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The life and fate of Alger Hiss remains a hot topic among readers

"The other curious thing about the Hiss case is the psychology of believing that Hiss was a spy, which requires abandoning much of what we know about rational thought."

— Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins in 1996

I knew that my Alger Hiss column from a few weeks back would elicit plenty of mail, and I wasn't disappointed.

The power of the Hiss story continues to arouse strong emotions even after the passage of more than 60 years.

Some who contacted me by phone or email accused me of propagating the idea that Hiss' guilt was still in doubt.

What I was trying to do was explain what Hiss was saying in his 45-minute talk before an audience of more than 1,000 in Shriver Hall on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University on a May evening in 1974, not give history's ultimate judgment.

"If you had done due diligence on this article, you would have included passages from the KGB files in which they named Hiss as a collaborator," wrote W.A. "Al" Welch in an email. "But then, The Sun would not have published the article."

A newspaper colleague, Jeff Landaw, pointed out that author Allen Weinstein, "who started writing 'Perjury' expecting and hoping to find Hiss innocent, concluded that he was guilty."

Several other readers pointed to the Weinstein book as well. Another author who launched himself on a similar quest was Sam Tanenhaus, who is editor of The New York Times Book Review, and whose 1997 book, "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography," arrived at the same conclusion.

Landaw also wrote that Alistair Cooke, who covered Hiss' trial for the old Guardian newspaper, recalled those events in his 1951 book, "A Generation On Trial: The USA v. Alger Hiss."

Cooke, Landaw wrote, said the best Hiss could have hoped for was a Scottish verdict: 'Not proven.'"

Hal Piper, a former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent and editor, is an old friend and colleague.

"You failed to get the rest of the story," he wrote in an email.

"History has returned its verdict, and it is that Alger Hiss spied for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed and the archives opened," Piper wrote.

"Hiss was not directly named, but one agent, whose pseudonym I forget, matched up so perfectly in his movements and reporting that students of the case became convinced that he must be Hiss," Piper wrote.

"In any case, after the Soviet files opened, Tony Hiss, Alger's son and vehement defender, stopped trying to repair his father's reputation," he wrote. "It is my understanding that no impartial observer any longer doubts that — however odious Nixon's and McCarthy's methods and motives — in this instance they were right: Hiss spied for the Soviet Union."

The files Piper is referring to are those of the Venona Project, which began in 1943 under the auspices of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and whose mission was to gather and study Soviet diplomatic and later espionage communications.

The project continued until 1980, and it wasn't until 1995, a year before Hiss' death, that the files were released.

Regarding the pseudonym Piper references, most historians have come to agree that Ales was none other than Alger Hiss' code name.

Piper added a final telling note.

"The trouble is, there are no impartial observers anymore. About 15 years ago, I was discussing Hiss with my brother-in-law. I told him what I have written to you, and he said, 'I don't care. If I have to choose sides, I am against Nixon and for Hiss.'"

In an email, Geary Foertsch provided a passage from "Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America," by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.

"The deciphered cables of the Venona Project reveal hundreds of Americans had formal ties to the Soviet intelligence services in the 1930s and 1940s. … At least six sources worked in the State Department. The two highest-ranking among these officials, Alger Hiss and Laurence Duggan, both aided Soviet intelligence for a decade," wrote the authors.

"McCarthy was more right than he was given credit for and it is conclusive now that Hiss was a Soviet spy and got off easy with 31/2 years in prison," Foertsch wrote.

It is important to remember that Alger Hiss was sentenced to federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., after being found guilty of perjury.

"A major part of Hiss's allure, at least to his more liberal colleagues among the political elite, was that he was just like them, same type of background, same type of education, same type of life style," wrote Dick Martiny.

"They couldn't conceive of how someone like them could be what the vicious right-wing extremists were accusing him of being," he wrote. "And he deceived them until long after he was in the grave. In that regard, he was a good spy."

Peter Savage wrote to say that Hiss was close to his family and that he and Tony Hiss were at Harvard together. He also attended Hiss' funeral in New York.

Savage attended a lecture at the Johns Hopkins University that featured Oleg Kalugin, former KGB counterespionage director.

Kalugin told Savage that Hiss had written a letter to the KGB asking them to verify in writing that he had never worked for them.

"It was true," he told Savage. "Alger Hiss never worked for the KGB. But, far more ominous, he worked for years for the URG," or Soviet military intelligence.

Savage added that American diplomat George Ball told him years ago that he was in the State Department at the same time as Hiss.

"He said that Alger was one of a 'clutch of lefties who were always trying to recruit members to their cause' and that he stayed as far away from them as possible," Savage said.

Timmerman Daugherty, a former newspaper publisher and retired lawyer who is now a Baltimore artist, extensively interviewed Hiss in the late 1970s.

"I was involved in his coram nobis petition efforts, where he really thought he'd prove his innocence. Only to fail," she wrote.

She wrote that Hiss made many legal mistakes in the beginning, and one of the major blunders was hiring William P. Marbury, whose "arrogance made him incapable of taking Chambers seriously and thus, the issues weren't nipped off in the beginning as they could have been, I think."

Daugherty added: "If he'd gotten a 'real' lawyer, not a society boy in the beginning, the story would be a different one. There were personal things that he kept quiet about, which probably could've helped his case. He was very sure he was above it all. A brilliant man wasted."

Even after he went blind, Hiss continued writing to Daugherty about his situation.

"He never gave up," she wrote.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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