Alger Hiss

From Academic Kids

Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904November 15, 1996) was a U.S. lawyer and government official. Following accusations that he spied for the Soviet Union, Hiss was convicted of perjury and served five years' imprisonment. After revelations of massive judicial misconduct by the FBI at his trial, he was readmitted to the bar.


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. It was at this time that Hiss became a member of the Ware group of underground Communists, a sort of Marxist study group. In August or September of 1934, Hiss met Whittaker Chambers and started paying Communist Party dues. He began working with the GRU in 1935 and Chambers acted as courier. Hiss assisted in recruiting new people into the secret apparatus. One such recruitment who also worked in the State Department was Noel Field.

In 1936, Hiss began working 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 Hiss joined the State Department's Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, a policy-making office that concentrated on postwar planning for international organization and later became its director. As such 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, which precipitated the Western betrayal of Eastern Europe. Hiss forged an agreement to give the Soviet Union two extra seats in the United Nations General Assembly. After the Yalta conference Hiss, H. Freeman Matthews, and three clerks travelled with Secretary of State Stettinius to Moscow, and FBI investigatations found all the others beyond suspicion of espionage. Venona project transcript #1822 dated 30 March 1945 reads in part

After the Yalta Conference, when he had gone on to MOSCOW, a Soviet personage in a very responsible position (ALES gave to understand that it was Comrade VYShINSKIJ) allegedly got in touch with ALES and at the behest of the Military NEIGHBORS passed on to him their gratitude and so on.

At the United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco in 1946, Hiss served as the first temporary U.N. Secretary General. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee determined in 1954 Hiss was influential in the employment of 494 persons by the United Nations on its initial staff. Hiss was afterwards named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. A security investigation in 1946 brought to light the fact that Hiss had obtained top-secret reports he was not authorized to see—on atomic energy, China policy, and other matters relating to military intelligence. It was immediately after that Hiss notified the Secretary of State that he would leave the government for the presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Charges of Espionage

The Alger Hiss case

The public controversy was brought to light in 1948 over Whittaker Chambers's accusation that Alger Hiss had been a member of the Communist Party and a spy, and that his wife Priscilla assisted him. Some historians, such as 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. Others, such as Allen Weinstein, author of "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," judge that the preponderance of evidence points to Hiss's guilt. Hiss's case heightened public concern about Soviet espionage penetration of the US Government in the 1930s and 1940s and 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."

In February 1952 Nathaniel Weyl testified before the McCarran Committee that in 1933 he and Alger Hiss were in the Ware group, a group that operated within the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The testimony corroborated Whittaker Chambers. Hiss was later proved to be a spy through the declassification of the VENONA project.

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. Hiss's character witnesses at his first trial included such notables as Adlai Stevenson, Justice Felix Frankfurter, and former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis. 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. The second trial lasted from November 17, 1949 to January 21, 1950, with testimony from an FBI agent that only the Hiss typewriter could have been used to re-type the documents. After deliberating less than 24 hours, the jury found Hiss guilty on two counts of perjury. 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 (i.e., a legal case) 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 Dmitri 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 the 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. Alger Hisss known cryptonyms were "Lawyer" ("Advocate" or "Advokat") in the mid-1930s and "Ales" in 1945. "Leonard" did not occur as a cover name in the World War II deciphered Venona traffic and may be a later (or possibly earlier) cryptonym.


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