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Hiss in History

The Hiss Case and General Volkogonov: A Comment on Victor Navasky's Article

In his latest article about the Alger Hiss case, "Hiss in History" (Apr. 30), Victor Navasky refers to General Dmitrii Volkogonov, a long- time Soviet military-political officer and military historian, who became a senior military adviser to Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s. Specifically, Navasky writes that:

"in 1992, the Russian historian general Dmitry A. Volkogonov, after ordering a search of a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files - told Hiss attorney John Lowenthal and the world, in a videotaped interview that Hiss had not been a spy. . . . Volkogonov subsequently conceded under questioning by Herb Romerstein, formerly a staff consultant to the House Committee on Unamerican Activites, that he could not say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive."

The phrasing Navasky uses here implies that Volkogonov's retraction was merely a technicality (i.e., that Volkogonov was unable to "say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive") and that the only time the general made such a retraction was during questioning by Herbert Romerstein, whose credibility Navasky obviously doubts.

Fortunately, we have good records of precisely what General Volkogonov said when making his retraction. I have no idea what Volkogonov said to Herbert Romerstein, but I do know what the general said to Serge Schmemann, who was then bureau chief in Moscow for The New York Times, and what Volkogonov said to me. Presumably, Navasky, too, knows what Volkogonov said to Schmemann because it appeared in a news article in The New York Times on 17 December 1992. In that article, titled "Russian General Retreats on Hiss," Schmemann cites Volkogonov at length. If we look at what the general actually, it does not bear out what Navasky implies.

In the interview with Schmemann, Volkogonov said that his initial statement about Hiss in October 1992 had been badly misconstrued: "I was not properly understood. The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed. I looked only through what the K.G.B. had. All I said was that I saw no evidence."

Volkogonov went on to explain that his motive in making the statement on behalf of Hiss was "primarily humanitarian," to help out an elderly man under pressure from the man's lawyer, John Lowenthal, who came to Moscow to receive the general's written statement. Volkogonov emphasized that he was disconcerted by Lowenthal's insistence on receiving a blanket exoneration of Hiss: "Hiss wrote that he was 88 and would like to die peacefully, that he wanted to prove that he was never a paid, contracted spy. What I saw gives no basis to claim a full clarification. There's no guarantee that it was not destroyed, that it was not in other channels. This was only my personal opinion as a historian. I never met [Hiss], and honestly I was a bit taken aback. His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced."

In January 1993, a few weeks after The New York Times article appeared, I had dinner with Schmemann in Moscow. A week after that, I met with General Volkogonov for around two hours, a conversation that I recorded. Although I spoke with Volkogonov mostly about things unrelated to the Hiss case (especially about some photocopied documents he had given me), I asked him about Hiss toward the end of our discussion. Volkogonov not only reaffirmed everything he had told Schmemann, but was even firmer in saying that he felt he had been "deceived" by Lowenthal. Volkogonov added: "I am not a specialist on the Hiss case," and "I thought I was just doing a favor for a dying man." Volkogonov confirmed that he had "not seen anything from the GRU archive" and that without going through the files there, there was "no basis for saying anything that would shed greater light on the question of Hiss."

All of this raises serious questions about Navasky's claim that Volkogonov had gone through "a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files." The reality is that at no point did Volkogonov say that he had gone through any GRU files. On the contrary, he explicitly said several times that he had *not* gone through GRU files. Even his search of KGB/NKVD files was cursory, as he himself later acknowledged. Numerous KGB/NKVD documents that have emerged in subsequent years, including the March 1945 memorandum from Anatoly Gorsky that plays a central role in the paper by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya (which Navasky praises), contain extensive references to Hiss either by name or through the codename Ales, which seems to fit only Hiss.

Debate about Hiss is bound to continue, but it is time to drop any further reference to Volkogonov's initial statement in October 1992 as somehow a vindication of Hiss. Volkogonov himself firmly disavowed the statement, and evidence that has emerged in subsequent years amply supports his disavowal. I agree with Navasky that "ultimately truth is what history is and ought to be about," and that is why we should stick to what Volkogonov actually said.


Mark Kramer is Director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Mark Kramer

Cambridge, MA

Apr 17 2007 - 1:53pm

The New Suburban Poverty

This is a stunningly well-researched, on target article about the income chasm between the uber classes and the working poor. I congratulate you and the author on articulating insights and accurate analyses...I worked for 32 years in New York State, 24 of those years in New York City's most beseiged and left behind neighborhoods. I worked through the caldron of the Bronx Burnings, and the crack fueled HIV/AIDS epidemics in the foster care and juvenile jstice systems...since 1999 I have lived and worked in human services in York,Pennsylvania; the exurban and rural areas of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts; Gallup, New Mexico, rural West Virginia,and on The Zuni Indian Reservation In New Mexico.

I hope that your article has opened minds and hearts. I hope that opened hearts and minds and community action in place of the "affluenza hustle" will result in a new social paradigm; one that encoulturates the value of ALL our denizens rather than their objectification, marginalization, alienation and despair.

Aminah Yaquin Carroll

Gallipolis Ferry, West Virginia

Apr 17 2007 - 8:47am

The New SDS

Care to give us any reason why you do not "pin any hope on this generation of kids (at least those with anarcho-leftist leanings)"?

AJ Johnson

Arawak City, Ohio

Apr 17 2007 - 1:04am

The Establishment Rethinks Globalization

Greider overlooks a critical issue in the globalization debate: the externalization of costs. Multinationals have become experts in passing their costs on to others while reaping the profits. One huge externality is pollution. When you move a process from the moderately-regulated USA to, say, China, you lose any effective regulation of pollutants along the way. This represents a huge cost savings for many products, but these costs don't disappear, they are simply borne by others. In this case, it is principally the Chinese people, but also increasingly Americans, as China's polluted air arrives on the West Coast.

It is time to internalize as many externalities as possible. Once this is done, production costs are more balanced and the environment is better protected.

J.H. Crawford

Boiceville, NY

Apr 16 2007 - 7:34pm

Exploiting Imus

Do I think that Don Imus should have been fired? As a journalist, I have to say no, because if his own special brand of speech isn't protected by the First Amendment, mine isn't either.

However, no one is mandated to finance your fruitstand in the Marketplace of Ideas. The folks that called Imus' sponsors and told them that they had to make a choice between their business and sponsoring Imus in the Morning were exercising their free speech as well. They won.

Let's keep it real. Imus got away with a lot. He got away with hiring a producer to do nigger jokes. He got away with referring to Gwen Ifill as "the cleaning lady" when she wouldn't go on his show. He got away with racial, sexist, and homophobic slurs every day.

But when you pick on kids, and to me anyone who is less than four years away from their high school graduation is still a kid, you're not supposed to get away with that, and he didn't. When he called the Rutgers Womens Basketball team "nappy headed hos", he basically signed his retirement papers.

Do we need to address some of the more coarser elements in African American culture? Yep. And most of the folks that called for Imus' head the loudest said that as well.

But whether or not Snoop Dogg 'loves them hoes' wasn't the issue last week. Don Imus calling a group of college students "nappy headed hos" was. Let's not cloud that arguement, shall we?

Denise Clay

Philadelphia, Pa., United States

Apr 16 2007 - 1:58pm

Nappy-headed Hos of the World Unite!

I'm really surprised, to be honest, that there's been so much backlash against the Imus comments. Not that I think they were okay, but really, they were par for the course in his work: he makes horrible comments about everybody, Hillary Clinton in particular, which personally offend me . . . as a human being.

However, why is it that when he says something about African Americans, suddenly, the gloves are off and he needs to resign? Moreover, why are people not calling for the resignation of the CEOs of record companies who produce the most atrocious and vile descriptions of black women and others?

Witness the following outrageous comment by the guy with the ridiculous name: "Snoop Dog" or whatever on earth it is. Apparently Mr. Dog was asked about the comparison between his own voluminous toxic vitriol and the cranky comments made by Imus. MTV then transmitted his response:

"It's a completely different scenario . . . [Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing shit, that's trying to get a nigga for his money. These are two separate things. First of all, we ain't no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them mutha-----as say we in the same league as him."

From my perspective, people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton legitimate this kind of cancerous attitude by ignoring it on the one hand and on the other hand by going after every (specifically) white person who steps across the perceived line. I simply don’t buy as a socially acceptable reality that it’s okay for Mr. Dog to abuse women because he’s a black man. The irony is, Mr. Dog is a hero to many (obviously unfortunate) young people and his lack of apology for being so misogynistic actually validates his perspective among his followers and fans, whereas at least Imus has publicly apologized.

It doesn’t matter whether we “think” Imus means it or not, it’s a social gesture to apologize publicly and it reinforces, publicly (!), that we as a society do not approve of such behavior. Yet by contrast we publicly accept Mr. Dog’s anti-social behavior. I think the bigger part of the guilt here should be laid at the feet of the self-appointed media-hungry leaders of the African Americans, people like Jesse Jackson. The reason: because they’re in the best position to do something about it, but they don’t. In fact, when a real Black leader, Bill Cosby, attempted to address this very problem, he was criticized as some kind of Uncle Tom by Jesse Jackson, et al.

So what is Imus really guilty of? He’s guilty of saying a lot of bad things about a lot of people. But up until now, no one really cared what he said or about whom. So why now? Because he said it about some black women. But then so does Mr. Dog. So what’s the difference? Imus is white.

Sounds like a real red-neck cliché, “guilty for being white,” I know. But tell me, if a black man can make a filthy rich living by uttering the most profane things about black women and not be censured, and a white man calls some black women “nappy headed ’ho’s” and is publicly humiliated and protested against, I have to assume it’s because he is white. And tell me, when the Black man’s rationale is “well, the women I call ‘hos’ are ‘hos’” clearly we are a LONG way from anything approaching a reasonable treatment of Imus.

If Jackson weren’t so racist himself (that’s what it’s called when you attack another person because of his race in an attempt to gain power over that person), and protested against ALL such unjust and anti-social behavior (specifically including that committed by such intensely ego-centric black heroes as Mr. Dog, and P something and Phat someone, et al.), then I’d be right behind him, supporting him all the way.

For now, though, it seems to me that this is a situation in which a few people who smelled weakness and saw a chance to promote themselves went after it with all the ferocity they could mount in order to prop themselves up in the estimation of those whose adulation they crave. This in itself is anti-social behavior (just ask Hitler how it worked for him).

Jas Smith

Cincinnati, Ohio

Apr 16 2007 - 6:59am


Patricia Williams brings up some interesting issues in her article. I am in agreement with her point that awarding the Andrews' family monetary damages for the "black" "race" of their baby is setting a dangerous legal and social precedent. The idea that "race" is somehow tied to skin colour has had a long history in the United States, although in many places in the world and through time (even in the U.S.) it was not always necessarily so.

For years science has been steadily moving away from the concept of "race" as biological and has come to see it as an invented concept. Invented not in that it is not real, but in the sense that it is a cultural and social construction that has been formed by ideas and practices through time. The very idea that there are three (or four, or five, or sixteen) "races" is one that comes directly from a past in which groups of people attempted to justify the enslavement (or harsh colonization) of other groups of people by positing essential differences based on certain physical characteristics. These racist categories are still used to this day as if there were actually separate "races" of people living on the planet. While in some very specific situations they have uses (for instance because they have been employed for so long as "fact" in the U.S. they have taken on a social relevance), for the most part we should be moving away from such outmoded and racist conceptions of difference between and among human population sets.

As geneticists truly begin to dive into the world of phenotypic and genotypic human variation we have begun to see how these old concepts are truly in the realm of eugenics and other pseudo-science. One discovery is that there is more genetic variation within Africa itself than in the rest of the world combined. What this means essentially is that one particular person in Africa could have a far greater genetic similarity to someone whose origins are in Asia than to someone perhaps who traces their origins to the same general vicinity in the continent of Africa.

Another point of interest is that in forensic anthropology "race" has long been attempted to infer phenotype data from human skeletons (for instance in helping the police to discover what a murder victim may have looked like). This is now being currently largely discredited in the midst of much evidence that shows that many mistakes are made in identifying the "race" of a skeleton and that it can be as often as not that such a classification does more harm than good in determining a person's physical appearance.

It is high time that what has been taken as junk science for over 30 years by cultural anthropologists (and for almost as many years by physical anthropologists and biologists) be brought out into the mainstream in the ongoing discussions of "race" going on in the U.S. and the world. Only then will we be able to perhaps begin to move away from certain ideas that had their place among theories about the world being flat and the sun rotating about the Earth.

Kevin Cassidy

San Francisco, Noord Holland, The Netherlands

Apr 15 2007 - 7:38am


Colorstruck? Williams is a pretentious fool. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews made a contract with the fertility clinic that she be impregnated with her husband's sperm - not any sperm that happened to be lying around the lab. Williams feels racially insulted by the white/mulatto couple's distress, but if Mrs. Andrews had been married to a black man and gave birth to a blue-eyed blond after being accidentally impregnated by Scandinavian sperm, Williams and her comrades would howl that they deserved millions of dollars in damages.

Williams also ignores the issue of the clinic's incompetence. Who knows how often mistakes like this happen? Cases where the husband and the accidental sperm donor have very different racial phenotypes attract a lot of publicity, but they are only the cases where the mistake was discovered fairly quickly instead of many years later.

A.D. Powell

Madison, WI

Apr 15 2007 - 4:03am

Pelosi and Diplomacy

I thought your article was spot on with one exception...I descend from a long line of cowboys...honest, hard working, good to the heart men. I have to feel a little offended by the reference to Bush's allies as cowboys. You might try rustlers or highwaymen instead. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Rob Burkes

Tucson, AZ

Apr 15 2007 - 2:32am

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

We never say, "Thank you."

Kurt Vonnegut's editorials were very distinct from his fiction. The former were clear, concise, and to the point. The latter were sublime, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. I'll always think of Kurt Vonnegut, jr. and turkey basters with a smile when I hear the word, "Galapagos". His humour was sick - in a good way.

We take for granted they'll always be there, writing for us, speaking for us, and thinking for us; but they die and leave us with our world. When I was young, I wondered why a book would be written and printed in such a manner; then I discovered he lived it. Thoughts hurt in the middle of carnage. Thoughts blur in the middle of insanity created by humanity. Time becomes disjointed. "So it goes."

Minds capable of intricate thought are rare and under appreciated. We don't have replacements ready for the loss of even one such person. Death accompanies us, ready to take anything when we blink. Kurt Vonnegut, jr. would be glad to leave the war and politicians, but we are weaker without him, voices made more feeble.

Yes, we are left to mourn for ourselves, but we shouldn't mourn for Kurt Vonnegut, jr. Some people understand humanity to the point of suffering. K. Vonnegut saw the nobility among the nonsense and the deceptions costumed as truth. His eyes were wide-open. Few offer their insight for the blind as he did.

Contemporary politics encourages an atmosphere in which people fear agreement or disagreement. It's on the maudlin middle of the road that politicians would like to steam roll its citizens. Kurt Vonnegut wasn't worried about stepping far to the left or far to the right. He seemed to be seeking a path made of thoughts; informed foresight clears all roads. Mr. Vonnegut laid stepping stones for others to find their own deepest thoughts. Many fear the torture of looking inward, not Kurt Vonnegut. We must be honest with ourselves before we can be honest with the world.

Jerie Leep

Tenkiller, Oklahoma

Apr 14 2007 - 4:11pm