday the 5th, appearances that were both reported in the press at the time.

This, Bird and Chervonnaya declare, is incontrovertible evidence that "Ales" was not Hiss because Hiss had come back from Mexico and "Ales" had not. The problem is that while Hiss' presence in D.C. is incontrovertible, they also have to prove that Gorsky knew Hiss was back.

But the way they deal with this task raises questions about the standards of evidence Bird and Chervonnaya call into question in other historians' work.

Because their conclusion—that Gorsky knew Hiss was back—is based not even on circumstantial evidence but on suppositional evidence. Gorsky would have known Hiss was back, they say, because, "If Gorsky … was doing his job, either he or his assistants were listening to the radio and reading the Times or the Star." (Where Hiss' radio and press conference appearances were reported.)          

Note that line,"If Gorsky … was doing his job." Maybe he was. Or maybe, on the other hand, he was out of town. Maybe he and his colleagues were all off on a dirty weekend on the Eastern Shore when Hiss was on the radio and in the paper. Perhaps Hiss had his own reasons for not reporting in to Gorsky when he got back to D.C., reasons of security, for instance.

Instead, we get more suppositions. Gorsky, who—the authors take pains to note—was a press specialist, "would have to have been incompetent not to know that Hiss had returned from Mexico City." 

And as we know, bureaucrats are never incompetent.

I wouldn't say that their "firm alibi" for Hiss is as firm as they proclaim it to be.

Instead of the high standards of evidence Bird and Chervonnaya call for, with their big scoop, their Gorsky cable bombshell, we get Gorsky woulda/coulda/shoulda known Hiss' whereabouts. (Hiss scholars John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have noticed this problem, and Sam Tanenhaus noted it in a recent New Republicarticle on Chambers.)

But it gets worse. Bird and Chervonnaya should have been content with raising, as they do, a legitimate question about the Hiss/"Ales" identification. But they also insist on "proving" who the real "Ales" was.

They narrow their "Ales" suspects to one man, a State Department functionary named Wilder Foote. And here they rely way too much on guilt by association. They do to Wilder Foote what they believe McCarthyites did to Hiss.

There are problems with both their facts and the methods they use to do this. In the print edition of their American Scholar essay, they claim that Foote was in the "Bolshoi [Theater] central box" on a night when, according to the VENONA cables, "Ales" was congratulated and thanked for his spy work by a Soviet Military Intelligence big shot also seated in that box.

But in the expanded Web-only version, Bird and Chervonnaya include Wilder Foote's denial that he was in the central box in the Boshoi with all the nobs. Foote has claimed that he was, rather, seated in the orchestra of the ballet, not the central box. They never present a convincing reason why their claim should override Foote's.

But having convinced themselves Foote was in the right place at the right time, in the Bolshoi box, they proceed to try to convince us that he was a "Soviet asset." And it turns out they have little hard evidence for this and instead they present evidence that Foote's associations were somehow suspect.

They begin by citing FBI investigations of those associations: "Both the FBI and the CSC [Civil Service Commission] investigations [of Foote] revolved around Wilder Foote's various associations." (Despite being investigated, as was just about everyone in the State Department during the McCarthy period, Foote was never charged with anything.)

Citing the FBI's suspicions amounts to an insinuation that where there's smoke, there's fire. Bird and Chervonnaya do evince an awareness of the tainted history of such "guilt-by-association" investigations: "This can be shaky ground, of course," they write, "but [the study of associations] can suggest how a particular person might have been introduced to certain ideas or activities." Spoken as if they were defending the key method of McCarthyism!

They go on: "Critics may charge that we are somehow convicting Foote with the same 'guilt-by-association' tactics used throughout the McCarthy era."

Well, yes. That's exactly what they're doing. And they go on doing it. They cite—as if it had any relevance—Foote's association with the anti-Nazi, pro-intervention, prewar Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies chaired by William Allen White *, a mainstream liberal group. Talk about "marginalizing" liberals. This is a real stretch that recalls the McCarthyite term for communists: "premature anti-Fascists." [Update, July 19th: Writer Ron Radosh points out that "premature anti-fascist" is not, as is often thought, a McCarthyite term. It has been traced to U.S. communist veterans of the Spanish Civil War who, Radosh contends, wanted to emphasize their anti-fascism in light of the shameful Hitler-Stalin pact.]

Bird and Chervonnaya also find that Foote had "several longstanding friendships" with leftists, including two friends described by the Soviets as "highly left-wing," although there is no evidence that these friends were involved in espionage. Guilt by friendship!

They even use the rhetoric used by both communist and fascist regimes to brand their internal enemies: "Foote was a cosmopolitan," they say, and "an intellectual, and an internationalist." Case closed!

Worst of all, they quote Wilder Foote's son (who categorically denies their indictment of his father): "My father was on McCarthy's 'list' but was never called to testify."

The ultimate irony. In trying to exonerate Hiss, they end up (partially, at least) exonerating McCarthy's notorious little list of security risks. Essentially, they're saying that one of the alleged communists on McCarthy's list really was a secret Soviet asset.

At the end of their article, almost as if they've suddenly realized how far they've gone in their desperation to exonerate Hiss, Bird and Chervonnaya try to make nice to Wilder Foote and his son for the injury they're doing Foote and his family by smearing him as a previously undiscovered traitor.

They try transparently (and rather pathetically) to have it both ways: to say Foote was a spy, but a really nice guy. Foote, they say, "clearly believed himself to be a man of impeccable integrity, an idealist who dedicated most of his career as an international civil servant to building up the United Nations as a bulwark of world peace. If he was also a gentleman spy, he was excellent at his craft."

The obvious question staring out from that quote is this: Why can't they accept that this might be the truth about Hiss? Why not give him praise he might well appreciate rather than label another man as a spy in order to "exonerate" Hiss of something that—according to my conjecture—he may have been proud of?

In the end, they have the worst of both worlds. Without exonerating Hiss (since there's a great deal of evidence beyond the "Ales" identification against Hiss, more than "association"), they've raised the possibility that there were two spies rather than none. They've made Joe McCarthy look good, or anyway, better. Perhaps new evidence will finally turn up from Soviet archives to vindicate one side or another in this endless embittered battle. One can't rule out the possibility that Bird and Chervonnaya are right, but they haven't proven it here.

Meanwhile, it begins to look like the spell of the Hiss case can cloud the minds of its acolytes. The American Scholar piece becomes an instance of what it purports to warn against: looking at the evidence in intelligence cases through the lens of ideological predisposition.

Such thinking is, alas, not confined to the Hiss case. It's a lesson that intelligence agencies—and scholars—haven't learned if one looks at the way the evidence on WMDs was processed through an ideological lens with the evidence judged by whether it fits the desired conclusion. 

Correction, July 17, 2007: The article originally misspelled the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, July 17, 2007: This article originally misspelled the middle name of William Allen White. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)