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Byline: Associated Press

Alger Hiss, the patrician public servant who fell from grace in a communist spy scandal that propelled Richard Nixon to higher office, died Friday afternoon. He was 92.

Hiss died after a long illness, just four days after his birthday, said Lenox Hill Hospital spokeswoman Jean Brett.

Writer Tony Hiss praised his father Friday for courageously standing up for American principles. He said, ``other people, whose vision was clouded by Cold War passions, couldn't see the truth of the man.''

Hiss' life can be neatly broken into two parts. The first was a stellar rise - a brilliant academic career, clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a series of important posts in the foundation work for the New Deal and the foreign policy establishment.

Then, on Aug. 3, 1948, a rumpled, overweight magazine editor named Whittaker Chambers alleged that 10 years earlier, Hiss had given him State Department secrets which Chambers, in turn, passed to the Soviet Union.

At the end of the investigations and trials that followed, after spectacular developments involving microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin and an ancient typewriter, Hiss was convicted of two counts of perjury and imprisoned for three years and eight months.

For the rest of his life, he worked for vindication, in courts of law and in the court of public opinion.

He proclaimed that it had come finally in 1992, at age 87, when a Russian general in charge of Soviet intelligence archives declared that Hiss had never been a spy, but rather a victim of Cold War hysteria and the McCarthy Red-hunting era.

Gen. Dmitry A. Volkogonov later qualified his statement, saying that while he had found no evidence against Hiss in KGB files, he couldn't speak for other Soviet intelligence agencies, and many documents had been destroyed.

The controversy flared again this March, when the National Security Agency released hundreds of pages of newly declassified material that included a reference to a Soviet spy working in the United States during World War II.

A cable, dated March 30, 1945, said the spy went by the code name ``Ales'' and was ``probably Alger Hiss.'' But the cable offered no supporting information for that identification.

During the decades of controversy, such conservatives as William F. Buckley Jr. backed Chambers and felt justice was served by jailing Hiss. Hiss defenders included liberals like Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas and Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

Hiss' establishment credentials were impeccable: He attended private schools, then Johns Hopkins, where he was Phi Beta Kappa, and Harvard Law, where he was a member of the law review. At Harvard he attracted the attention of Felix Frankfurter, at whose recommendation Hiss served a year as Holmes' law clerk.

After three years in private law practice in Boston, Hiss joined the New Deal - first as an official with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and then as a Senate legal assistant and as a Justice Department attorney.

At the Dumbarton Oaks meeting to lay the groundwork for the United Nations, Hiss was executive secretary. In February 1945, he was a delegate to the Yalta Conference, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin settled the map of postwar Europe. At the San Francisco Conference that adopted the U.N. Charter, Hiss was secretary-general.

He left government at the end of 1946 to take the presidency of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Enter Whittaker Chambers. A senior editor at Time magazine, Chambers told the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had been a member of a communist underground that operated in Washington in the 1930s. And during that time, he shuttled U.S. government secrets to Soviet spies.

Chambers said that in 1937 and 1938, Hiss was a communist who betrayed his country by giving him documents to give to the Soviets.

Freshman Congressman Richard Nixon pressed the case and drew his first national publicity. Nixon later told intimates that he would never have been in a position to run for president if not for his pursuit of Hiss.

``If the American people knew the real nature of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil,'' Nixon once said.

Hiss denied it all. But Chambers took investigators to his Maryland farm and produced a hollow pumpkin. Inside, they found microfilmed State Department documents - the ones Chambers said he received from Hiss.

Supreme Court Justices Frankfurter and Stanley Reed were character witnesses for Hiss.

There was no trial for spying because the statute of limitations had expired. Hiss' first jury deadlocked on perjury charges. At a second trial in 1950, Hiss was found guilty of lying to the grand jury when he denied giving Chambers the documents and said he had not seen Chambers after the first of 1937.

Appeals were unavailing. On March 22, 1951, Hiss was shackled to a mail thief and transported to the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pa., to serve his five-year term. His fellow inmates gathered at the windows and cheered when he was released in November 1954.

He had no job - he had been disbarred. He became a salesman for a stationer, earning $50 a week plus commissions. He wrote ``In the Court of Public Opinion,'' a rather dry recitation of the case for his innocence.

His marriage fell apart. The Hisses separated; they would never divorce. In 1985, after Priscilla's death, Hiss married his companion of more than a quarter century, Isabelle Johnson. He had one son, by his first marriage.

His son is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker magazine and a visiting scholar at New York University's Taub Urban Research Center.

``I've never known anyone who had as many friends and devoted friends as my father,'' Tony Hiss said in a statement Friday, ``literally thousands of friends and acquaintances, and all those people and millions of well-wishers seemed able to see him for what he was - someone who throughout his life tried courageously to stand up for the American principles of the New Deal and for international principles of cooperation as embodied in the early hopes of the United Nations.

``Other people, whose vision was clouded by Cold War passions, couldn't see the truth of the man, but he always said that sooner or later, the truth would come out, and he continued to think that right up to the end - that once all the archives of both sides of the former Iron Curtain were open, the innocence that he always valiantly maintained would be established for all to see.''



Photo: Alger Hiss, shown in a 1948 photo, always maintained his innocence.

Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Nov 16, 1996

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