Hiss' case still lacks vindication

Sam Tanenhaus

November 04, 1992|By Sam Tanenhaus

ALGER Hiss has never lacked for credentialed defenders.

Dean Acheson, Felix Frankfurter and Eleanor Roosevelt avowed their belief in his claim that he did not belong to a communist spy ring in the 1930s.

Now, 42 years after Hiss' conviction on two counts of perjury, a new defender has come forward bearing the most impressive credentials of all.

He is Gen. Dmitri A. Volkogonov, chairman of the Russian government's military intelligence archives and a reputable historian.

In a videotaped interview with John Lowenthal, a longtime student of the Hiss case, he declared in no uncertain terms that Hiss was innocent.

The general says he has based his conclusion on his own thorough examination of Soviet intelligence archives where "not a single document -- and a great amount of materials has been studied -- substantiates the allegation that Hiss collaborated with the intelligence service of the Soviet Union."

How reliable are these findings? It is impossible to say.

To scholars versed in the intricacies of the Hiss case and the Soviet archives, it is puzzling that General Volkogonov gave Mr. Lowenthal an interview and a typed statement but did not elaborate on his findings or explain, save in vague terms, how his research was conducted.

As a result, his statement raises more questions than it answers, questions such as these:

Given the labyrinthine Soviet archives and overwhelming number of potentially relevant documents housed in far-flung repositories thousands of miles apart, how did the general manage to examine them all in eight to 10 weeks -- the total time he and his staff spent on the case, amid, we must assume, many other pressing duties?

Exactly which archives did he consult? He cites two: the military intelligence files and files of the foreign intelligence archive.

Is that all? If so, it is not surprising that he came up empty-handed.

Within the maze of the Soviet archives, material often surfaces in unlikely places, as my research associate Alan Cullison can testify.

This year, he was looking for documentation on a military intelligence agent who played a prominent role in the New York underground in 1933 and who figured in the Hiss case.

Mr. Cullison found no record of this agent in the military files, despite the agent's high rank, and did not even see his name among the lists of Soviet Communist Party members.

The agent's file did turn up in a KGB division -- but only after a

tortuous and exhaustive search that involved aliases and false leads.

Did Volkogonov encounter these kinds of frustrating difficulties?

We don't know. We do know that the general's remarks about Hiss' accuser, Whittaker Chambers, differ sharply from established evidence about Chambers' espionage career.

In the general's view, Chambers was simply "a member of the American Communist Party" who had no contact with Soviet intelligence agents.

This opinion begs for clarification since it seems to ignore the accounts of agents who admitted they had worked closely with Chambers in the underground -- for instance, Nadezhda Ulanovskaya, a Russian emigre who has corroborated Chambers' version of their dealings in New York.

Is Mr. Volkogonov familiar with her career in the underground? If so, did he look into her file, and what did he find?

And did he pursue the trail of the many other operatives, American and foreign, who confirmed in great detail Chambers' own testimony about espionage in the United States?

The trouble with Mr. Volkogonov's announcement is not so much what it says as what it leaves unsaid.

Either he has divulged only a fraction of what he knows or he has not learned much at all. His statement, with its warm personal greeting to Hiss, had a tone more ceremonial than scholarly.

Until he produces some kind of documentary evidence and discloses the exact route he followed in his research, his statement cannot be said to vindicate Hiss.

Instead, it stands as one more curious episode in this most complicated of Cold War dramas.

Sam Tanenhaus has a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a biography of Whittaker Chambers.

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