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Hiss Case


HISS CASE. The Hiss case, which spanned the years from 1948 through 1950, helped pave the way for McCarthyism and, in particular, the Cold War search for communists thought to have infiltrated the State Department during the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. The principals included Alger Hiss, a former State Department official; Whittaker Chambers, a self-confessed former Soviet agent; and Richard Nixon, a freshman congressman and member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

The Hiss case broke during the HUAC hearings in the summer of 1948 when Chambers accused Hiss of membership, some ten years earlier, in a communist cell with a mission to influence New Deal policies and programs. When Chambers repeated the charge on the Meet the Press radio program without benefit of congressional immunity, Hiss sued for libel. Chambers then expanded his charge, accusing Hiss of passing State Department documents for transmittal to the Soviet Union. As proof, he produced microfilm and other documents (some of which were allegedly typed on a Woodstock typewriter once owned by the Hiss family). Some of these documents were hidden in, among other places, a hollowed-out pumpkin on Chambers's Maryland farm.

With Nixon and HUAC doggedly pursuing Hiss through a detailed comparison of his statements under oath compared to those of Chambers, the case quickly moved into federal courts. As the statute of limitations had run out on any possible espionage charge, Hiss was tried twice on two counts of perjury—having denied under oath the passing of documents and that he had seen Chambers after 1 January 1937. The first trial ended in a hung jury. On 21 January 1950, the second trial ended in conviction. Less than a month later, in a Lincoln's Day speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 additional communists (he later reduced the number to fifty-seven) who had also infiltrated the State Department.

Hiss served nearly four years of a five-year sentence and steadfastly maintained his innocence until his death on 15 November 1996. To some partisans, the case symbolized a generation on trial, as Hiss appeared to be the prototypical New Dealer. A former clerk for Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, he worked in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration before joining the State Department. He accompanied President Roosevelt to the World War II summit at Yalta, and served as secretary general of the United Nations founding conference. He then moved on to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. When Senator McCarthy spoke of "twenty years of treason," his reference was to the Democratic

Party, in particular to officials in the Roosevelt-Truman administration who seemed to cherish the popular front world that had produced men like Hiss.

The Hiss case has continued to stir controversy. The Nixon White House tapes revealed the president's obsession with the case as Watergate spun out of control. Then, after amendments in 1974 to the Freedom of Information Act of 1966, Hiss received some forty thousand pages of FBI, CIA, Justice Department, and State Department documents pertaining to his civil service career and sub-sequent prosecution. These documents, particularly the FBI files, led Hiss to file a petition in federal court for a writ of coram nobis. His request that the perjury verdict be overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct was denied on 15 July 1982 by Judge Richard Owen (who had been appointed by President Nixon). Hiss carried his appeals forward to the United States Supreme Court, which on 11 October declined to hear his suit. A few months later, on 26 March 1984, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Chambers a presidential Freedom Medal.

In the 1990s, the Hiss case was kept alive by the National Security Agency's release of decoded Soviet messages transmitted to and from Moscow during World War II (the Venona cables); document searches by Dmitri Antonovich Volkogonov, Russian president Boris Yeltsin's military adviser and overseer of Soviet intelligence archives; and the release, after fifty-one years, of grand jury transcripts, including the testimony of Hiss, Chambers, and Nixon.


Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984.

Hiss, Alger. Recollections of a Life. New York: Holt, 1988.

Theoharis, Athan. Beyond the Hiss Case: The FBI, Congress, and the Cold War. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Tiger, Edith, ed. In re Alger Hiss: Petition for a Writ of Error Coram Nobis. 2 vols. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979, 1980.

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


See alsoCold War ; House Committee on Un-American Activities ; McCarthyism .

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