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Hiss Was Guilty

For nearly sixty years, Alger Hiss's defenders have mounted one campaign after another to discredit the mountain of evidence that proves he spied for the Soviet Union.

First, they tried to smear Hiss's main accuser, Whittaker Chambers, as a fantasist, liar, and spurned homosexual. When that fell short, Hiss and his defenders invented any number of Baroque theories to rebut hard evidence, including "forgery by typewriter" to explain away portions of classified documents that had been typed on a Hiss-owned machine. Finally, they argued that the case against Hiss was a nefarious conspiracy, a Salem witch trial for the 1940s, orchestrated by such congenital anti-communists as Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover who had only one goal in mind: the destruction of New Deal liberalism, so as to pave the way for the cold war abroad and domestic repression at home.

The end of the cold war brought new primary sources into play, and Hiss's defenders—being true believers—raced to exploit these opportunities initially, thinking they could only redound to Hiss's benefit. In 1992, John Lowenthal, Hiss's long-time lawyer and a film-maker, prevailed upon Dmitri Volkogonov, a respected Russian general, military historian, and adviser to Russian President Yeltsin on archival policy, to help establish Hiss's innocence once and for all on humanitarian grounds. In late October Volkogonov did issue a statement, asserting that Hiss was not registered in KGB documents as a recruited agent.[1] Lowenthal promptly claimed this was tantamount to exoneration for his long-suffering client. But within a matter of weeks, Volkogonov felt compelled to issue a retraction. The general volunteered that his inquiry had not encompassed the GRU, the intelligence arm of the Soviet Ministry of Defense, and it was the GRU, not KGB, that ran Hiss.[2]

The next, unexpected twist in the case came from U.S. archives. In 1995, the NSA released one of its most closely-held secrets: the VENONA intercepts, the name given to coded messages between the Soviet Union and KGB officers stationed in the United States who ran Moscow's network of spies.[3] Only a fraction of these messages were intercepted and deciphered by what is now known as the National Security Agency (NSA). Yet the VENONA intercepts were sufficient in number and substance to make it clear that Washington had not acted rashly or without reason in internal security investigations, but in response to positive evidence of a vast espionage effort orchestrated from Moscow. And one VENONA intercept, in particular, set Hiss's shrinking band of defenders back on their heels.

Number 1822, dated 30 March 1945, was a partially decoded message from the KGB's Washington station to Moscow headquarters. The cable referred to a well-placed American agent, code-named ALES (pronounced A'-lis), who had been spying for Moscow continuously since 1935. The details conveyed in the message matched, in every particular, known or knowable facts about Hiss. Most importantly, the message noted that ALES, identified as a GRU agent, had been at the recently concluded Yalta conference and had returned to the United States via Moscow.[4] It turned out that only four State Department officials had gone from Yalta to Moscow for further consultations before coming home. One of them was Alger Hiss.

This new, seemingly damning, revelation brought to mind the old adage: be careful what you wish for. In response, some students of the case, including Victor Navasky, then editorial director of The Nation, depicted VENONA as a sinister U.S. government project "to enlarge post-cold war intelligence gathering capability at the expense of civil liberty," while the prominent radical lawyer William Kunstler insisted that the messages were forgeries.[5] When that insinuation did not fly, Hiss defenders retreated to their familiar tactics of re-imagining the evidence. In 2000, John Lowenthal abandoned the fiction that the intercepts had been forged and took them seriously—so seriously, in fact, that he now claimed VENONA 1822 actually exonerated Hiss. When read the right way, Lowenthal contended, the message proved Hiss could not be ALES.[6] In short order, Lowenthal’s outré analysis was so thoroughly demolished by two scholars that no one (including Hiss defenders, as we shall see) takes it seriously any more.[7]

There matters stood, more or less, until a day-long conference at New York University on April 5 to inaugurate the university's new Center for the United States and the Cold War. "Alger Hiss and History" was the featured topic, on the grounds that the Hiss trial was a "major moment in post-World War II American that reinforced Cold War ideology and accelerated America’s late-1940s turn to the right." Putting aside this tendentious framing, the dominant event of the conference was the presentation of a joint research paper by Kai Bird, a contributing editor for The Nation, and Svetlana Chervonnaya, a Moscow-based Russian historian.[8]The two arrived at the conference claiming to have dramatic new evidence and answers.[9]

Once upon a time, it was called McCarthyism to charge people with being Communists or spies on the basis of slim or no evidence, shaky logic, or the word of one or two informers of dubious reliability. No longer. Bird and Chervonnaya established new standards of proof, in which the absence of evidence is as good as proof. Absolving Alger Hiss of being ALES is apparently that important, even if it means recklessly slandering a long-deceased, distinguished public servant. Probably not one person out of 500 in the large crowd had the slightest idea who Wilder Foote was prior to 11:30 a.m. But after Bird/Chervonnaya finished up, Foote, who died in 1975, had suddenly acquired a new and sinister status: the spy who got away while Hiss was crucified.

Foote belonged to that generation of American diplomats who devoted themselves to the United Nations following World War II, a Stevensonian Democrat down to his marrow. The son and namesake of Henry Wilder Foote, a noted Unitarian theologian, Wilder Foote graduated from Harvard College in 1927, and joined the Associated Press in Boston the following year. From 1931 to 1941, Foote published three weekly newspapers in rural Vermont, until he entered government service as a press officer with the Office of Emergency Management.[10] From 1942 to 1944, Foote served in the same capacity with the Office of War Information—meaning that during the war’s most perilous years, Foote’s major preoccupation was to prepare the quarterly reports on the Lend-Lease Act as demanded by Congress.[11] After a stint with the Foreign Economic Administration as its chief of public relations, in January 1945 Foote was named a special assistant to the new secretary of state, Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.

The war was coming to an end and it was a heady, unprecedented period for internationalism and for those who believed only a new organization, more powerful than the old League of Nations, could stave off future world wars. Foote served as Stettinius's press attaché during the conferences in Yalta, Mexico City, San Francisco, and finally, Potsdam. In the process, Foote became so caught up in the early enthusiasm for the United Nations that he cast his lot with the new body. Foote joined the staff of the first U.S. mission to the UN, and in 1947, when the UN established its press and publications bureau, Foote became its first director.[12] He served for the next 13 years as chief spokesman for the first two secretaries general, Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold, before retiring in 1960 to pursue projects to edit and publish UN documents.[13]

If this biography seems somewhat unlikely for a top Soviet spy, stranger things have happened. Indeed, a number of Americans who sought positions in the UN secretariat were later adjudged security risks, and Foote was among the most prominent Americans working for the UN.[14] Still, there is no credible evidence that Wilder Foote ever was an open or underground member of the Communist Party.[15] He is not mentioned in any memoirs or historical accounts; records of the party that are accessible in archives; or as a subject of interest by the various congressional investigating committees. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, in particular, scrutinized Americans working for the UN in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and subpoenaed some of them (but not Foote), while relying upon FBI investigations that indicated secret Communist Party membership or participation in Soviet espionage.[16] Most of those subpoenaed invoked the fifth amendment to avoid testifying, and Secretary General Trygve Lie either fired them, forced their resignation, or failed to renew their contracts.

Foote's career, moreover, does not fit with the salient facts about ALES as enumerated in VENONA 1822. According to the intercept, ALES had been "continuously working with the neighbors [the GRU] since 1935."[17] Until late 1941, of course, Foote was toiling away in rural Vermont, a place, as one historian of espionage dryly observed, "not normally considered a hotbed of Soviet espionage," as it was far from vital governmental or industrial activity.[18] Also according to the intercept, the GRU was pressing ALES to obtain more military information, as the GRU was less interested in diplomatic materials about "the Bank," as the State Department was called in KGB cables. This qualifier suggests that ALES had worked at the State Department for much of his 10-year-long association with Soviet intelligence, whereas at the time, Wilder Foote had only been with State for two months. Indeed, one, and only one, attribute about ALES from VENONA 1822 dovetails with Wilder Foote. And that is the fact that Foote was one of the four State Department officials who briefly went to Moscow from Yalta, the others being Secretary of State Stettinius, H. Freeman Mathews, and Alger Hiss.

How then did Bird and Chervonnaya engineer their finding that Foote, rather than Hiss, was ALES?

The answer lies in another encrypted message that was not intercepted during the VENONA program, but is widely accepted as authentic on all sides.[19] This cable was sent by Anatoly Gorsky, head of the KGB's Washington station and overall chief of all KGB operations in the United States, to Moscow on 5 March 1945. With the UN’s founding conference in San Francisco due to open on April 25, Moscow had been anxious to obtain as much knowledge as possible about American strategy and tactics, including the exact composition of the U.S. delegation. So on March 3, Moscow had ordered its U.S. spies to " . . . take all requisite steps to obtain in good time and pass on to us information about . . . the forthcoming conference in BABYLON" (the KGB’s codename for San Francisco).[20] In response, Gorsky naturally brought up ALES, since a high-ranking spy at the State Department was the most likely source for the kind of information Moscow needed. (Hiss's "Office of Special Political Affairs" was, in fact, coordinating U.S. preparations for the San Francisco conference, making him the ideal source for the information Moscow wanted). Almost in passing, Gorsky noted that ALES "was at the Yalta conference and then left for Mexico City and has not returned yet."[21]

The entirety of the Bird/Chervonnaya case—their grounds for smearing Wilder Foote—hinges on that one fragment: that ALES had gone to Mexico City after leaving the Soviet Union, and had not returned to Washington. Their logic is easy to fathom, even while their lack of scruple is astounding.

The additional detail about ALES from Gorsky’s cable effectively meant that whereas there were once four possible ALES candidates (Stettinius, Matthews, Hiss, and Foote), now there was only three (Stettinius, Hiss, and Foote). That was because it was easy to prove that Freeman Matthews, the director of the State Department’s Office of European Affairs, did not attend the session in Mexico, known in diplomatic history as the Chapultepec conference. Bird then apparently discovered that contrary to Gorsky's March 5 cable, Alger Hiss had returned to Washington before the close of the Chapultepec meeting, which would not end until March 8.[22] The proof came in the fact that on Saturday, March 3—the same day Moscow tasked its U.S. station—Hiss participated in an NBC radio program broadcast from Washington that was part of the State Department's public relations program to gin up support among Americans for a United Nations and the "building of the peace."[23]

If Hiss could be ruled out on this basis, that left only Stettinius and Foote as ALES. The corroborative evidence that Stettinius—a deeply religious man and a former senior executive of U.S. Steel prior to becoming secretary of state—might be ALES is as strong (that is to say, dismally weak) as it is for Foote. But apparently Bird and Chervonnaya decided that the giggle factor for accusing Stettinius was too high. Only members of the John Birch Society were likely to be embrace such an allegation, because it would validate their conviction that at Yalta, America had been sold down the river by traitors. Not only was Franklin Roosevelt a naïve and dying man, but the American secretary of state was a Soviet spy.

Bird was unequivocal. His process of elimination "left one man standing: Wilder Foote," in Bird's words. ALES could only be Wilder Foote because Foote "fits the itinerary in every way, and Hiss simply does not."[24] Never mind that Foote fits none of the other unique ALES attributes.[25]

It is certainly true, as Bird and Chervonnaya found, that Hiss had already returned from Mexico City when Gorsky wrote the opposite. And it is true that Gorsky could have known that Hiss had returned. Besides Hiss's brief contribution to the radio program produced by the State Department, one newspaper, The New York Times, mentioned Hiss as having participated in the NBC broadcast. But that Gorsky "could have" known is not the same as he assuredly did know. Hiss was not a prominent figure, whose comings and goings were front page news or even necessarily the subject of gossip. The Times headline did not read, "Hiss Returns to Washington; Asks Americans Support UN." It read "Grew Says World Must Bar Anarchy," and one had to read it to find Hiss’s name. Although Hiss was a senior State Department official, he was only known within the bureaucratic hierarchy and as yet little known to the press or public.[26]

The most sensible explanation for the seeming inconsistency is that Anatoly Gorsky simply did not know that Hiss had returned earlier than expected. For Gorsky to assume that Hiss was still in Mexico would have been an easy mistake to make. The U.S. delegation headed by Stettinius was still there, making headlines virtually every day, ergo, Hiss was still there. This is a far more plausible explanation than one that recklessly turns Wilder Foote into a GRU spy without so much as a scintilla of corroboration.

Bird and Chervonnaya attribute an all-knowing efficiency to Gorsky that simply didn't exist in the real world of a KGB station chief in war-time Washington. Gorsky was someone who had to balance the demands of his cover job as a senior embassy diplomat with his other, genuine job of overseeing the KGB stations operating out of Soviet diplomatic offices in Washington, New York, and San Francisco, as well an illegal station. Moreover, Bird and Chevonnaya conveniently ignore the fact that much of the March 5 cable consisted of Gorsky explaining to Moscow how difficult it was for him to communicate with ALES, since the KGB was not running this GRU agent directly.[27]

Additionally, Gorsky, in the March 5 cable, remarked that "ALES . . . used to work in KARL's informational group, which was affiliated with the neighbors," a clear reference to Whittaker Chambers's GRU-linked espionage apparatus (KARL was Chambers's cover name).[28] Again, this fits Hiss, whom Chambers identified as part of his mid-1930s Washington ring, but does not dovetail with Foote, then in Vermont with no relationship to Whittaker Chambers.

The succinct casualness with which Bird calumniated Foote moved historian David Oshinsky, who chaired the panel, to ask Bird and Chervonnaya a series of hard questions. From VENONA 1822 it is known, for example, that ALES also directed a small group of spies "for the most part drawn from his relatives."[29] Had Bird investigated whether any of Foote’s relatives were involved in spying for the GRU, or were even in a position to commit espionage? Bird’s answer was that Foote had lot of relatives, and he weakly conceded that more research on them needed to be done.

Bird had been in contact for some months with Foote's family, including a grandson, also named Wilder Foote, who is a commercial pilot living in Belleville, Michigan. He furnished Bird information about the family, including some copies of letters. The grandson apparently told Bird, too, that his grandfather had once been investigated by the FBI, but that he had been "cleared of any suspicion" by the Bureau.[30] Shortly before the conference, Bird notified Foote via email that he was going to name his grandfather as a Soviet agent.[31] That was the context for Foote’s public comment to the Associated Press regarding Bird's accusation. "[My grandfather] was and still is innocent. I can only assume that Mr. Bird has ulterior motives to besmirch my grandfather’s name, possibly for Mr. Bird’s own celebrity. Quite convenient for him that everyone involved is dead and cannot speak in their own defense against [these] allegations," wrote young Foote.[32] Privately, Foote said he felt misled.[33]

To be fair to Bird—which is more than he was to any of the Footes—the news media blew his supposed discovery completely out of proportion, falsely claiming that if Hiss were not ALES, then Hiss was not a Soviet spy.[34] Bird (at least sometimes) parses his nonsensical finding differently. "It’s quite possible that Hiss could be guilty of what Chambers accused him of and be part of a Communist cell, and it could also be true that Hiss was not ALES," Bird told the Washington Post. But this is simply more of the pettifoggery that Hiss defenders have honed for nearly six decades. The logic of Hiss defenders now is that someone other than Hiss must be ALES, and anyone will do. So Wilder Foote was thrown under the truck to save Hiss, or more precisely, return the controversy to its pre-VENONA, pre-end-of-the-cold-war state of denial.

One could go on and on enumerating all the evidence in the Hiss case, which proves his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.[35] But the point ought to be clear that the ALES messages, while important and interesting, are but a few more stones on a large rock pile of evidence. Remove them and little changes in re Alger Hiss. By contrast, the astonishing and grossly irresponsible charge against Wilder Foote is a perfect example of the McCarthyite techniques that Hiss’s defenders have long and hotly denounced. While it is sad, yet not surprising, that the Associated Press chose to ignore all the evidence exculpating Wilder Foote, it is outrageous that Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya, who had to be aware of how thin their case was, nevertheless went ahead and named Foote anyway. This is scholarship worthy of Emily Litella.

The substance of what Bird and Chervonnaya argued will not long be remembered, nor should it be. The risible assertion that Foote was ALES will probably not even have half the shelf-life of John Lowenthal’s mendacious and futile efforts. But the manner in which Bird and Chervonnaya presented their case will be long recalled, and it should be.[36]


[1] For clarity's sake, the initials "KGB" will be used to signify the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence service throughout this essay. That agency was known by different names (e.g., GPU, OGPU, NKVD, NKGB) during the 1930s and 1940s, and then underwent more name changes before becoming the KGB in 1954, the name by which it is most widely known.

[2] In The New York Times story that reported Volkogonov's recantation, the general was quoted as saying, "the Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different . . . . I only looked through what the KGB had . . . . [but] the attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced." Serge Schmemann, "Russian General Retreats on Hiss," NYT, 17 December 1992.

[3] The U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence Service, the NSA's predecessor, established the VENONA program in February 1943 for the purpose of examining all encrypted Soviet communications that could be gathered. The first cryptologic breakthrough occurred in 1946, and soon American analysts realized that these communications dealt with espionage networks in the United States, and not only normal diplomatic and trade matters.

[4] On balance, VENONA 1822 was but a tiny codicil to an already overwhelming case, as we noted in 1999. The main import of the intercept was to prove that Hiss’s betrayal of the United States had continued into the 1940s, long after Whittaker Chambers dropped out of their espionage ring. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 170.

[5] John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2003), 95, 97.

[6] John Lowenthal, "VENONA and Alger Hiss," Intelligence and National Security (I&NS), Vol. 15, No. 3 (Autumn 2000). Lowenthal’s entire argument rested on a wishful interpretation of the pronoun "he," and for whom it was standing (ALES or Soviet Foreign Minister Vyshinski).

[7] Eduard Mark, "Who Was VENONA's ALES? Cryptanalysis and the Hiss Case," I&NS, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn 2003), and John R. Schindler, "Hiss in VENONA: The Continuing Controversy," paper presented at a Center for Cryptologic History Symposium, 27 October 2005, Laurel, Maryland. Schindler established that the original Russian in message 1822 left no doubt that "he" was ALES. Hiss defenders still hold Lowenthal in high regard, however. He may have got the historical facts wrong, but he got the politics right.

[8] Strangely, Bird and Chervonnaya's paper, with its documentation, was not released. Instead, interested parties were told to be content with the verbal presentations until the paper was published at a later date.

[9] Lynne Duke, "Stepping Out of the Shadows," Washington Post, 5 April 2007; Richard Pyle, "Researcher Adds to Alger Hiss Debate," sfgate.com, 5 April 2007.

[10] Mark, "Cryptanalysis and the Hiss Case," I&NS, 55.

[11] "Wilder Foote, 69, a UN Press Chief," NYT, 17 February 1975.

[12] "UN Appoints Foote to Be Chief of New Combined Press Bureau," NYT, 14 June 1947.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Wilder Foote had listed Alger Hiss as a reference when seeking his first job in the secretariat. Ironically, that proved to mean the opposite of what it suggested. As the Chicago Tribune's Chesly Manly reported in 1952, UN personnel records disclosed that only two employees had given Hiss as a reference. "Hiss apparently was too astute," wrote Manly, "to permit the indiscriminate use of his name in writing by UN job seekers." Chesly Manly, "UN Dismisses 18 Americans," Chicago Tribune, 5 December 1952.

[15] Nor did Foote’s name appear on the so-called "Lee List" of unresolved State Department security cases compiled in 1947.

[16] Manly, "UN Dismisses 18 Americans," 5 December 1952. In all likelihood, the FBI investigated (or re-investigated) Foote most intensely during the years 1948 to 1952. In addition, when the Bureau was assisting NSA in identifying ALES in VENONA 1822, Foote would have been reviewed as a candidate for ALES.

[17] Schindler, "Hiss in VENONA," 4-5.

[18] Mark, "Cryptanalysis and the Hiss Case," I&NS, 55.

[19] The cable had been found in Soviet archives by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent who had been given access under a special arrangement. In a 2002 lawsuit in Britain against John Lowenthal, Vassiliev provided his notes on the cable to bolster his contention that ALES had indeed attended the Yalta conference in 1945.

[20] The tasking cable sent from Moscow on 3 March 1945 was intercepted under VENONA.

[21] Coded cable dated 5 March 1945 from "Vadim" (Anatoly Gorsky) to Moscow Center, from the lawsuit transcript of Alexander Vassiliev v. Frank Cass & Co. Ltd.

[22] The conference in Mexico City, an assemblage of foreign ministers from the Western hemisphere, ran from 21 February to 8 March 1945.

[23] “Grew Says World Must Bar Anarchy,” NYT, 4 March 1945.

[24] Richard Pyle, "Scholars Restudy Alger Hiss Spy Case," washingtonpost.com, 5 April 2007.

[25] The Bird/Chervonnaya analysis, of course, implicitly repudiates Lowenthal’s fanciful analysis that ALES never went to Moscow.

[26] Hiss, for example, was not among the American diplomats applauded in the press for accomplishing virtually every U.S. goal during the conference. James B. Reston, "Stettinius' Aides Lauded in Mexico," NYT, 5 March 1945. Hiss would only begin to receive more attention in the press ("one of the hardest-working men in San Francisco") after that April conference, which coincided with his promotion to director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. "Named World Plan Aide," NYT, 20 February 1945; Marquis Childs, "Washington Calling: Reorganization," Washington Post, 30 June 1945.

[27] Coded cable dated 5 March 1945 from "Vadim" (Anatoly Gorsky) to Moscow Center.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Schindler, "Hiss in VENONA," 5. According to Whittaker Chambers, both Donald Hiss, Alger’s brother, and Priscilla Hiss, Alger's wife, were part of their network.

[30] AP, "Author: Alger Hiss Was Innocent of Spying," cnn.com, 6 April 2007.

[31] Haynes telephone conversation with Wilder Foote, 9 April 2007. The son of Wilder Foote apparently responded to Bird, "I am confident that the actions of my father will ultimately be proven to be above reproach," and Bird conveyed this comment to the conference. Pyle, "Scholars Restudy Alger Hiss Spy Case," 5 April 2007.

[32] David Smith, "Top Cold War Spy 'Innocent,'" The Guardian (UK), 8 April 2007.

[33] Haynes telephone conversation with Wilder Foote, 9 April 2007.

[34] An AP reporter wrote that Bird/Chervonnaya "provided startling new information that, if true, could point toward a posthumous vindication of Hiss." Pyle, "Scholars Restudy Alger Hiss Spy Case," 5 April 2007. Smith's "Top Cold War Spy 'Innocent'" in The Guardian, 8 April 2007, had a similar theme.

[35] Two reliable accounts are Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Random House, 1997), and Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997). An article by Maria Schmidt adds valuable corroboration drawn from formerly secret Communist security service archives in Hungary. Maria Schmidt, "Noel Field—The American Communist at the Center of Stalin’s East European Purge: From the Hungarian Archives," American Communist History, Vol. 3, No. 2, (December 2004).

For a more detailed analysis of the Bird/Chervonnaya accusation, see "Ales: Hiss, Foote, Stettinius?" at http://www.johnearlhaynes.org/page63.html The historian Eduard Mark, a specialist in the ALES matter, is also planning to publish an analysis of the Hiss issue that will include new documentary material.

[36] In the aftermath of the NYU program, and after criticisms leveled during the conference by Oshinsky and G. Edward White, a legal historian and authority on the Hiss case, there are rumors that the unreleased Bird/Chervonnaya paper is being revised prior to publication. There are hints the revision will back down from the blunt identification of Foote as ALES, and adopt a more equivocal position. Time will show if these rumors are true.

Related Links

  • Ronald Radosh: Criticizes new NYU center on cold war scholarship
  • Ronald Radosh vs. John Prados: Is NYU's Alger Hiss conference biased?
  • Kai Bird: Suggests Alger Hiss Was not a Spy

  • © 2007 by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. This article was first published by Max Holland's washingtondecoded.com.