Sixty-five years ago last week, Alger Hiss—the protégé of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a rising star in the State Department, and a Soviet agent code-named “Ales”—was convicted of perjury for denying any involvement in Soviet espionage. This should have forever closed the case. For, as Sam Tanenhaus, the biographer of Hiss’s main accuser, Whittaker Chambers, stated, every mystery had been answered. There was compelling evidence, in the form of documents Chambers said had been given to him by Hiss, which were in Hiss’s handwriting, and those summarized by typing them had matched the “type” of the machine. This was enough to sway juries.
But not all mysteries had been answered. There was the question of motive. Whittaker Chambers was never able to supply this, for he was friends with Hiss well after Hiss joined Soviet intelligence. The most Chambers could offer involved tantalizing tidbits about Hiss’s personality, such as Hiss being a rather “romantic communist.” But his other offerings showed a cold blooded figure: mocking FDR’s polio as symbolic of democracy decaying, and reacting to Stalin’s Purge Trials by stating “that Joe Stalin plays for keeps.”