Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 – November 15, 1996) was a U.S. lawyer and government official accused of spying for the Soviet Union. He was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. He was not charged with spying, as the statute of limitations had run out.
2.1 The Alger Hiss case
Youth and early career
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he was educated at Baltimore City College high school and Johns Hopkins University. In 1929 he received his law degree from Harvard Law School, where he was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, the future Supreme Court justice. Before joining a Boston law firm, he served for a year as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.. In 1933, he entered government service, working in several areas as an attorney in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Nye Committee (which investigated wartime profiteering by military contractors during World War I), the Justice Department, and, beginning in 1936, in the State Department, where he served as assistant to Francis Sayre , a son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson, and assistant to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr. In 1944 he was a staff member at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which drafted plans for the organization that would become the United Nations. In 1945 he went with the president to the meeting of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill in Yalta, where he worked on negotiating details of the proposed United Nations. Hiss opposed Stalin's request for 16 votes in the United Nations General Assembly. In a compromise, the final agreement gave two extra UNGA seats to the Soviet Union. At a founding meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco, Hiss served as the temporary U.N. secretary general. Hiss was afterwards named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. In 1946, he resigned to take up the post of President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Charges of espionage
The Alger Hiss case
In 1948 began the controversy over Whittaker Chambers's accusation that Alger Hiss had been a member of the Communist Party and a spy. Historians like James Thomas Gay, author of "The Alger Hiss Spy Case" (American History, May-June 1998), still regard the matter of Hiss's guilt as unresolved. Hiss's case was a forerunner of the anti-Communism of McCarthyism in the next decade. Publicity surrounding the case fed the early political career of Richard Nixon, helping him move from the House of Representatives to the Senate.
In the article just cited, Prof. Gay tries to summarize the larger significance of the Alger Hiss case: "'The case was the Rashomon drama of the Cold War,' said David Remnick in a profile of Hiss that he wrote for the Washington Post in 1986. 'One's interpretation of the evidence and characters involved became a litmus test of one's own politics, character, and loyalties. Sympathy with either Hiss or Chambers was more an article of faith than a determination of fact.' On the left was liberal New Dealism, represented by Hiss; on the right were conservative, anti-Roosevelt and Truman forces personified by Chambers. Depending on one's politics, the idea that someone like Alger Hiss could be a Communist was either chilling or absurd."
Hiss responds to allegations by Whittaker Chambers
After Time magazine managing editor Whittaker Chambers had identified him as being a Communist, Alger Hiss voluntarily appeared before House Committee on Un-American Activities. Chambers had previously denied that Hiss was a Communist. Some Committee members had misgivings at first about attacking Hiss, who had, against his lawyer friends' advice, volunteered to testify. But Congressman Richard Nixon, covertly being fed information by the Catholic Church's secretive Communist hunter, Father John Cronin, and using materials which he had been secretly and illegally receiving from the FBI, claimed to have sensed that Hiss was hiding something and pressed the Committee to act. Initially, Hiss denied having ever known Chambers, saying quite specifically "the name means nothing to me." After being asked to identify Chambers, whom he had not seen in at least a dozen years, from a photograph, Hiss indicated that his face "might look familiar." When he later confronted Chambers in a hotel room, with HUAC representatives present, Hiss identified him as a person he had known as "George Crosley", whom Hiss had allowed to live in his home when Chambers was destitute in the mid-1930s. Later, Hiss gave Chambers an old car, which Chambers claimed was for use in transporting documents.
After Chambers publicly reiterated his charge that Hiss was working for the Soviets on the radio program "Meet the Press," Hiss instituted a libel action against Chambers. Chambers, in response, presented the "Baltimore Documents", which were copies of a series of government documents that he claimed had been obtained from Hiss in the 1930s. Chambers claimed that the government documents had first been re-typed by Hiss's wife, Priscilla, and that these copies were then photographed and passed on to the spy network. Later Chambers produced microfilm evidence which was dramatically given to Nixon on Halloween, from a hollowed out pumpkin on his Maryland farm (the so-called “Pumpkin Papers.”). Some of the papers were dated later than the time when Hiss claimed to have ceased all contact with Chambers, AKA "Crosley". Chambers had previously denied that Hiss was a Communist or that Hiss engaged in espionage, and there was never any documentary, physical evidence that Hiss had ever been a member of any socialist or communist organization, although Priscilla Hiss had apparently joined a socialist, but not communist, party while she was in college.
Tried and convicted of perjury
Hiss was charged with two counts of perjury; the grand jury could not indict him for espionage, as the statute of limitations had run out. Hiss went to trial twice. The first trial started on May 31, 1949 but ended in a hung jury on July 7, 1949. At the trial, Chambers was forced to admit that he had consistently lied over a ten-year period when he denied that Hiss was ever a Communist or a spy, including testimony he gave under oath. Hiss was convicted the second time in a trial lasting from November 17, 1949 to January 21, 1950, after testimony from an FBI agent that only the Hiss typewriter could have been used to re-type the documents. Some of the Baltimore Documents were indeed classified, and four handwritten notes were apparently in Hiss's own handwriting. The verdict was upheld at the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Hiss was sentenced to five years on Jan. 25 and served 44 months before being released in November 1954 .
Protestations of innocence
Disbarred, he became a salesman. But he continued for the rest of his life strenuously to protest his innocence, going so far as to file a petition of coram nobis, in which he presented his defense team's documented, putatively scientific evidence indicating that the typewriter used to convict him had been fabricated, that is, remanufactured, and that the so-called Baltimore Documents, papers which Chambers claimed that Hiss or his wife Priscilla had typed, were forgeries. At the time, few people suspected that remanufacturing of typewriters was possible, and an FBI agent testified at the Hiss trial that it was impossible. In fact, during WWII J. Edgar Hoover arranged for his own FBI agents to be trained at a British intelligence base called Camp X 100 miles east of Toronto, where one of the specialties was the remanufacture of typewriters and document forgery.
Years later John Dean, in his book Blind Ambition, asserted that he was informed that Nixon at one point in his Presidency told Charles Colson, "The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case." Colson denied ever having such a conversation with Nixon, and it has never been found in Nixon's tapes, despite his having recorded nearly every conversation in the oval office while he was president. Hiss's request for a new trial was denied.
Revelations of judicial misconduct
As a result of a Freedom of Information Act suit by Hiss, it was revealed in 1975 that: 1) an FBI agent knowingly committed perjury at the Hiss trial, testifying it was impossible to forge a document by typewriter, 2) the FBI knew that the typewriter introduced as evidence at the trial could not have been the Hiss typewriter, but withheld this information from Hiss, and 3) the FBI had an informer, Horace W. Schmahl, a private detective who was hired by the Hiss defense team, who reported on the Hiss defense strategy to the government. Other information which had been withheld from Hiss and his lawyers included the FBI's knowledge of Chambers' homosexuality and the intensive FBI surveillance of Hiss, which included phone taps and mail openings (none of which showed any indication that Hiss was a spy or a Communist.)
As for the "Pumpkin Papers," the five rolls of microfilm that Nixon had described as evidence of the "most serious series of treasonable activities … in the history of America," the FOIA releases showed one roll of microfilm was completely blank, and information on two rolls of microfilm were largely not only unclassified but were about topics such as life rafts and fire extinguishers, information which was easily obtainable at any time from the open shelves at the Bureau of Standards.
Hiss was readmitted to the bar in Massachusetts in 1975, without an admission of guilt, after the government's misconduct was revealed. The Supreme Court, which by this time contained several Nixon appointments, including Chief Justice Warren Burger, refused to nullify the Hiss perjury conviction.
Evidence from Soviet archives
Hiss claimed he was finally vindicated when in 1992 Russian General Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov , acting on a request from John Lowenthal to help clear Hiss's name, stated that a search of Soviet archives revealed nothing. However, when questioned, Volkogonov subsequently revealed that he had spent only two days on his search, and had mainly relied on the word of KGB archivists. He stated "What I saw gave me no basis to claim a full clarification. …John Lowenthal pushed me to say things of which I was not fully convinced."
In 1996 the United States government released so-called Venona papers, decoded Russian intelligence intercepts dating from the mid-1940s. These documents mention a Soviet spy at the State Department, code-named "Ales", some of whose biographical details matched those of Hiss, while others, such as Ales being in the military, did not match. Soviet code names of that time, however, did not generally make such close correspondences to individuals' real names, relying instead on what appear to be randomly selected nomenclatures in most cases, names like "Vardo", "Maj", "Clever Girl", and "Albert." For example, one still-undiscovered spy at White Sands was code named "Perseus". Thus, whether Hiss was in fact a Communist or a spy for the Soviets remains unproven. Proponents on either side of the discussion will of course characterize the case differently, with liberals charging Hiss was victimized by a prosecutorial vendetta and that the charges against Hiss were actually an attempt to discredit the United Nations, and conservatives charging that the Hiss case proved that FDR hired traitors and spies for high ranking positions in his administration.
- The Alger Hiss Story: Search for the Truth
- Gay, James Thomas. "The Alger Hiss Spy Case." American History (May-June 1998)
- Weinstein, Allen "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case" (Random House, 1997) A scholarly history of the Hiss-Chambers trial and controversy, by a historian who started with a belief that Hiss was innocent, but was led by the evidence he uncovered to the judgment that the charges against Alger Hiss were true.
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