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11:00 PM, Dec 1, 1996 • By ROBERT L. BEISNER
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MANY MYSTERIES REMAIN in the wake of the life and death of Alger Hiss. One is his relationship to Dean Acheson. On January 25, 1950, the day Hiss was sentenced to prison for lying about passing secrets to the Soviet Union, Harry Truman's secretary of state declared during a press conference: "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." Acheson's apparently quixotic loyalty to the former State Department official provoked vociferous denunciation: Republican Senator William E. Jenner of Indiana attacked the Truman administration as a "military dictatorship, run by [that] Communist- appeasing, Communist-protecting betrayer of America, Secretary of State Dean Acheson." Such assaults greatly reduced Acheson's ability to conduct foreign policy in his remaining years in office.

Most historians today probably accept Hiss's guilt. What did Acheson think? When the case broke in 1948, Acheson had known Alger Hiss and his brother Donald (a partner at Washington's prestigious Covington & Burling law firm) for many years. "Donnie" was a good friend, but Acheson was not close to Alger either professionally or personally, considering him "stuffy and rigid," as George Ball remembered, and guilty of "lacking a sense of humor." From the fall of 1945 onward, Acheson was privy to mounting evidence that Hiss was a spy, information he may have discounted, aware as he was that J. Edgar Hoover was making bizarre charges that he too (and John J. McCloy, Henry Wallace, and other estimables) were part of "an enormous Soviet espionage ring in Washington." Yet Acheson must have suspected that charges against Hiss would stick, for as undersecretary of state in 1945 and 1946 he helped insulate Hiss from sensitive discussions in the department. When an outraged Joseph Alsop blustered about writing a column attacking Whittaker Chambers for his accusations against Hiss in 1948, Acheson told him to cool it: "It's always a mistake to write about anything that is sub judice." "It was perfectly obvious," Alsop recalled, "that Dean thought that Hiss was guilty, or had been guilty."

During Hiss's August 1948 travail before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Acheson maintained a careful balance, both assisting Hiss and distancing himself from him. The accused received unpaid help from Covington & Burling on his testimony and perhaps advice from Acheson himself on selecting an attorney, but Acheson, by then a private citizen, refused to appear with Hiss before the committee, though he had conspicuously represented another accused spy, Lauchlin Currie. At his confirmation hearings as secretary of state in January 1949, Acheson stated that everything he knew about Hiss had caused him to discount earlier accusations but -- Hiss was then under indictmerit -- he now expressed perplexity. Evidence seemed to be accumulating against him. It made no sense that Hiss would engage in such "insane" behavior; yet the evidence made no sense unless he had. Confirming that he and Hiss had become "friends," he added that his friendship was not easily gained or withdrawn.

Almost exactly a year later, Hiss was convicted in his second trial (the first ended in a hung jury). Acheson was scheduled to hold a regular press conference on January 25. Against the wishes of all his advisers, he privately determined to speak out in defense of Hiss, who was sentenced that day to five years in federal prison. He refused to discuss the matter with his personal assistant, Lucius Battle, or with Paul Nitze or Charles Bohlen. Nitze recalled, "I went in to see Acheson, but he asked me to leave. I called Chip Bohlen . . . but Acheson refused to see him as well." At breakfast, Acheson told his wife Alice that he knew he would be asked about Hiss at the press conference. "I'm going to reply that I will not forsake him." Alice responded: "What else could you say? Don't think this is a light matter," Acheson went on. "This could be quite a storm and it could get me in trouble." When his wife asked whether he was sure he was right, Acheson replied: "It is what I have to do."