Victor Navasky

“In Memory of Alger Hiss”

This obituary for Alger Hiss by Victor Navasky, the magazine’s publisher emeritus, ran in The Nation on December 9, 1996. Alger Hiss died in New York City on November 15 1996, four days after his 92nd birthday. 

In Act One, the Republican right tried to use Whittaker Chambers’s allegations against Alger Hiss to discredit the entire New Deal. Here was Hiss, the prototypical hot dog – a Harvard Law graduate recommended for his clerkship with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes by Felix Frankfurter, F.D.R.’s number-one headhunter. An alumnus of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, a New Deal invention, he was present at Yalta and at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco – all institutions and events closely identified with the Roosevelt Administration. Chambers, with his gift for melodrama, egged on by the ambitious young House Un-American Activities Committee member Richard Nixon, dipped into his pumpkin and came up with State Department documents, which he accused Hiss of giving him for transmission to the Soviet Union. It seemed as if the New Deal itself – or, as Alistair Cooke later put it, that whole generation – was on trial.

In Act Two, the right was joined by Cold War liberals (and eventually neoconservatives), who tried to use the Hiss case to prove that the brutal excesses of the domestic Cold War – McCarthyism, the reckless Congressional investigator-inquisitors, J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. (which with other agencies routinely undermined constitutional rights) – were justified by the internal Red Menace. If Alger Hiss, who seemed the model of high-minded idealistic liberalism, was the secret agent of a foreign power, no one was above suspicion. The civil liberties traditionally restricted only in wartime were restricted, with a vengeance, in Cold War time. That the Hiss case, like the other politically charged trials of the era, was carried on in a Cold War climate that precluded the possibility of a fair trial carried no weight with those who assumed his guilt from the start. After a mistrial, he was convicted of perjury.

Act Three: Alger Hiss was released from prison on November 27, 1954, and from that date until his death on November 15, 1996 he devoted himself to establishing his innocence. With William Reuben as his co-plaintiff and the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee footing the bill, he won the release under the Freedom of Information Act of some 200,000 documents, as well as copies of the microfilms that Nixon had held up on national television in 1948 and said documented “the most serious series of treasonable activities which has been launched against the government in the history of America.” (They turned out to consist of material about life rafts and other ephemera available on the open shelves of the Bureau of Standards.) And in response to a request under the auspices of the Nation Institute by Hiss’s aide John Lowenthal for documents in Soviet archives, Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, head of the Russian military intelligence archives, responded, after an exhaustive search, “Not a single document substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. You can tell Alger Hiss that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart.”

Volkogonov’s finding achieved page-one status across the country, and it appeared that Alger Hiss had at last won the vindication he sought. But after a barrage of complaints from professional anti-Communists like Herbert Romerstein, the general qualified his finding and conceded that while his search had turned up not a scintilla of evidence in re Hiss, he couldn’t say for certain that the case was closed. (Latter-day cold warriors portray this as a “retraction,” which it wasn’t.) And recently when the C.I.A. and N.S.A. released 3,000 World War II intelligence cables, decrypted under the secret Venona project, Hiss’s antagonists pounced on a 1945 report about an agent code-named “Ales,” because it contained an anonymous footnote (dated twenty years later) speculating that Ales was “probably Alger Hiss” (see Eric Alterman, “I Spy With One Little Eye,” April 29, 1996).

The irony for those who knew him was that this man, whom his enemies denounced as “traitor,” “spy,” “Communist,” was a model citizen: courteous, curious, incapable of bitterness and dedicated to establishing his innocence through official channels using the courts and the Freedom of Information Act. At the end, his politics were progressive, probably more so than before he went into the slammer. As his sometime aide Jeff Kisseloff observes, his standard line was that forty-four months in Lewisburg was a good corrective to three years at Harvard Law School.

As the curtain came down on his life, it was clear that his case would live on. A measure of the partisan passions that still surround the Hiss case may be found in his New York Times obituary. Traditionally, the final paragraph in a Times obit lists the survivors. On this occasion, however, the Times apparently felt it necessary to close instead with a put-down from Hiss’s most ardent adversary, William F. Buckley, Jr., who had built a career, a magazine and a movement on the assumption of Hiss’s guilt.

The Times prides itself on publishing “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” As long as it was going to violate its house rule, it might have been more fitting to close with the words displayed on the Charles Theater marquee in Hiss’s hometown, Baltimore, after he died: “Alger Hiss, R.I.P.”