Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 – November 15, 1996) was a U.S. State Department official involved in the establishment of the United Nations. He was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1948 and convicted of perjury in connection with this charge in 1950.
On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist Party member, testified under subpoena before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that Hiss had secretly been a Communist while in federal service, despite the fact that Chambers had previously testified under oath that Hiss had never been a Communist. Called before HUAC, Hiss categorically denied the charge. When Chambers repeated his claim in a radio interview, Hiss filed a defamation lawsuit against him.
During the pretrial discovery process, Chambers produced new evidence indicating that he and Hiss had been involved in espionage, which each had denied under oath to HUAC. A federal grand jury indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury; Chambers admitted to the same offense, but as a cooperating government witness he was never charged. Although Hiss's indictment stemmed from the alleged espionage, he could not be tried for that crime because the statute of limitations had expired.
After a mistrial due to a hung jury, Hiss was tried a second time. In January 1950, he was found guilty on both counts of perjury and received two concurrent five-year sentences, of which he eventually served 44 months. Arguments about the case and the validity of the verdict took center stage in broader debates about the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States. Although a variety of evidence has been added to the debate since his conviction, the question of Hiss's guilt or innocence remains controversial. Some reliable sources have suggested that those who believe in Hiss's innocence are in the minority of scholarly opinion.
Hiss was educated at Baltimore City College (high school) and Johns Hopkins University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was voted "most popular student" by his classmates. In 1929, he received his law degree from Harvard Law School, where he was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. Before joining a Boston law firm, he served for a year as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. That same year, Hiss married Priscilla Fansler Hobson (1903–1987), a Bryn Mawr graduate who would later work as a grade school English teacher. Priscilla, previously married to Thayer Hobson, had a three-month-old son, Timothy.
In 1933, Hiss entered government service, working in several areas as an attorney in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, starting with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Hiss worked for the Nye Committee, which investigated and documented wartime profiteering by military contractors during World War I, and served briefly in the Justice Department.
Both Alger Hiss and his younger brother Donald Hiss began working in the United States Department of State in 1936. Alger served as assistant to Francis B. Sayre, a son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson, and later became special assistant to the Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs and in 1944 became a special assistant to the Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs (OSPA), a policy-making office that concentrated on postwar planning for international organization. He later became the director of OSPA, and, as such, he was executive secretary at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which finalized plans for the organization that would become the United Nations.
In 1945, Hiss was a member of the U.S. delegation to the wartime Yalta Conference, where the 'Big Three' (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill) met to coordinate strategy to defeat Hitler, draw the map of postwar Europe and continue with plans to set up the United Nations. Hiss's role at Yalta was limited to work on the United Nations. Hiss led the opposition to Stalin's proposal for 16 Soviet votes in the UN General Assembly. In the final compromise, the Big Three decided to give Stalin three votes in the General Assembly: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (then known as Byelorussia, or White Russia).
Hiss served as the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on International Organization (the United Nations Charter Conference) in San Francisco in 1945. Hiss later became the full Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs.
Hiss left government service in 1946 and became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he served until May 5, 1949.
In an appearance on August 3, 1948 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine and a former Communist, accused Alger Hiss of having been a member of "an underground organization of the United States Communist Party". At this time Chambers described the purpose of the organization, which became known as the Ware Group, as promoting communist policies in U.S. government. He made no mention of espionage activity, and would later specifically deny that he or Hiss had engaged in espionage. Chambers would change his story several times, and he would be forced to testify at the two Hiss trials that he had committed perjury many times in earlier testimony.
Chambers gave varying dates for the time when he broke with the Communist party; a point that was to prove important in his later accusations against Hiss. For nine years, between September 1, 1939 and November 17, 1948, Chambers said he had left the Party in 1937. The 1938 Party-leaving date only emerged on November 17, 1948, when Chambers produced copies of State Department documents that he said Hiss had given him; the documents were dated 1938.
Prior to Chambers's testimony, the FBI had already come to suspect Hiss of Communist activities. The FBI had interviewed Chambers several times since 1942, and in 1945 further evidence corroborating Chambers's story was received from two sources. Elizabeth Bentley, an American spy for the Soviet Union, defected and told the FBI about a Soviet contact in the State Department whom she identified as "Eugene Hiss." The same year, a Russian code clerk named Igor Gouzenko defected to Canada and reported that an unnamed assistant to the U.S. Secretary of State was a Soviet agent. In both cases, the FBI decided that Alger Hiss was the most likely match.
Alger Hiss voluntarily appeared before HUAC on August 5 to deny being a Communist. Some Committee members had misgivings at first about attacking Hiss, since he had recently served as a senior level official in the State Department. Congressman Richard Nixon, a member of HUAC, pressed the Committee to continue the investigation. Nixon had received information about Chambers's allegations and the suspicions around Hiss from Roman Catholic priest John Francis Cronin, an anti-communist author who had been given access to FBI files.
After being asked to identify Chambers from a photograph, Hiss indicated that his face "might look familiar" and requested to see him in person. When he later confronted Chambers in a hotel room, with HUAC representatives present, Hiss claimed that he had known Chambers as "George Crosley," who had presented himself to Hiss as a freelance writer. Hiss said he had sublet his apartment to "Crosley" in the mid-1930s and had given him an old car.
Because Chambers's testimony was given in a congressional hearing, his statements were privileged against defamation suits. Hiss challenged him to repeat his charges in public without the benefit of such protection. After Chambers publicly reiterated his charge that Hiss was a Communist on the radio program Meet the Press, Hiss instituted a libel lawsuit against Chambers.
Chambers responded by now claiming that Hiss had been a spy, and on November 17, 1948 he presented physical evidence to support his charge. This evidence consisted of sixty-five pages of retyped State Department documents, plus four pages in Hiss's own handwriting of copied State Department cables. Chambers stated that he had obtained these from Hiss in the 1930s; the typed papers having been retyped from originals by Priscilla Hiss on the family's Woodstock typewriter. These papers became known as the "Baltimore documents." The typeface characteristics of the Baltimore documents would become a key piece of evidence used to convict Hiss.
Both Chambers and Hiss had denied any act of espionage in their testimony before the HUAC. By introducing the Baltimore documents, Chambers admitted that he committed perjury, and opened both Hiss and himself to perjury charges.
On the evening of December 2, 1948, Chambers produced the so-called pumpkin papers, five rolls of 35 mm film, two of which contained State Department documents. Chambers had hidden the film in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm the previous day.
In testimony before the McCarran Subcommittee of the US Senate in 1952, William C. Bullitt claimed that as Ambassador to France in 1939 he was advised by Premier Edouard Daladier of French intelligence reports that two State Department officials named Hiss were Soviet agents.
Hiss was charged with two counts of perjury; the grand jury could not indict him for espionage since the statute of limitations had run out. Chambers was never charged with a crime. Hiss went to trial twice. The first trial started on May 31, 1949, and ended in a hung jury on July 7, 1949. Hiss's character witnesses at his first trial included such notables as future Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis. The second trial lasted from November 17, 1949, to January 21, 1950.
At both trials, a key piece of prosecution testimony was that of expert witnesses who stated that identifying characteristics of the typed Baltimore documents matched samples known to have been typed on a typewriter owned by the Hisses at the time of his alleged espionage work with Chambers. Also presented as prosecution evidence was the typewriter itself, which the Hisses had given away years earlier; it had been located by defense investigators.
In the second trial, Hede Massing, an American ex-Communist, provided some slight corroboration of Chambers's story when she recounted meeting Hiss at a social function in which they both spoke obliquely about their Communist activities.
The second trial jury found Hiss guilty on both counts; on January 25, 1950, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment. The verdict was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (case citation 185 F.2d 822) and the Supreme Court of the United States (340 U.S. 948). Hiss served 44 months at the Lewisburg Federal Prison before being released November 27, 1954.
The case heightened public concern about Soviet espionage penetration of the U.S. government in the 1930s and 1940s. As a native-born, well-educated, and highly connected government official, Alger Hiss did not fit the profile of a typical spy. Publicity surrounding the case fed the early political career of Richard M. Nixon, helping him move from the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate in 1950, and to the Vice Presidency of the United States in 1952. Senator Joseph McCarthy made his famous Wheeling, West Virginia, speech two weeks after the Hiss verdict, launching his career as the nation's most visible anti-communist.
While in prison, Hiss acted as a voluntary attorney, advisor, and tutor for many of his fellow inmates. After his release, Hiss, who had been disbarred, worked as a salesman for a stationery company. In 1957 his book In the Court of Public Opinion was published. It challenged the prosecution's case against him in detail, emphasizing the theory that the typewritten documents traced to his typewriter had been forged. He separated from his first wife, Priscilla, in 1959, though he did not remarry until after Priscilla's death in 1986.
Hiss's lawyers hired typewriter expert Martin Tytell to create a typewriter that would be indistinguishable from the one the Hiss's owned. Tytell spent two years creating a facsimile Woodstock typewriter whose print characteristics would match the peculiarities of the Hiss typewriter, which was used as one of the primary justifications for an unsuccessful appeal of the verdict in the case.
Since the trials, several apparent discrepancies have been noted in the typewriter evidence presented by the prosecution. This includes expert testimony that the typewriter presented in evidence (as Exhibit #UUU) was not the same one that produced earlier typing samples from the Hiss household, expert testimony that Priscilla Hiss was not the typist of the Baltimore documents, testimony by former Woodstock executives that the serial number of the Exhibit #UUU typewriter was inconsistent with the year when the Hiss typewriter was originally purchased, and expert testimony that the exhibit #UUU typewriter had been tampered with in a way not consistent with professional repair work. These points and others have led some Hiss defenders to theorize that the Baltimore documents were forgeries, created by first remanufacturing a typewriter to match existing samples of typed papers from the Hiss household, then using this typewriter to type the Baltimore documents. According to this theory, the remanufactured typewriter was then planted where Hiss's defense investigators would find it, and it became trial exhibit #UUU. As noted above, such "forgery by typewriter" was entirely possible for trained technicians, though this was not generally known at the time of trials.
Others have counter-argued that if the Baltimore documents were forgeries, it would be an unnecessary risk to arrange for the remanufactured typewriter to be found and introduced as evidence at the trials. The link between the Hiss's typewriter and the Baltimore documents was testified to on the basis of matching the documents to old typing samples, so the actual typewriter wasn't needed. Professor Irving Younger wrote, "To leave the counterfeit Woodstock lying about for the defense to pick up and examine would serve only to expose the whole scheme to the risk of discovery—and for no reason.
In a 1976 memoir, former White House counsel John Dean alleged that President Nixon's chief counsel Charles Colson told him that Nixon had admitted in a conversation that HUAC had in fact fabricated a typewriter, saying, "We built one on the Hiss case. However, Colson subsequently denied the statement.
Russian archivists and researchers responded by reviewing their files, and in late 1992 reported back that they had found no evidence that Alger Hiss had ever engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union or any evidence that Hiss was a member of the Communist Party. However, 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 [Hiss's lawyer] pushed me to say things of which I was not fully convinced.
General-Lieutenant Vitaly Pavlov, who ran Soviet intelligence work in North America in the late 1930s and early 1940s for the NKVD, provided some corroboration of Volkogonov in his memoirs, stating that Hiss never worked for the USSR as one of his agents.
In 2003, General Julius Kobyakov, a retired Russian intelligence official, revealed that he had been the person who actually searched the files for Volkogonov. According to Kobyakov, his research revealed that there was no indication that Alger Hiss had been either a paid or unpaid agent of the Soviet Union only "after careful study of KGB-NKVD archives and querying sister services" (military intelligence).
In 2007, further testimonial of the absence of Hiss's name in Soviet archives was given by Russian researcher Svetlana A. Chervonnaya, who had been conducting research since the early 1990s.
Field was released by the Hungarian secret police in 1954 but remained in Hungary until his death in 1970. Upon his release, he wrote a letter to the Communist Party's Central Committee in Moscow complaining that he had been tortured in prison and that this had caused him to "confess more and more lies as truth." Hiss's defenders argue that Field's implication of Hiss may have been one of these lies and that Field was trying to show his veracity as a Communist by connecting his activities to the well-known Hiss. In 1957, Field wrote a letter to Hiss in which he expressed his belief in Hiss's innocence and spoke of personal knowledge of Hede Massing's "outrageous lie" when she testified at Hiss's second trial.
The Venona transcript with the most relevance to the Hiss case is #1822, sent March 30, 1945, from the Soviets' Washington station chief to Moscow. This transcript indicates that ALES attended the Yalta conference and then went to Moscow. Hiss attended Yalta and then traveled to Moscow in his capacity as adviser to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
However, the Venona evidence on Alger Hiss is disputed by some. John Lowenthal has challenged the Hiss-ALES identification in Venona #1822 by the following:
Lowenthal also suggested an interpretation of the transcript that differs from Lamphere's reading. Lowenthal's reading does not put ALES at the Yalta conference at all, but rather refers to the presence at Yalta of Andrey Vyshinsky, the Soviet deputy foreign minister. According to Lowenthal, the entire point of paragraph 6 of Venona #1822—that the GRU asked Vyshinsky to get in touch with ALES to convey thanks from the GRU for a job well done—would have been unnecessary if ALES had actually been in Moscow, because the GRU could have easily contacted ALES with no need of Vyshinsky. Others, notably Eduard Mark, dispute Lowenthal's analysis on this point. In the opinion of intelligence historian John R. Schindler, the original Russian text of Venona #1822 (released in 2005), removes some of the ambiguity present in the English translation and confirms ALES's presence at Yalta. Schindler concludes "the identification of ALES as Alger Hiss, made by the U.S. Government more than a half-century ago, seems exceptionally solid based on the evidence now available; message 1822 is only one piece of that evidence, yet a compelling one.
Also in rebuttal to Lowenthal, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr noted the following:
There is one Venona cable, #1579, that includes the name "Hiss." This partially decrypted cable consists of fragments of a 1943 message from the GRU chief in New York to GRU headquarters in Moscow. The reference reads: "…from the State Department by name of HISS…" The name "Hiss" appeared "Spelled out in the Latin alphabet" according to a footnote by the cryptanalysts. In the cable, "Hiss" goes without a first name, so it could possibly refer to either Alger or Donald, since both were at the State Department in 1943. Lowenthal argues that for the GRU to name Hiss openly, not by a codename, would be highly unorthodox if he was, indeed, a spy. Once Soviet intelligence assigned a codename to an agent, it would be highly unusual for their actual name to be used in a coded transmission.
At an April 2007 symposium, authors Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya presented evidence that a U.S. diplomat named Wilder Foote was the best match to ALES, based on the movements of all the officials present at the U.S.-Soviet Yalta conference. In particular, Bird and Chervonnaya noted that Foote had been in Mexico City at a time when a Soviet cable placed ALES there, whereas Hiss had left Mexico several days earlier (see above). Other authors have disputed the likelihood that Foote was ALES, noting that Foote doesn't fit known information about ALES, and saying that the author of the Soviet cable could have been mistaken in stating that ALES was still in Mexico City.
In 1978, Allen Weinstein, then a professor of history at Smith College, published Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. The book, in which Weinstein argues that Hiss was guilty, has been cited by many historians as the "most important" and the "most thorough and convincing" book on the Hiss-Chambers case. Weinstein drew upon 30,000 pages of FBI documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, the files of the Hiss defense attorneys, over 80 interviews with involved parties and six interviews with Hiss himself. In 1997, Weinstein published an updated and revised edition of Perjury, which incorporated recent evidence from Venona decrypted cables, released documents from Soviet intelligence archives and information from former Soviet intelligence operatives.
In arguing for Hiss's guilt, Weinstein presented no major new revelations about the case. Rather, he noted a great many points at which Chambers's story, or an assumption of Hiss's guilt, seemed to be a better fit to documented facts than did Hiss's accounts of events. In his review of Perjury, George Will wrote "the myth of Hiss's innocence suffers the death of a thousand cuts.
Among the points where Weinstein found Hiss's defense questionable were the following:
Weinstein also devotes an appendix to examining and dismissing various "conspiracies" that Hiss defenders have proposed to explain the evidence against Hiss.
In his conclusion, Weinstein writes "the body of available evidence proves that Hiss perjured himself when describing his secret dealings with Chambers, so that the jury in his second trial made no mistake in finding Alger Hiss guilty as charged.
In the late 1990s, Weinstein conducted research into Soviet intelligence files with former KGB operative Alexander Vassiliev. This research was primarily for the 1999 book The Haunted Wood, but the material Vassiliev and Weinstein found that related to the Hiss case was added to the 1997 edition of Perjury. It was later revealed that some scholarly friction existed between the two coauthors. Vassiliev stated, "I never saw a document where Hiss would be called ALES or ALES may be called Hiss. I made a point of that to Allen." Weinstein was "sloppy almost every time he quoted documents relating to Alger Hiss. However, in a 2002 episode of PBS's NOVA, Vassiliev said, "The Rosenbergs, Theodore Hall and Alger Hiss did spy for the Soviets, and I saw their real names in the documents, their code names, a lot of documents about that. How you judge them is up to you. To me, they're heroes.