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Did Allen Weinstein Get the Alger Hiss Story Wrong?

Allen Weinstein is now the Archivist of the United States. Despite concerns over the politics of the appointment and Weinstein’s scholarly record, the inaugural drew accolades. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who administered the oath of office, called Weinstein “a scholar whose work I have long admired.” Harvard’s Daniel Aaron termed him “always a sound historian, and always preoccupied with evidence.”1

Preoccupied with evidence, yes; but how? And how sound a historian? Data newly brought to light during a libel suit lost by Alexander Vassiliev, his former collaborator, reanimates doubts about Weinstein’s scholarship. Worse, it suggests suppression of archival evidence that did not suit him. Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble (2005) sums up earlier charges against Weinstein: misquoting informants in his book Perjury (1977); repeating misrepresentations in the 1997 revised edition; never fulfilling his long-standing promise to make crucial evidence publicly available. Weinstein’s The Haunted Wood (1999), co-authored with Vassiliev, was censured for slipshod use of sources even by some who concurred with its conclusions.

Weinstein’s Perjury is widely held to confirm Whittaker Chambers’s 1948 charge that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Jailed for perjury, Hiss spent the rest of his life (he died in 1996) trying to prove his innocence. Three 1990s’ developments transformed perceptions of the Hiss case along with 1930s and 1940s American-Soviet relations in general:

*Searches in KGB archives by Russian authorities a year after the Soviet collapse found no evidence that Hiss had ever been a Soviet agent. As other intelligence archives remained closed, this exoneration is persuasive but not conclusive.

*Translations of decrypted Soviet cables from Washington to Moscow made public in the mid-1990s—the so-called Venona papers—for some appeared to bear out, for others to refute, Hiss’s complicity.

*Crown Publishers gave an ex-KGB outfit a large sum for privileged (and as it turned out sole) access to heretofore secret archives by Weinstein’s Russian co-author Vassiliev from 1994 to 1996. As presented in The Haunted Wood and the revised edition of Perjury, data from those archives are held to substantiate Hiss’s guilt.

That they fail to do so was shown by John Lowenthal in 2000. A Hiss supporter whose documentary film “The Trials of Alger Hiss” (1979) won international acclaim, Lowenthal documented how The Haunted Wood misinterpreted sources, ignored exculpatory evidence, and arbitrarily substituted “Hiss” in place of KGB and Venona code and covernames. In “excerpts of KGB documents from which they have selectively replaced covernames with their own notion of the real names, the reader can not even tell what covernames have been deleted, because the co-authors assign two or three different covernames to the same person, for example, two for Hiss, ‘Lawyer’ and ‘Ales’.” Moreover, “the co-authors’ references and ... statements cannot be checked or verified by anyone else,” wrote Lowenthal. “Because they derive from excerpts ‘quoted’ out of context from KGB files closed to other researchers, the[y] offer no credible support for the proposition . . . that Hiss was [an] espionage agent.” 2

Stung by this critique, Vassiliev, now resident in London, sued Lowenthal’s publisher for libel in June 2001. He lost. A British High Court jury in June 2003 ruled that Vassiliev had indeed been defamed––Lowenthal’s essay shamed him. In British libel law plaintiff can win even if defamation is unintended. But in this case the criticism was deemed to be justified, fair comment given the evidence, a conclusion honestly reached that merited no reprisal.3

Troublesome for Weinstein’s scholarly repute are papers Vassiliev brought to the trial to buttress his own credibility, and additional facts thereby disclosed. The papers are photocopies of extracts Vassiliev transcribed from KGB files, or rather retranscribed from the floppy discs he had smuggled out of Moscow in 1996. Far from strengthening the case against Hiss, however, the previously unseen data call into question evidence earlier adduced against him.

Most salient is a list of names signed by Anatoly Gorsky, chief of the KGB station in Washington, entitled “Failures in USA (1938–48),” evidently attached to a memorandum headed “A. Gorsky’s report – to Savchenko S.R. 23 December,[19] 49.” Vassiliev termed it “a list of names and code-names of American agents and sources ... prepared by Soviet operatives” and “composed in connection with [Elizabeth] Bentley’s defection,” although that had happened four years previously. The Gorsky List is not a list of spies, but, Vassiliev himself stressed, of sources: some spies, others whose espionage is contested, some communists who were not spies, some non-communists, and many Russians. There are 92 names in five clusters––the so-called ‘Karl’, ‘Redhead’, ‘Tambourine’ or ‘Buben’, ‘Sound–Myrna’, and ‘Berg’–‘Art’ groups. The first name in the ‘Karl’ group is ‘Karl’—Whittaker Chambers; the third is ‘Leonard’—Alger Hiss.4

Gorsky’s use of the code-name ‘Leonard’ for Alger Hiss is a devastating blow to the incriminating thesis that Hiss was ‘Ales.’ Gorsky knew who Ales was. If Ales was Hiss he would have said so in this list. But he does not. Instead he assigns him the cover name ‘Leonard.’ The Gorsky Memo also undermines the thesis that Hiss was a spy at all. Why? Because if Hiss-alias-Leonard was a spy, one would expect to find some other reference to Hiss-alias-Leonard to crop up in the KGB files. But it does not. And the codename ‘Leonard’ given to Hiss by Gorsky appears nowhere in The Haunted Wood. There and in the revised Perjury Hiss is always named ‘Ales’ or ‘Lawyer.’

Strangely, Gorsky’s list of names is neither quoted nor cited in The Haunted Wood. “Why is he not in the book?” “I don’t know. I don’t really know,” was Vassiliev’s reiterated response.5 The Gorsky List appears to be the most pertinent document about Hiss that Vassiliev came across in the KGB files. Why would Weinstein, whose assault on Hiss made his fame, not even refer in the revised edition of Perjury to what some consider (though I think mistakenly) a critical piece of evidence against him?6

The Gorksy List’s omission from The Haunted Wood is all the more strange because its inclusion would have enabled the authors to supply real names for many individuals whose code names appear in the book as ‘unknown’ or ‘omitted’ or were unidentified, or whose real names are given no code names.7 Why was such salient data left out? Weinstein and Vassiliev claimed The Haunted Wood gave “a more complete and accurate account of Soviet intelligence” than any to date.8 Had they been genuinely committed to that aim, they would have published the Gorsky List and discussed its implications. But they did not.

Could it be that Weinstein never saw it? Could Vassiliev have failed to translate it? Hardly. Vassiliev is mystified that it did not appear in book. He translated as much raw material as he could: “I put every document in ... to let Allen make up his own mind ... To preserve his scientific correctness I wanted him to read as much of the documents as possible.”9 Conclusively, The Haunted Wood quotes from the same KGB memorandum that contains and immediately precedes the Gorsky List, transcribed on the same page of Vassiliev’s notebook.10 Weinstein must have seen it and recognized its import.

Did Weinstein fear that including or even mentioning the Gorsky List would undercut his accusations against Hiss? Hiss could conceivably have been a spy without being ‘Ales,’ but for Weinstein the ‘Ales’ link had become crucial to confirming Hiss’s guilt. Yet trial testimony reveals that Vassiliev himself doubted that identification and sought, unsuccessfully, to avoid its being used in The Haunted Wood. “I never saw a document where Hiss would be called Ales or Ales may be called Hiss. I made a point of that to Allen.”11 Indeed, trial materials showed the co-authors in frequent conflict. Tellingly, Vassiliev accused Weinstein of being “sloppy almost every time he quoted documents relating to Alger Hiss.”12

For Weinstein to reveal a previously unattested cryptonym could also have carried risks. What else might surface to question the co-authors’ credibility or collaboration? By 1999 they were bitter antagonists. Vassiliev threatened to sue Weinstein for theft, complaining that notes for The Haunted Wood had appeared without his knowledge or consent in the revised Perjury. Perhaps Vassiliev had other materials not yet divulged. To include or even allude to the Gorsky List could have opened up a can of worms.

However suspicious, Weinstein’s failure to use or cite the Gorsky List might at a stretch be seen as incompetent oversight. But additional pages from Vassiliev’s transcribed KGB file notes, likewise divulged to bolster his trial case, are likewise omitted from both Perjury and Haunted Wood. One, dated March 15, 1945, is a list of fourteen purportedly “cooperative” persons named by War Production Board official and Communist agent Victor Perlo. Perlo here explicitly says that he has never worked with Alger Hiss––directly contradicting claims in Perjury (rev ed., 125) and The Haunted Wood (39).13

The second item is four sentences from a cable to Moscow by Anatoly Gorsky on March 5, 1945, concerning ‘Ales’, an American agent he wants to contact at the forthcoming San Francisco conference. Ales “was at Yalta conference, then went to Mexico City, but has not yet come back,” writes Gorsky.14 This is from the same cable quoted in Perjury (326)15 and Haunted Wood (268); but these books replace ‘Ales’ with “[Hiss] ... a strong determined ... Communist.” And neither book includes the sentences in the cable that Vassiliev produced in court: Why not? Because they scuttle the identification of ‘Ales’ as Hiss. Ales “has not yet come back,” wrote Gorsky. Yet Hiss had returned to Washington at least two weeks previously, and was certainly there on March 5.16 Furthermore, the cable sentences left out of Perjury and The Haunted Wood directly contradict what those books surmise about the movements, motives, and associates of ‘Ales-cum-Hiss’. In short, the idée fixe that ‘Ales’ was Hiss led to selective editing of a source which, when read in its entirety, would have impelled a careful author to query, check, and then discard that connection.

Thus all the “new” KGB materials Vassiliev provided at the trial to shore up his credibility (Gorksy memo, Perlo list, Gorsky cable extracts), refute the identification of Hiss as ‘Ales’ and undermine the contention he was a spy. All are absent from The Haunted Wood though available to Weinstein, who chose not to use them either there or in the revised Perjury.

A generation ago Nation editor Victor Navasky termed Weinstein’s writing “fatally tainted by unprofessionalism.”17 New evidence suggests other epithets.


1 Linton Weeks, “Guarding the Past,” Washington Post, March 31, 2005.

2 “Venona and Alger Hiss, ” Intelligence and National Security , 15 (2000), 98-130.

3 I discuss this verdict’s import for scholarly discourse in “Academic Freedom: The Hiss Case Yields a Noteworthy Victory,” American Historical Association Perspectives, May 2004, pp. 23-26.

4 KGB operational correspondence file 43173 vol. 2(v), pp. 49-55, attached to Alexander Vassiliev to Hartwig, 1 Feb 2002, in Alexander Vassiliev and Frank Cass & Co Ltd, High Court of Justice Queen's Bench Division Claim No. HQ1X03222, Amended Particulars of Claim, Court Documents; reprinted and annotated by John Earl Haynes, Microsoft Word, H-DIPLO, February 6, 2005. The recipient, Sergei Romanovich Savchenko, was then head of the NKGB (then the MGB branch of KI/Committee of Information of the Council of Ministers of the USSR) intelligence service. The list itself is dated December 1948, which cannot have been correct, given its order in the KGB file, information in it not available until 1949, and the chronology affirmed in The Haunted Wood, 296-97. Given the misfits and errors in the Gorsky List noted by Haynes, and the calculated corruption known of other Soviet archival documents, whatever Vassiliev transcribed may well embody deliberate as well as accidental misinformation. Subsequent sources from the High Court trial, in my files, are abbreviated as follows: High Court Documents as CtD, Court Transcripts at CtT. Jury Bundles (materials produced for the jurors) as Ct JB. All cited here were previously posted on H-DIPLO.

5 Vassiliev to Susan Butler, 9 June 2000, Ct JB 3:297A; Vassiliev response CtD 1.4, 20 July 2001; amended defense, CtD 1.3, 11 Feb 2002; Andrew Monson to Vassiliev, 27 Mar. 2002; Vassiliev to Hartwig (solicitors’ firm), 16 Apr. 2002, CtD.

6 Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, “Professors of Denial,” Weekly Standard , March 21, 2005, pp. 18-19.

7 These names are given in John Earl Haynes’s discussion of the Gorsky memo.

8The Haunted Wood, xix.

9 Susan Butler interview, Ct JB 3:418

10 KGB file 43173, Vol.2(v), pp. 46-48, Vassiliev notebook p 77, Ct JB 3:303; Haunted Wood, 296-97, 372 notes 50 and 51.

11 Ct JB 3:408; Susan Butler letter, The Nation, 15 Oct. 2001.

12 T o Victor Navasky, Oct. 17, 1999, Ct JB 3: 290A.

13 Ct JB 3: 309A, “A list of persons who according to Raid [Victor Perlo] have been cooperating with the Russian intelligence service apart from those he is working with regularly at present. Dated 15.03.45.”

14 Ct JB 3: 309B and 309C, English translation 309E, KGB file 43173 vol.1, p.88, Vassiliev pre-trial Amended Reply to the Amended Defence, 17 July 2002, pp 6–7, CtD.

15 It was the appearance of this extract and others in Perjury that led Vassiliev to complain Weinstein had stolen from him (Vassiliev to Loomis, 30 August 1999, Ct JB 3:284, and my H-DIPLO postings 29 Dec. 2004 and 5 Jan. 2005).

16 Hiss to Sandifer, Feb. 22, 1945; Hiss to Stettinius, March 1 and 3, 1945; Hiss to H. Scherbak, March 5, 1945, Nation al Archives (courtesy of Jeff Kisseloff). These letters can be found at <www.algerhiss.com>

17 “Allen Weinstein’s ‘Perjury’: The Case Not Proved against Alger Hiss,” The Nation, April 8, 1978, 393–401.