Friday, April 06, 2007

Alger Hiss in the news again

How many of you have ever wondered whether Alger Hiss was indeed a spy? Almost forty years later, the evidence is still being debated.

The first time I heard of the story of a respected member of the liberal establishment being accused of espionage and convicted of perjury, I had to wonder. What was the real story? Was he truly guilty, as his detractors claimed, or what he really innocent, as he and his family have claimed long past his death?

I wrote an article about the Hiss case which is a bit long, so I won't rerun it in full here - but it details my investigation and why I came to believe Hiss was innocent. (Read it here.)

History is nothing without context. So here's the backdrop of the Hiss case.

WWII had only ended three years earlier at the time Hiss was originally hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to explain the accusation of spying made by Whittaker Chambers, a confessed Communist spy himself. As I wrote in the referenced article:

At the committee hearings the day after Chambers first accused Hiss of being a communist, Hiss made such a good showing that, according to [Richard] Nixon's own account, "the Hiss-Chambers investigation was almost dropped." In a case of unfortunate timing, President Truman publicly charged that the Committee's attempts to flush out communist spies were a "red herring." This put the committee strongly on the defensive. Press people suggested to Nixon that the Committee's life was in jeopardy if it couldn't prove Chambers' story was correct. The controversy over the Committee's activities was already politically polarizing, and in an election year, the stakes were higher than usual. The committee decided to press the case. They fought back.

Hiss had been told by the FBI of the spying allegation the year before, in 1947. The FBI was convinced that Hiss was telling the truth, and let the matter drop. But when the issue surfaced again via HUAC, Hiss fired off a telegram to the committee which would be used, unfairly, as it turns out, to convict Hiss of perjury:

My attention has been called by representatives of the press to statements made about me before your committee this morning by one Whittaker Chambers. I do not know Mister Chambers and, so far as I am aware, have never laid eyes on him. There is no basis for the statements about me made to your committee. I would appreciate it if you would make this telegram a part of your committee's records and I would further appreciate the opportunity of appearing before your committee to make these statements formally and under oath.

Hiss was actually telling the truth, but it would take longer than his perjury conviction for all the facts on that count to surface. As I wrote earlier:

Nixon told U.S. News & World Report that "Hiss' testimony was just too slick," and that Hiss had committed a "fatal flaw." Nixon was sure that Hiss did know Chambers. And so Hiss did. But under the name of George Crosley-and ten years, a mustache and fifty pounds earlier. Hiss was only shown a picture of Chambers and asked from the picture to identify the man. Hiss said he could not be sure whether he knew the man unless he could see him in the flesh, saying, "The face is definitely not an unfamiliar face. Whether I am imagining it, whether it is because he looks like a lot of other people, I don't know, but I have never known anyone who had the relationship with me that this man has testified to and that, I think, is the important thing here."

Two weeks into the brouhaha, when Hiss was finally able to see Chambers in person, he realized he had, indeed, know Chambers, but only under the name George Crosley. But he was still convicted of perjury for having stated that he didn't know him.

I hate to see any man convincted of anything based on false evidence. But what really got my interest in the case going were these few tidbits of information:

  1. Nixon teamed up with the soon-to-be-CIA-head Allen Dulles and his brother John Foster Dulles to discuss how to handle Chambers' accusations.

  2. At the same time, Allen and John Foster were supporting Dewey's campaign against Truman.

  3. In addition, the newly formed CIA was already at war with the State Department and press accounts mentioned there was "open name-calling" between them.

Piecing those items together, I had a sudden epiphany. The Hiss case was being used as a proxy to justify a broadening of the nascent Cold War. If there were Communists at home and abroad, none of us were safe, and we needed the CIA more than ever, etc. etc. Just as today we are told that we have to give up our liberties to protect us from Terrorism, people in the fifties were told to give up their rights, to inform on their neighbors in the war on Communism. Hiss was the original WMD, used to justify the takeover of foreign policy by the Dulles brothers, aided and abetted by Nixon and other right-wingers who wanted to see Truman removed from office.

No evidence ever surfaced, despite press hoopla re the "pumpkin papers" and other such nonsense, to prove Hiss's guilt. None, say some, until the release of the Venona files.

The Venona files are transcripts of Russian cables translated by experts at the CIA in conjunction with the NSA (who intercepted the cables). They are often cited by those who claim Hiss's guilt is proven. But have a look for yourself. Note that the best the CIA/NSA could say is that ALES was "probably" Alger Hiss. How'd you like to be convicted of treason based on such a flimsy identification?

All of this brings me to a news story that surfaced yesterday. At a day-long symposium in New York City, author Kai Bird, a respected establishment authority, said the ALES referenced in the Venona document was not Alger Hiss, but in fact another U.S. Official named Wilder Foote. According to Richard Pyle's AP account:

Bird said he and co-researcher Svetlana A. Chervonnaya had identified nine possible suspects among U.S. State Department officials present at the U.S.-Soviet Yalta conference in 1945. A process of elimination based on their subsequent travels to Moscow and Mexico City excluded eight of them, including Hiss, he said.

``It left only one man standing: Wilder Foote,'' Bird said.

...In a telephone interview, Bird said that more research would be required to prove that Foote was Ales but that ``he fits the itinerary in every way, and Hiss simply does not.''

I continue to believe that Hiss was innocent, but that sadly, it appears one's political loyalties often supercedes the facts in this case. Right-wingers and CIA-supporting liberals continue to dismiss all the evidence that shows Hiss was not a spy and continue to cite long disproven evidence that he was.

I doubt we'll ever see the major media take a strong stance on the Hiss case one way or another. Hiss is now a victim of an incomplete and inaccurate history, where evidence is not respected as much as mass opinion. I'm sorry - I don't believe in Mob rule for politics or for history. The majority decision does not determine truth. The truth is the truth, whether a majority believes it or not.

For a really in-depth, detailed and objective examination of the evidence, please visit this amazing and comprehensive New York University site, The Alger Hiss Story. You'll find original documents, videos, explanations, and various "proofs" examined, including the "Gorsky list" which supposedly proved Hiss's guilt, but which, under examination, again proves nothing of the sort.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,
Thanks for the update on this outrageous travesty of justice. In 1979 I saw a film, (more of a documentary), called "The Trial of Alger Hiss" that totally convinced me he was framed.

It struck me then that it was not just poitical with Nixon but personal. Hiss, like JFK was handsome and Ivy League. Two things Tricky was not and his jealousy was palpable.

I checked on google to see if this film is still available and found one copy for $80.00. Too bad someone has not re-released it.

If memory serves me I think Hiss was finally vindicated and even reinstated to the bar in his later years. Of course way too little and way too late.

I always thought Nixon would go down in history as the worst president ever but Bush has him beat by a mile.

Incidently I thought Stone's film "Nixon" was excellent. Almost as good as JFK.

I wish Stone would make a film on the RFK case....


5:58 AM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Wow - I wonder if that film is on Netflix? I'll have to look for it. Or maybe it can be found in a library. Something should be done to make films like that more readily available, darn it!

That's interesting re the personal angle. Nixon sure did seem obsessed with those blessed with more natural gifts than himself.

Re a film on the RFK case, don't we ALL wish he'd make that. I fear he's been burned too much from the JFK experience to return to something that daring again. But I hope I'm wrong on that count!

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What a wonderful gift your site is and what gifted writer you are. I think it was about two years ago I went to the video store, and for some reason I was compelled to pick up the JFK video which I hadn't seen in at least a decade. Also, when I had seen the movie ten years ago, I was essentially unconcious as to the true magnitude and heart breaking significance of that event. I was not born at the time when JFK was murdered and, I honestly dont know if it is because I am from Dallas but perhaps it was an event too painful for those like my parents to ever delve into with me. I don't know.
After watching JFK two years ago, I proceeded to watch it another time, and not too long after that, another time. Each time I became angrier and sadder simontaneously.
I was already awake so to speak, due to the 2000 Coup of our presidency, and yet, those viewings of JFK two years ago sent me to another level of awareness and awakening. You and your wonderful site have propelled me, as Im sure so many others, into knowing more and trying to inspire awakenings in others as well.
Thanks so much again for all you are doing to awaken people to inquire, ask and speak out. It is so appreciated.

Connie in Studio City

8:57 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Thanks so much, Connie. As the great UN Secretary Dag Hammarskjold once wrote:

Tired and lonely
So tired the heart aches.
Melt water trickels down the rocks.
The fingers are numb, the knees tremble.
It is now.
Now that you must not give in.
On the path of others are resting places,
Places in the sun where they can meet.
But this is your path.
And it is now,
Now that you must not fail.
Weep if you can.
Weep, but do not complain.
The way chose you
And you must be thankful.

This is not a path I would have thought to choose. But I feel strongly the path chose me, and while there have been many tears, I do try hard to be grateful for that.

We're neighbors, btw. I'm in Los Angeles.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Don't you wish you could edit your comments?? That should have read "trickles" - I copied it from someone else's page and didn't think to check the spelling first!

9:22 PM  

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