Hiss, Alger (1904–1996)

2012-07-11 19:33:45

Alger Hiss was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 11, 1904. Articulate, intelligent, and wellbred, Hiss became the celebrated target of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in well-publicized hearings regarding communists in government in 1948. After earning a law degree at Harvard Law School, Hiss went to Washington, D.C. in 1933 as a ‘‘New Dealer,’’ one of a group of young idealistic attorneys who were attracted to government service in the heady, early days of the New Deal. During his tenure with the federal government, which lasted until the late 1940s, he served with the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, and State. He rose through the ranks, eventually serving as an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference in 1944 and secretary-general of the United Nations organizing conference at San Francisco in 1947.

During the 1948 HUAC hearings, a disheveled, dumpy former TIME-Life editor, Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss of having been a member of the Communist Party and of engaging in espionage for the Soviets. Hiss responded immediately with stalwart declarations of his innocence. Hiss’s testimony, however, became more and more muddled in subsequent appearances before the committee, including a face-to-face confrontation with Chambers. Chambers ultimately produced microfilm reels of stolen State Department documents that had been typed on Hiss’s Woodstock typewriter. Hiss was ultimately convicted of perjury in 1951 and served almost four years in prison.

The melodramatic Hiss–Chambers hearings, the first ever televised, added to the growing pervasive fear of the domestic communist menace that gripped the United States in the years after 1945. The image of a civil servant and diplomat, as well-placed, welleducated, and well-respected as Hiss, serving as a Soviet agent magnified the public’s sense of the danger that Communism held for U.S. institutions.

Hiss continued to maintain his innocence, carrying on a campaign for vindication until his death in 1996. Most contemporary scholarship, much of it based on the recently released VENONA decrypts of messages of Soviet agents in the United States, supports Chambers’s allegations that Hiss was, in fact, a spy for the Soviets.


References and Further Reading

  • Haynes, John Earl, and Harvey Klehr. VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Swan, Patrick A., ed. Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003.
  • Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Knopf, 1978.
  • White, G. Edward. Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.