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ALGER HISS’ DEATH AT 92 CLOSES AN INTRIGUING CHAPTER IN HISTORY

SHARE ALGER HISS’ DEATH AT 92 CLOSES AN INTRIGUING CHAPTER IN HISTORY

Great cases make great stories. From a newsman's point of view, no criminal case of the 20th century made a better story than the two trials of Alger Hiss 47 years ago. When Hiss died on Nov. 15, it all came back to mind.

The Hiss case had everything - an unlikely hero in the rumpled Whittaker Chambers, an unlikely villain in the impeccable Alger Hiss. The record teemed with purloined documents, false names, duplicity at high levels. The cast of supporting characters included a sitting president, a future president, a secretary of state and two justices of the Supreme Court.It all began in 1925, when 24-year-old Whittaker Chambers joined the Communist Party. He was then an impressionable intellectual at Columbia University, a young man who dreamily saw a future for Marxism. The party put him to work at first as an overt communist journalist and then moved him underground as a covert courier and functionary.

In the early '30s the party assigned Chambers to Washington. His task was to work with Harold Ware in organizing communist cells at high levels of the Roosevelt administration. There was no shortage of idealistic recruits. Among them was a lean and handsome Ivy Leaguer, Alger Hiss, then attached to the State Department.

By 1937 Hiss had gone beyond his original role of bending New Deal policies toward Marxist goals. As it later transpired, he had become deeply engaged in actual espionage. A pattern developed by which Hiss would bring home top-secret documents, give them to Chambers for overnight copying, and then return the documents.

In the summer of 1938, at last disillusioned, Chambers broke with the party. He went on to become a highly respected senior editor of Time magazine. Hiss climbed to the top of a social and political ladder. He played a key role in establishing the United Nations. He organized Roosevelt's entourage for the infamous Yalta Conference. Leaving government, he became head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Chambers tried repeatedly to alert top government figures to the existence of the Ware Group, but no one listened. Then, in 1948, the House Committee on Un-American Activities heard from a witness named Elizabeth Bentley. She identified Chambers as a fellow agent of the underground in the mid-'30s. The committee summoned Chambers and asked him to name names. He described Ware as the chief organizer.

"Other members of the group were Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, Donald Hiss, Victor Perlo . . . "

One can imagine Hiss' consternation as he saw disaster looming. His only safe course lay in denying everything. For the next 18 months he struggled desperately to explain the inexplicable. He blustered, postured, feigned injured innocence. Inexorably the noose closed. A freshman Republican, Rep. Richard Nixon, led the House investigation.

Little by little it became evident that Hiss was lying and Chambers was telling the truth. Chambers testified to an array of little things to establish that he and Hiss once had worked closely together. He described the Hisses' apartment, their furnishings, their hobbies, their automobiles, even their dog.

Testifying before a grand jury, Hiss said flatly that he had never given any documents to Chambers and he had never seen Chambers after Jan. 1, 1937. The grand jury, after hearing Chambers, indicted Hiss for perjury on those two counts. The case went to trial in May 1949 before Judge Samuel H. Kaufman in New York.

The trial pitted two of the nation's most colorful lawyers in a dramatic match. Thomas Murphy, 6 feet 4 inches tall, a bull of a man with a great handlebar mustache, served as prosecutor. Lloyd Stryker, a brilliant adversary, led the defense. Among character witnesses for Hiss were Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Stanley Reed. President Truman had scorned the whole House committee hearing as a "red herring."

Six weeks later the jury deadlocked 8-4 for conviction. Judge Kaufman declared a mistrial. At a second trial the following November, the cast changed. Hiss had a new lawyer, the trial had a new judge. A new jury found Hiss guilty on both counts. His sentence: five years in prison. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said he would never turn his back on Alger Hiss, but even the most liberal media came grudgingly to accept the verdict.

Now Hiss is dead at 92. Only a tiny handful of the faithful still profess to believe in his innocence. Chambers died in 1961, but he left behind a monumental work of autobiography, "Witness." It is the spellbinding story of a man who served the forces of darkness and had the courage to see the light and to act upon his vision.