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Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss

Some court cases reflect the tenor of the times, especially when they are hotly contested and seemingly deathless. The trial of Alger Hiss for espionage was one such case: an enigma wrapped in a riddle, a tinderbox that engulfed HUAC, then-Republican Congressman Richard Nixon, and many others. Welcome to the Cold War-era United States, when paranoia, mistrust, and conspiracy theories poisoned Americans' perception of their friends and neighbors.

This was the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunts, Hollywood blacklisting, and the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case. But who was Alger Hiss, anyway? Let's plunge into this compelling case of Cold War hysteria and the double-cross in this explanation. This case has left no one even remotely involved with it untouched.

If you found this explanation helpful, go ahead and check out our explanation on another compelling Cold War Case, that of The Rosenbergs!

Alger Hiss Case

Alger Hiss was a United States State Department official accused of espionage for the Soviet Union. Hiss spent time in prison, but never for the spying charges. Instead, the case against him led to a conviction of two counts of perjury. He continued to deny the charges against him until he died in Manhattan at the age of 92.

Alger Hiss HUAC StudySmarterFig. 1 - Alger Hiss at a press conference

Hiss hailed from Baltimore and was highly educated, with degrees from Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School. After earning his diplomas, Hiss worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Then he was appointed to a position in the Roosevelt administration.

In the late 1930s, he became an official of the United States State Department. Hiss assumed the promising position of Secretary General at the San Francisco conference of 1945, which led to the birth of the United Nations. Hiss also accompanied President Roosevelt to the Yalta conference, a point which would later strengthen the case against him in the public eye.

Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers

In 1939, a man named Whittaker Chambers, a "reformed" former member of the Communist Party, informed the then-Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle that Alger Hiss was a Communist. Chambers claimed that Hiss had initially approached him as a freelance writer but later demonstrated allegiances to the Soviets as a courier for an elite Communist group. Berle did not believe this accusation. Soon, however, French correspondence implicated Hiss. Soviet defector Igor Govyako soon joined the chorus of Hiss accusers, claiming the man had delivered secrets to the Soviets, putting the FBI on high alert.

In 1947, Hiss was appointed to the prestigious position of President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Alger Hiss Pumpkin Papers StudySmarterFig. 2 - Pumpkin Papers film canisters

A year later, Chambers appeared at a press conference held by the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) to say that Hiss was a Communist who had passed confidential documents to the USSR. These accusations were lent further credibility when Elizabeth Bentley, a confessed Soviet agent, admitted to giving documents to the Soviets from a nameless State Department official believed to have been Hiss.

Hiss then sued Chambers for libel. However, Chambers produced handwritten memos from Hiss and typewritten summaries of classified documents, supposedly typed up by Hiss himself. Along with these, Chambers led the FBI to a secret cache of incriminating documents hidden in a pumpkin patch on Chambers' farm in Maryland. These documents took the form of several rolls of 35mm film, which, having been hidden inside a pumpkin, became known as the Pumpkin Papers. Chambers accused Hiss of "disloyalty and subversion" but later broadened this to "espionage".

Alger Hiss Trial

Hiss was eventually charged with espionage in 1937. Prosecutors could not obtain a conviction for espionage, but the Pumpkin Papers had shown Hiss to have lied under oath. Therefore, a grand jury handed down two counts of the indictment for perjury.

The first Alger Hiss trial ended in a hung jury. During the second trial, a witness named Hede Massing, who had been a former Soviet agent, testified that she had known Hiss as a Communist in 1935.

Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now.1 - Whittaker Chambers on "Meet the Press"

First-term Republican Congressman from California Richard Nixon was one party convinced of Alger Hiss's guilt. Nixon later admitted that without his connection to the Hiss case, he wouldn't have been elected Vice President in 1960 nor later won the Presidency. He expressed the sentiment in an essay entitled "Lessons of the Alger Hiss Case".

Alger Hiss Conviction

Hiss was convicted on January 21, 1950. On January 26, he was sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary. All of his appeals failed. At this point, Hiss settled into prison life, making himself a model prisoner. He left prison broke and unable to work. Finally, he secured a position as a salesman–reportedly a mediocre one. However, thanks to his name, he was always able to get people's attention.

Alger Hiss mugshot StudySmarterFig. 3 - Hiss mugshot

In the years following his conviction, the country remained divided regarding Hiss's guilt or innocence. Every few years, documents were uncovered which seemed to either confirm his guilt or hint at his possible innocence. Many felt that US relations with the Soviets were different in 1937 than in the Cold War era, which should have been considered in the Hiss case. Others thought that McCarthy's fanatics had framed him. Whittaker Chambers never changed his tune.

Alger Hiss had continued to plead his innocence, and even after the death of Richard Nixon in 1994, Hiss claimed:

[Nixon] left many deeds uncorrected and unatoned for.1 - Alger Hiss

Hiss died at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan in November 1996 at the age of 92.

Alger Hiss Cold War

The Hiss case was deeply tied to the fluctuations of the Cold War and involved intrigue at the highest levels of power, from Washington to Moscow, which spanned decades. For the public, the process was sensationalized, and a large portion of it was trial by media, foretelling later cases such as that of O.J. Simpson.

One story that seemed to confirm Hiss's guilt, post-trial and imprisonment, arrived with the confirmation of the existence of a spy, code-named Ales, who had attended the Yalta Conference with FDR and subsequently visited Moscow, both of which Hiss had done. The Commissioner for Foreign Affairs stated that this alone indicated that Ales had to have been Hiss.

Hiss's trial was deeply entrenched in the social issues (i.e. fear of Communism) of the time, involving the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy. However, ultimately, the case lent McCarthy credibility.

Trial of Alger Hiss - Key Takeaways

  • Alger Hiss was a United States State Department official accused in 1949 of committing espionage for the Soviet Union in 1937.
  • Hiss always denied the charges, but there has been ample evidence both for and against him.
  • Hiss was publicly accused of disloyalty, espionage, and subversion by a rabid ex-member of the Communist Party named Whittaker Chambers.
  • The case became a national controversy during the Cold War, featuring a cast of many, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.
  • Hiss was eventually convicted of the crime of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison. His conviction was secured thanks to Chambers' discovery of "'The Pumpkin Papers": incriminating evidence that was hidden in a pumpkin patch in Maryland.

References

  1. Janny Scott, 'Alger Hiss, Divisive Cold War Icon, Dies at 92.' New York Times, (November 16, 1996)

Frequently Asked Questions about Alger Hiss

A state department official who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union.

Hiss was convicted, not of spying, but of perjury.

Spying for the Soviet Union.

Hiss's case has been much-debated since he was convicted of perjury. Declassified documents from the era seem to point to his guilt.

Hiss died at 92 years of age in Lenox Hill Hospital. New York.

Final Alger Hiss Quiz

Question

Why did Alger Hiss sue Whittaker Chambers?

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Answer

For libel.

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What were the Pumpkin Papers?

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Answer

These were classified documents hidden in a pumpkin patch on Chambers's Maryland farm.

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Question

True or False: Whittaker Chambers was an ex-Communist.


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Answer

True.

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Question


For what was Alger Hiss convicted?

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Answer

He was found guilty of two counts of perjury.

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Question

What did Whittaker Chambers originally accuse Alger Hiss of?

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Answer

Disloyalty and subversion.

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Question

​In what year did Alger Hiss's alleged espionage take place?


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Answer

1937.

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What was the result of Alger Hiss's first trial?

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Answer

It resulted in a hung jury.

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What did witness Hede Massing allege to the court?

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Answer

That she had known Alger Hiss as a Communist in 1935.

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Which American President was in charge of the Alger Hiss case?

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Answer

Richard Nixon.

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Which law school did Alger Hiss attend?

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Answer

Harvard Law School.

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How many years did Alger Hiss serve in prison?

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Answer

Five years.

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Question

Was Alger Hiss granted an appeal at trial?

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Answer

No.

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