Out in the Cold Spy or 'saint'? Alger Hiss, now 91, has spent half his life trying to clear his name. He has not been alone. However, the latest evidence does not help the cause.

March 09, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

The once dashing figure is frail now and nearly blind, exiled in a sunny fifth-floor apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

At 91, Alger Hiss is still patiently waiting for his reputation to be restored, hoping to be remembered as a loyal public servant rather than a spy.

"The full truth is bound to vindicate him," says his son Tony, a New York writer. "I think he's always hoped in his life it would be resolved. He's certain it will be. He's never wavered in that."

For nearly half a century, Mr. Hiss has been the center of a fierce controversy; his story remains one of the last, great mysteries of the Cold War. Convicted in 1950 of perjury -- the statute of limitations had run out on espionage -- he spent 44 months in a federal prison.

But the question remains: Was the urbane, Baltimore-born lawyer and rising State Department official actually a Soviet agent?

Most historians are convinced of his guilt, though they agree there is no definitive proof. This week, a secret 1945 Soviet telegram, released by the National Security Agency, provided another piece to the puzzle. The message concerned a State Department official code-named "Ales" who passed U.S. military information to the Kremlin and was decorated by his Russian handlers.

A simple footnote was added to the message by federal investigators: "Ales: Probably Alger Hiss."

"I'm not sure I'd call it a smoking gun, but there's some smoke there," says John E. Haynes, historian at the Library of Congress and author of "The Secret World of American Communism." "I would say it adds to the evidence."

But Mr. Hiss' tight circle of supporters, who over the years have ranged from Secretary of State Dean Acheson to Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation, came to his defense. "Some government flunky in his footnote was wrong when he says Alger Hiss," says John Lowenthal, a lawyer and filmmaker who made a 1980

documentary "The Trials of Alger Hiss."

Nearly a half century later, the Hiss case still resonates, debated on the pages of national magazines and stuck somewhere in the nether world between history and myth. Today at the box office, Alger Hiss shows up as a victim in Oliver Stone's movie "Nixon."

The charges against Mr. Hiss came in the midst of troubling times. He was denounced by Republicans as the Benedict Arnold of the 20th century; even his name had a sinister, Dickensian ring. Democrats bitterly dismissed his chief accuser, Whittaker Chambers, as a pathological liar out to destroy an innocent man as well as New Deal policies.

The spy charges struck a chord with an American public perplexed by an increasingly hostile postwar world: Russia had being swept under Soviet control. Communists were victorious in China.

"If the U.S. emerged as the most powerful nation after World War II, why is it we seemed to be losing to our enemies?" asks Sam Tanenhaus, biographer of Mr. Chambers, repeating a common question of the time. "It must be there are traitors inside the gate."

"Hiss was the very symbol for his adversaries of the New Deal and cooperation with the Russians during the Second World War," says Allen Weinstein, author of "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case." "Hiss knew everybody and everybody

knew Hiss."

For the afternoon of Aug. 3, 1948, the House Committee on Un-American Activities switched to a larger hearing room in preparation for a "mystery witness." Reporters were quickly summoned.

Seated before the committee was a portly, 47-year-old man in a )) wrinkled suit. Whittaker Chambers was a former reporter for the Communist newspaper the New Masses and a free-lance translator. In the early 1930s, Mr. Chambers became a Communist underground agent, but grew disillusioned with the party and left in 1938.

Reading from a prepared statement in a bored monotone, Mr. Chambers told of a cell of Communists who operated in Washington. Then he read a list of former, mid-level government officials, ending with the name Alger Hiss.

Mr. Hiss had left the State Department two years earlier to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. During his 11 years with the department, he accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta to discuss the postwar world with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill and served as a key American organizer of the United Nations.

Tall, elegant and impeccably tailored, Mr. Hiss was every inch the patrician diplomat.

He grew up in Bolton Hill, attended City College and graduated from the Johns Hopkins University in 1926, where he excelled in debating and was chosen the "best hand shaker" in his class. "He moved with a casual grace suggestive of Baltimore Cotillions or Gibson Island tennis matches, at both of which he was a familiar figure," wrote historian William Manchester. At Harvard Law School he became a protege of Felix Frankfurter, then clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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