"The other curious thing about the Hiss case is the psychology of believing that Hiss was a spy, which requires abandoning much of what we know about rational thought."
— Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins in 1996
Alger Hiss column from a few weeks back would elicit plenty of mail, and I wasn't disappointed.
The power of the Hiss story continues to arouse strong emotions even after the passage of more than 60 years.
Some who contacted me by phone or email accused me of propagating the idea that Hiss' guilt was still in doubt.
What I was trying to do was explain what Hiss was saying in his 45-minute talk before an audience of more than 1,000 in Shriver Hall on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University on a May evening in 1974, not give history's ultimate judgment.
"If you had done due diligence on this article, you would have included passages from the KGB files in which they named Hiss as a collaborator," wrote W.A. "Al" Welch in an email. "But then, The Sun would not have published the article."
A newspaper colleague, Jeff Landaw, pointed out that author Allen Weinstein, "who started writing 'Perjury' expecting and hoping to find Hiss innocent, concluded that he was guilty."
Several other readers pointed to the Weinstein book as well. Another author who launched himself on a similar quest was Sam Tanenhaus, who is editor of The New York Times Book Review, and whose 1997 book, "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography," arrived at the same conclusion.
Landaw also wrote that Alistair Cooke, who covered Hiss' trial for the old Guardian newspaper, recalled those events in his 1951 book, "A Generation On Trial: The USA v. Alger Hiss."
Cooke, Landaw wrote, said the best Hiss could have hoped for was a Scottish verdict: 'Not proven.'"
Hal Piper, a former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent and editor, is an old friend and colleague.
"You failed to get the rest of the story," he wrote in an email.
"History has returned its verdict, and it is that Alger Hiss spied for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed and the archives opened," Piper wrote.
"Hiss was not directly named, but one agent, whose pseudonym I forget, matched up so perfectly in his movements and reporting that students of the case became convinced that he must be Hiss," Piper wrote.
"In any case, after the Soviet files opened, Tony Hiss, Alger's son and vehement defender, stopped trying to repair his father's reputation," he wrote. "It is my understanding that no impartial observer any longer doubts that — however odious Nixon's and McCarthy's methods and motives — in this instance they were right: Hiss spied for the Soviet Union."
The files Piper is referring to are those of the Venona Project, which began in 1943 under the auspices of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and whose mission was to gather and study Soviet diplomatic and later espionage communications.
The project continued until 1980, and it wasn't until 1995, a year before Hiss' death, that the files were released.
Regarding the pseudonym Piper references, most historians have come to agree that Ales was none other than Alger Hiss' code name.