Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss was born in Baltimore on 11th November, 1904. When he was only two years old, his father committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. Educated at John Hopkins University and Harvard Law School (1926-29) and worked for the Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes. His biographer, Denise Noe, pointed out: "As a young man, the slim, handsome, and dapper Alger impressed most people as self-confident and more than a few as arrogant. He appeared to have avoided the depression that afflicted other members of his family and achieved success at a young age."

Hiss served in the departments of Agriculture, Justice and State, in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hiss also served as Roosevelt's adviser at the Yalta Conference in 1945. After working briefly as secretary-general of the United Nations, in 1949 Hiss became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In August 1948 Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and during his testimony claimed that Hiss had been a member of the American Communist Party and had provided information to the Soviet Union. Alistair Cooke argued in 1949: "The trial will be haunted at every turn by the great political issue that bedevils the conscience and well-being of every responsible citizen of a democratic country. Has a democrat the right to be a communist and to keep his job and a good opinion of society?"

In a federal grand jury investigation of the case, Hiss denied Chambers's accusations. However, as a result of this investigation, Hiss was charged with perjury. His first trial in 1949 ended in a hung jury but the following year, a second jury found Hiss guilty in January 1950, and sentenced him to five years imprisonment.

Hiss was released from prison in 1954. He spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. In the 1970s Hiss unsuccessfully sued the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to gain access to FBI and State Department files about the case.

Telegraph cables between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Second World War were released by the National Security Agency. One of the messages dated March 30, 1945, refers to an American with the code name Ales. According to the message, Ales was a Soviet agent working in the State Department, who accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the 1945 Yalta Conference and then flew to Moscow. As Hiss was with Roosevelt at Yalta it has been claimed that he was the Ales referred to in the cable.

With the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, attempts were made to obtain information on the case from the Soviet intelligence files. In 1992 Hiss wrote to the Russian historian Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov, the overseer of the Soviet intelligence archives, to request the release of any files on the case. On 14th October 1992, Volkogonov published a report that stated that he had found no evidence that Hiss had ever been an agent for KGB, for the GRU or for any other intelligence agency of the Soviet Union.

Alger Hiss died on 15th November, 1996.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Denise Noe, Alger Hiss (2007)

Alger Hiss was born in 1904, the fourth of five children in an upper-middle-class Presbyterian family in Baltimore. The Hiss family was financially comfortable but emotionally troubled. When Alger was only two years old, his father committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. When Alger was 25, his sister Mary Ann committed suicide by drinking a household cleanser. Hiss’s older brother Bosley, died when he was in his early twenties of Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder aggravated by Bosley’s overindulgence in alcohol.

As a young man, the slim, handsome, and dapper Alger impressed most people as self-confident and more than a few as arrogant. He appeared to have avoided the depression that afflicted other members of his family and achieved success at a young age. Hiss graduated from John Hopkins University in 1926. While there, he shone both academically and in extracurricular activities. He was a Phi Beta Kappa, a cadet commander in ROTC, and was voted “most popular student” by his graduating class.

(2) Alger Hiss interviewed by Richard Nixon at the House of Un-American Activities Committee (16th August, 1948)

Richard Nixon: As of course, Mr. Hiss, you are aware, the committee has a very difficult problem in regard to the testimony which has been submitted to the committee by Mr. Chambers and by yourself. As you have probably noted from the press accounts of the hearings, Whittaker Chambers during the period that he alleges that he knew you was not known by the name of Whittaker Chambers. He has testified that he was known by the name of Carl. Do you recall having known an individual between the years 1934 and 1937 whose name was Carl?

Alger Hiss: I do not recall anyone by the name of Carl that could remotely be connected with the kind of testimony Mr. Chambers has given.

Richard Nixon: I am now showing you two pictures of Mr. Whittaker Chambers, also known as Carl, who testified that he knew you between the years 1934-37, and that he saw you in 1939. I ask you know, after looking at those pictures, if you can remember that person either as Whittaker Chambers or as Carl or as any other individual you have met.

Alger Hiss: May I recall to the committee the testimony I gave in the public session when I was shown another photograph of Mr. Whittaker Chambers, and I had prior to taking the stand tried to get as many newspapers that had photographs of Mr. Chambers as I could. I testified then that I could not swear that I had never seen the man whose picture was shown me. Actually the face has a certain familiarity. I think I also testified to that.

(3) William A. Reuben, review of The Secret World of American Communism in the journal Rights (1995).

Chambers had been shown to be inaccurate about almost every detail of his personal life, from when and how he left Columbia University and the New York Public Library to how he made a living, to whether his mother worked, to when he got married and how old his brother was when he committed suicide. More important, he had contradicted his earlier testimony given to the Committee on numerous crucial subjects, from when he joined and left the Communist Party and how long he was in it, to whether he had known Harold Ware, to how and where he first met Alger Hiss. Since he had testified under oath in both instances, it was clear that either he had willfully perjured himself or that he was a man incapable of differentiating truth from fiction.

However, there was one important thing he had remained consistent about, as he had been for the last nine years: he still maintained that whatever he and Hiss did in the underground, espionage was not part of their activities. "Alger Hiss didn't do anything of this character," Chambers said near the close of his examination on November 5. "I never obtained documents from him."

(4) Alistair Cooke, Manchester Guardian (1st June, 1949)

The trial will be haunted at every turn by the great political issue that bedevils the conscience and well-being of every responsible citizen of a democratic country. Has a democrat the right to be a communist and to keep his job and a good opinion of society?

Across the square in which Mr Hiss will be tried, the trial of 11 communist leaders goes on to try to establish for the first time a court test of whether a communist is ipso facto a man dedicated to overthrow by force the government of this country. In the public mind the two trials set up a riptide in the ocean of fear and distrust that washes across all American discussion of communism. It is the sense of this embroilment in a conflict of belief that is happening to lesser men now suspect in their fields of scholarship or government, and the degree of mystery that surrounds the personal relationship of two brilliant young men, that has made this trial fascinating to people uninterested in the legal issue and made it read so far like an unwritten novel by Arthur Koestler.

(5) Edward Murrow, CBS radio broadcast from London (25th January 1950)

This morning Alger Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison for perjury. This afternoon the drama moved to Washington, to Secretary of State Acheson's press conference. The question was: "Mr. Secretary, have you any comment on the Alger Hiss case?" Mr. Acheson replied in these words: "Mr. Hiss's case is before the courts, and I think it would be highly improper for me to discuss the legal aspects of the case, or the evidence, or anything to do with the case. I take it the purpose of your question was to bring something other than that out of me." And then Mr. Acheson said, "I should like to make it clear to you that whatever the outcome of any appeal which Mr. Hiss or his lawyers may take in this case, I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss. I think every person who has known Alger Hiss, or has served with him at any time, has upon his conscience the very serious task of deciding what his attitude is, and what his conduct should be. That must be done by each person, in the light of his own standards and his own principles. For me," said Mr. Acheson, "there is very little doubt about those standards or those principles. I think they were stated for us a very long time ago. They were stated on the Mount of Olives, and if you are interested in seeing them, you will find them in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, beginning at Verse 34."

We are reliably informed that Secretary Acheson knew the question was coming but had not discussed his answer with President Truman because he regarded it as a personal matter. When Mr. Acheson was up for confirmation before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was questioned about Alger Hiss, said he was his friend and added, "My friendship is not easily given, and not easily withdrawn." He proved that today.

(6) Time Magazine (25th November, 1996)

The Russian general in charge of intelligence archives declared that they contained no evidence Hiss had ever been a spy. He subsequently recanted his assertion, however. And four years after, researchers digging through U.S. intelligence documents found intercepts of Soviet transmissions that suggested an American known as "Ales," perhaps Hiss, had been spying on the U.S. during that era

(7) Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov, letter to John Lowenthal (14th October, 1992)

On his and your request, I carefully studied many documents from the archives of the intelligence services of the USSR as well as various information provided for me by the archive staff. On the basis of a very careful analysis of all the information available, I can inform you that Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. When in the 40's he worked as a diplomat, Mr. A. Hiss did have official professional contacts with Soviet officials. But Mr. A. Hiss had never and nowhere been recruited as an agent of the intelligence services of the USSR. Not a single document, and a great amount of materials has been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. Probably, such old allegations are based on a misunderstanding or incorrect information. I believe that public opinion should have long since cleared Mister Hiss of the old suspicions, which are completely groundless.

(8) Eric Alterman, The Nation (29th April, 1996)

Here we go again. New York Post editor Eric Breindel, writing in The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, insists that the recent release by the National Security Agency of an encrypted document sent by a Soviet spy in Washington to his superiors in Moscow on March 30, 1945, constitutes "the smoking gun in the Hiss case," proving "beyond doubt" that Hiss "was still a Soviet agent in 1945."

Since I am writing in what Breindel (who has died since this article was written) preemptively calls "America's leading forum for Alger Hiss apologia," one could be forgiven for expecting yet another plea for justice for Hiss. Sorry. I take no position on guilt or innocence (in truth, I still can't make up my mind). Today's lesson deals instead with a disturbing nexus of scholarship, journalism and Cold War fanaticism that, based on either a careless or a deliberately malicious reading of declassified national security documents, threatens our ability ever to make sense of the past half-century of our history.

The drill has become a familiar one: Hitherto secret documents or ex-spy confessions, often backed up by a major publishing campaign, reveal that so-and-so was a spy all along. Journalists trumpet the charge, calling on "respected" academics to either endorse or debunk the charges. Depending on the usually predictable political orientation of the academic in question, a person's reputation is either destroyed or merely damaged. The story then goes away until the next batch of documents appears or the next spy gets religion.

The major news of the second batch of Venona releases dealt with Alger Hiss, long the period's most fascinating case. The definitive examination is generally considered to be Allen Weinstein's "Perjury," and Weinstein is most often the scholar whom journalists choose to consult. The product of prodigious research, "Perjury" received the liberal/leftist seal of approval from Irving Howe and Garry Wills, among the most honorable and fair-minded scholars this country has produced. Yet serious scholars, among them the publisher of this magazine, have discovered important discrepancies in Weinstein's use of sources that he has never been able to explain. One of his sources sued him for libel and won a published retraction from The New Republic (which published Weinstein's defense) and, according to New York magazine, a "substantial five-figure sum" in settlement. Weinstein has repeatedly promised during the past decade and a half to allow inspection of his notes, but he has refused all requests, going so far as to turn scholars away from his door when they arrived for ap-pointed interviews.

Weinstein went on to become an informal adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and his mantle has been inherited by Eric Breindel. Breindel is not a scholar by any definition of the term. He has never written a book, or any significant historical study in a professionally refereed publication, as far as I am aware. He is paid to express Rupert Murdoch's opinions, and his work demonstrates all the scrupulousness that such an association might imply. He also freelances for Marty Peretz and Norman Podhoretz on matters related to Alger Hiss.

Breindel's claim to have discovered a "smoking gun" in the Venona documents is based on a cable sent to Moscow by the spy Anatoli Gromov about a talk he had with Ishak Akhmerov, whom Breindel identifies as "one of the most important Soviet agents ever to serve in the U.S." (also Hopkins's alleged controller). The March 30, 1945, cable identifies an agent named "Ales" who has been "obtaining military information." Breindel makes much of the fact that, according to Gordievsky, Akhmerov had discussed Hiss and other U.S. agents he allegedly controlled when he first brought up Hopkins. Here's the kicker: "Gordievsky - who did not have access to the Venona cables when he produced his memoir - reports without reservation that Alger Hiss's Soviet codename was 'Ales.' In a 1989 essay, Thomas Powers likewise declares that Hiss was known to Moscow as 'Ales.'"

Breindel might have had a case here, but for one unfortunate fact: Gordievsky's source was Powers. (Perhaps unacquainted with the process of checking footnotes, Breindel apparently did not bother to look up the source for the claim regarding Hiss's alleged code name.) When I called Powers to ask him where he heard the original story, he named a counterintelligence agent who had told him about it after seeing the very same Venona document. Powers said there was "no question that the agent was referring to the same document that was just released." In other words, Breindel's corroborative pieces of evidence turn out to be the same document he is alleging to corroborate. Some smoking gun.

Breindel notes that the NSA. glossary "prepared for internal use" says Ales is "probably" Alger Hiss, and adds that Hiss apologists will make too much of that modifier. But the author should have leveled with his New Republic readers by noting that this "glossary" was written by an unknown NSA functionary and dated twenty-four years after the original cable, and is not supported by any corroborative evidence. NSA consultant David Kahn says that while the work of the code-breakers may be airtight, he would not vouch for the agents' identifications.

Breindel continues that "almost everything in the message conforms to representations about Hiss made by previous sources, including Whittaker Chambers." Again, not quite. Neither Chambers nor anyone else has previously asserted that Hiss was passing on military information (aside from extremely tangential material included in State Department documents). How would Hiss, a mid-level functionary at State, have been privy to secret military information in the first place? In The Wall Street Journal Breindel falsely identifies the telegram's sender, Gromov, as "the KGB's station chief in Washington." In The New Republic, however, he correctly names him as "the NKVD's station chief." (The NKVD was the party security service that predated the KGB.) Either way, what was Hiss, whom Breindel now claims to have been working for Soviet military intelligence - the GRU - doing reporting to the civilians? The two services may have shared information on occasion at the very highest levels of the Soviet Politburo, according to noted Soviet intelligence historian Amy Knight, but they are hardly known for interservice cooperation.

The logical leaps necessary to substantiate Breindel's argument are hardly more reassuring. Since, as Breindel insists, Hiss remained a spy through 1945, it is "no wonder Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko - in a rare manifestation of postwar Soviet-American cooperation - told his U.S. counterparts in the summer of 1945 that Moscow wouldn't object to the appointment of Mr. Hiss as secretary-general of the U.N.'s founding conference." I get it. The Soviets have this incredibly useful top-level spy passing them valued military information and decide, just for the fun of it, to put a red light on his head by publicly anointing him as the only Soviet-approved U.S. official in the diplomatic corps. This last argument, repeated in both The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, is sloppy even by Murdochian standards.

Most incredible of all, Breindel goes Gordievsky one better by suggesting that Harry Hopkins was a Soviet agent while serving under FDR. Breindel's evidence for this outlandish charge doesn't even measure up to his kamikaze attack on Hiss. It seems rather churlish to take offense at the sight of desperate ex-KGB agents cashing in on their murderous pasts by "remembering" sensational charges for which U.S. publishers are willing to pony up major advances. After all, these guys lied for a living. But the spectacle of U.S. Cold Warriors rushing to endorse the unsupported braggadocio of the Evil Empire's killer elite, rewrite history and destroy honorable reputations, is distasteful in the extreme. Until the media reject this new form of ideological hucksterism in favor of bona fide documentation of genuine espionage, our history will remain hostage to right-wing campaigns to smear and destroy. Such tactics display a contempt for history not exactly unknown in the now-defunct nation these men profess to detest.

(9) William A. Reuben, review of The Secret World of American Communism in the journal Rights (1995).

As if progressives had not in recent years been battered and bludgeoned enough already, we now learn that J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers & company really got it right: all Communists are/were actual, or wannabee, Russian spies. We also learn that during the Cold War years (and even before) hordes of leftists were abroad in the land, stealing "our" atomic secrets (and God only knows what else) for delivery to Joseph Stalin.

In recent days, this message has been dunned into our ears by such opinion-makers as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Theodore Draper, Michael Thomas, Edward Jay Epstein and David Garrow in the pages of The New York Times, The New Republic, Commentar, Wall Street Journal, The National Review, the "McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," and lots more (without a dissenting voice to be heard anywhere).

This all-out blitz has been fueled by The Secret World of American Communism, written by Professor Harvey Klehr, of Emory University, John Earl Haynes, of the Library of Congress, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, formerly of the Comintern Archives in Moscow at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents in Recent History. The authors claim to have put together a "massive documentary record" from the hitherto secret Comintern archives, revealing "the dark side of American communism." These documents establish, they say, proof both of "Soviet espionage in America" and of the American Communist Party's "inherent" connection with Soviet espionage operations and with its espionage services; and that such spy activities were considered, by both Soviet and the American CP leaders, "normal and proper."

Such assertions are not all that different from what J. Edgar Hoover (and his stooges) were saying half a century ago. But what reinforces the authors' statements are not only the documents from the Russian archives they claim to have uncovered, but also the imposing editorial advisory committee assembled to give this project an eminent scholarly cachet. This editorial advisory committee consists of 30 academics whose names are listed opposite the title page. They include seven Yale University professors, along with professors from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Brandeis, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh and Rochester universities. There are also an equal number of members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of officials of various Russian archives.

Reproduced in the book are 92 documents offered by the authors as evidence of what they say is the United States Communist Party's continuous history of "covert activity." These documents, according to Professor Steven Merrit Minor in The New York Times Book Review, reveal that American Communists "relayed atomic secrets to the Kremlin" and also support the testimony of Whittaker Chambers and others that the American Communist Party was engaged in underground conspiracies against the American Government. The authors also say that the documents suggest that those "who continued to claim otherwise were either willfully naive or, more likely, dishonest."

In actuality, many of the documents are ambiguously worded or in some sort of code known only to the senders and recipients. They often contain illegible words, numbers and signatures; relate to unidentifiable persons, places and events; and are preoccupied with bookkeeping matters, inner-party hassles or with protective security measures against FBI and Trotskyite spies. Most importantly, not a single document reproduced in this volume provides evidence of espionage. Ignoring all evidence that contradicts their thesis, the authors attempt to make a case relying on assumption, speculation, and invention about the archival material and, especially, by equating secrecy with illegal spying.

The book's high points are sections relating to what the authors call atomic espionage and the CP Washington spy apparatus. As someone who has carefully examined the archives at the Russian Center, and who over the past four decades has studied the trial transcripts of the major Cold War "spy" cases, I can state that "The Secret World of American Communism," notwithstanding its scholarly accouterments, is a disgracefully shoddy work, replete with errors, distortions and outright lies. As a purported work of objective scholarship, it is nothing less than a fraud.

In this context, certain facts ought to be noted:

* The Moscow archives contain no material relating to these key figures in the Cold War "spy" cases: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, Ruth and David Greenglass, Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing, Noel Field, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Colonel Boris Bykov and J. Peters. In my possession is a document, responding to my request, and dated October 12, 1992, signed by Oleg Naumov, Deputy Director of the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History, attesting that the Center has no files on, or relating to, any of the above-named persons.

* Despite the authors' assertion that the documents in this volume show that the CPUSA's elaborate underground apparatus collaborated with Soviet espionage services and also engaged in stealing the secrets of America's atomic bomb project, not one of the 92 documents reproduced in this book supports such a conclusion.

* The authors claim the documents corroborate Whittaker Chambers' allegations about a Communist underground in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and while the authors concede that Alger Hiss's name does not appear in any of the documents, they assert that the "subsequent documentation has further substantiated the case that Hiss was a spy." Yet, not one document from the Russian archives supports any of these damning statements.

A total of 15 pages in "Secret World" have some reference either to Hiss or Chambers. By my count, these contain 73 separate misrepresentations of fact or downright lies. For example, the authors claim that J. Peters "played a key role in Chambers' story" that Hiss was a Soviet spy. Peters played no role in Chambers' story about espionage. Chambers said that the key figure in his espionage activities with Hiss was a Russian named "Colonel Boris Bykov," a character whose identity the FBI spent years futilely trying to establish.

The authors claim Chambers testified he worked in the Communist underground in the 1930s with groups of government employees who "provided the CPUSA with information about sensitive government activities." In fact, Chambers testified to the exact contrary on 12 separate occasions.

References to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their case can be found on five pages. In those pages, by my tally, are 31 falsehoods or distortions of evidence. For example, the authors say the Rosenbergs' conviction was for "involvement in...atomic espionage." In fact they were convicted of conspiracy, and no evidence was ever produced that they ever handed over any information about anything to anyone.

The authors also say the Rosenbergs were arrested as a result of information the authorities obtained from Klaus Fuchs, which led to Harry Gold, who led them to David Greenglass, who implicated the Rosenbergs. All of these statements are based on an FBI press release. In fact, no evidence has ever been produced that indicates that Fuchs, Gold or Greenglass ever mentioned the Rosenbergs before their arrests.

Discussing one other "spy" case, that of Judith Coplon, against whom all charges were dismissed, the authors in typical contempt of official court records write that "there was not the slightest doubt of her guilt." In comments running no less than half a page, they invent a scenario of the Coplon case that contains 14 outright lies and distortions. For instance, the authors say she "stole" an FBI report and she was arrested when she handed over' the stolen report "to a Soviet citizen." All these statements are false; in her two trials, no evidence was ever adduced that she ever stole anything or that she ever handed over anything to anyone.

(10) John Bevilaqua, Alger Hiss (25th October, 2007)

They couldn't name Hiss if they did not even know him. The one telling fact which came out after the fact relates to the IBM analysis which concluded beyond the shadow of a doubt that the typewriter style or font used to produce the Pumpkin Papers did not even exist when these papers were allegedly found and typed.

Any other discussion, speculation or prevarication must first accept the fact of the forged papers as historical truth. The only discussion worth having in fact is who persecuted Hiss and why did they choose him as a target?

I think the answer is Wickliffe Preston Draper of The Pioneer Fund and his close crony Nathaniel Weyl who inadvertently admitted to me in a phone conversation that Weyl himself was guilty of a violation of the Neutrality Act during the Bayo-Pawley affair involving anti-Castro exiles. He lived out the rest of his life in the fear that he would be arrested and charged with this crime and others he admitted to in the course of the conversation including being an accessory after the fact to murder as he watched some of the anti-Castro exiles being shot in front of his eyes.