Alger Hiss was a former State Department official accused in 1948 by Time editor (and former underground communist) Whittaker Chambers of being part of an underground communist cell in Washington, DC, in the 1930s. In response to a lawsuit by Hiss, Chambers later accused Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union and turned over evidence to support his charges. Subsequently, Hiss was indicted by a grand jury and convicted of perjury (the statute of limitations for espionage had expired) in 1950. Until the day he died in 1996, Hiss insisted that he was innocent. Evidence from the Russian archives, however, and the top-secret Venona project has led many scholars to believe that Hiss did spy for the Soviet Union.
Alger Hiss was born in 1904 in Baltimore, Maryland. Despite tragedy in his youth (a sister committed suicide, and his brother died of Bright's disease), Hiss excelled academically and became a skillful networker. Hiss attended Johns Hopkins University where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Later, he transferred to Harvard Law School where he came to the attention of Professor (and future Supreme Court justice) Felix Frankfurter. After graduation, Hiss served as a law clerk to the prominent Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes for one year. After his clerkship, Hiss accepted a position with a law firm in Boston.
Hiss left the law firm in 1933, however, to work for the federal government at the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. During the decade, he held a number of positions in the federal government including as a lawyer in the Justice Department, as legal counsel for the Nye Committee (investigating the reasons for U.S. entry into World War I), and as a lawyer in the Department of Agriculture.
In 1936, Hiss accepted a position in the State Department working for Assistant Secretary of State Francis Sayre. By 1944, he was the head of the Office of Special Political Affairs. In this position, Hiss organized the Yalta Conference (later attending the conference in February 1945) and helped in the creation of the United Nations. At the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, Hiss was chosen as the temporary secretary general of the organization. In 1946, Hiss left the State Department to accept the position of president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the course of their investigation, HUAC found Chambers to be a persuasive witness. In great detail, he described Hiss's homes, family members, and hobbies. Confronted with Chambers's account, Hiss modified his testimony to claim that he knew Chambers as a journalist, George Crosley. According to Hiss, Crosley had lived with the Hiss family for a brief period of time before the relationship was terminated due to Chambers's mooching. However, Hiss could not find anyone else who knew Chambers as George Crosley.
The cases shifted to espionage after Hiss sued Chambers for repeating his allegations outside of HUAC on Meet the Press. In response to Hiss's lawsuit, Chambers turned over 64 pages of typewritten documents that he insisted were summaries of State Department reports given to him by Hiss. He turned over additional information to HUAC investigators in December 1948. Chambers led investigators to a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm and pulled out microfilm canisters. He told investigators that the microfilm contained State Department reports that were acquired from Alger Hiss.
The new evidence led to the calling of a grand jury in New York City. The grand jury indicted Hiss on December 15, 1948, on charges of perjury. In 1949, Hiss was tried on charges of perjury. The jury, however, deadlocked, leading to a second trial. In 1950, another jury found Hiss guilty of perjury and sentenced him to five years in prison. Despite this, he was released early in 1954 for good behavior.
Until the day he died, Hiss insisted that he was innocent of the charges against him. Various explanations were given in Hiss's defense. It was claimed that Whittaker Chambers sneaked into Hiss's home and typed the State Department summaries, that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) forged the Woodstock typewriter identified as belonging to Alger Hiss, or that Hiss obtained the microfilmed State Department documents from another source. Then in the early 1970s, Hiss benefited from distrust of Richard Nixon due to the Watergate scandal. If Nixon lied about Watergate, then some believed he could have framed Hiss.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, further evidence reinforced Hiss's guilt. Evidence was found in Hungarian archives that Hiss's friend Noel Field confessed to Hungarian authorities that Hiss was a Soviet spy. In 1996, a decrypted cable from the top-secret Venona project (created during World War II to break encrypted Soviet codes) described a Soviet agent codenamed ALES who appeared to be Alger Hiss. In 1999, Allen Weinstein's book The Haunted Wood revealed that Alger Hiss was mentioned in KGB files. Likewise, former KGB officer Oleg Vasilliev published the book Spies in 2009 (based on thousands of pages of notes from the KGB files), which identified Hiss in the KGB files.
Alger Hiss died in 1996 still maintaining his innocence, while most scholars today believe that Hiss did spy for the Soviet Union, questioning the extent of the espionage.
See also: Hollywood Ten ; McCarthy, Joseph (1908–1957) ; New Deal ; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882–1945) ; Rosenberg, Julius (1918–1953), and Rosenberg, Ethel (1915–1953)
Haynes, John, and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
Hiss, Alger. In the Court of Public Opinion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
Hiss, Alger. Recollections of a Life. New York: H. Holt & Company, 1988.
Jacoby, Susan. Alger Hiss and the Battle for History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Shelton, Christina. Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012.
Swan, Patrick. Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003.
Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.
Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
White, G. Edward. Alger Hiss's Looking Glass Wars. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.