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That I disagree with John Steele Gordon is not evidence that I can’t check “partisanship at the door and search for truth, not political advantage.” It’s merely evidence that I disagree with John Steele Gordon.

What I find more interesting in our exchange, for our purposes as a history Web site, is the controversy over Alger Hiss. I’m glad that Mr. Gordon brought up the topic of the Venona files, as this gives me entrée to recommend to our readers a fascinating article by David Lowenthal, a professor emeritus at University College London. Lowenthal blows some big holes in the theory that the Venona files implicate Hiss.

Lowenthal’s argument is complex, but I’ll try to summarize it:

The Venona files, which were decrypted and made public about ten years ago, were secret cables sent to Moscow by Soviet agents operating out of Washington, D.C., in the 1930s and ’40s. Venona transcript No. 1822, which was one of the most damning pieces of evidence to emerge against Alger Hiss, concerned an American informant/agent codenamed “Ales,” who (according to the transcript, dated March 30, 1945) attended the Yalta conference and handed over classified material to his Soviet handlers. An earlier transcript, dated March 5, explained that Ales “was at Yalta conference, then went to Mexico City, but has not yet come back.”

For a number of reasons, many historians have agreed that “Ales” was Alger Hiss’s code name. Lowenthal shows that this was probably not so.

First, the March 5 cable explained that Ales had not yet returned to Washington. The problem is, Alger Hiss had returned from Yalta to Washington—two weeks earlier.

Second, in earlier dispatches from Washington, Hiss was identified as “Leonard,” not “Ales.” “Leonard,” moreover, does not appear anywhere in KGB files as a spy. He only appears in secret dispatches as a potential informant (as did many other high-ranking government officials, some of whom informed, some of whom didn’t).

So do the Venona transcripts implicate Alger Hiss? Maybe, but probably not. None of this exonerates Hiss. But it certainly complicates an already murky piece of history.

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