Author Kai Bird and researcher Svetlana Chervonnaya announced at a NYU conference in April that they had uncovered evidence suggesting that U.S. diplomat Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—had spied for the Soviets under the code name ALES in the 1930s and 1940s.
Most Cold War historians had concluded that Hiss—a prominent New Deal liberal and State Department official accused in 1948 by former Communist agent Whittaker Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950—was ALES, based on 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.
Bird and Chervonnaya have challenged that conventional wisdom. Their essay in the summer edition of The American Scholar entitled “The Mystery of Ales” argues flatly:
…Hiss was not Ales. The historians who have maintained that he was Ales turned an assumption and a few clues into a conclusion without bothering to determine if Hiss actually fit the profile of Ales — or asking whether a better candidate for Ales existed.
In the article they repeat their NYU conference assertion that Wilder Foote, a minor State Department official, is that better ALES candidate (although they stop short of unequivocally labeling Foote as ALES). Bird and Chervonnaya cite their research on key ALES-related cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the Soviet NKGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. They argue that Foote, and Foote alone, best fits the profile of ALES drawn from those messages.
Yet it is an uphill climb for Bird and Chervonnaya. Of the eight significant clues to ALES’s identity found in the two cables, six match Hiss closely and only two track to Foote’s biography (a comparison outlined in greater detail here). The Library of Congress’s John Earl Haynes in two recent articles (“Ales: Hiss, Foote, Stettinius?” and “Hiss Was Guilty,” co-authored with Harvey Klehr) has made a strong case for the conventional historical conclusion that Hiss was ALES. While “The Mystery of Ales” runs on for nearly 26,000 words and includes 184 footnotes in its expanded online version, it nonetheless fails to mount a convincing argument for Foote as dedicated spy—the preponderance of the evidence strongly points to Hiss.
There are five major flaws in “The Mystery of Ales” readily apparent to those who have followed the historiography of the Hiss Case; these flaws undercut any notion that Foote was ALES. They are:
1). Excluding Hiss as a suspect through the flawed analysis of one clue. Bird and Chervonnaya eliminate Hiss as a candidate for ALES because of his presence in Washington, D.C. on March 5 when Gorsky informed Moscow that ALES was in Mexico City with a U.S. State Department delegation. Bird and Chervonnaya maintain: “… Gorsky would have to have been incompetent not to know that Alger Hiss had returned from Mexico City.” If Gorsky was telling his NKGB superiors that ALES was out of the country, then logically Hiss could not be ALES.
Yet it is also possible that Gorsky was unaware of Hiss’s return. John Earl Haynes has countered that Soviet intelligence did not keep a day-to-day check on the whereabouts of its sources, and further, Gorsky had only a distant relationship with ALES (who worked for military intelligence, the GRU, not NKGB) with any contact arranged by an intermediary, the agent RUBLE. In their analysis, Bird and Chervonnaya focus on news stories in the Sunday editions of the New York Times and Washington Star mentioning Hiss’s participation in a NBC radio show broadcast on Saturday, March 3 to argue Gorsky should have known. But did he? There is no proof, only conjecture. It is not a “firm alibi” for Hiss, as Bird and Chervonnaya maintain, but a possible alibi. It should not be used to rule out Hiss as an ALES suspect.
Further, Bird and Chervonnaya’s scholarship is inconsistent when it comes to Gorsky and his reliability. They reject what Gorsky’s March 30 cable says about ALES being thanked for his spying by Soviet diplomat Andrey Vyshinsky during a Moscow visit (after the Yalta Conference); instead Bird and Chervonnaya claim that Colonel Mikhail Abramovich Milstein of the GRU thanked ALES. Why do Bird and Chervonnaya trust Gorsky to get it right on ALES’s whereabouts on March 5, but not on the substance of ALES’s meetings in Moscow?
2). Substituting Foote as the “better candidate” for ALES largely on circumstantial evidence. Bird and Chervonnaya focus on Foote because—like ALES, according to the cables—he traveled with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius to Yalta, Moscow, Mexico City and San Francisco in 1945. But so did Hiss! (Haynes notes, wryly, that Stettinius fits that geographical bill for ALES, as well.)
Some of the more significant clues just don’t match Foote. One of the more striking aspects of the March 5 Gorsky cable is its description of ALES as a fervent Communist “fully aware” of the illegality of his underground role. Foote apparently held conventional New Deal liberal views (Bird and Chervonnaya concede he was “a man of the democratic left”), and this Harvard graduate and one-time Vermont weekly newspaper publisher seems an unlikely Soviet master spy. I envision Foote as the real-life embodiment of Doremus Jessup, the small-town Vermont newspaperman in Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, whose opposition to fascism is founded on the democratic ideals, common sense, and decency embodied in what was quaintly called the American way—not on Marxist ideology.
Despite combing through Russian and American archival records, and reviewing FBI and U.S. Senate investigative files, Bird and Chervonnaya found nothing tying Foote to Communist Party membership, overt or covert. Several federal loyalty investigations in the 1940s and 1950s concluded that Foote posed no security risk. In contrast, the historical record is replete with sources identifying Alger Hiss as a covert Communist (Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing, Itzhak Ahkmerov and Nathaniel Weyl) and FBI and State Department internal investigators began treating Hiss as a bona fide espionage suspect in 1945.
In “The Mystery of Ales” Bird and Chervonnaya give us (unintentionally) Wilder Foote as extroverted editorialist, not calculating conspiracist. Even as U.S.-Soviet relations cooled in the late 1940s, Foote continued to openly assert his liberal internationalist views, refused to accept Hiss’s guilt or to renounce his friendship with his colleague, and denounced Senator McCarran’s loyalty investigations. Were these the actions of a Soviet spy looking to avoid notice and escape detection? The contrast with Alger Hiss’s opaqueness and evasions during the same period of time could not be more stark.
3). Relying on guilt-by-association to link Foote to the ALES clues. Without documentary evidence of Communist Party membership for Foote, or any credible allegations of espionage or other subversive activity, Bird and Chervonnaya can only summarize the FBI’s background investigation, which included Foote’s associations. They then ask, rhetorically:
…Do his associations convict him? No. But they help to answer the question of how plausible a candidate he may be for Ales. If Foote is Ales, readers will naturally ask if he knew men or women who viewed the Soviet Communist “experiment” with sympathy.
“The Mystery of Ales” recounts Foote’s friendships with possible or actual Communists—employees at his weekly newspapers, Harvard classmates, a second cousin with lefty leanings—and concludes that he had contacts “who conceivably might have served to introduce him to the Soviets.”
Of course the same exercise would produce the same result (lots of fellow traveling and Communist friends) for most Ivy League New Dealers of the period; applying the Bird-Chervonnaya argument by innuendo, we could easily conclude that they all were potential KGB agents! To be intellectually consistent, Bird and Chervonnaya should endorse Ann Coulter’s smear of journalist I.F. Stone as a Soviet agent based on his associations and contacts, for they imply as much for Foote with far less evidence—with Stone, there are at least Venona decrypts of KGB efforts to persuade him (unsuccessfully) to trade information for money.
4). Ignoring or slighting those ALES clues that point directly to Hiss. By excluding Hiss as an ALES suspect at the outset, “The Mystery of Ales” either ignores the close fit between Hiss and several major clues or tries to gin up similar incriminating evidence against Foote.
For example, nowhere in “The Mystery of Ales” do we find a consideration of the claim in the March 5 cable that ALES and RUBLE had been part of a Soviet spy ring in Washington headed by KARL (the codename for Whittaker Chambers) until the “connection with KARL was lost.” A memo by Gorsky in 1948 had identified Hiss (under a different code-name, LEONARD) as a member of KARL’s group, along with RUBLE. How does Wilder Foote fit into this scenario? “The Mystery of Ales” leaves this as a mystery.
And what of the clues in the March 30 cable that ALES had been working for the GRU since 1935, had supplied military intelligence from the State Department, and had assistance from family members—all clues that matched Hiss? Bird and Chervonnaya never really address how Foote could have been of any help to the GRU from 1935-1941 when he was a weekly newspaper publisher (historian Eduard Mark has noted 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”); they weakly offer that thousands of government workers had the surname Foote (including some, they note, in the military); and they struggle mightily to maintain that Foote, a government press officer for much of his time in Washington, had access to sensitive military information.
5). Implying that members of the Foote family accept the Bird-Chervonnaya suspicions about Wilder Foote, when in fact they reject them. “The Mystery of Ales” closes with an email from Wilder Foote’s son (“I am confident that the actions of my father will ultimately be proven to be above reproach.”) that falls far short of the sort of denial you would expect from someone whose father has been accused of treason. What Bird and Chervonnaya fail to include in their essay are the post-NYU conference comments made by a Foote family representative:
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.
In one sense it doesn’t matter what the Foote family believes—their opinions will not change objective historical fact. (For example, Tony Hiss has defended his father’s innocence for decades.) However, if you are going to selectively quote family members (as “The Mystery of Ales” does), then you have an obligation to note that they violently disagree with your conclusions.
Second Wave Cold War revisionism
“The Mystery of Ales” is part of a Second Wave of Cold War revisionism, one that tries to cope with the revelations that the American Communist Party and its members, public and secret, aided and abetted Soviet espionage in the U.S. in a broad and sustained way. Some historians on the Left have tried to downplay the importance of this spying; others to draw a distinction between cooperation and espionage; and a small group has focused on the noble motives of those implicated (thus Ellen Schrecker’s Newspeak-like explanation that those who spied “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism.”)
In that light, the Hiss Case—and maintaining Alger Hiss’s innocence—has taken on greater meaning for those hoping to salvage something from the historical wreckage of the Stalinist-era American Left. Bird and Chervonnaya argue:
Even today, the Hiss affair remains a painful metaphor for the marginalization of left-wing New Dealers by anti-Communist crusaders, the weakness of the American Left for the last half century, and the less-than-courageous performance of American liberals during two generations of conservative ascendancy.
An alternative metaphorical reading, however, is that the Hiss affair—and the revisionists’ reluctance to accept Alger Hiss as the active tool of a foreign intelligence agency, not the passive victim of Cold War hysteria and McCarthyism—reflects an unwillingness to accept historical responsibility for covert American support of Stalin and his crimes against humanity. Those within the U.S. government who spied for the Soviets served a monstrous regime, one that matched Hitler’s Third Reich in its ruthlessness (indeed, as Paul Johnson notes in Modern Times, Nazi and Soviet intelligence agencies collaborated closely during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact). To deny this is to deny historical truth.
Even as Bird and Chervonnaya attempt to “solve” the “mystery of Ales” (primarily to assert Alger Hiss’s innocence, it should be noted), they also try to downplay the extent and seriousness of Soviet penetration of the State Department in the 1940s. What was going on, however, was not cooperation between diplomatic allies or an innocent mutual exchange of information but rather the passing of secrets to a foreign power—the very definition of espionage.
Bird and Chervonnaya may see ambiguity in the actions of ALES (“…Ales might not have thought of himself as a spy.”), but their interpretation cannot bear scrutiny. Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB resident in London, defined an agent (in his 1991 book Instructions from the Centre) as one who agrees to secret “conspiratorial” collaboration, and is willing to accept KGB instructions—exactly what ALES was doing.
The Gorsky cables show that ALES was conscious of this and understood that he was an agent in every sense of the word; ALES gladly accepted a decoration from the GRU in recognition of his service to his Soviet masters. ALES knew that he was betraying his country, perhaps in hopes of building a Marxist New Jerusalem, but betraying his country nonetheless. It is a disservice to history to suggest otherwise.