Was Alger Hiss Innocent?

November 13, 1992

Last month, the chairman of the Russian military intelligence archives said his review of the newly-opened files disclosed "not a single document" that substantiates the charge that Alger Hiss spied for the Soviet Union. He called the ancient charge against Mr. Hiss "completely groundless."

Recently, on the Opinion * Commentary page, Mr. Hiss, a native of Baltimore, expressed his "gratification and joy at the end of an ordeal." He said the announcement from Russia was his "vindication." Today, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick writes on that page, "Don't believe it for a minute." Our own view is, "Don't believe it yet." It may not be true that Mr. Hiss was innocent of espionage. But it may be.

In an editorial in January 1950, after a jury convicted Mr. Hiss of perjury for having said he did not pass secret documents to Whittaker Chambers, a self-described former Soviet spy, we wrote, "For the time being, it is necessary to bow to this judgment, however painful it may be to us."

Today we say that for the sake of Mr. Hiss and his many friends and believers here and elsewhere we hope that the Soviet files and others still closed to researchers will vindicate Mr. Hiss. (The old House Committee on Un-American Activities, which created the Hiss-Chambers controversy in the first place, has sealed its files until the year 2026. They should be opened.) But the recent Russian announcement by itself is not enough to do that. Painful deference to the jury's verdict of nearly 43 years ago is still necessary.

The most thorough impartial account of the Hiss-Chambers controversy is in the 1978 book "Perjury" by Allen Weinstein. Professor Weinstein concluded "the body of available evidence proves that [Alger Hiss] did indeed perjure himself when describing his secret dealings with Chambers. . . ." He said last month that he still believes that, but that he has an open mind about the case and would like to see more scholarly probing of Russian intelligence files and other restricted archives.

Mr. Hiss is not the only person who has a keen interest in having the old mysteries about him re-examined. The effective truth of history is often what we think happened. The most useful and honest history is therefore that which reveals what in fact did happen.

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