31 MAY 1957, Page 10

Deepening Mystery By RICHARD H. ROVERE

New York

UROM almost any point of view, Alger Hiss's r book, In the Court of Public Opinion,* deepens the mystery of the Hiss-Chambers case. Hiss pleads an absolutely comprehensive inno- cence. He says that he never once saw Whittaker Chambers in the period in which Chambers main- tains they were both Soviet agents. The case against him, he insists, was a total fabrication. If one accepts this, one must grapple with the problem of why so many people—not only Whittaker Chambers, but several Congressmen, members of the Federal bench, the Department of Justice and all the prosecution witnesses—lent them- selves to fraud and forgery and horrible lies in order to ruin a harmless young bureadcrat. If, on the other hand, one believes that Hiss was guilty just about as charged, one must somehow account for this book, which, if it does nothing else, demonstrates that Alger Hiss looks upon himself as a deeply wronged man. One can be unpersuaded by Hiss's efforts to contradict the testimony against him yet be convinced that he is convinced that he was not only innocent of the charges but quite above reproach.

It is a strange book; indeed, it is weird. One would suppose that if Hiss were not a Com- munist in the Thirties, he would, upon entering the court of public opinion, where all evidence is admissible, tell us something of what he was in those days. His accusers have given one version of what Hiss was thinking and doing in that decade; now that the burden of proof is on Hiss, he might be expected to counter with his own version. He does nothing of the sort. He emerges from his own book an almbst lifeless young government official on his way to becoming the most celebrated victim in American history. His book 'does nothing more than assault, head-on, every contention of the prosecution. Thus, it is merely a lawyer's defence ; Hiss doing for him- self and in his own name what his attorneys did for him in the Federal Courthouse in New York seven years ago. Some of it is impressive now, as it was then. There were always some striking dis- crepancies in Chambers's testimony and in other evidence. When the jury made its final account- ing, though, it held that Chambers was beyond a reasonable doubt (which does not mean beyond any possible doubt) telling the essential truth. Readers of the book who are familiar with the other documents in the case are more likely than not to judge the matter pretty much as the jury did. Hiss has introduced nothing new into evi- dence except the information, apparently sound, that it is possible to construct a typewriter that would reproduce all the characteristics of another typewriter. In other words, forgery by type- writer, according to experts retained by the Hiss " Calder, 25s. defence, is a feasible crime. But evidence that a crime could be committed is not evidence that this crime has in fact been committed.

For my own part, I find Hiss's book, as a series of arguments over the facts in the case, quite unconvincing. However, I am much im- pressed by the fact of the book's existence, Writing a book is hard work. The work goes on over a period of months. The labour and anguish of producing it may be supported by the "convic- tion that the writer will grow rich from it, that he will grow famous from it, or that it will be an expression of something good or something of value within himself. Money could not have spurred Alger Hiss to write this book. Nor could the quest for fame. I cannot believe other than that he wrote it because he continues to have, after all these years, some kind of faith in hie own righteousness, some continuing sense of moral pride and purpose. Furthermore, I do not believe that he could have written it if he had seen it as nothing more than a pack of self- serving lies. This would seem to me a feat of immorality quite as monstrous as the creation of a total fiction by Whittaker Chambers.

As the famous case stands at this moment, with Hiss's brief finally in, each side is asking us to believe that the story told by the other is alto- gether fiction, invention from start to finish. If we take Hiss's view, then there is not a grain of truth in even the least of Chambers's allegations. Hiss will not allow us to believe that he had some con- nection with Chambers between 1936 and 193$ and that Chambers blew this up into a'great con- spiracy. He swears he never laid eyes on the man in this time. Nor will Chambers allow us such a view as that Hiss was a man who became involved in espionage and treason without a full awareness of what he was doing or at least with- out a full awareness of the evil of it. We are re- quired either to agree with Chambers that Hiss was steeped in conspiracy in the Thirties and is still loyal enough to the conspiracy to defend it with lies or to agree with Hiss that Chambers was and is dedicated to the insane, purposeless evil of destroying a man against whom he could ncp have had even a halfway reasonable grudge.

On the basis of the facts introduced in evidenc , in court and out, it seems to me that Chambers story carries the greater weight. Nevertheless, am moved by the existence of this book. Alger Hiss persuades me that he believes that he w4S wronged, and I think this important. I incline to the view that the truth lies somewhere in those areas which neither of the principals wishes us to explore. If we could explore them, we might discover not that justice miscarried but that there is more to truth than can ever be proved in courts or in partisan histories.