Coming in from the Cold

updated 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

CONVICTED OF PERJURY AND SUSPECTED of spying against his country, Alger Hiss was always certain that his name would be cleared. But, admits one of the most famous victims of Cold War hysteria, "recently my own sense of mortality made me realize that I might not live to see a reversal." As it turns out, he did: In October, Dimitry Volkogonov, the Russian general in charge of KGB and military intelligence archives, informed a U.S. documentary filmmaker that a thorough search of Soviet files produced no evidence that Hiss was ever an agent for the USSR. Frail and nearly blind, Hiss, who turns 88 this week, says he felt "vast elation" at the news.

It is a measure of how polarized the Hiss case has become during the last 44 years that some questioned Hiss' belated exoneration. "There are archives within archives within archives," said Richard Pipes, historian at Harvard. Former President Richard Nixon, who as an ambitious young California congressman had pressed the case against Hiss to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), declined to comment.

Hiss, a lawyer and a prominent member of Franklin Roosevelt's State Department, was brought before HUAC in 1948 when the late Whittaker Chambers, a TIME editor, claimed they had been fellow members of a Communist spy ring in the late 1930s. Though Hiss adamantly denied the accusation, as a result of Chambers's testimony he was convicted of lying to Congress and spent 44 months in a federal penitentiary.

After Hiss' release from prison in 1954, his marriage foundered. Wife Priscilla (their only son, Tony, 51, is a New Yorker writer) "was a deeply private woman," Hiss says. "She just wanted us to disappear. I could not do that. I had done nothing improper." For the past 30 years he has lived in New York with Isabel Johnson, an editor, whom he married after his first wife died in 1985.

Disbarred and blacklisted from teaching, Hiss made a modest living as a salesman for a printing company. Over the years, with little apparent rancor, he worked ceaselessly to vindicate himself until the word came from Volkogonov last month: "You can tell Mr. Alger Hiss that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart."

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