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 appearances—hair, 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 1937—before 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 witnesses—State 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 this—who 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 1929—before 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
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.
(b. 11 November 1904 in Baltimore, Maryland; d. 15 November 1996 in New York City), U.S. State Department official and foundation president best known for his conviction in 1950 on perjury charges related to allegations that he had been an undercover agent for the Soviet Union during the 1930s and had delivered State Department documents and information to a Communist courier. From the earliest public charges of involvement in Soviet espionage in 1948 until his death almost a half-century later, Hiss denied the allegations against him.
Hiss was one of five children born to Mary Lavinia (“Minnie”) Hughes, a homemaker, and Charles Alger Hiss, a Baltimore dry goods importer and jobber. His father died when Alger was two and a half years old. Hiss attended Baltimore’s public schools, graduating from the public high school Baltimore City College in 1921 before entering Johns Hopkins University. After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1926, Hiss entered Harvard Law School, where he served on the Law Review. Upon graduating in 1929 he clerked for the Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and soon after assuming his new post he married Priscilla Fansler Hobson on 11 December 1929. Hobson brought with her a son from a previous marriage and the couple had one son together.
After Hiss completed his clerkship with Justice Holmes the family moved to Boston, where Hiss worked for the law firm of Choate, Hall and Stewart. They remained in Boston until 1932, when Hiss resigned to join Cotton and Franklin, a New York City corporate law firm. In New York both Hiss and his wife, like many others in that depression decade, became active in left-liberal reform political activities. In the spring of 1933 Alger Hiss accepted an invitation to join the staff of Jerome Frank, general counsel to one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s liveliest agencies, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). According to the testimony of, among others, Whittaker Chambers, a self-confessed former communist courier and Hiss’s chief accuser, Hiss first took part in a secret communist “study group” of New Deal officials during his tenure at the AAA.
In July 1934 Hiss joined the legal staff of a Senate committee, chaired by Senator Gerald Nye, investigating the impact of foreign and domestic munitions makers on American policy during and after World War I. Hiss, Chambers, and their wives agreed that the two couples first met during this period, although they disputed the circumstances.
During the fall of 1936, after a brief stint at the Justice Department, Hiss, a tall, handsome man who bore a similarity to the actor James Stewart, began working at the State Department as an assistant to the Assistant Secretary Francis B. Sayre. Hiss rose rapidly in the department, in less than a decade becoming a trusted adviser to the secretary of state and other leading U.S. government officials. Chambers alleged and evidence confirmed to the satisfaction of a trial jury in 1950 that when Hiss reached the State Department in 1936 he began actively delivering State Department materials to Chambers while continuing a covert life, begun while he was with the Nye committee, as a Soviet agent.
Chambers severed his links with the communist underground in 1938 and, on various occasions over the next decade in interviews with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and State Department officials, named Hiss and others as former associates. Chambers’s first interview took place on 23 August 1939 with Adolf A. Berle, Jr., then in charge of security matters at the State Department. Berle’s notes of the discussion, a list of those named by Chambers, included the following reference: “Alger Hiss/Ass’t to Sayre—CP—37/Member of the Underground Com.—/Active.”
Despite the information given to Berle, no formal investigation of Hiss occurred as he rose in State Department ranks. In 1944 Hiss joined the important, newly created Office of Special Political Affairs in a policy-making position concerned with postwar planning for international organizations. Hiss became director of the office in March 1945, by which time he had become a trusted aide to the Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. The previous month Hiss had accompanied Stettinius, President Roosevelt, and others in the U.S. delegation to the Yalta Conference. In April 1945 Hiss served as the U.S. coordinator and temporary secretary general of the United Nations organizing conference in San Francisco, the high point of his career at the State Department.
By that time, amidst growing postwar tensions in U.S.—Soviet relations, FBI and State Department security officials had begun investigations of Hiss based on the allegations made by Chambers and other informants. Hiss resigned from the State Department in 1946 to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, his government career effectively sidetracked by the rumors and probes of alleged communist involvement. The allegations pursued Hiss to his new post. Despite continuing FBI interviews, the issue probably would have died for lack of evidence except for a hastily scheduled hearing of the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on 3 August 1948. There Chambers testified as a reluctant witness, and Hiss became the focus of public attention.
The hearing had been called to try to confirm earlier testimony by another former Soviet agent, Elizabeth Bentley, concerning allegations of communist spy rings in Washington. Chambers again named Hiss as having been involved in clandestine activities during the mid-1930s though not as an espionage agent. Hiss immediately demanded to be heard by the committee and appeared before HUAC two days later. He categorically denied either knowing Chambers or having participated in any way in communist activities. Several members of the committee, however, notably the young California representative Richard M. Nixon, decided to pursue the inquiry and determine whether Hiss or Chambers had told the truth concerning their personal relationship. Hiss denied one, while Chambers had testified in stunning detail of family visits, apartment loans, the gift of an automobile, and other aspects of the Hiss family life. During a heated and dramatic confrontation at the Commodore Hotel in New York City organized by Nixon on 17 August, Hiss acknowledged having known Chambers. But he insisted he knew Chambers as “George Crosley,” a free-lance journalist whom Hiss claimed to have befriended briefly. According to Hiss, the impecunious “Crosley” abused his hospitality. Eight days later Hiss and Chambers repeated their respective accounts of the relationship before a televised HUAC hearing in Washington, D.C.
The matter might still have rested there had Hiss not challenged his accuser to repeat his allegations in a non-congressional forum, thereby opening him to a lawsuit. Chambers did just that during a Meet the Press radio interview on 27 August. A month later, on 27 September, Hiss filed suit in Baltimore against Chambers for slander. During pretrial depositions on 17 November, Chambers was challenged by Hiss’s attorneys to produce evidence of Hiss’s complicity in communist activities, and the issue shifted abruptly from credibility to espionage. Chambers handed over to Hiss’s lawyers sixty-five pages of retyped State Department cables and dispatches covering the period from 5 January 1938 to 1 April 1938, the month Chambers left the communist underground. Chambers claimed that Hiss had given him these documents and four handwritten notes.
Both Hiss and Chambers were then summoned to testify before a grand jury in New York City, which was already investigating various allegations of Soviet espionage. On 2 December Chambers turned over to HUAC investigators at his Maryland farm two strips of developed film containing State Department documents from the same period as the typed and handwritten material previously handed over on 17 November. In addition he delivered three rolls of undeveloped film, two of which held Navy Department documents also from early 1938. More than any other factor, the dramatic appearance in November and early December of the typed documents, handwritten notes, and microfilm, which at the trials the prosecutor collectively called the “immutable witnesses,” persuaded U.S. government attorneys to abandon an earlier plan to indict both Hiss and Chambers. Instead, they decided to indict Hiss alone. On 15 December the grand jury indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury for denying that he had given Chambers the purloined State Department documents and for denying having known Chambers during the period covered by the documents. The statute of limitations precluded indicting Hiss on the more serious charge of espionage assumed by the perjury indictments. Hiss pleaded not guilty on both counts.
Hiss’s trial began on 31 May 1949 at the federal courthouse in Foley Square in Manhattan. The four principal witnesses at this trial and the one that followed—Alger Hiss, Priscilla Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and Esther Chambers—spent many hours testifying and endured vigorous cross-examination. The defense argued that other communist agents at the State Department could have transferred the material in question to Chambers. Alternatively, the defense argued that Chambers, as “George Crosley,” became fixated on Hiss, who rebuffed his friendship, and therefore Chambers was determined for malicious reasons to frame Hiss a decade later. Thomas Murphy, the main government prosecutor, focused both on the wealth of detail produced by Whittaker and Esther Chambers concerning their relationship with the Hiss’s as fellow communists and, in the end, on the evidence of the documents—the so-called “immutable witnesses.” The government’s experts also showed, through other letters typed on the Woodstock typewriter that produced the sixty-five pages of State Department documents, that the machine was the same one owned and used by Hiss at the time.
On 7 July the jury deadlocked, eight for conviction and four for acquittal. A retrial began on 17 November 1949, exactly a year from the date that Chambers had submitted the typed and handwritten documents to Hiss’s attorneys at the Baltimore slander trial. The second trial substantially replayed the first trial’s basic arguments and evidence, although a defense effort to show with psychiatric testimony that Hiss’s accuser, Chambers, was mentally unbalanced fell flat in the opinion of most observers. On 21 January 1950 the jury found Hiss guilty on both counts of perjury. All of Hiss’s subsequent appeals for a new trial or for setting aside the verdict were rejected by appellate courts at the time and later. Hiss’s verdict intensified the anticommunist mood of the country in 1950, as did the outbreak of the Korean War in June, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic emergence that year, and a series of unrelated but dramatic spy trials regarding alleged atomic espionage.
On 22 March 1951 Hiss began serving his sentence at the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, federal penitentiary. Still proclaiming his innocence when he left prison in 1954, Hiss spent several years working on a book he considered more a meticulous brief for the defense than a personal memoir, In the Court of Public Opinion, published in 1957. In the decades that followed he was a popular, effective, and much-in-demand speaker at universities.
During the immediate postprison years Hiss held a series of jobs in small business. In 1959 he separated from his wife. In the decades that followed Hiss developed a devoted circle of friends and supporters, and he continued to live in New York City and to summer in the Hamptons. His major focus remained on arguing his innocence, and he cooperated with various authors by discussing the case and opening his papers. Hiss’s greatest advantage “in the court of public opinion” remained his other chief adversary, Nixon, whose activities during the Watergate crisis revived interest for a time in Hiss’s claims. Chambers, who had also remained obsessed with the case and had published a memoir, Witness (1952), died on 9 July 1961.
In August 1975 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court approved Hiss’s application for readmission to the bar without requiring from him any acknowledgement of guilt, a dramatic illustration of the public and legal mood at the time. “Mr. Nixon is sort of a press agent for me,” Hiss observed in a 1973 interview. Nonetheless, as Nixon disappeared from public notice, various efforts by Hiss, his attorneys, and a dwindling number of defenders during the 1980s and 1990s to reopen legal proceedings or at least to rekindle public interest in the case failed to catch fire. Personally, however, Hiss’s final decade appears to have been a happy one. After the death of his wife in 1984, Hiss married Isabel Johnson in 1985; they had no children. With his second wife, Hiss divided his life between residences in Manhattan and the Hamptons. As the journalist David Remnick wrote in 1986, Hiss was “a fixture on a certain level of the social circuit. His friends are editors, artists, musicians, civil liberties attorneys.”
Had Hiss not been indicted and convicted on the charges he confronted in 1948–1950, he might have left a completely reputable but more modest legacy as a skilled attorney, promising New Deal bureaucrat, State Department official, and foundation president. Because of the legal case, however, both Hiss and his accuser Chambers emerged in their own time as icons in the demonologies and hagiographies of their opposing camps of supporters. The case lived on in American political debate, with conservatives invoking Hiss’s presumed treachery to indict the Roosevelt and Truman administrations for tolerating such figures in their ranks.
For many liberals and radicals, on the other hand, the political loyalties of those who pictured Hiss as a subversive, including Chambers, Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover, persuaded them that Hiss had somehow been an innocent victim of perjured testimony and concocted evidence. A plethora of conspiracy theories emerged. The assault on Hiss, his defenders argued, foreshadowed a larger effort by Republicans to discredit New Deal liberalism and bipartisan internationalism. Both sides in time agreed that Hiss’s conviction helped transform American public opinion on the question of communism in American government. “Without the Alger Hiss case,” the historian Earl Latham correctly noted in his study of the McCarthy era spy probes, “the six-year controversy that followed might have been a much tamer affair and the Communist issue somewhat more tractable.” In time, however, most though not all anti-communist liberals came to accept Hiss’s guilt.
Why, then, has the case continued to have cultural and public resonance, even after the deaths of its protagonists? One of the most sensible answers to this question comes from Remnick, who wrote of Hiss in the Washington Post Magazine in 1986: “His persistence gives him the possibility of martyrdom, even if he is probably not one. It has helped him win friends, loyal defenders. Ambiguity has been a savior to him.”
On 15 November 1996 Hiss died of emphysema in New York City. Extensive front-page obituaries filled the nation’s newspapers the following day, most accepting his guilt, and Hiss’s death was prominently reported on America’s major television network news programs. Thus, although its major figures had died, the Hiss case and the issues it raised, both in substance and symbol, remained alive.
Hiss’s In the Court of Public Opinion (1957) provides his retrospective brief for the defense, and his later work, Recollections of a Life (1988), gives a more revealing personal account. Hiss’s son, Tony Hiss, discussed his parents and the case in Laughing Last (1977) and offered a fascinating view of Hiss’s prison experiences in The View from Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir (1999). Two comprehensive and scholarly works that provide an overview of Hiss’s life and an analysis of the Hiss case are Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, rev. ed. (1997), and Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997). Both Weinstein and Tanenhaus argued that Chambers’s account of his relationship with Hiss was substantially accurate and that Hiss was guilty of the perjury charges leveled against him. Alistair Cooke, Generation on Trial (1952), is a balanced and informative narrative of the case by the most dispassionate observer of the two trials at the time. Two comprehensive books that argue Hiss’s innocence are Meyer A. Zeligs, Friendship and Fratricide (1967), and John Chabot Smith, Alger Hiss: The True Story (1976). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Nov. 1996).
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).
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 http://www.amspec.org/exclusives/updatearchives.html. □
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.
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 <www.nixonfoundation.org> (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.