'He Was Never A Soviet, Spy'

It is the longest-running morality play of the cold war. Forty-four years after he was accused by Whittaker Chambers in proceedings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Alger Hiss is still on trial in America. Was he a spy, a member of a secret communist cell who passed along confidential State Department reports to the Soviets? Or was he a statesman framed by the fanatical right, a wanton sacrifice to the careers of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Rep. Richard Nixon? The legal system never resolved the question. In 1950, Hiss, who was not tried for espionage, was convicted on two counts of perjury and served almost four years in federal prison. A generation of Americans has grown up on one side of the political divide or another-passionate defenders or detractors of the man. Now nearly 88, Hiss has spent half his life protesting his innocence in books and legal appeals.

Last week, the cold-war drama inched toward the last act. Hiss received a boost from an unlikely source-- Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, an adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and chairman of the Supreme Council Commission on KGB and military-intelligence archives. Approached by John Lowenthal, an American filmmaker, historian and old friend of Hiss's, Volkogonov agreed in September to search for relevant files and inspect them personally. After weeks of poring through archives, Volkogonov concluded, "We have analyzed a huge amount of documents and determined as a result that Alger Hiss ... was never a spy for the Soviet Union."

That was bittersweet vindication for a man whose life has spanned most of this century. "This is a day of real rejoicing for me," Hiss told NEWSWEEK. "In the last few years, as the intimation of mortality became stronger, intellectually I realized that time was running out." Once, time seemed to stand still for the graduate of Harvard Law School, whose career began at the feet of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Drafted in the early days of the New Deal, Hiss rose quickly-serving the Nye Committee investigating the arms industry and the Justice Department, then acting as director of special political affairs in the State Department. Late in World War II, he assisted in the Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta conferences and served as secretary-general to the United Nations at its first meeting in San Francisco. In 1947, he quit government to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

By then, ironically, his doom had been assured. That year, Hiss was first interrogated by the FBI, which was pursuing accusations made by Chambers, then a senior editor at Time magazine. A self-confessed communist agent who claimed he had seen the light, Chambers had cast suspicion on Hiss's loyalty as early as 1938. Now he charged that Hiss had given him classified documents from the State Department, copied on an old typewriter, which he in turn passed along to Moscow. Hiss steadily denied that he had been a party member or that he had known Chambers. Eventually, the allegations came to the attention of HUAC and a young Richard Nixon, who saw a chance to capitalize on the mounting fears of communist infiltration in the U.S. government. Under questioning, Hiss conceded that Chambers was a man he had known in the 1930s as George Crosley. Two additional pieces of evidence-a typewriter found by the FBI and microfilmed documents produced by Chambers from a hollowed-out pumpkin-sent Hiss to a grand jury and subsequent conviction.

Last week's revelations failed to convince everyone of Hiss's innocence. Some longtime Moscow watchers found it hard to believe that Volkogonov, who also co-chairs the U.S.-Russian joint commission on POWs, had seen all relevant documents. "There's at least a strong suspicion that some intelligence files were burned or destroyed" during the first few days after the failed coup last year, says Prof. Alexander Dallin, a Russia specialist at Stanford University. Allen Weinstein, author of the 1978 "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," argues that little pertinent evidence exists in the KGB files scoured by Volkogonov. Of the Russian agents and defectors Weinstein has interviewed, "all said Chambers was with the GRU," or military intelligence. But the GRU might not be so forthcoming if it has records on Hiss. Weinstein says he was told by Yevgeny Primakov, director of Russia's foreign intelligence service, that Moscow "will never release files on foreign agents from the 1930s and 1940s because they might still be alive."

Will the world ever know the truth about Alger Hiss? Probably not. Volkogonov-a highly respected general, historian and politician-has no reason to lie. He has recently released damning information about Soviet cover-ups in the Katyn massacre and the downing of KAL Flight 007. But, as Marshall Goldman, a Russia expert at Wellesley College, points out, searching the archives to establish innocence "is like trying to prove there's no God." Hiss, who has spent much of the last four decades selling stationery and traveling the lecture circuit, insists he has nothing to hide-and makes no apologies. "Here I was before some people who I didn't respect. I may have treated them with a certain amount of disdain. I think I was justified.