Biography of Alger Hiss: Government Official Accused of Spying

Photograph of Alger Hiss at a Congressional hearing.
Alger Hiss at a Congressional hearing.

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Alger Hiss was a former State Department officer who was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union by a former friend in the late 1940s. Controversy over whether Hiss was guilty or innocent became a national sensation and one of the first public spectacles of the McCarthy Era.

Fast Facts: Alger Hiss

  • Known For: Accused of spying and convicted of perjury during the McCarthy Era, sparking massive public debate across the U.S.
  • Occupation: Lawyer, government official, and diplomat
  • Born: November 11, 1904 in Baltimore, Maryland
  • Education: Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Law School
  • Died: November 15, 1996 in New York, New York

Early Life and Career

Alger Hiss was born November 11, 1904, in Baltimore, to a middle class family. A brilliant student, he was awarded a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. After graduation, he received another scholarship to attend Harvard Law School.

After graduation from law school, Hiss received a prestigious clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He then went on to join law firms in Boston, and later New York City.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, Hiss, who had turned leftward in politics, accepted an offer to join the federal government. He worked for various New Deal agencies before joining the Justice Department and ultimately the State Department.

Within the State Department during World War II, Hiss was deeply involved in the planning for a postwar world. He served as the executive-secretary of the 1945 San Francisco conference where the charter for the United Nations was drafted. Hiss stayed with the State Department until early 1947, when he left to become the president of a prestigious foreign policy organization, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Explosive Accusations and Hearings

In the summer of 1948, during congressional battles between the Truman administration and conservatives in the early Cold War era, hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities drew Hiss into a colossal controversy. On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine and a former communist, named in a testimony people he said had been part of a 1930s Soviet spy ring operating in Washington.

Chambers said he recalled Hiss as a government official who was an active and very enthusiastic communist. The charge was explosive. On August 4, 1949, Hiss was prominently mentioned on the front pages of newspapers, and the formerly respectable bureaucrat and diplomat was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as a Soviet sympathizer.

Hiss denied he'd been a communist, but admitted he had met Chambers years earlier. According to Hiss, he had known Chambers casually, and that Chambers had gone by the name "George Crosley." Disputing that statement, Chambers claimed he had known Hiss so well that he had visited his home in the Georgetown section of Washington.

On August 25, 1948, Hiss and Chambers both testified in a HUAC session that became a sensation. The committee's chairman, New Jersey congressman J. Parnell Thomas, declared at the beginning of the hearing "certainly one of you will be tried for perjury."

In his testimony, Chambers claimed Hiss had been such a devoted communist that he had given him a car, a 1929 Ford Model A, to use in his work as an organizer for communists in America. Hiss claimed he had rented an apartment to Chambers and had thrown in the car. And Hiss maintained he had never been a communist and had not been part of a spy ring. The members of the committee, including Richard Nixon, were openly skeptical of Hiss.

Outraged by the accusations leveled at him, Hiss challenged Chambers to accuse him of being a communist outside of a Congressional hearing, so that he could sue him. Chambers obliged by repeating his charges in a radio interview. At the end of August 1948, Hiss sued for libel.

The Pumpkin Papers Controversy

The legal skirmishing between Chambers and Hiss faded from the headlines for a few months but erupted again in December 1948. Chambers led federal investigators to secret government documents he said Hiss had passed to him in the late 1930s.

In a peculiar and dramatic twist, Chambers claimed he had stored stolen government microfilms, which he said he received from Hiss, in a hollowed out pumpkin in a field on his farm in rural Maryland. The controversy over Hiss and his alleged work for the Soviets became a national craze, and disputes over the "Pumpkin Papers" would last for decades.

Members of HUAC released a statement claiming:

"These documents are of such startling and significant importance, and reveal such a vast network of Communist espionage within the State Department, that they far exceed anything yet brought before the committee in its ten-year history."

Over time, most of the documents on the microfilm Chambers provided to investigators were shown to be mundane government reports. But at the end of the 1940s the charges against Hiss were explosive. Richard Nixon, who had just been elected to his second term in Congress, used the Hiss case to catapult himself to national prominence.

Legal Battles

Based on the allegations of Chambers and the evidence he produced, Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury by a federal grand jury in December 1948. The charges related to the testimony Hiss had given before HUAC, when he denied having given classified documents to Chambers in 1938 and also denied seeing Chambers after 1937. Hiss was never charged with espionage, as the government did not believe it had enough evidence to tie Hiss to a foreign power.

Hiss went on trial in New York City in May 1949, and in July the case resulted in a hung jury. Hiss was put on trial a second time, and was convicted on the two perjury counts in January 1950. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

After serving 44 months at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Hiss was freed on November 27, 1954. He asserted his innocence, and a front-page headline in the New York Times the next day said he was seeking his "vindication."

Later Life and Death

For four decades after leaving prison, Alger Hiss maintained his innocence. In 1957 he published a book, In the Court of Public Opinion, in which he argued that Nixon and others had persecuted him as a way of discrediting the New Deal.

Congress had passed a law preventing him from drawing a pension for his government service. And he eventually found a job as a salesman for a printing company. Occasionally he would appear in public to defend himself, such as when documents from the case were released. His son Tony Hiss, who worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker, also made efforts to clear his father's name.

Whittaker Chambers, Hiss's accuser, was considered a hero by the American right. He died in 1961, but in 1984 President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded him the Medal of Freedom. In 1988 the pumpkin farm in Maryland at which Chambers led investigators to the Pumpkin Papers was declared a national historic site. There was controversy over whether the farm deserved the distinction.

Alger Hiss died at the age of 92 on November 15, 1996. His death was front-page news nearly five decades after his name appeared in sensationalist headlines.

Legacy

The Hiss case helped to propel the political rise of an ambitious young congressman from California, Richard M. Nixon. Seizing on the publicity generated by his public denunciations of Hiss, Nixon emerged from obscurity to become a national figure.

Hiss always maintained his innocence, and for decades the dispute about what Hiss did or didn't do helped defined a political split in America. When Hiss died in 1996, the New York Times published a front-page obituary with a headline that referred to Hiss as a "Divisive Icon of the Cold War."

Sources

  • Scott, Janny. "Alger Hiss, Divisive Icon of Cold War, Dies at 92. New York Times, 16 November 1996, page 1.
  • "Alger Hiss." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2004, pp. 413-415. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Hiss, Alger." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 5, Gale, 2010, pp. 281-283. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Longley, Eric. "Hiss, Alger (1904–1996)." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 2, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 677-678. Gale Virtual Reference Library.