'Exoneration' Of Alger Hiss

On Oct. 29 The New York Times reported that Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, in charge of oversight of Russia's intelligence archives, had declared the espionage accusation against Alger Hiss "completely groundless." He said, "Not a single document, and a great amount of materials has been studied, substantiates the allegation." He made this declaration at the behest of Hiss, and of John Lowenthal, who traveled to Moscow and whom the Times described as "a historian and filmmaker who has long studied the Hiss case."

On the evening of Oct. 29 all three network television newscasts carried the story. ABC added the cautionary thought that Volkogonov had hardly had time in the weeks since Hiss's request to review the many scores of millions of documents in all the relevant archives. "CBS Morning News" reported Hiss "apparently exonerated." "CBS This Morning" misdescribed Hiss as "a State Department lawyer in the 1950s." (He was gone from government in 1947.) On NBC's "Saturday Today," Scott Simon made two things clear-that he thinks Hiss was the victim of an injustice, and that he, Simon, knows next to nothing about the Hiss case. (Simon said Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss of passing secret documents that "Hiss shot on microfilm and hid in a pumpkin." It was Chambers who hid the microfilm in a pumpkin on his Maryland farm.)

USA Today's headline was RUSSIAN FILES: HISS NEVER SPIED. CNN's Gary Tuchman pointedly wondered why, given Volkogonov's statement, "Hiss's own government has not exonerated him." On National Public Radio Bob Edwards, interviewing Tony Hiss, Alger's son, said the case against Hiss was "based wholly on the testimony of Whittaker Chambers." But the testimony was amply corroborated by many documents and individuals. The busy Scott Simon, hosting NPR's "Weekend Edition," interviewed Raymond Bonner, a former writer for The New Yorker magazine, who said the "vindication" of Hiss discredits anti-communism. The New Yorker rushed to give seven pages for Tony Hiss's essay "My Father's Honor."

(Tony Hiss dismissed Chambers as "a self-confessed liar." However, much of Chambers's acknowledged lying was committed after he quit being a Soviet agent and to protect Hiss and others from espionage charges. Hiss partisans always stress that he was never convicted of espionage. But only the statute of limitations protected him from that, and his perjury conviction presupposed espionage-lying about not having seen Chambers and not having passed documents to him after mid-1936.)

Then on Nov. 24 Volkogonov, disconcerted by responses to his Hiss statement, wrote a letter to Moscow's Nezavisimaya Gazeta. He said he had made his Hiss statement in response to prompting by "Hiss and his lawyer." The lawyer is Lowenthal, the "historian, and filmmaker" who also is a lawyer long associated with Hiss. Volkogonov said he felt "humanitarian" concern for Hiss who "only wanted to die peacefully." Having previously claimed to have made an exhaustive search of all relevant archives, he now said only: "I was able to visit the Foreign Intelligence Archive several times." And he said many documents may have been destroyed.

On Dec. 17 a New York Times headline said: RUSSIAN GENERAL RETREATS ON HISS. The story quoted Volkogonov saying of his archival search, "I did spend two days swallowing dust." He explained: "[Hiss's] attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced." Volkogonov's retreat was not reported by ABC or CBS or NBC or CNN or most of the other media that had disseminated the "exoneration" story.

The "vindication" of Hiss by the supposed absence of some Soviet document was preposterous to anyone even moderately conversant-as Volkogonov acknowledges he is not-with the voluminous and publicly available American documents and scholarship concerning the case. In 1978 Allen Weinstein, a historian then at Smith College, published the definitive book "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case." Weinstein began his research inclined to believe Hiss. After examining 40,000 pages of previously classified material and meeting with more than 40 people involved in the case but never before interviewed (including Soviet agents who confirmed Chambers's testimony), Weinstein proved, unassailably, that Hiss was guilty.

A mere enumeration of demonstrable lies by Hiss would fill this NEWSWEEK page. A summary of them is in the current National Review, in an article by Jacob Cohen of Brandeis. Hiss's life illustrates that a lie, big and brazen and persistent enough, will find believers among the gullible, and sponsors among people who are intellectually corrupt for political reasons.

Hiss said he had never known Chambers; or had known him only as "George Crosley," and then only briefly and superficially, and not at all since mid-1936. But Chambers, a Soviet spy from 1932 to 1938, demonstrated intimate familiarity (habits, hobbies, childhood memories) with Hiss and his wife. Hiss gave Chambers a car, and paid the insurance on it for a year. Hiss received from Chambers an Oriental rug from the Soviet Union. Chambers produced handwritten official notes of Hiss's and government documents retyped on Hiss's typewriter. As Cohen writes, "On every salient point of Chambers's account which Hiss chose to challenge, Chambers's version has found triumphant verification."

The remnant of Hiss true believers (and of ideologically driven cynics) have had to devise evermore rococo reasons for believing, or claiming to believe, he was framed. Today they assert that hundreds of people and agencies concocted a conspiracy gargantuan, subtle and complex (including a flawlessly forged copy of Hiss's typewriter). Only the childish or the paranoid can believe in it.

However, most Americans, unversed in the arcana of this case, are at the mercy of Hiss's continuing mendacity. Now the spurious "exoneration" by Volkogonov, lingering in the air like the Cheshire cat's grin, is Hiss's reward for his cold persistence in exploiting American amnesia (an affliction made worse by slipshod journalism) and the credulity or dishonesty of people eager to think well of him in order to think ill of the nation he betrayed.

'Exoneration' Of Alger Hiss | News