The headlines that followed last Thursday’s daylong NYU conference, “Alger Hiss and History,” focused on author Kai Bird’s claim that “new evidence” suggested that U.S. diplomat Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—had spied for the Soviets under the code name ALES in the 1930s and 1940s.
A widely-distributed Associated Press story on the conference maintained that if Bird’s contention held up, it “could point towards a posthumous vindication of Hiss.” What the story obscured was that Bird’s theory of “Foote as ALES” relies primarily on ruling out Hiss as the prime suspect, not by any “smoking gun” research establishing Foote’s treachery. Despite Bird’s publicly-expressed certainty at NYU, the weight of evidence still points to Hiss as ALES, the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) agent, not Foote.
A prominent New Deal liberal and State Department official, Hiss had been accused in 1948 by former Communist agent Whittaker Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and was convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950. Hiss vigorously maintained his innocence until his death in 1996, at the age of 92, and the Hiss Case became a cause célèbre for many on the Left, who saw the patrician diplomat as a victim of “America’s second Red Scare.”
The view of Hiss as an American Dreyfus changed for many after the 1978 publication of historian Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, which marshalled damaging evidence of Hiss’s complicity in espionage. Further research in Russian archives, and the release in the mid-1990s of intercepted Soviet cables decrypted as part of the U.S. Venona counterintelligence effort, convinced many mainstream historians of Hiss’s guilt.
A different ALES?
At the NYU conference, Bird and his Russian co-researcher Svetlana A. Chervonnaya sought to challenge the prevailing assumption that Hiss and the Soviet agent ALES were one and the same. During the panel entitled “The Case as History,” Bird focused on cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the Soviet NKGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. The FBI had connected Hiss to ALES after analyzing the March 30 cable, and when it was released as a Venona document, many historians had accepted the idea that Hiss was, most likely, the agent in question.
Bird presented new background research on the March 5 cable (which resides in the KGB archives) in which Gorsky told his Moscow superiors that ALES had been at the Yalta Conference, then Mexico City, and had not returned to Washington. Bird and Chervonnaya concluded that Hiss could not have been ALES because he had returned to Washington in February, and had participated in a National Broadcasting System radio interview on the night of Saturday, March 3 (which was reported in the Sunday newspapers)—something they argue Gorsky, whose diplomatic cover was as a press officer, would have known. This discrepancy in schedules rules out Hiss as ALES, Bird maintained.
Who was ALES, then? After reviewing the travel itineraries of State Department officials against the other ALES clues, they narrowed the suspect list, leaving “only one man standing,” to use Bird’s words—Wilder Foote, a Harvard-educated journalist and assistant to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius. Foote had remained in Mexico City and his travels (Yalta Conference, Moscow, Mexico City) matched those reported for ALES. Further, Bird and Chervonnaya had discovered that Foote, an internationalist who later worked for the United Nations, had been the target of loyalty investigations by the FBI.
Other scholars who have studied the cables have reached different conclusions. John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress has argued that Soviet intelligence did not keep a day-to-day check on the whereabouts of its sources, and that Gorsky only had contact with ALES through another agent, RUBLE (believed to be Treasury Department official Harold Glasser), who was often traveling.
Considering the ALES clues
A broader consideration of the clues in the cables, however, casts considerable doubt on the substitution of Foote for Hiss as the prime ALES suspect. In the March 30 cable, ALES was described as having spied continuously for the GRU since 1935. Hiss’s involvement with Soviet military intelligence in the mid-1930s has been corroborated by several witnesses, while Foote was a newspaper publisher in Vermont for the entire decade. (As historian Eduard Mark has written, Foote’s “absence from the seats of power throughout the first half of ‘Ales’s’ service to the GRU makes him an intrinsically unlikely figure.”)
Gorsky’s March 30 cable also stated that ALES was being assisted by relatives in collecting government secrets; Foote had no relatives in the government, while Hiss’s brother Donald was a State Department employee and Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, had been accused by Chambers as an accomplice in her husband’s covert activities.
Of the eight clues provided in the two cables, the existing evidence suggests a strong match to Hiss on six clues, and to Foote on two.** (Please click here for a chart comparing Hiss, Foote and ALES to the cables’ clues).
The chair of NYU’s “The Case as History” panel, David Oshinsky of the University of Texas, focused his remarks on some of the loose threads in the Bird-Chervonnaya theory. Did Gorsky know Hiss was in Washington, and not Mexico City? How could Foote’s rural Vermont publisher’s life be squared with Gorsky’s contention that ALES had provided information continuously since 1935?
Oshinsky added that a “vast majority of historians” accepted Chambers’s overall version of events—that Alger Hiss had indeed spied for the Soviets in the 1930s—an account backed by other Communist agents like Elizabeth Bentley and Hede Massing and contemporary witnesses like writer Josephine Herbst. Oshinsky finished his remarks by arguing that it would “cheat history” to deny the grim role of the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) in assisting the Soviet espionage machine, even while acknowledging that McCarthyites exaggerated the Communist spy threat in the 1950s.
Journalism or stenography?
In his initial coverage of the NYU conference, the Associated Press’s Richard Pyle highlighted Bird’s naming of Wilder Foote as ALES. Unfortunately Pyle’s story resembled stenography more than journalism, as he repeated the Bird-Chervonnaya thesis without much in the way of qualifications, critical analysis, or any balancing comment from historians familiar with Venona and the ALES narrative.
Pyle apparently did not contact leading Cold War historians in advance of the NYU conference, so he could turn to them for response after the Bird-Chervonnaya presentation. In March, Hudson Institute fellow Ronald Radosh had listed some of the scholars who would be absent from NYU’s event (Eduard Mark, John Earl Haynes, Sam Tanenhaus, Mark Kramer) in arguing that the conference deck had been stacked with Hiss partisans. Pyle could have started by phoning Radosh’s list. Instead, Pyle balanced Bird’s claim with a quote from one of the conference panelists, G. Edward White of the University of Virginia Law School, who said that whether Hiss was ALES “need not rely on a single piece of evidence.” (White, author of Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars, believes that Hiss was a Soviet agent).
Pyle’s reportage was further weakened by his failure to get comment from the Foote family on Thursday (“telephone and email queries…were not immediately returned…”). Rather than holding his story for their response, Pyle relied on quoting a somewhat ambiguous e-mail Bird said that he had received from Foote’s son (“I am confident that the actions of my father will ultimately be proven to be above reproach.”).
On Friday, the family’s belated response proved to be anything but ambiguous.
Responding to a query by The Associated Press, Foote’s grandson said in an e-mail signed Wilder Foote 5 that his grandfather “was cleared of any suspicion” of wrongdoing by the FBI and the McCarthy Commission investigating spy activities. “He 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,” he added. “Quite convenient for him that everyone involved is dead and cannot speak in their own defense against allegations.”
“Mr. Bird’s unsubstantiated statements will undoubtedly damage my grandfather’s name with little or no recourse on my part … I am glad that my grandfather is not here to endure this sort of attack,” said Foote, a commercial pilot who lives in Belleville, Michigan.
While Foote’s anger is understandable—he believes that his grandfather has been falsely accused of betraying his country—it’s unlikely that the pursuit of celebrity motivated Bird (he shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Biography). A more likely explanation: Bird’s eagerness to advance Wilder Foote as ALES reflects a desire to clear Hiss of the charge. Many revisionist historians of the period regard the Hiss Case as a miscarriage of justice, a calculated attack on the reformist policies of the New Deal, and a “trial run” for McCarthyism; it’s fair to include Bird in that group.
The verdict of history
The historical case against Alger Hiss does not ride on the question of the identity of ALES. While it is unlikely that Wilder Foote was the GRU agent with the cryptonym ALES, even if he was, that discovery alone would not vindicate Hiss.
The evidence of Hiss’s involvement with the Soviet intelligence apparatus of the 1930s is considerable, although it should be said that the depth of that entanglement (naive idealist duped into espionage? CPUSA member reluctantly “doing his duty”? committed covert agent?) is not as clear.
There is some irony that Hiss partisans, who generally downplay the prevalence of Soviet espionage in government circles, are now arguing that Foote was ALES; if true, it would further strengthen the argument that Communist agents had deeply penetrated the highest levels of the State Department. It would mean that Secretary of State Stettinius attended the Yalta Conference accompanied by two close aides (Hiss and Foote) with GRU links.
The research by Bird and Chervonnaya has raised questions about Wilder Foote’s personal history, questions that will no doubt be further addressed by Cold War historians and experts on Soviet espionage in the U.S. A closer examination of the archival evidence and material from FBI and Senate investigations may help determine whether the claim that Foote was ALES has credibility, or whether it represents another Hiss Case red herring.
It is possible, of course, that scholars may stumble upon evidence that could exonerate Alger Hiss of the charge of passing secrets to Stalin’s Soviet Union, discoveries that could alter the verdict of history. The new research of Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya on the identity of ALES falls far, far short of clearing that very difficult historical hurdle.
**Revised April 15, 2007 to increase number of clues from cables; see chart for details
Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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