For the United States, the prosecution of Alger Hiss was a pivotal domestic event of the COLD WAR. A former high-ranking federal official with a seemingly impeccable reputation, Hiss was accused in 1948 of having spied for the Soviet Union. The charges shocked the nation. Not only had Hiss held government positions of extreme importance, but he was also one of the architects of postwar international relations, having helped establish the UNITED NATIONS. He steadfastly maintained his innocence in hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But a relentless probe by the committee's lead investigator, Representative RICHARD M. NIXON, of California, led to a GRAND JURY investigation. In 1950, Hiss was convicted of two counts of perjury, for which he served forty-four months in prison. His case became a cause célèbre for liberals, who regarded him as a victim of the era's anti-Communist hysteria. It also fueled a passion for anti-Communist investigations and legislation that preoccupied Congress for the next several years.
Before coming under suspicion, Hiss had a meteoric rise in public service. A Harvard graduate in 1929, the INTERNATIONAL LAW specialist served in the Departments of Agriculture and Justice from 1933 to 1936. He then moved to the STATE DEPARTMENT, where he assumed the post of counselor at global conferences during WORLD WAR II. In 1945, Hiss advised President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT at the Yalta Conference, at which the Allied powers planned the end of the war. He was forty-one years old. Next came a leading role in the establishment of the United Nations, appointment to the administration of the U.S. Office of Special Political Affairs, and, in 1946, election to the presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a statesman, Hiss had proved himself in no
small way; his career had earned him the highest confidence of his government in times of crisis.
But soon Hiss was swept up in a round of damaging public accusations. By the late 1940s, the U.S. House of Representatives had spent several years investigating Communist influence in business and government. This was the work of HUAC, first established in 1938 and increasingly busy in the years of suspicion that followed World War II. In August 1948, HUAC heard testimony from Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine, who had previously admitted to spying for the Soviet Union. Now Chambers fingered Hiss. He charged that Hiss had secretly been a Communist party member in the 1930s, and most dramatically, he accused Hiss of giving him confidential State Department documents to deliver to the Soviets in 1938.
Accusations of Communist affiliation were common at HUAC hearings—in a sense, they were its chief business. The process of naming names was triggered by the committee's threat of legal action against witnesses who did not cooperate. But even by HUAC's standards, the accusations against Hiss were spectacular. Furthermore, Chambers had evidence. He offered the committee microfilm of the confidential documents, which he claimed had been prepared on Hiss's own typewriter. The charges particularly excited committee member Nixon, a California freshman, who used them to establish his credentials as a tough anti-Communist. In a highly publicized event, Chambers took Nixon to his Maryland farm, where the microfilm was hidden in a hollow pumpkin. Hiss was soon called before HUAC to be grilled by Nixon. He denied Chambers's accusations and dramatically questioned Chambers himself in a vain attempt to clear his name.
A grand jury was impaneled and held hearings in December 1948. Because of the STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS, Hiss could not be tried on charges of ESPIONAGE in 1948 for allegedly passing documents to the Soviets in 1938. But the grand jury returned a two-count indictment of perjury: it charged that he had lied about giving Chambers the official documents in 1938, and when claiming that he had not even seen Chambers after January 1, 1937.
After his first trial in 1948 ended in a hung jury, Hiss was retried in 1950 (United States v. Hiss, 88 F. Supp. 559 [S.D.N.Y. 1950]). Hiss's defense hinged on portraying Chambers, the government's primary witness, as unreliable. He claimed that Chambers was a psychopathic personality prone to chronic lying. In what became the seminal ruling of its kind, the court admitted psychiatric evidence for the reason of discrediting the witness. But despite challenging Chambers's credibility, the validity of Chambers's testimony, and the accuracy of other evidence, Hiss was convicted. Sentenced to five years in prison, he served nearly four years. His career in law and public service was ruined. He spent the next two decades working as a salesman while writing books and giving lectures.
The question of Hiss's guilt has divided intellectuals for decades. Hiss always maintained his innocence—in 1957, when he published a memoir, In the Court of Public Opinion, and even more in 1975, when, with prominent help, he successfully sued for reinstatement to the bar of Massachusetts (In re Hiss, 368 Mass. 447, 333 N.E.2d 429). Since 1975, some word-smiths have used FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION files to argue in favor of or against Hiss's guilt: notably, author Allan Weinstein in Perjury (1978) and editor Edith Tiger in In Re Alger Hiss (1979).
The Hiss case profoundly affected the politics of its era. It gave impetus to anti-Communist sentiment in Washington, D.C., which led to more hearings before HUAC as well as legislation such as the McCarran Act (50 U.S.C.A. § 781 et seq.), intended as a crackdown on the American Communist party. The case also helped launch the careers of Nixon and of Senator JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY, of Wisconsin, providing the latter with ammunition for an infamous crusade against alleged Communist infiltration of the federal government.
Hiss died November 15, 1996, in New York City.