Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 - November 15, 1996) was a U.S. lawyer and government official convicted in 1950 of spying for the Soviet Union.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was educated at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, graduating in 1929. Before joining a Boston law firm, he served for a year as secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1933, he entered government service, working as an attorney with the New Deal, then for the Nye Committee and later at the State Department, where he served as an assistant to Francis Sayre, a son in law of Woodrow Wilson, and Assistant to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. Later, he worked on the formation of the United Nations. In 1945 he attended the Yalta conference and 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.

In 1948, he voluntarily appeared before HUAC after journalist Whittaker Chambers had identified him as being a Communist. Some Committee members had misgivings at first about attacking Hiss, who had, against his lawyer friends’ advice volunteered to testify instead of taking the Fifth Amendment. But congressman Richard Nixon, covertly being fed information by the Catholic church’s secretive Communist hunter, Father Joseph 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," with whom he claimed to have been somewhat closely acquainted some 12 years previously.

Some time later, after Chambers, on the radio program "Meet the Press," publicly reiterated his charge that Hiss was working for the Soviets, Hiss instituted a libel action against Chambers. Hiss dropped the suit when Chambers, in response, presented a series of government documents that he claimed had been passed to him by Hiss in the 1930s, the ‘’Baltimore Documents,’’ and microfilm evidence which he had hidden temporarily in a pumpkin on his Maryland farm. Some of the papers were dated later than the time when Hiss claimed to have ceased all contact with Chambers, AKA "Crosley." Chambers had not up to this point said anything about espionage, and there was never any documentary, physical evidence that Hiss had ever been a member of any socialist or communist organization, although his wife had apparently joined a socialist, but not communist, party while she was in college.

Hiss was charged with two counts of perjury; the grand jury could not indict him for espionage, as the three-year 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. He was convicted the second time in a trial lasting from November 17, 1949 to January 21, 1950. After two trials, a jury convicted Hiss of perjury, as a result of the new evidence. Some of the Baltimore Documents were indeed classified, several in what was apparently Hiss’s own handwriting. At the time, Nixon described the microfilm as evidence of the "most serious series of treasonable activities... in the history of America." Releases under the Freedom Of Information Act many years later showed, however, that the documents on the 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. The verdict was upheld at the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Hiss was sentenced to five years on January 25 and served 44 months before being released in November, 1954.

Disbarred, he became a salesman but continued for the rest of his life to strenuously 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. In fact, J Edgar Hoover, specifically denied knowing about any such possibility, in spite of the fact that he had during WWII arranged for his own FBI agents to be trained at a British intelligence base called Camp X [see David Stafford, Camp X, Dodd Mead, et al., 1986 ff.] 100 miles east of Toronto, where one of the specialties was the remanufacture of typewriters and document forgery. It was not until years later that, John Dean, in his book Blind Ambition, asserted 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.’ Hiss’s request for a new trial was, however, denied. Hiss was readmitted to the bar in 1975.

Hiss felt he was finally vindicated when in 1992 Russian General Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov claimed that a search of Russian archives revealed nothing, although the general subsequently modified his statement. In 1996, however, the United States government released so-called "Venona" papers, decoded Russian intelligence intercepts dating from the mid 1940s. These documents mention a Russian spy, code-named Ales, thought by someone in the FBI who annotated the document some 20 years later to have been Alger Hiss, in the US delegation at Yalta. Russian 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. One still undiscovered spy at White Sands, for example was code named ‘’Perseus.’’ Thus, in some quarters, whether Hiss was in fact a spy for the Soviets remains controversial. Proponents on either side of the discussion will, however, characterize the case differently.


External Link