Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Hiss-Nixon Seesaw

In a curious way, the reputation of Alger Hiss was permanently linked to that of Richard Nixon. The Nixon-haters have always been eager to exonerate Hiss while Nixon's fans are usually convinced of Alger's guilt. When Nixon was doing well, for example, when he was Vice-President and when he was a popular President during his first term, Hiss's reputation suffered a decline. When Nixon did poorly as after his disastrous run for governor and especially during and after the Watergate crisis, more people thought of Hiss as an innocent victim.

When the transcripts of the Watergate tapes were released to the public, Hiss's supporters found much that seemed to prop up their side of the old dispute. For one thing, there was the sheer obsessive number of references Nixon made to the Hiss case, then a quarter century in the past. For another, the low tone of the conversations, the talk of dirty tricks and efforts to win-at-any-cost, supported those who thought Nixon capable of a vicious frame-up. After all, the tapes made by the President himself had him saying such things, as that he needed "a son of a bitch who will work his butt off and do it dishonorably."

In Blind Ambition John Dean claimed that Nixon confided in Charles Colson that, "The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case." However, Colson remembered no such conversation and it was not tape-recorded.

In the wake of Watergate, an aging and bald Hiss enjoyed something of a renaissance. He often spoke on college campuses where he found a new generation ready to see him as a victim of the nasty Nixon.

Dimitri Volkogonov (AP)
Dimitri Volkogonov (AP)

Most recently, attention was focused on the Hiss case by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1992, General Dmitri Volkogonov announced that he had searched the Russian military intelligence archives at the request of a Hiss supporter and found that "not a single document has been found that substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union." Two months later, General Volkogonov admitted that he had only done a cursory search and that many materials were missing or had been destroyed.

In 1993, historian Maria Schmidt claimed she had found documents in secret files of the Hungarian Interior Ministry that mentioned Hiss as a spy. Three years later, in 1996, the US National Security Agency released the "Venona intercepts," captured Soviet documents. One of them talked about an American spying for the Soviets who had been in the State Department and gone to Yalta, as Hiss had. The spy's code name was "Ales." Pro-Hiss people viewed the story skeptically since it seems improbable that someone would choose a code name so like his real one that a first-grader could see through it.

For decades, the Alger Hiss case aroused extraordinary passions, most of which are now spent. While questions about this complicated and convoluted of cases remain and probably always will, the bulk of evidence points to Hiss's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

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