The Fourth Man
Was Alger Hiss a Soviet
In The Sunday Times
(London), June 20, 1999, Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the course
of a book review of two new Cold War works that Alger Hiss "was
known as 'Ales' to his Russian spymasters."
The definitive tone of
of this judgment as well as the entire review considers the matter
a closed case on the basis of irrefutable evidence. As it turns
out, however, the new "evidence" condemning Alger Hiss
is even flimsier than the old, if that is possible.
Not long ago, I asked
if any of the Cold War historians on the American Society of Professional
Journalists discussion list could locate KGB documents mentioned
in the following paragraph from the June 27, 1999 New York Times
review by Ann Douglas of The View From Alger's Window A Son's
Memoir by Tony Hiss.
During World War II,
the American military intercepted and decoded key Russian documents
recording American espionage carried out under the aegis of the
K.G.B.; the file, known as the Venona Project, was finally released
to the American public in 1995. After the collapse of the Soviet
Union, Moscow opened some of its archives to scholars. Both the
K.G.B. and the American files, among other documents, confirm
Chambers's account, naming Hiss both directly and under an alias
(Ales) as a spy for the G.R.U., a separate, military branch of
Soviet intelligence. Since the G.R.U.'s archives are still closed,
a handful of Hiss supporters continues to doubt his guilt, but
for most historians it is all but certain.
I had already searched
for these documents myself. Before presuming to draw any conclusions,
however, I wanted to see if, perhaps, I had missed anything.
As you know, I'm a
little out of touch. The last I heard, the KGB cleared Hiss. The
attention this got seemed a little strange to me at the time. What
were they going to do, answer, "Yes, you were a spy, one of
our best, Comrade Hiss"? Then I heard about KGB documents that
proved he was a spy. Well, I gather you can buy anything you want
from the KGB in these days of Russian scorched earth capitalism,
so that doesn't help much on the Hiss puzzle, does it?
When Ann Douglas's
book review assured me that all except hardened Comsymp's were now
convinced by unrefutable evidence of Comrade Hiss's guilt, I looked
up said evidence on our God-given Infobahn. Here's what I found:
 There aren't any
KGB documents. The plural is just a symptom of righteous anti-communist
enthusiasm. If I am wrong about this I will welcome correction,
as I don't like to look slovenly.
 There is a single document
[click on image at left to see it] in English mentioning an agent
called "Ales" who was one of four State Department officials
who went to Moscow in 1945 after the Yalta conference. This is one
of what are described as several thousand items said to be decoded
KGB messages from Washington to Moscow released by the CIA and the
National Security Agency in 1995.
There are no explanations
of why a KGB agent in Washington would be filing a report to Moscow
about an event that took place near the Kremlin. I'll concede, however,
that it could have been a report from one of their operatives spying
on another of their operatives. The original Russian text is not
There is nothing in
the document that identifies it definitively as coming from the
KGB. I looked at a .gif of the document. It looks so bogus that
it should be marked "Made in USA" (as in the toys said
to have been manufactured in the Japanese city of Usa). The physical
document itself was, in fact, manufactured in Washington. The content
may or may not have been originally written in Russian and decoded
and translated by Americans.
 At the bottom
of the document, there is a footnote identifying "Ales"
as "probably Alger Hiss." You'd think that the KGB would
know for sure, I thought at first, but then I realized that the
footnote was added by the NSA/CIA/MI functionary who reviewed the
document. So this isn't even a direct transcript of a decoded and
translated Russian cable, but an annotated copy prepared for public
 The Moynihan report
(1997) concluded: "This could only be Alger Hiss, Deputy Director
of the State Departments Office of Special Political Affairs;
the other three State Department officials in the delegation from
Yalta to Moscow are beyond suspicion."
I just love the last
part. It had to be Hiss because .... what? Because it couldn't be
any of the others? Is there a technical term for this logical fallacy?
Circular reasoning? Mental masturbation?
Here's what I think.
You remember the famous
mole hunt that paralyzed the CIA under Angleton? Maybe one of the
other three was the mole. If so that's who fingered Hiss.
Until I saw the item
from the Moynihan report, I had no idea why they went to all this
trouble to make sure that Hiss never was cleared. To protect the
mole, of course. If not, why don't they mention the names of the
Now let's get really
boring and look at the original case against Alger Hiss.
I last read about
the Hiss case in Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American
Politician by Roger Morris, nominated for the National Book Award
in 1990. Hiss was not convicted of spying but perjury, for having
denied under oath that he knew and conspired with a man who called
himself Whittaker Chambers and charged that Alger Hiss, like him,
had been a communist spy.
When confronted with
Chambers in person, Hiss admitted that he did know him in 1937,
but under a different name, Robert Crosley. Hiss sublet him his
apartment and tried to help him, let him have his old abandoned
Ford. He vehemently denied any other relationship.
Even Whittaker Chambers
strongest supporters will freely admit that he was a psychopath
and liar. I hate to tell you what his detractors call him.
They had only two
pieces of supposedly hard evidence:
 Some microfilms
of State Department documents that had passed through Hiss's hands
that Whittaker Chambers was hiding in a pumpkin -- the famous Pumpkin
Papers. Many of the documents were completely innocuous. Others
concerned economic, political and economic information that would
have been of interest to the Soviet Union.
It was never proved
that Hiss had anything to do with the microfilms. Other people also
had access to the documents. Chambers actually said that some of
the documents came from another State Department official, Henry
Julian Wadleigh, who later confessed that he had been Chambers'
contact at the State Department, and denied having conspired with
When the microfilms
first appeared, a Kodak executive said that the serial numbers were
post-war, not 1937. Nixon flipped out and Whittaker Chambers contemplated
suicide. Kodak called back and reported that it was all a mistake.
I never saw any written testimony from Kodak stating the serial
numbers and assigning them to the correct years. I've always wanted
to check that out.
 A Woodstock typewriter
on which it was said these documents were typed. The FBI testified
that the manuscripts came from a Woodstock which they said the Hiss's
owned. The couple did own a Woodstock, and they themselves made
it available to the prosecution, but it was not the same one on
which the documents were typed. The FBI knew that it was the wrong
machine all through both trials and concealed this from the judge
and jury and defense, apparently committing perjury to do so.
Roger Morris writes:
"The defense's Woodstock -- the typewriter identified on all
sides as the necessary incriminating link between the documents,
the Hisses, and historic espionage .... was the wrong typewriter....
Examining the FBI files decades later, even historians who believed
Alger Hiss in some measure guilty would be shocked by the government's
In the final decision
on Hiss's last appeal, the judge dismissed the false testimony on
the typewriter as irrelevant -- even though the prosecution itself
had insisted that the case lived or died on this single piece of
For those who got
this far, my last question: did Ann Young look at the KGB documents?
Or did she just get her opinions from the clips? If any of my loyal
fans at the Times are reading this, perhaps they will be kind enough
to pass it along to her.
My next report will
be on the proposed merger between The Washington Times and
The New York Times, which will be celebrated by a mass marriage
of all employees of the combined organization at Moonie headquarters
in Seoul. I have KGB documents to prove this, if anyone dares doubt
my accuracy. They are just working out a few details about divorces
and gay and lesbian issues and so on. Remember, you read it here
first, not on the Drudge Report.