Interview with Alger Hiss: 'I will be upheld' by history
New York — ''The battle is never over as long as I am still functioning,'' said Alger Hiss over the telephone. Hiss has consented to a telephone interview with me, although he does not wish to be interviewed personally in his apartment off Gramercy Park here, where he has lived alone (he and his wife have separated) since his release from prison in 1954. Now he spends his time lecturing to college students, practicing law, and writing (''jottings, memoirs,'' he says).
In recent months the United States Supreme Court denied his petition to review the perjury conviction. This action seems to have marked the termination of all possible legal actions to reverse his conviction.
Hiss's voice sounds distant but firm:
''With the Freedom of Information Act I had great hopes that when we got evidence of withholding of evidence, it would vindicate me. It was a bitter disappointment that it failed in the courts. I think if we could have gotten the case to the courts earlier, things would have been different. The mood of the times is important.''
Has he seen the PBS dramatization and what does he think about it?
''Well, television is an entertainment medium, and it's not really for historical presentation. Any dramatization of actual events tends to distort them, and this is not an exception.
''The frenzied, almost hysterical attitude of some of the press, egged on by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI, created an emotional climate that made a fair trial impossible. That's not in the film.''
Does Hiss now feel that Chambers's sexual orientation has been stressed too much?
''I really don't want to comment on that. The film does show correctly that I did not want the issue brought up. Had the facts come out, though, there might have been quite a difference.''
How does Hiss account for the fact that the courts have not concluded that the information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act called for setting aside the conviction?
A pause and a chuckle. ''Judges make mistakes.''
After all these years, does Hiss now have any better perspective on the character of Whittaker Chambers?
''As various things have been published, I've learned more. There was a book called 'Friendship and Fratricide,' by Dr. Zeligs, a man who spent seven years studying people who knew Chambers. He comes to the conclusion that Chambers was psychologically unbalanced.''
Recently, President Reagan awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously to Whittaker Chambers. How does Mr. Hiss react to that?
''I was astonished. It seems to me a lowering of the standards and general purposes of that award. I can't believe that will be written down to Mr. Reagan's credit on the long run.''
At one point Chambers says, ''Nobody knows what this case is all about.'' What does Hiss feel this case was all about?
No hesitation here, either. ''The purpose of the case was to smear the New Deal and FDR. It later grew into the McCarthy era. After all, the Republicans had been out of power for 16 years at that time. J. Edgar Hoover lent himself to the people he thought would be coming into power.
''They were trying to attack Roosevelt indirectly. He was too popular to attack directly, but his lieutenants could be smeared, and they felt this would rub off on him and his policies. That's why, having been to Yalta and having worked on the preparation for the UN, I was in line to be a target. I was used as a substitute.''
Does Hiss believe the same kind of hysteria he feels was worked up could be repeated today?
''The attempts to revive domestic hysteria do not seem to have worked. The public is not prepared to accept another cold-war confrontation. We've had years of public education of the kind we didn't have then. A much higher percentage of people today have had a chance to examine history and think for themselves.''
Executive producer Lindsay Law has said he feels the dramatization has been evenhanded. Does Hiss agree?
Once again, the stubborn resolution fairly crackles over the wires. Hiss makes no pretense at evenhandedness.
''When you're dealing with a miscarriage of justice, there are not two sides. To deal with it evenhandedly distorts what happened.
''You know, there is clearance by legal action and there is clearance in the broader field of public opinion and history. I have no doubt I will be upheld in the broader scale.''