New Evidence or New Disinformation -- in Hiss Case

November 14, 1993|By ANTERO PIETILA

Forty-five years have elapsed since Whitaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of having been a Communist and a spy for the Soviet Union.

Hiss, a former State Department official, denied the charges and was eventually convicted of lying in making that denial. As the U.S. wartime alliance with the Soviet Union was turning into anti-Communist hostility, the case became a harbinger of a change in the nation's political mood from New Deal idealism to Cold War ideological combat.

The publicity that the Hiss case garnered brought a little-known congressman from California, Richard M. Nixon, to national consciousness. It also persuaded a Wisconsin senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, that a coordinated Communist hunt promised a path to political prominence.

McCarthy and Chambers have long been dead; the Soviet Union expired two years ago. But Alger Hiss lives on, and the controversy about his guilt or innocence goes on.

The latest rounds in this dispute started a year ago, when Gen. Dmitry Volkogonov, Moscow's leading military historian, was quoted as asserting that Soviet archives revealed no proof that Hiss had been a spy while serving in Washington as an ascending aide in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration.

Hiss hailed the remark as a complete vindication and "the end of an ordeal." Those believing in his guilt belittled the general's conclusion, which the Russian himself later said was based on incomplete evidence.

Round two came in April with the publication in Commentary of an article, "Hiss: Guilty as charged." The material, recently recycled in the New York Times (Oct. 15) and New Republic (Nov. 8), reported that Maria Schmidt, a Hungarian historian, had proved that Hiss was a member of a Soviet spy cell.

The supposed "smoking gun" was a yellowing confession an American had made to the Communist secret police after being imprisoned on spy charges in Budapest. Depending on whom one believes, Noel Field, who later asked for political asylum in Communist Hungary and died there, was either a Soviet or CIA spy, or both.

The Nation, which has consistently proclaimed Hiss' innocence, quickly produced its own review of the evidence. Its conclusion was that Field was trying to save his skin and telling his captors whatever he believed they wanted to hear.

"Statements made in such a setting are neither 'unimpeachable' nor even 'testimony,' as those terms are used in our legal tradition," the Nation's investigator, Ethan Klingsberg, wrote in the Nov. 8 issue.

Over the years, the Hiss case has assumed a watershed quality that was not readily apparent in 1948 when Whitaker Chambers made his initial charges in an open session of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Up to that point, HUAC had been a stridently Republican panel bent on discrediting Roosevelt's New Deal. Hiss' friends and counsel urged him to disregard charges from Chambers, a Time editor who was a repentant Communist and self-acknowledged perjurer.

Hiss, who had recently received an honorary doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University and moved from the government to head the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, rejected that advice. He testified before HUAC and sued Chambers for libel. This turned out to be a major legal blunder because inconsistencies in his testimonies could then be submitted to a grand jury.

For a while, the grand jury seemed to go nowhere. But just days before its term was to end, Representative Nixon produced microfilms and documents incriminating Hiss that had been found hidden inside a pumpkin on Whitaker Chambers' farm near Westminster in Carroll County.

What had started as something of a crank accusation suddenly was daily front-page news. Hiss was soon convicted of lying. Chambers became a professional anti-Communist crusader. By then, the Cold War was raging overseas, and a McCarthyite witch hunt was starting at home.

To a British journalist, Alistair Cooke, the change of political climate from reason to hysteria was so stark that he came to call the spectacle "a generation on trial."

Until his conviction, Hiss had seemingly lived a charmed life: a year as a secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, acquaintance with Justice Felix Frankfurter and other leading legal lights.

He had worked on sensitive New Deal assignments, culminating with important roles at Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta, two conferences that shaped the postwar world. When the United Nations was established in 1945, Hiss was the secretary general of the founding conference. There was talk he might be the secretary of state one day.

By contrast, Whitaker Chambers, while unquestionably talented, had been a loser for much of his life. He had done some translations but seemingly had difficulty keeping jobs. The dozen aliases he had used suggested a man who was adrift. He and Hiss seemed to have little in common, and that was Hiss' contention. Chambers claimed the two had been very close.

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