History Revisited

Most reasonable people threw in the towel on the Alger Hiss case years ago, even those who longed to believe that this well-educated, dignified man was the victim of a dark, hysterical time in the nation’s history. Emerging information—in intercepted Soviet diplomatic and intelligence messages from the 1930s and ’40s released by the National Security Agency in the 1990s—seemed to indicate that Hiss was a traitor. But the conclusions of history, even more than, say, the often-revised conclusions of science, have a way of yielding to new discoveries and new facts. Enter, stage left, Kai Bird, the co-author of a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that won the Pulitzer Prize last year, and Svetlana Chervonnaya, a Russian historian with a gift for navigating archives on both sides of the Cold War. They have revisited what many people feel is the most damning part of the case against Hiss—the circumstantial evidence that he was the Soviet asset code-named “Ales” described in the decrypted NSA-released cables. After many months of work in archives in Moscow and Washington, Bird and Chervonnaya have determined that, at the very least, the case that Hiss was Ales is inconclusive and—given that real proof might exist in Soviet documents not yet released—premature. They believe, further, that the circumstantial case against Hiss as Ales has a major flaw and that a more convincing circumstantial case can be made against another man who served in the State Department when Hiss did. 

Bird and Chervonnaya are the first to admit that their investigation of who Ales might be, though painstakingly made, isn’t the last word, any more than the case against Hiss is. Why, then, should we publish their article? First, they raise serious doubts about the consensus that has grown up around this aspect of the Hiss affair. Second, their case for the identity of Ales tests the standards that have been accepted for the study of the Cold War, whereby deep political passions on both sides have created an atmosphere in which patient, serious scholarship is difficult. If hasty conclusions have been reached in the absence of what Bird and Chervonnaya call “incontrovertible proof that Hiss was or was not a conscious agent,” then their willingness to point out holes in their own case and to admit that further scholarship is needed seems a model of how to proceed. In this regard, we are doing something unusual. We are publishing two versions of this article here—one edited for the general reader (which appeared in our Summer 2007 issue) and a far more detailed, heavily end-noted version that includes other significant discoveries by the authors. This longer text is intended for scholars, critics, and any other reader who just can’t get enough of this perplexing story.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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