Hiss, Alger (1904-1996)

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Hiss, Alger (1904-1996)

Alger Hiss's life up to 1948 seemed, on the surface, to be an American success story. He attended Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School and was a stellar student at both institutions. As he pursued his law career and joined the State Department in Washington, D.C., his road to success was soon blocked by accusations that he was a Soviet spy. Hiss would work relentlessly to clear his name, but to no avail. He died haunted by the specter of accusations brought against him during a period in America marked by political infighting and mass hysteria.

At Harvard, Hiss met a professor named Felix Frankfurter—a future Supreme Court justice. He served a term as a law clerk to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, continuing what he thought was his pursuit of a successful career in law. This was followed by private law practice in Boston and New York. The election of Franklin Roosevelt, however, brought Hiss to Washington to work on the New Deal. He worked at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and was also a lawyer for the Nye Committee, a committee of Congress which was investigating the arms industry. In 1936, Hiss joined the State Department.

In 1939, a man named Whittaker Chambers paid a visit to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. Chambers claimed to be a former Communist who knew of the existence of "fellow travelers" in the federal government. Chambers made similar claims in follow-up interviews with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Alger Hiss was one of the persons fingered by Chambers, but the allegations were not acted on at the time.

Hiss took part in the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which tried to lay the framework for a postwar United Nations Organization and an international economic order. Hiss also accompanied President Roosevelt to the historic 1945 conference of the major Allied leaders in Yalta. In 1947, he became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace after being recruited by John Foster Dulles, a New York lawyer who later became President Eisenhower's hard-line anti-Communist Secretary of State.

In 1948, the Hiss Case began when Chambers gave testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Chambers alleged that he had known Hiss in the 1930s, and that both of them had been Communists. Hiss was allegedly part of a Communist underground which existed in the federal government during Roosevelt's administration and which tried to turn federal policy in directions desired by the Communists. Chambers denied, however, that he had been involved in any spying.

Hiss demanded, and got, an opportunity to appear before HUAC. He denied the charges of Communism, and he denied having known Chambers. Hiss gave an impressive performance, but one member of HUAC, a freshman Republican congressman named Richard Nixon, wanted to look deeper into the matter. HUAC agreed that Nixon could continue with the investigation in order to find out if Chambers and Hiss had actually known each other.

Chambers was then summoned to give testimony in executive session, where he gave details (some accurate, some not) about Hiss and his wife from the period when Chambers claimed to have known Hiss. There was then a secret session at which Hiss was examined by HUAC members. Hiss backtracked on his earlier denial of having met Chambers. He had met a man called George Crosley who might have been Chambers. But Hiss denied knowing "Crosley" as a Communist. In a later face-to-face confrontation, Hiss confirmed that Chambers was the George Crosley he had known in the 1930s. Hiss also challenged Chambers to repeat his allegations outside the context of a congressional hearing so that Hiss could file a defamation lawsuit.

Chambers did indeed repeat outside of Congress his charge that Hiss was a Communist. Hiss, as promised, sued Chambers for defamation. Then, during the pretrial discovery phase of the lawsuit, Chambers made new accusations. Reversing his earlier testimony, Chambers said that Hiss had spied for the Soviet Union, using Chambers as a courier. To back up his dramatic accusation, Chambers produced various documents, including what he said were papers typed by Hiss—allegedly copies of government (mostly State Department) documents which Hiss had made, and then turned over to Chambers for use by the Soviets. Chambers also produced some allegedly incriminating microfilm representing State Department documents which Hiss had desired to send the Soviets. The microfilm had been hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on Chambers's farm until he felt able to turn them over to HUAC.

Chambers's espionage allegations were serious, and federal prosecutors believed them, but the statute of limitations on espionage had expired in Hiss' case. He was, however, indicted by a New York grand jury for allegedly committing perjury about espionage and his relationship with Chambers.

In Hiss' two trials, the prosecution backed up Chambers' story by trying to show that the Hiss typewriter had been used to write some of the documents in Chambers's possession. Hiss countered by attacking Chambers's credibility and by using character witnesses. And the list of character witnesses was impressive. Felix Frankfurter (Hiss's former teacher, now on the Supreme Court), Justice Stanley Reed, and Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson all appeared to vouch for Hiss's character. His first trial in 1949 ended with a hung jury (the vote was eight to four for conviction). At a second trial, Hiss was convicted, and he subsequently served forty-four months in prison.

For the remainder of his life, Hiss denied having spied for the Soviets. He wrote two books defending his innocence, and he had many supporters among those who thought that the Hiss prosecution was simply a politically motivated effort by conservatives to smear the New Deal and the Democrats by making up stories about Communists in the government. According to the pro-Hiss view, the Hiss prosecution was a product of the anti-Communist hysteria of the times. When Richard Nixon resigned from the Presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal, Hiss supporters argued that if Nixon was capable of the "dirty tricks" of the Watergate period, he was certainly capable of fabricating a case against Hiss. In the post-Soviet era, a Soviet general in charge of certain secret archives announced that there was no evidence in the archives that Hiss had been a spy, although he later added that such evidence might have been overlooked or destroyed.

Hiss's opponents cite Soviet documents which seem to confirm Chambers' account of a 1930s spy ring in Washington. Hiss's enemies also point to recently declassified United States translations of secret Soviet communications. One of the communications describes an agent who is described in such a way as to fit only four people, including Hiss. Historians and others continue to debate the veracity of Chambers's claims as part of the continuing reassessment of events during the Cold War.

—Eric Longley

Further Reading:

Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Chicago, Henry Regnery, 1969.

Gay, James Thomas. "The Alger Hiss Spy Case." American History. Vol. 33, No. 2, 1998, 26 ff.

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

——. Recollections of a Life. New York, Seaver Books, 1988.

Klehr, Harvey, et al. The Secret World of American Communism. Trans. by Timothy D. Sergay. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.

Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. New York, Random House, 1997.

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