John Lowenthal (II)

In Memory of John Lowenthal, by Jeff Kisseloff

John Lowenthal, who died on September 9, 2003 in London at the age of 78, had a wealth of interests and accomplishments. He was a gifted cellist, a law professor, a film-maker, a champion of Native American rights and, among other things, the principal author of a Connecticut law governing the siting of community antenna television towers.

He would probably, however, be content that he may well be best remembered for his remarkable contributions to the Hiss case over a span of 55 years. This Web site, which lays out the case for the defense, has – necessarily – been shaped in good part by Lowenthal’s thinking and discoveries.

While in law school Lowenthal had a brief stint as a volunteer assistant to the defense during Alger Hiss’s two perjury trials in 1949 and 1950. Except for that, Lowenthal was never a formal part of Hiss’s legal “team.” Although he and Hiss, who was 21 years his senior, formed an enduring and devoted friendship, Lowenthal preferred always to work as an independent researcher and legal scholar on his own time and at his own initiative. Few well-paid advocates ever become as effective a champion as Lowenthal, who brought to the case both a formidable legal mind and a fierce lifelong passion for righting wrongs.

In the 1970s, after the release of suppressed FBI documents about the case, Lowenthal, by then a Rutgers law professor, published a thorough analysis of what this new evidence revealed. He was able to show, specifically, that the FBI had known all along that the old Woodstock typewriter the Hisses brought into court could not have been the Hiss family machine.

Several years later, Lowenthal took a leave from Rutgers to make “The Trials of Alger Hiss,” a feature-length documentary about the case. His 166-minute film, released in 1980 – and recently described by the Edinburgh University Data Library as a “milestone in American documentary film-making” which “excels in its use of film as an instrument of record” – is the source for the clips on this Web site’s Audio and Video page. “Trials” revisits the Hiss case 30 years after Hiss’s conviction; it combines newsreel footage with Lowenthal’s own in-depth, on-camera interviews with many surviving Hiss case principals, including two jurors, a former member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and Hiss himself.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lowenthal, on Hiss’s behalf, asked Russian General Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov, a biographer of Stalin and at the time military advisor to President Boris Yeltsin, to search Soviet files for any evidence that Alger Hiss had been either a communist or a Russian spy. In 1992, Volkogonov wrote Lowenthal that “on the basis of a very careful analysis of all the material available, I can inform you that Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.”

In the mid-1990s, Lowenthal was one of the first legal scholars to challenge the assertion that the National Security Agency’s then just-released “Venona” cables – coded wartime Russian messages home from the United States that U.S, officials intercepted and decrypted – supported the idea that Hiss had been a Russian spy.

This year, while already in failing health, Lowenthal successfully defended a Hiss-related libel action brought against him in London by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent and co-author (with Allen Weinstein) of The Haunted Wood. The thesis of The Haunted Wood, published in 1999, is that KGB files made available to Vassiliev confirm that Hiss was the Soviet Agent “ALES.” In the course of his “Venona” article, Lowenthal refuted this assertion, quoting Boris Labusov, chief press officer of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (the agency that maintains the old Soviet-era KBG archives), as saying that the FIS has no documents proving Hiss cooperated with the KGB, and that Vassiliev, if he is honest, “will surely tell you that he never met the name of Alger Hiss in the context of some cooperation with some special services of the Soviet Union.”

Vassiliev sued Lowenthal’s publisher, claiming that Lowenthal had called him an “unreliable author whose identification of persons who worked for the KGB is in part wrong, in part based on out-of-context information, and in part mere guesswork.” On June 13, 2003, the jury threw out the case, deciding, as The Times of London noted, that “Lowenthal’s essay was indeed defamatory, but the defamation was justifiable – fair comment in the light of the evidence.”

In a separate decision, the judge, Mr. Justice Eady of the High Court of Justice, ruled that the case set new standards and broader standards for academic freedom and civil liberties. As The Times of London pointed out in a lengthy appreciation of Lowenthal’s life published on October 2, 2003, “The very filing of the lawsuit had had a chilling effect on academic publication. The court victory confirmed the principle, enunciated by Lord Denning in 1970, that fair-minded, peer-reviewed academic criticism should be exempt from mischievous, vexatious and costly libel challenges.”

It seems only fitting that, at the end of his life, John Lowenthal scored such a notable legal and constitutional victory.