Alger Hiss Dead at 92: Accused of spying for the Soviets, he always proclaimed innocence.

November 16, 1996

ALGER HISS goes to his grave in sole possession of the definitive answers to the spy case that rocked the country when anti-Soviet hysteria raged at the beginning of the Cold War.

He goes to his grave proclaiming his innocence of charges by his storied antagonist, Whitaker Chambers, that he passed State Department secrets to Moscow even as evidence from long-secret KGB files piles up to the contrary. He goes to his grave with history's final verdict still out and his supporters and detractors still vehemently at odds.

For Marylanders, the Alger Hiss case has special poignancy. He was born in Baltimore, went to City College and Johns Hopkins University, moved on with his patrician social graces intact to Harvard Law School, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' chambers and to the upper ranks of the State Department, where he accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta and then played a major role in the founding of the United Nations.

This glittering career path came to a crashing halt in 1948 when Mr. Chambers, a former Communist turned Communist-hater, told a House investigating committee that Mr. Hiss was a spy and a traitor. It was Mr. Chambers who went to his Carroll County farm to retrieve the famous "pumpkin papers" (actually films) that were presented as his key evidence against Mr. Hiss. Thus began a debate that led to charges and counter-charges, perjury trials and Mr. Hiss' conviction and incarceration.

Both protagonists wrote widely acclaimed memoirs. Both were seen as symbols of a generation torn by early fascination with Communist idealism, the brutalities of the Stalinist show trials, the wartime American-Soviet alliance and the ideological-military confrontation of the Cold War years. There was a class-war element, too, with Hiss supporters unable to imagine this elegant son of the Establishment as less credible than the rumpled, alcoholic, absolutist, fantasizing Chambers.

In time, perhaps the truth will come out as more documents are released. But on his death yesterday, at 92, Whitaker Chambers having preceded him, only Alger Hiss knew the answer to one of the great secrets of the century.

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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