Hiss: Guilty as Charged

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

November 13, 1992|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

The other day the newspapers gave new prominence to the old story of the trial and conviction of Alger Hiss. This time the headlines told us that Hiss had been ''vindicated'' or ''exonerated'' by new evidence from Moscow.

Don't believe it for a minute. The most recent eruption in the Hiss case came from a Russian historian, Dmitri Volkogonov, who searched Soviet archives looking for evidence that in the '30s Hiss supplied classified documents to the Soviets. He found none: ''Not a single document, and a great amount of material has been studied, substantiates the allegations that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.''

Then General Volkogonov added a positive statement that no good historian should make: ''Mr. A. Hiss had never and nowhere been recruited as an agent of the intelligence service.''

The Russian historian, of course, cannot prove a negative. No one today can prove that Hiss was ''never and nowhere recruited'' to serve as a Soviet spy. In the Byzantine mazes of Soviet espionage, incriminating documents could lie in files unknown to General Volkogonov. Given the sensational nature of the Hiss case, relevant documents could well have been destroyed.

The proof is on the positive side. In congressional hearings and in Hiss' dramatic trial, Whittaker Chambers provided overwhelming evidence of Hiss' guilt. Like the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the murder of John F. Kennedy, the Hiss affair keeps rumbling and bubbling. A key figure dies, someone writes a book, the public broadcasting people produce a pro-Hiss film. The case is likely to live forever.

For good reason. The story of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers symbolizes the most towering story of this century, the conflict between democratic freedom and communist slavery. The pity is that Chambers never lived to see freedom win. Today the hearings and the trials are remembered only as a contest between two dissimilar men -- Hiss, the well-tailored diplomat, and Chambers, the courier spy.

Hiss was slim, elegant, patrician, a kind of cloisonne man. He was private schools, Harvard Law, clerk to Justice Holmes, a lower-level diplomat in the State Department, finally head of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. Behind the enameled surface he was something else, an idealist whose sympathies lay with the communist cause.

In ''Witness,'' one of the most important books of this century, Chambers described such flower children of the '30s. They were spiritual vagrants, he said, whose traditional faith had been leached out. ''They were looking for an intellectual night's lodging.''

Chambers was the opposite of Hiss in every way. Born to a middle-class family in Philadelphia in 1901, he grew up as a bookish boy in a broken home. After high school, he ran away. He became a common laborer, traveled widely, identified himself with the proletariat. In 1925 he became convinced ''that only surgery could now save the wreckage of mankind, and that the Communist Party was history's surgeon.'' In 1934, he moved underground as courier for the party's ''Ware Group'' in Washington.

He stayed in the party for 13 years. At last, ''slowly, reluctantly, in agony,'' he repudiated communism and deserted the party. He caught on with Time, became a senior editor -- a quiet man, rumpled, jowly, taciturn. At last Chambers concluded that he owed it to his country and to his children to expose everything he knew about the communist apparatus in the United States. He would atone.

Summoned before a House committee, he identified Alger Hiss as one of his sources. The shock resounded through Washington. Hiss belligerently denied everything. Liberal media leaped to his defense. Only a handful of congressmen were willing to hear Chambers' evidence, but in absorbing detail his allegations checked out at every turn.

Those who followed the story at the time will remember the gripping drama of their confrontation. There was the damning typewriter, the old Ford coupe, the documents in Hiss' handwriting, the microfilm, the prothonotary warbler. It all comes back. Hiss' world collapsed in the rubble of his lies, and he went to prison for perjury.

The charge was true then. It remains untouched by the Russian historian's statement a week ago. Chambers died in 1961. Hiss lives on, a pitiful relic of the age of the Cold War, still denying his insignificant treason to an audience that ceased to care a long time ago.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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