Alger Hiss case back in spotlight


Espionage: Historians are asking a federal court to unseal grand jury files in an effort to understand workings of postwar anti-communism investigations.

January 31, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The Alger Hiss case, it turns out, is not quite over.

It has been nearly 50 years since the late State Department official was convicted of perjury for lying about working as a Soviet agent, the trial inciting what one writer of the day called an American "religious war." Hiss, a man of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School, became first an emblem of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal elite, then a defining figure of the Cold War. Hiss the man died at 92 in 1996, still claiming innocence; Hiss the symbol remains vigorous.

Now a group of historians returns to one scene of the drama -- federal court in Manhattan -- asking the court to unseal secret grand jury records in the case. Backed by Hiss critics, supporters and many in between, the historians say the records may shed light on the workings of the Hiss investigation, sharpening our understanding of postwar anti-communism.

Despite the many books and articles written on the Hiss case, the petitioners say "many unanswered questions -- questions about changed testimony, alleged judicial improprieties and political interference -- remain."

"What we don't have is anything new on what brought Alger Hiss to trial," says historian Anna Kasten Nelson of American University, who submitted a three-page statement supporting the petition.

Hiss, who served 44 months in prison, tried several times to have the grand jury records released, believing that complete disclosure would vindicate him. The petition makes no such argument.

This may help explain why it is being supported across the political spectrum. Among the 15 people who submitted statements supporting the petition are Victor S. Navasky, publisher and editorial director of the left-wing weekly The Nation, and William F. Buckley Jr., founder and editor-at-large of the National Review.

Buckley wrote from the perspective of a political conservative who, in the 1950s, befriended Hiss' chief accuser, Whittaker Chambers.

A confessed former Communist courier, Chambers was an editor at Time magazine in 1948 when he made his dramatic appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, accusing Hiss of being a member of a Communist underground group in the 1930s. Hiss denied the charge then and throughout his life.

In a three-page statement supporting the petition, Buckley wrote that based on his friendship with Chambers, who died in 1961 at his farm in Westminster: "I can say with full assurance that he would not oppose full release of these grand jury materials. Disclosure of these grand jury materials would allow historians, journalists and other interested persons to close the chapter on the Hiss-Chambers affair."

That's an extravagant prediction. To this day, the Hiss case can provoke heated arguments in some circles, even though most Cold War historians conclude that Hiss was guilty of Soviet espionage.

The endurance of the argument is a testament to the symbolic dimension of the case. In "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," Allen Weinstein wrote that for 1950s liberals, Hiss' "innocence was a matter of faith," if only because his enemies included such members of the anti-Communist right wing as Chambers, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Richard M. Nixon, who achieved national prominence in his pursuit of the case as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"Hiss' fate," Weinstein wrote, "symbolized for young liberals the quintessence of McCarthyism, its paranoid fear of any public figure to the left of Dwight Eisenhower."

By the same token, historian Ellen W. Schrecker says that for political conservatives, the Hiss case has symbolized the virtue of Cold War anti-communism.

"Alger Hiss spied, therefore" don't question the process, says Schrecker, a specialist in McCarthyism at Yeshiva University. She submitted a four-page statement supporting the petition.

"I'm willing to say Hiss is guilty," says Schrecker, "but not willing to say everything the United States did in the Cold War was right. I really think what we need to do is start asking some new questions" beyond Hiss' guilt or innocence."

The petition raises questions the grand jury records may help answer:

Why was Hiss indicted for perjury and not Chambers? Chambers clearly changed his grand jury testimony in two appearances in early 1948 and December 1948, first saying he knew of no Soviet espionage, then giving details of Hiss' involvement in passing State Department documents.

What did Nixon say to the grand jury on Dec. 13, 1948, and how might his appearance have influenced its decision not to indict Chambers? Before his grand jury appearance -- in which he displayed the microfilm that Chambers had stashed in a pumpkin on his farm in Westminster -- Nixon said publicly that indicting Chambers would "give the greatest encouragement to the Communist conspiracy in this country."

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