Saturday, July 17, 2010

Harvard Is Still Cool With Alger Hiss

When I saw the headline of today's WaPo story about Harvard revoking a degree it had awarded to a man who turned out to be a Russian spy, I immediately thought of Alger Hiss, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1929. Did Harvard revoke his degree after the Venona decrypts were made public?

No, it did not. Evidently Harvard isn't offended by espionage per se, but by less significant kinds of misrepresentation:

Harvard University has revoked a degree in public administration it gave to a man who turned out to be a Russian spy living in Massachusetts under a stolen Canadian identity.

Andrey Bezrukov, who went by the name of Donald Heathfield while in the U.S., was one of 10 Russian agents arrested June 27 and deported as part of a spy swap with Moscow.

Harvard spokesman Doug Gavel said Friday the John F. Kennedy School of Government stripped Bezrukov of the master's degree for violating its policy on misrepresentation in his application.

Too bad for Andrey Bezrukov. No football weekend alumni tailgate parties for him!

p.s. - Regarding the Venona project, there is a piece of historical trivia that I thought everyone who has ever gone to the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, located at what was formerly the U.S. Army installation known as Arlington Hall, already knew, but which I have learned many of them do not know.

The original building on the NFATC campus, now called the Old Main Building, was where the U.S. Army Signals Intelligence Service broke German and Japanese military codes during World War II, and decrypted Soviet intelligence messages in the 1940s and 1950s. See the chapter on Arlington Hall in this guide to Washington area military intelligence history, From Coeds to Codewords.

The next time you walk around the NFATC campus, give a thought to the generations of linguists and cryptanalysts (like this guy) who worked there in anonymity for 47 years providing a vital national security service.


Meg said...

Very interesting post! There is an important difference: Alger Hiss was at Harvard Law School long before his spying days. He did not misrepresent himself in the degree process, so that is why he didn't lose his degree. There are lots of alumni from any school that do something heinous, but the misrepresentation is where the institution can determine that the degree is no longer valid.

Interesting information about NFATC! I will have a new eye around the buildings!

TSB said...


Thanks. I'm just being sarcastic about the Hiss degree, as I'm sure you can tell. Although, when I saw that headline it was Hiss that I thought of first. I'm reading The Haunted Wood right now, so Hiss was on my mind.

NFATC really ought to put up a historical plaque or something to let people know they are attending classes in the same place where the most sensitive code breaking of both WWII and the Cold War happened. I always reflect on that when I go over there, and wonder what it must have been like to work with people like Meredith Gardner, a linguist so talented that he taught himself Japanese in two months as a prerequisite to analyzing Japanese military signals.

jmc said...

Dear TSB,
Yes, these damned spies are a nuisance, as i'm sure our shpions [''spies''] are in Russia, and were in the USSR.

But I just wanted to caution that in my own experience Weinstein and Co, especially Weinstein but also Haynes, Klehr, Radosh, Tannenhaus, et al, seem to be ''somewhat'' unreliable in certain areas of their ''scholarship.''

For full details, see, a web site created and operated by Russian scholar Svetlana Chervonnaya [outstanding in my opinion] and the Hiss web site, , run by scholar and journalist Jeff Kisseloff, an expert currently writing a book, on the Hiss/Chambers Case and Soviet espionage in the USA during this time period.

As for myself, I believe nothing that the Weinstein et al. write is entirely reliable as I have found too many mistakes in their work, so I check everything they write with other sources, especially the above two as regards the Hiss/Chambers Case.

Venona, for example, is nowhere near as simple as Weinstein et al. make it sound.

Best regards,
And thanx for your work.
jim crawford
Westwood NJ

TSB said...


Thanks for your comment. We definitely want to go to original sources, especially when discussing something as controversial as the Hiss case.

The VENONA intercepts are not the only evidence against Hiss, but they are conclusive. At least, that's what the late Senator Moynihan wrote in the report of his Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy (1997); see page 36 of this link: Also, see his book, Secrecy: The American Experience (1998), Yale University Press, pages 145–147.

Moynihan was a respected academic and had intellectual credibility, even after he became a politician. I can find nothing wrong with his presentation of the evidence.

jmc said...

True enough that what Moynihan thought is important, but the fact is that Moynihan's judgement, from those many years ago, is anything but definitive since it is based on the initial conclusions of Klehr, Haynes, Weinstein, et al. Nor is the current judgment from the right valid.

Venona is much more complicated than Haynes, Klehr, et al. make it out to be. And Weinstein in particular indulges in much chicanery to convince everyone that the code name “Ales” referred to Hiss, a conclusion based on an FBI agent's guess from many years ago. [The notation on the transcript says “PROBABLY Alger Hiss.” ]

The two web sites I mentioned explore these subjects, and many others, in some detail and are very much worth reading.

The devil is in the details, but so is the truth.

jim crawford

Anonymous said...

Where did John Stewart Service go to school?

TSB said...


Ha! According to Wikipedia, he went to Oberlin College for an undergraduate degree and then, post-retirement, to Berkley for a Masters. Do you suppose either of those would take any administrative action against him?


Not to be contentious, but Moynihan (and others) weren't reading Haynes, et al, or relying an an FBI agent's guess, they were using the VENONA material itself. The details in the decrypts about Ales really do not fit anyone other than Hiss. Perhaps someday the Russians will open their records, but until then I think the matter has been solved to the extent it ever can be.

Moynihan suggested that whatever intelligence value we might have gained by keeping VENONA material out of the public record, or even to distribute it more widely within the government during the 1950s and 60s, distorted our history and politics. Without that knowledge, people dug in and took political sides about the guilt or innocence of Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and others, that they might not have otherwise. The result has been a legacy of mistrust and conspiracy theorizing.

I've looked at the website you mentioned. It's okay with me if the author makes the best case he can for Hiss's mis-identification with Ales. I agree with Mao Tse Tung's little Red Book about how controversies ought to be resolved in a democracy: "let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought content." But forgive me if I question the impartiality of a site that says it was "created with grants from The Alger Hiss Research and Publication Project of the Nation Institute."

Anonymous said...

And little chance of UCB doing anything about Service.