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
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.
It was unthinkable that such a man could be a Communist -- or even associate with someone like Mr. Chambers. Two Supreme Court justices, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson and future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were prepared to vouch for his character.
"I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party," Mr. Hiss told a packed House hearing two days later, adding that he did not know Mr. Chambers. "So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him."
But Mr. Chambers returned to a closed-door session of the committee and offered a near encyclopedic knowledge of Mr. Hiss and his family. When the two appeared before the committee, Mr. Hiss identified his accuser as a man named "George Crosley," a free-lance journalist he had met years earlier. Yet Mr. Hiss could provide no one else who knew Mr.
Chambers by that name.
Questioned by Nixon
Despite harsh questioning from then-Rep. Richard Nixon, the committee couldn't decide who was telling the truth. An angry Mr. Hiss filed a defamation suit against Mr. Chambers in federal court in Baltimore.
But during a pre-trial deposition with Mr. Hiss' Baltimore lawyer, William P. Marbury, Mr. Chambers produced 65 documents and four handwritten notes he said came from Mr. Hiss. Later, Mr. Chambers led investigators to his farm outside Westminster, where he pulled two strips of film and three canisters of film from a hollowed-out pumpkin. They would forever be known as "the Pumpkin Papers."
Mr. Hiss' defenders downplayed the documents as worthless or inconsequential trade and diplomatic papers that many government employees could have had. Supporters argued that the evidence was concocted by right-wing enemies, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
But the papers included sensitive information on U.S. Far East policy, Justice Department officials realized. Some of the material was too secret to release in 1948 to the public.
More importantly, all the messages had been transmitted in Code D, the department's most secret cipher. That left open the possibility that the code had been cracked and the Russians were reading other sensitive government messages.
The charges against Mr. Hiss were serious -- and not unique.
Mr. Chambers first named Mr. Hiss as a Communist in 1939 to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle. Allegations swirled around him throughout the 1940s, from French intelligence and investigations by the FBI and State Department.
Mr. Tanenhaus, biographer of Mr. Chambers, is convinced that Mr. Hiss spied. He believes Mr. Hiss, like many other left-wing intellectuals in the 1930s, saw the Soviet Union and communism as an answer to Depression misery and approaching fascism abroad.
The documents supplied by Mr. Chambers led to the convening of a grand jury two weeks later in New York. Mr. Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury -- lying about his connections with Mr. Chambers.
Throughout the country, the case sparked heated arguments. In Baltimore, "there was always a degree of uncertainty about his guilt," recalls Dr. Thomas Turner, 94, former dean of Hopkins Medical School. Over lunch in the city's social clubs, the debate raged over the case. "One club acquitted him," he remembers, "the other convicted him."
Jurors were similarly torn; Mr. Hiss' first trial ended in July 1949 in a hung jury. A second jury convicted him in January 1950.
Sent to a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., he spent the next four years teaching inmates to read, offering legal advice to Mafia dons and writing tender letters to his young son, Tony. "Three years in jail," he later told his son, "is a good corrective to three years at Harvard."
Fighting to clear name
When he emerged from prison, Mr. Hiss embarked on a decades-long effort to clear his name and overturn his perjury conviction. He moved to New York, where he ended up selling stationery. TC Mr. Nixon's resignation led the pro-Hiss forces to raise new doubts about the president's prosecutorial debut. Mr. Hiss was cheered on college campuses by a new generation. He was readmitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1975. An academic chair was endowed in his honor at Bard College in New York.
But in 1983, he abandoned efforts to get his conviction overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the case. He ** told reporters he hoped for a "broader vindication" from historians and perhaps a presidential commission.
That was not to come from the White House of the 1980s. It was Whittaker Chambers' turn. Ronald Reagan awarded Mr. Chambers posthumously the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. His Carroll County farm was declared a National Historic Landmark.
With the end of the Cold War, Mr. Hiss' hopes rested on the opening of the archives of the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
His long-awaited exoneration appeared to come Oct. 14, 1992, when Russian Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, director of the Soviet Military Archives, declared the charges against Mr. Hiss were "completely groundless." There was no information that he spied. "Tell Mr. Alger Hiss," the general said, "that a heavy weight should be lifted from his heart."
"The recent information from Russia provide the vindication I have sought for so long," Mr. Hiss wrote in a letter to The Sun the next month.
But under pressure from Sovietologists and Hiss case experts, General Volkogonov soon retreated. His statement was premature, he said, since he had not seen all the archives and important files had probably been destroyed during the Stalinist era.
Then in 1993, Hungarian historian Maria Schmidt found a 1954 interrogation of former American diplomat and self-confessed spy Noel Field, who told Hungarian secret police that Alger Hiss was his most-trusted accomplice in Washington's Communist underground.
Seized by the anti-Hiss forces as the "smoking gun" in the case, Mr. Hiss' defenders said the testimony likely was coerced.
The charges and countercharges of the Hiss case resurfaced with the death of Nixon in 1994. "There are a lot of things in that man's life that were un-atoned for," Mr. Hiss said at the time, "and one of those was certainly his attitude toward me."
Now only the accused spy remains, a relic of another age. In the crowded bookcases of his apartment are the complete works of his friend, writer A. J. Liebling. On one wall is a framed photo of his former boss, Justice Holmes, the "Great Dissenter." Friends drop by and read him the newspapers or poetry or the classics.
"He assumes he'll be seen for what he did," says Tony Hiss. "He's proud of having served in the New Deal and getting the United Nations on its feet."
Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, says Mr. Hiss is an honorable man who was sacrificed by his country. "This man is a saint. Justice was not done," he says.
"We have rehabilitated Nixon," Mr. Botstein says. "On a moral scale, I'll take Alger Hiss any day."
Pub Date: 3/09/96