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Alger Hiss Trials: 1949-50

Alger Hiss Trials: 1949-50

Defendant: Alger Hiss
Crime Charged: Perjury
Chief Defense Lawyers: Robert M. Benjamin, Claude B. Cross, Chester T. Lane, Edward C. McLean, Robert von Mehren, Victor Rabinowitz, Harold Rosenwald, Harol Shapero, and Lloyd Paul Strykr
Chief Prosecutors: Thomas J. Donegan, Myles J. Lane, Thomas F. Murphy, and Clarke S. Ryan
Judges: First trial: Samuel J. Kaufman; Second trial: Henry W. Goddard
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: May 31-July 8, 1949; Second trial: November 17, 1949-January 21, 1950.
Verdicts: First trial: Jury deadlocked; Second trial: guilty
Sentence: 5 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: For three years, Alger Hiss was the protagonist in a great human drama that made headlines across America. The case polarized the country between 1948 and 1950, becoming a symbol of American policies in the onset of the Cold War. It accelerated the rise of Richard M. Nixon. The debate about Hiss' guilt remains endless, for either he was a traitor or he was the victim of a framing for political advantage at the highest levels of justice.

Alger Hiss was the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace when, on August 3, 1948, reporters told him a senior editor of Time magazine named Whittaker Chambers had just appeared before the Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives (consistently mislabeled HUAC). Chambers had described his 15 years' service as a Soviet agent. In 1939, he said, two years after he had "repudiated Marx's doctrine," he told Assistant Secretary of State Adolph A. Berle, Jr., about Communists in the U.S. government. One, he said, was Alger Hiss, who had been a State Department official and who later organized the U.S. representation at Yalta, as well as the conferences at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco, that launched the United Nations.

Hiss telegraphed the committee, asking to appear under oath to say he did not know Chambers.

Hiss Denies Communist Link

In Washington, Hiss told the committee the accusation was "a complete fabrication." His government service would speak for itself. But, said Karl Mundt, acting chairman of the committee, Chambers had testified that when he was breaking with the communists he had tried to persuade Hiss to break, too, and Hiss had "absolutely refused to break."

Hiss denied such an incident, repeated that the name Chambers meant nothing to him, and said he would like to see the man. Chambers was called to an executive session of a sub-committee led by U.S. Representative Richard M. Nixon of California. The witness described intimate details of the Hiss households in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. a decade earlier.

Hiss was recalled. Nixon showed him pictures of Chambers. Hiss said they looked like a man he knew as George Crosley, a freelance writer who had interviewed him when he was counsel to a Senate committee. In June 1935, said Hiss, he and his wife Priscilla bought a house and, subletting their apartment to Crosley and his family, threw in their old Ford. But Hiss would not say that Crosley and Chambers were the same person.

In New York the next day, Congressmen Nixon and John McDowell, as a subcommittee, brought Chambers and Hiss face to face. After observing that this man's teeth were considerably improved over Crosley's, and that he looked "very different in girth and in other appearanceshair, forehead, particularly the jowls," Hiss identified Chambers as George Crosley.

Chambers denied ever going under that name, but he said Hiss was the man "who was a member of the Communist Party" at whose apartment he and his wife and child had stayed. Angry, Hiss invited Chambers "to make those same statements out of the presence of this Committee without their being privileged for suit for libel."

Chambers shortly did so on the "Meet the Press" radio program. Hiss filed a $75,000 defamation suit.

At a pretrial hearing, Hiss' attorney, William Marbury, asked Chambers if he could produce documentary proof of his assertion. Chambers went to the Brooklyn home of a nephew and, from behind a dumbwaiter, retrieved a stained manila envelope containing 43 typed copies of State Department reports, five rolls of microfilm, and four memoranda in Hiss' handwriting. He handed the documents, but not the films, to Marbury. He claimed Hiss had given them to him in 1937. Hiss, said Chambers, regularly took such classified papers home for his wife to type, returning the originals to the files the next day while Chambers transmitted the copies to a Soviet agent.

A "Bombshell," a Seaplane, a Pumpkin

Hiss told his lawyer to give the papers to the Department of Justice. The next day, Representative Nixon, who had just sailed on a vacation cruise to Panama, got a cable that a "bombshell" had exploded. He ordered a HUAC investigator to visit Chambers at his Maryland farm. Meantime, a Coast Guard seaplane picked up Nixon.

By the time Nixon was back in Washington amid flashing cameras, Chambers had led investigator Robert E. Stripling into his farm field, opened a hollowed-out pumpkin, and handed over the five rolls of microfilm that had long been hidden in the stained envelope behind the Brooklyn dumbwaiter. Three rolls, still in their aluminum cans, were undeveloped; two, developed, were in oilpaper bags. While the pumpkin held no paper, the microfilms, which contained pictures of documents, became known as "The Pumpkin Papers."

By one vote more than a bare majority, the New York Federal Grand Jury indicted Alger Hiss on two counts of perjury: one for denying that he had turned State Department documents over to Chambers, the second for saying he had not seen Chambers after January 1, 1937, for the jury found that he had delivered reports to Chambers in February and March 1938.

As the trial opened on May 31, 1949, prosecutor Thomas F. Murphy told the jury, "If you don't believe Mr. Chambers' story, we have no case under the Federal perjury rule." Chambers repeated the testimony given before HUAC and the grand jury on his work in the Communist underground, his close friendship with the Hisses, his 1938 break with the party.

In cross-examination, Hiss' defense counsel, Lloyd Paul Stryker, lost no time establishing Chambers' shortcomings. The witness admitted committing perjury in 1937 and 1948, using at least seven aliases between 1924 and 1938, lying to the dean of Columbia University while a student, stealing books from many libraries, living with several women (including, while a teenager, a New Orleans prostitute called "One-Eyed Annie"), and writing not only erotic poetry but an anti-religious play that got him expelled from Columbia.

A Typewriter Proves Elusive

For three weeks, the prosecution presented evidence. State Department witnesses identified the typewritten papers as cables from American diplomats around the world in 1938 and said the four memos were in Hiss' handwriting. An FBI typewriter expert testified that letters the Hisses wrote and all but one of the Chambers documents had been typed on the same machine.

The typewriter became a key piece of evidence. The Hisses said they had given it to the sons of their maid when they moved in December 1937before the documents were typed in January and April 1938. One of the sons, Perry Catlett, testified to receiving the typewriter in December 1936 and taking it to a repair shop on K Street (where he was told it was not worth repairing), but then said, "I don't know the time" when prosecutor Murphy told him the K Street shop had not opened until September 1938.

The FBI searched unsuccessfully for the typewriter, a Woodstock built some 20 years earlier. Believing it world prove their client innocent, Hiss' own lawyers traced and found it, thus enabling a prosecution witness to demonstrate in the courtroom that it was in working order.

Before Alger Hiss took the stand for direct examination, his defense counsel introduced a parade of character witnessesState Department officials, a former U.S. presidential candidate, a former U.S. solicitor general, a Navy admiral, a district court judge, and two associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. All backed Hiss' reputation "for integrity, loyalty, and veracity."

On direct, examination, Hiss denied Chambers' charges and said, "I am not and never have been" a member of the Communist Party. He admitted having known one George Crosley between 1934 and 1936. Cross-examining, prosecutor Murphy tried to establish the gift of the Ford car and use of the Hisses' apartment as out-and-out fabrications.

Stryker's last witness was Dr. Carl Binger, a psychiatrist who had been observing Chambers' testimony. "Have you," asked Stryker, "an opinion within the bounds of reasonable certainty as to the mental condition of Whittaker Chambers?"

Murphy objected. Chambers' credibility, he told Judge Stanley H. Kaufman, was the case's central issue. The psychiatrist's answer would usurp the jury's function. The judge agreed.

In summation, Murphy noted that the case must stand not on Chambers' accusations but on the documents and the typewriter. Said Stryker: "The case comes down to thiswho is telling the truth?"

The jury deliberated for 14 hours and 45 minutes, remained deadlocked, and was discharged.

Second Jury Reaches Guilty Verdict

The second trial began on November 17, 1949, with Judge Henry W. Goddard presiding. Most of the earlier witnesses repeated their testimony. Defense attorney Claude B. Cross, who had replaced Stryker, called Dr. Binger. Judge Goddard permitted him to testify that "Mr. Chambers is suffering from a condition known as a psychopathic personality, a disorder of character the distinguishing features of which are amoral and antisocial behavior." One important symptom was "chronic, persistent, and repetitive lying and a tendency to make false accusations."

On January 20, 1950, the jury found Hiss guilty on both counts. His sentence was five years on each, to be served concurrently. Before sentencing, Hiss again denied any guilt, promising that "in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed."

Hiss was free on bail for more than a year. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed his conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. On March 22, 1951, Hiss entered the federal penitentiary at Danbury, Connecticut.

While Hiss was in prison, his attorney of record in the appeals, Chester T. Lane, consulted experts who made exhaustive tests in document analysis, in the chemistry of paper, in metallurgy, and in the construction of typewriters. A noted typewriter engineer, working entirely from samples of typing from the machine exhibited at the trial and without seeing the trial typewriter, built another machine. It produced examples so similar that New England's leading document expert swore in an affidavit that no expert could distinguish documents typed on the two machines.

Through serial numbers and records of manufacturing, Lane also found evidence that Priscilla Hiss' typewriter had been in use in her father's real estate office in 1929before the Woodstock in evidence in the courtroom had been built. The evidence led Lane to the conclusion that the FBI had known at the time of the trial that the typewriter put in evidence was manufactured two years after Priscilla's machine was bought by her father.

Appeal Effort Fail

Lane collected the affidavits resulting from his efforts and, arguing they provided sufficient new evidence to justify a new trial, appeared before Judge Goddard on June 4, 1952. The judge denied Lane's motion for a new trial. Lane appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but the judge's opinion was affirmed. The Hiss attorneys then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, or review of the lower courts' rulings. The petition was denied.

Alger Hiss served three years and eight months of his five-year sentence. After his release, he wrote a book about the trial, worked as a salesman for a stationery printer, and, after five years, separated (but was never divorced) from Priscilla Hiss. In 1976, the Massachusetts Bar, from which he had been automatically disbarred when convicted, readmitted him and he began work as a legal consultant.

In 1973, during the Watergate hearings, former Presidential Counsel John Dean told how President Nixon said to Charles Colson, "The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case."

At the age of 87, in 1992, Hiss asked General Dmitri A. Volkogonov, chairman of the Russian Government's military intelligence archives, to inspect all Soviet files pertaining to him, his case, and Whittaker Chambers. "Not a single document, and a great amount of materials have been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union," the general reported several months later. He said the accusations were "completely groundless." Volkogonov later backed off a bit from this statement, saying that although there was no evidence in the KGB files, he couldn't speak for other Soviet intelligence agencies. He also added that many KGB documents had been destroyed over the years.

Hiss defenders still regarded Volkogonov's earlier statements as vindication of his innocence. However, in 1996, the National Security Agency released hundreds of pages of declassified material including a reference to a Soviet spy who had been working in the United States during World War II. A cable dated March 30, 1945, said the spy's code name was "Ales" and that he was "probably Alger Hiss." But the cable provided no other information to support this statement.

Alger Hiss died in 1996, asserting his innocence to the end.

Betnard Ryan, Jr. and

Ron Formica

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brodie, Fawn M. "I Think Hiss Is Lying." American Heritage (August 1981): 4-21.

Buckley, William F. "Well, What Do You Know?" National Review (November 19, 1990) 60.

Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. New York: Random House, 1952.

Cook, Fred J. The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss. New York: William Morrow Co., 1958.

Cooke, Alistair. A Generation on Trial. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.

de Toledano, Ralph, and Victor Lasky. Seeds of Treason. Chicago: Regnery, 1962.

Hiss, Alger. In the Court of Public Opinion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

. Recollections of a Life. New York: Seaver Books/Henry Holt, 1988.

Hiss, Tony. "My Father's Honor." The New Yorker (November 16, 1992): 100-106.

Jowitt, William Allen. The Strange Case of Alger Hiss. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1953.

Levitt, Morton, and Michael Levitt. A Tissue of Lies Nixon vs. Hiss. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Nixon, Richard M. Six Crises. New York: Doubleday Co., 1962.

Smith, Chabot. Alger Hiss: The True Story. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

Tanenhaus, Sam. "The Hiss Case Isn't Over Yet." New York Times (October 31, 1992): 21.

Tiger, Edith, ed. In Re Alger Hiss. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979.

Tyrell, R.E. "You Must Remember Hiss." The American Spectator (January 1991): 10.

Ward, G.C. "Unregretfully, Alger Hiss." American Heritage (November 1988): 18.

Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

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Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss

A former U.S. State Department official, Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was indicted in 1948 and convicted in 1950 of having provided classified documents to an admitted Communist, Whittaker Chambers. Hiss became a controversial figure and his case helped precipitate McCarthyite politics during the early Cold War years.

Alger Hiss was born on November 11, 1904, in Baltimore, Maryland, of a genteel, long-established middle class Baltimore family. An exceptional student, confident and aristocratic in demeanor, Hiss attended Johns Hopkins University on scholarship. Compiling an outstanding record in the classroom and as a student leader, he graduated in 1926, earning a scholarship to Harvard Law School. Hiss's academic achievements included appointment to the law review staff, and he developed an intellectual and political friendship with Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter. On Frankfurter's recommendation, in 1929 Hiss was appointed a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Later that year, on December 11, he married Priscilla Fansler Hobson, whom he had met and courted while an undergraduate. Upon completion of his clerkship, Hiss accepted an appointment in 1930 with the Boston law firm of Choate, Hall & Stewart, leaving in 1932 to accept an appointment with the New York City law firm of Cotton, Franklin, Wright & Gordon.

Having moved leftward during law school under Frankfurter's influence and then his wife's socialist leanings, Hiss was further influenced by the political and economic crisis of the Great Depression to abandon in 1933 a promising career in corporate law for a position with the Legal Division of the Agricultural Adjustment Agency (AAA), headed by Jerome Frank. Associating with an able group of predominantly radical attorneys, in July 1934 Hiss was loaned by the Agriculture Department to assist the staff of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the Munitions Industry, the so-called Nye Committee. An able investigator, Hiss became disenchanted with the committee's isolationism and with the department following a purge of the Legal Division in a dispute over policy toward landowners.

In August 1935 Hiss accepted a position as a consultant with the Department of Justice and was assigned to the solicitor general's office headed by Stanley Reed. Hiss assisted in preparing the department's defense of the constitutionality of AAA's policy of imposing a processing tax on producers of commodities. His work helping prepare the department's response to an expected court challenge to the administration's reciprocal trade agreements policy re-kindled Hiss's interest in international developments, and in September 1936 he accepted an appointment to the staff of Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Francis Sayre.

A Promising Career Cut Short

As a State Department employee, Hiss's career fortunes improved swiftly. With the outbreak of World War II, Hiss came to devote his time and talents to the task of formulating and developing the structure of a permanent postwar collective security organization, which became the United Nations. Hiss's expertise in the area of international organization resulted in his participation as a rather low-level functionary at the 1943 Dumbarton Oaks Conference as well as his selection as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Yalta Conference of February 1945. Subsequently he received an appointment to head the State Department's Office of Special Policy Planning and later to serve as executive-secretary in August 1945 of the San Francisco Conference at which the United Nations Charter was drafted and approved. Hiss remained in the State Department until February 1947, when he accepted the office of president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hiss's promising career was abruptly shattered by events having their origins in the highly charged confrontation between congressional conservatives and the Truman administration during the early Cold War years. In dramatic and extensively publicized testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, an admitted ex-Communist and at the time senior editor of Time magazine, identified Hiss as a member of a Communist cell which had operated in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1930s. Denying then that Hiss's activities included espionage, Chambers claimed instead that Hiss's role, as that of the other individuals whom he concurrently identified as Communists, was to promote Communist infiltration of the federal bureaucracy in order to advance Communist policy.

Demanding the right to appear before the HUAC, Hiss denied Chambers' charges of Communist membership (and further claim to close friendship) and challenged Chambers to repeat the charges without congressional immunity so that he could bring suit for libel. Chambers did so during an August 27, 1948, interview on "Meet the Press, " and Hiss sued him for libel. In his congressional testimony, Chambers had repeated allegations he had made earlier about Hiss's pro-Communist activities, either to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle in 1939 or to the FBI in 1942, 1945, and 1946. In these earlier interviews Chambers had also only accused Hiss of Communist membership and denied having any evidence which could support more serious allegations. In 1945 and 1946, moreover, the FBI had initiated an investigation of Hiss without any result. At the same time, conservatives in the Congress as early as 1946 were somehow privy to Chambers' then non-public accusations involving Hiss.

The Hiss-Chambers confrontation took a dramatic turn in November-December 1948. On December 2, 1948, Chambers turned over to the HUAC counsel 58 microfilm frames of State Department documents dated in 1938. Chambers claimed to have received the original documents from Hiss in the 1930s in his capacity as a courier for a Soviet espionage operation. Earlier, on November 17, 1948, during pre-trial hearings involving Hiss's libel suit, Chambers had produced copies of two other sets of documents, also dated in 1938, which he claimed had been given to him by Hiss: typewritten facsimilies of original State Department documents and handwritten summaries of others, in Hiss's handwriting.

Abruptly altering his earlier testimony, Chambers thereafter maintained that his relationship with Hiss involved espionage, adding that Hiss was one of the "most zealous" Communist spies operating in Washington during the 1930s. Based on this changed testimony and the documentary evidence, on December 15, 1948, a federal grand jury indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury: his denial of having given classified State Department documents to Chambers in 1938 and his denial of having met Chambers after 1937. While Hiss had only been indicted for perjury, his trial was publicly perceived as an espionage case— technically Hiss could not be indicted for espionage since the alleged activity occurred in 1938, in peacetime, and since there was no second witness to corroborate Chambers' allegations.

The Perjury Trials

Hiss's trial on the perjury charges began on May 31, 1949, in New York City and ended when the jury on July 7, 1949, was unable to reach the unanimity required for conviction (voting 8-4 for conviction). After a four-month delay, as Hiss's attorneys sought unsuccessfully to have the trial moved from New York, Hiss was retried in November 1949. In the second trial, the prosecution's strategy shifted to focus on the documents and not Chambers' credibility (Hiss's defense had capitalized effectively on the numerous changes in Chambers' testimony about his relationship with Hiss and his own activities as a Communist). This strategy succeeded, and on January 21, 1950, the jury convicted Hiss on both perjury counts. Sentenced to five years at the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, federal penitentiary, Hiss was released in 1954, a scarred and controversial figure.

As with the Dreyfus Case of the 1890s in France, Hiss's indictment and conviction assumed major political significance during the Cold War years, a significance that transcended the specific issues brought out at the trial and had little bearing on the "espionage" importance of the documents Chambers had produced in 1948. The Hiss-Chambers confrontation had seemingly confirmed the existence of a serious internal security threat, thereby legitimizing the politics of exposure dramatically exploited by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and championed during the early 1950s by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Because the Hiss-Chambers relationship had been uncovered by the HUAC over the opposition of the Truman administration, Hiss's conviction seemed to document the success of Communists in obtaining sensitive positions in the State Department and in shaping the by-then controversial policies of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations toward the Soviet Union at Yalta, Potsdam, and thereafter.

Throughout the trial, and extending after his release from prison, Hiss steadfastly affirmed his own innocence, claiming to have been the victim of unfair tactics and publicity. His various efforts at exoneration—whether unsuccessfully petitioning for a new trial in the 1950s or filing a coram nobis suit in the 1970s—proved unsuccessful. Hiss thought he may have achieved his vindication when in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian General Dimitri Volkogonov, who was in charge of intelligence archives, claimed there was no evidence that indicated Hiss was a spy. However, he later recanted his statement, saying he had misunderstood. Four years later, researchers found Soviet transmissions in U.S. intelligence documents that suggested an American, code-named "Ales, " perhaps Hiss, had been spying on the United States during the time in question.

Hiss maintained his innocence up until his death on November 15, 1996, at the age of 92. Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio said in 1996, "We don't know to this day whether he was guilty."

Hiss's case, and the question of his innocence or guilt, continues to divide American intellectuals and activists. In a complex way, the Hiss-Chambers case at the time and currently encapsulates the division over McCarthyism and internal security policy which shaped the politics of Cold War America.

Hiss wrote two memoirs: In the Court of Public Opinion (1957) and Recollections of a Life (1988).

Further Reading

The literature on the Hiss case and on Hiss's career divides sharply along lines of his assumed innocence or guilt. See Athan Theoharis, "Unanswered Questions: Chambers, Nixon, the FBI, and the Hiss Case, " in Athan Theoharis (editor), Beyond the Hiss Case: The FBI, Congress, and the Cold War (1982); "Alger Hiss, Perjurer, " The Detroit News (November 20, 1996); Eric Breindel, "The Faithful Traitor, " National Review (February 10, 1997); Evan Thomas, "An American Melodrama, " Newsweek (November 25, 1996); William Buckley, "Alger Hiss Could Never Admit his Guilt, " Salt Lake Tribune (December 13, 1996). Also see The American Spectator Online Update (November 19-25, 1996) at □

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Hiss, Alger


For the United States, the prosecution of Alger Hiss was a pivotal domestic event of the cold war. A former high-ranking federal official with a seemingly impeccable reputation, Hiss was accused in 1948 of having spied for the Soviet Union. The charges shocked the nation. Not only had Hiss held government positions of extreme importance, but he was also one of the architects of postwar international relations, having helped establish the united nations. He steadfastly maintained his innocence in hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But a relentless probe by the committee's lead investigator, Representative richard m. nixon, of California, led to a grand jury investigation. In 1950, Hiss was convicted of two counts of perjury, for which he served forty-four months in prison. His case became a cause célèbre for liberals, who regarded him as a victim of the era's anti-Communist hysteria. It also fueled a passion for anti-Communist investigations and legislation that preoccupied Congress for the next several years.

Before coming under suspicion, Hiss had a meteoric rise in public service. A Harvard graduate in 1929, the international law specialist served in the Departments of Agriculture and Justice from 1933 to 1936. He then moved to the state department, where he assumed the post of counselor at global conferences during world war ii. In 1945, Hiss advised President franklin d. roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, at which the Allied powers planned the end of the war. He was forty-one years old. Next came a leading role in the establishment of the United Nations, appointment to the administration of the U.S. Office of Special Political Affairs, and, in 1946, election to the presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a statesman, Hiss had proved himself in no

small way; his career had earned him the highest confidence of his government in times of crisis.

But soon Hiss was swept up in a round of damaging public accusations. By the late 1940s, the U.S. House of Representatives had spent several years investigating Communist influence in business and government. This was the work of HUAC, first established in 1938 and increasingly busy in the years of suspicion that followed World War II. In August 1948, HUAC heard testimony from Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine, who had previously admitted to spying for the Soviet Union. Now Chambers fingered Hiss. He charged that Hiss had secretly been a Communist party member in the 1930s, and most dramatically, he accused Hiss of giving him confidential State Department documents to deliver to the Soviets in 1938.

Accusations of Communist affiliation were common at HUAC hearings—in a sense, they were its chief business. The process of naming names was triggered by the committee's threat of legal action against witnesses who did not cooperate. But even by HUAC's standards, the accusations against Hiss were spectacular. Furthermore, Chambers had evidence. He offered the committee microfilm of the confidential documents, which he claimed had been prepared on Hiss's own typewriter. The charges particularly excited committee member Nixon, a California freshman, who used them to establish his credentials as a tough anti-Communist. In a highly publicized event, Chambers took Nixon to his Maryland farm, where the microfilm was hidden in a hollow pumpkin. Hiss was soon called before HUAC to be grilled by Nixon. He denied Chambers's accusations and dramatically questioned Chambers himself in a vain attempt to clear his name.

A grand jury was impaneled and held hearings in December 1948. Because of the statute of limitations, Hiss could not be tried on charges of espionage in 1948 for allegedly passing documents to the Soviets in 1938. But the grand jury returned a two-count indictment of perjury: it charged that he had lied about giving Chambers the official documents in 1938, and when claiming that he had not even seen Chambers after January 1, 1937.

After his first trial in 1948 ended in a hung jury, Hiss was retried in 1950 (United States v. Hiss, 88 F. Supp. 559 [S.D.N.Y. 1950]). Hiss's defense hinged on portraying Chambers, the government's primary witness, as unreliable. He claimed that Chambers was a psychopathic personality prone to chronic lying. In what became the seminal ruling of its kind, the court admitted psychiatric evidence for the reason of discrediting the witness. But despite challenging Chambers's credibility, the validity of Chambers's testimony, and the accuracy of other evidence, Hiss was convicted. Sentenced to five years in prison, he served nearly four years. His career in law and public service was ruined. He spent the next two decades working as a salesman while writing books and giving lectures.

The question of Hiss's guilt has divided intellectuals for decades. Hiss always maintained his innocence—in 1957, when he published a memoir, In the Court of Public Opinion, and even more in 1975, when, with prominent help, he successfully sued for reinstatement to the bar of Massachusetts (In re Hiss, 368 Mass. 447, 333 N.E.2d 429). Since 1975, some word-smiths have used federal bureau of investigation files to argue in favor of or against Hiss's guilt: notably, author Allan Weinstein in Perjury (1978) and editor Edith Tiger in In Re Alger Hiss (1979).

The Hiss case profoundly affected the politics of its era. It gave impetus to anti-Communist sentiment in Washington, D.C., which led to more hearings before HUAC as well as legislation such as the McCarran Act (50 U.S.C.A. § 781 et seq.), intended as a crackdown on the American Communist party. The case also helped launch the careers of Nixon and of Senator joseph r. mccarthy, of Wisconsin, providing the latter with ammunition for an infamous crusade against alleged Communist infiltration of the federal government.

Hiss died November 15, 1996, in New York City.

further readings

Alden, Bill. 1999. "'Historical Interest' Held to Justify Access to Notes of Hiss Grand Jury." New York Law Journal 221 (May 14).

Dresser, Rebecca. 1990. "Personal Identity and Punishment." Boston University Law Review 70 (May).

Hiss, Tony. 1999. The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir. New York: Knopf.

Nixon biography. January 1996. Nixon Library site. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

Schrecker, Ellen. 1994. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

Weinstein, Allen. 1997. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Random House.


Cold War; Communism; Rosenbergs Trial.

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Hiss, Alger

Alger Hiss (ăl´jər), 1904–96, American public official, b. Baltimore. After serving (1929–30) as secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hiss practiced law in Boston and New York City. He then was attached to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (1933–35) and to the Dept. of Justice (1935–36). He entered the Dept. of State in 1936 and rose rapidly to become an adviser at various international conferences and a coordinator of American foreign policy. In 1947, he resigned his government post to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In Aug., 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a magazine editor and former Communist party courier, accused Hiss of having helped transmit confidential government documents to the Russians. Hiss denied these charges; since, under the statute of limitations, he could not be tried for espionage, he was indicted (Dec., 1948) on two counts of perjury. When he was first brought to trial in 1949, the jury was unable to reach a decision. At a second trial Hiss was found guilty (Jan., 1950) and sentenced to a five-year prison term. His trial created great controversy; many believed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had tampered with evidence in order to secure a conviction. Hiss was released from prison in Nov., 1954, his term shortened for good conduct. In 1957 he wrote In the Court of Public Opinion, in which he denied all charges against him. Hiss maintained his innocence to his death; Soviet files made public in 1995 convinced most observers that he had been guilty, but controversy lingers.

See W. Chambers, Witness (1952, repr. 1983); R. Seth, The Sleeping Truth: The Hiss-Chambers Affair Reappraised (1968); A. Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978).

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"Hiss, Alger." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from