Vindication from Russia welcome news to Hiss

October 30, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Shaking, leaning on a cane but speaking with rock-solid conviction, 87-year-old Alger Hiss presented evidence yesterday that he claims exonerates him from charges he was a Soviet spy.

Unable to stand to address the throng of reporters who had come back to see him after years of absence, Mr. Hiss spoke in a wavering voice of the 44 years he spent trying to prove his innocence and overturn his 1950 conviction for perjury: "I believed that eventually the matter would be cleared up, but I must admit that in recent years I had a sense of my mortality . . . and I have to say that I feared that it would not be in my lifetime."

A Baltimore native and Johns Hopkins University graduate, Mr. Hiss was a key government official in the 1930s and '40s, holding a top U.S. State Department post during World War II and helping at the founding of the United Nations.

During the Cold War, belief in his innocence or guilt became a litmus test of political views, but he said that people should now objectively study the new material and put the hates of the past behind them.

At the news conference, he released a videotaped interview with Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov, a respected Soviet historian who said that a thorough search of Soviet intelligence archives showed that Mr. Hiss was no spy.

"I have prepared an opinion on the basis of a careful study of the documents, archive materials, in the light of which I can make a firm conclusion that Alger Hiss was not ever or anywhere recruited as an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union," General Volkogonov, who is chairman of the Russian government's military intelligence archives, said in the interview.

Mr. Hiss remained absolutely firm about his innocence despite the consensus that grew over the past decades that he had had contacts with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and that he probably had committed perjury in 1948 when he refuted these assertions, which were leveled by Whittaker Chambers, a one-time Communist Party member. The charges and his sensational trial helped catapult former President Richard M. Nixon, then a young congressman, to national prominence.

Mr. Hiss presided calmly over the news conference and beamed as he watched the five-minute film, in which General Volkogonov said, "You can tell Mr. Alger Hiss that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart."

Later, when asked if he bore a grudge against Mr. Chambers or Mr. Nixon, Mr. Hiss acknowledged that his case is still so controversial that his innocence may never be accepted: "It may be that some people who have emotionally invested so much in it will have a contrary point of view. I can hardly expect them to change now."

Mr. Hiss said that he did not blame Mr. Nixon for attacking him, putting it down to "political opportunism."

He described Mr. Chambers, the former Time magazine editor who named Mr. Hiss a Soviet spy in 1948 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, as being psychologically unstable.

Like Mr. Chambers, who died of a heart attack in 1961, most of the principals in the drama are dead.

Organized by political allies at The Nation Institute, an arm of the liberal Nation magazine, the news conference had an aura of beatification. Mr. Hiss spoke, his friends nodded, and politeness reigned.

Many historians, however, remain skeptical -- if fascinated -- by the latest turn of events in the battle over Mr. Hiss' role.

"Of course this does reopen the Alger Hiss case, but no one can really say for sure what the verdict will be until Western scholars gain access to the files," said Allen Weinstein, whose 1978 book, "Perjury," basically supported Mr. Chambers.

Mr. Weinstein said that although he greatly respects General Volkogonov as a historian, he cannot believe that he was able to comb the labyrinth of Soviet archives in the two months that he devoted to the project. Mr. Weinstein also questioned the archival staff's openness, saying that he had been denied access to the archives just months before General Volkogonov gained entry. Officials had argued that because some of those involved are still living, they did not want to release information.

Another problem is the number of archives involved. Soviet military intelligence (GRU), the general intelligence service (KGB), and the Communist Party all had archives. Besides the fact that the party has no successor organization, putting their files in limbo, the KGB and GRU bureaucracies are extremely competitive, Mr. Weinstein said, and so may well not have cooperated fully with General Volkogonov.

But Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and a friend of Mr. Hiss, said that the agencies in the former Soviet Union have no interest in hushing up the case. If the Russians could admit that the Soviet Union massacred thousands of Polish officers in World War II near the town of Katyn, they can say if they received information from Mr. Hiss, he said.

Unable to charge Mr. Hiss with treason because the alleged acts had taken place too many years earlier, U.S. authorities accused Mr. Hiss of perjury when he maintained to a grand jury that he had had no contacts with Mr. Chambers in the 1930s. The government produced witnesses who said that they knew the men and Mr. Chambers produced papers, including some in Mr. Hiss' handwriting.

Convicted in 1951, Mr. Hiss served 3 1/2 years. He later pressed for his full rehabilitation, becoming a speaker on college campuses and author of books on his experiences. His legal appeals, however, were always turned down, which he attributes to political meddling and "the influence of the Cold War." He said he may now try again to win exoneration.

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