Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya: Was Alger Hiss really the Soviet spy named Ales, and if not, who was?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kai Bird is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Svetlana Chervonnaya, a Russian historian and TV documentary writer and producer, has a special interest in the history of Cold War espionage.]

Nearly 60 years ago, Alger Hiss, a former high official in the U.S. State Department, was convicted of perjury and sentenced to prison on the grounds that he had lied about his role in a Soviet spy ring prior to World War II. The Hiss case became the most controversial spy story of the Cold War — and for good reason. As the distinguished historian Walter LaFeber once observed, “It was the Hiss trial, among other [events] that triggered the McCarthy era.” For many conservatives, the Hiss case confirmed the specter of Soviet infiltration at the highest levels of American government. The case also catapulted an obscure California congressman, Richard M. Nixon, onto the national scene. Nixon championed the allegations against Hiss and in 1950 was elected to the U.S. Senate, largely based on the notoriety he had acquired from the case.

Although Hiss insisted on his innocence until his death in 1996, many Cold War historians, and perhaps most notably Allen Weinstein in his 1978 book, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, have firmly concluded that Hiss was part of a clandestine Communist cell from 1935 onward and that he passed information to the Soviet Union from late 1936 until early 1938 through an underground Communist courier named Whittaker Chambers. Most historians have conceded the argument to Weinstein (who is today the Archivist of the United States). They have done so, however, not because the evidence against Hiss is clear and definitive, but because the evidence box — filled as it is with a morass of circumstantial detail — leaves them the easy option of finding him guilty of some form of espionage activity during his murky relationship with Chambers.

To a few skeptics, however, this muddled spy case will remain an open question until the Russian archives disgorge incontrovertible proof that Hiss was or was not a conscious agent. Despite continuing claims that the documents U.S. researchers obtained from the Russian archives in the early- to mid-1990s represent, in the words of scholars John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, a “massive documentation of the guilt” of Alger Hiss, not a single document with his name or that of his accuser Whittaker Chambers has ever been produced from the publicly accessible Russian archives. To be sure, there are a few references to Alger Hiss in Soviet-era documents that have been leaked to Weinstein and his Russian co-author, Alexander Vassiliev. But in their book The Haunted Wood, Weinstein and Vassiliev leave the impression that Hiss is repeatedly mentioned in Soviet-era documents. Their narrative of Hiss’s espionage in the 1930s is heavily referenced to Weinstein’s own Perjury. And when they quote from three 1945 KGB documents describing a Soviet source at the State Department, they substitute Hiss’s name in brackets for “Ales,” the cover name for an American working for the Soviets. They do the same thing when quoting from a Soviet intelligence cable dated March 30, 1945, decrypted and released by the U.S. government under the National Security Agency’s VENONA program. Weinstein and Vassiliev did get exclusive access to a crop of documents from the KGB archive. But the references to Hiss in those documents boil down to only five pages from a single SVR (the successor agency to the KGB) file.

We do not propose to address the larger question of whether Hiss was guilty or innocent of espionage, but rather to explore whether he fits the profile of the Soviet asset hidden behind the cover name Ales (pronounced A´-les). Historians of the craft of intelligence recognize the peril of assigning identities to code names more than 50 years after their use. It is difficult at best to translate from one language and culture to another, particularly when dealing with partially decrypted documents. Other imponderables include the ambiguities surrounding witting and unwitting sources and, most obviously, the incentives for intelligence officers to exaggerate the value of both their information and their sources.

All of this is to say that we are aware that, like others before us, we tread on thin ice. Still, we have found evidence to suggest that Hiss could not have been Ales. Moreover, an alternative candidate exists. ...

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