The Alger Hiss Spy Case
During the late nineteen forties, a new anti-Communistic chase was in full holler, this being the one of the most active Cold War fronts at home. Many panic-stricken citizens feared that Communist spies were undermining the government and treacherously misdirecting foreign policy. The attorney general planned a list of ninety supposedly disloyal organizations, none of which was given the right to prove its loyalty to the United States. The Loyalty Review Board investigated more than three million employees that caused a nation wide security conscious. Later, individual states began ferreting out Communist spies in their area. Now, Americans cannot continue to enjoy traditional freedoms in the face of a ruthless international conspiracy known as the Soviet Communism. In 1949, eleven accused Communists were brought before a New York jury for abusing the Smith Act of 1940, which prohibited conspiring to teach the violent overthrow of the government. The eleven Communist leaders were convicted and sentenced to prison.
In 1950, Alger Hiss, formerly an employee of the Department of State, was convicted of perjury. Born in November 11, 1904, he grew up shabby-genteel in Baltimore, Maryland. Lean and boyishly handsome, Hiss was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and of Harvard Law School and was a law clerk to the Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter and later a clerk for Associate justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1933, he worked for law firms in Boston and on Wall Street, joined Roosevelt¡¦s administration, and worked in several areas, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Nye Committee, the Justice Department, and, starting in 1936, the State Department.
In the summer of 1944 he was a staff member at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which created the blueprint for the organization that became the United Nations. By 1945, he was an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference as well as to Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill. Later that year, Hiss served as acting the temporary secretary general at the San Francisco assembly that created the United Nations. In 1947, John Foster Dulles, Chairman of the board of Trustees of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asked Hiss to become that organization¡¦s president.
Hiss was more than a bright young bureaucrat. While working by day on Wall Street, he was active by night in the International Juridical Association, an alleged communist-front lawyers¡¦ organization. As early as 1942, the Federal Bureau of Investigations received warnings that Hiss was probably a Soviet agent. The stories became so persistent that late in 1946 officials at State quietly arranged for him to assume the largely ceremonial presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1946 he was elected president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a position he had held until 1949.
In the same year, Whittaker Chambers reluctantly appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. This House, ran by Nixon, regulated the ¡§loyalty¡¨ of Americans toward the United States. Chambers, a portly rumpled man with a melodramatic style, had been a communist self-professed courier for a Communist underground apparatus. He told the committee that among the members of a secret communist cell in Washington during the 1930¡¦s was Hiss. To a dwindling band of zealous believers, Hiss was one of the first victims of an anti-Communist hysteria. Yet, the weight of historical evidence indicated that Hiss was what he persistently denied ever being a member of the communist underground and a Soviet spy. The fact of this intriguing case was his profile that was seemed at odds with the conventional idea of a filthy traitor.
Hiss¡¦s accuser seemed to be his complete opposite. Whittaker Chambers was the product of a stormy and difficult marriage, and he grew up to be a loner.
While at Columbia University, he showed literary talent but was forced to leave after writing a blasphemous play. He soon lost his job at the New York Public Library when he was accused of stealing books. Chambers joined the communist Party in 1925, later claiming he thought, ¡§Communism would save a dying world.¡¨[Smith, 245] He worked briefly for the Communist newspaper Daily Worker, and then the New Masses, a Communist literary monthly. In 1932 Chambers entered the Communist underground and began gathering information for his Soviet bosses. Finally, he deserted Communism and became an enthusiastic Christian and anti-Communist. Chambers started working as a brilliant but controversial senior editor for TIME magazine in 1939.
Following the signing of the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR in August of 1939, Chambers approached Assistant Secretary of State, Adolf Berle, and told him about ¡§fellow travelers¡¨ in the government, including Hiss. Chambers recounted his Communist activities to the FBI in several interviews during the early 1940s, but little took place. As the Cold War chilled, Communist infiltration of the government became a serious issue for both Republicans and Democrats. Because the Democrats were in the White House, the Republicans eagerly took the chance to bash the Democrats for being soft on Communism.
Summoned as a witness, Hiss denied that he had ever been a communist or had known Chambers, a former Communist Party member. In August of 1948, before a congressional committee, he identified Alger Hiss as a fellow member of the same communist spy ring in Washington, DC, before World War II. Hiss learned about Chambers¡¦ testimony from newspaper reporters concerning the committee¡¦s ambitions to seek Communists leaders. He appeared before the committee and read from a prepared statement. ¡§I am not and have never been a member of the Communist Party, ¡§[Hiss, 61] he said. Hiss also denied knowing Whittaker Chambers. ¡§So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like the opportunity to do so.¡¨[Hiss, 64] When he was shown a picture of Chambers, he responded, ¡§If this is a picture of Mr. Chambers, he is not particularly unusual looking. He looks like a lot of people. I might even mistake him for the Chairman of this committee.¡¨ [Hiss, 65] When Chambers repeated the charge publicly, away from the House committee chamber where his words were protected by the congressional immunity, Hiss sued him for slander.
For a while, it appeared that Hiss had cleared his name. But Richard Nixon, who had been told of suspicions about Hiss long before Chamber¡¦s committee appearance, was not satisfied for this court rule. He argued that even if the committee could not prove Hiss was a Communist, it should investigate whether he ever knew Chambers. Nixon convinced the other members to assign him head of a subcommittee to examine further.
On August 7, a session was held at New York City. Chambers provided information about Hiss¡¦s wife, Priscilla, who was also a Communist. He described the homes the Hisses occupied and the old Ford and Plymouth automobiles that they had owned. Chambers said that Hiss persisted on donating the Ford for the use of the Communist Part even with the security risk. However, his information wasn¡¦t completely accurate. He described Alger Hiss as shorter than he actually was. He wrongly maintained that Hiss was deaf in one ear. Nevertheless, he also provided information that showed he knew them rather well.
When Nixon arranged a secret meeting of the two men in a New York City¡¦s Commodore Hotel room on August 17, Chambers repeated his charges with more information, and Hiss repeated his denial. After staring at the accuser for a bit longer, Hiss agreed that he might have briefly known Chambers in 1934 as a free-lance journalist instead under the alias, George Crosley. It was very contradicting considering that only a close friend could have known Chambers as Crosley, which was the pen name he had used while working for the underground in the 1920¡¦s. When asked about the Ford, Hiss claimed that he had given it to Crosley. Hiss also said ¡§Crosley had once given him an oriental rug in payment of rent.¡¨[Hiss, 146], but Chambers would later claim, ¡§the rug was one of the four he had given to ¡§friends¡¨ of the Communist people.¡¨[Hiss, 146]
The next confrontation was public, held in a congressional hearing room in Washington eight days later. The packed conference room was jammed with spectators, radio broadcasters, and cameramen, which gave the case an extravaganza atmosphere. Nixon and the committee turned up openly hostile to Hiss. In his earlier statements, Chambers denied being involved with espionage. His contacts in Washington took action only to control government policy, not to challenge it, he had said. It was the same story he had told the Justice Department grand jury. But when facing pretrial examinations for the vilification suit, he changed his story. Chambers told his lawyers that he could produce evidence that Hiss had given government documents to him. Chambers believed he had saved some documents in case he needed to protect himself from retribution. ¡§He sealed the documents in an envelope and gave them to his wife¡¦s nephew, Nathan Levine. Levine hid the envelope in his parents¡¦ Brooklyn home,¡¨ [Levitt, 239] Chambers remarked.
Chambers subsequently produced sixty-five confidential pages of State Department documents typed by Hiss¡¦s typewriter, along with four memos handwritten by Hiss, two strips of developed microfilm, and several pages of handwritten notes. These were all dated from the early months of 1938. Later, on December 6, 1948, the House committee released sworn testimony by Chambers that Hiss had provided him with certain classified State Department papers for transmission to a Soviet agent. With two House Un-American Activities Committee aides as witnesses, Chambers radically dug up several rolls of microfilm he had hidden in a pumpkin patch on his Maryland farm allegedly known to the federal agents as the ¡§Pumpkin papers.¡¨ They contained confidential State Department documents. All this material, Chambers said, had been given to him by Hiss to pass along to the Soviets. Nixon received a shock when an official at Eastman Kodak said the film stock dated from 1945, meaning that ¡§Chambers had lied when he said he hidden the film in 1938.¡¨ [Levitt, 245] Immediately, Nixon phoned Chambers and angrily insisted for an explanation.
In a federal grand-jury investigation of the case, both Chambers and Hiss testified. Hiss claimed the materials were either fakes or had come from someone else. Hiss was indicted on December 15 on two charges of perjury, particularly charging that Hiss lied two times. He was accused of lying when he had said that he never gave State Department or other government documents to Chambers. The second was when he testified that he had had no contact with Chambers after January 1, 1937. There were no espionage charges because the three-year act of limitations had expired.
Because the law of limitations on espionage had run out, Hiss was charged with perjury in the trial at the Federal Building in New York City, 1949. His first trial lasting for about six weeks ended in a hung jury. The prosecution emphasized the documents as ¡§uncontradicted facts.¡¨ Chambers said that Hiss took the documents home from his office so his wife could type the copies. Hiss then returned the originals to his office and gave him the copies. Chambers had the copies photographed for his Soviet handlers. Alger Hiss¡¦s defense focused on his reputation including a university president, some notable diplomats and judges. Nonetheless, his defense pictured Chambers as an insane liar who could have acquired the microfilmed documents through many different channels.
Capitalizing upon the resulting uproar, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin charged that Hiss had a list of about 57 men loyal to Communism still in the State Department in February 1950. However, a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could not find even one, but McCarthy continued on to other sensational charges. He proved utterly unable to substantiate his accusation, and many Americans, including President Truman, began to fear that the Red-hunt was turning into a witch-hunt. Hiss was found guilty at a second exhausting trial, which ended in early in 1950 and eventually served forty-four months at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
In 1950, Truman vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Bill, which had the power that authorized the President to arrest and detain suspicious persons during an internal security emergency.
Richard Nixon benefited from these trials because it made him have ¡§a touch of credibility.¡¨[Levitt, 304] His role in the Hiss case assisted him to secure a position in the Senate. Two years later Nixon became Dwight D. Eisenhower¡¦s vice president. Nixon would always consider the Hiss case a defining moment in his career and included it as ¡§the first six crises he described in his political memoir of the same name.¡¨[Levitt, 306] However, the Watergate Scandal in 1972 forced Nixon to resign the presidency. From this event, the fall gave some belief to a wide range of conspiracy theories involving fake typewriters, phony microfilms, and other counterfeit involvements.
After serving more than three years of a five-year prison sentence, Hiss was released in 1954 and returned to private life, still asserting his innocence. He worked as a stationery salesman after his release because he was barred as a felon from practicing law. He helped the loyalists who hunted new evidence that might overturn his conviction, which never happened. He attempted to have his case appealed. He petitioned the Supreme Court for a third time in 1978, but they had declined to hear his case of vulgar unfairness. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Court restored his right to practice law later in 1975. Alger Hiss died on November 15, 1996, at the age of 92. ¡§He was one of the century¡¦s longest-suffering victims.¡¨[Smith, 435] Still, a half-century after it started, the Alger Hiss Spy case remained a political isolating line.
Was Alger Hiss a Communist Spy?
By the year, 1948, Alger Hiss had a brilliant past and a seemingly brighter future. As a graduate of Harvard Law School, he became a former clerk to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He held several key positions in the New Deal administration, attended the historic Yalta Conference, helped to organize the United Nations Conference in San Francisco, and became the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a TIMES magazine editor, suspected that Hiss had given him State Department secrets which Chambers, in turn, passed to the Soviet Union. In conclusion of the investigations and trials that followed, involving Hiss¡¦s typewriter and microfilm hidden in a pumpkin, Hiss was found guilty of two counts of perjury and imprisoned for three years in a federal penitentiary with the help of Richard Nixon. For the rest of his life, he worked to justify himself in courts of law and in the court of public opinion. Fifty-two years had passed since the Alger Hiss trials, and yet, people still believe he was not a Communist spy.
First and foremost, if the courts had proved he was a Communist spy, then why would someone take such an effort to clear his name after he had experienced his punishment? Over the years, Hiss attempted to have his case appealed. He requested the Supreme Court for the third time in 1978, using the newly acquired government documents. He tried to declare total unfairness, but on October 11, 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court denied to hear his case. He presented his side of the story by writing a book after his release because he never stopped fighting to clear his name.
Finally, following the crumble of the Soviet Union and the closing stages of the Cold War, Hiss asked for any knowledge from Soviet sources to clear his name. In 1992, a Russian general in charge of Soviet Intelligence Archives declared that Hiss had never been a spy. He was rather a victim of Cold War hysteria and the McCarthy Red-hunting era, the era in which Americans took effort to exclude Communists from the nation. General Dmitry A. Volkogonov later said in his statement ¡§I had found evidence on Hiss in KGB files.¡¨[Smith, ii] However later in his statement, he said, ¡§I may not be able to speak for other Soviet intelligence agencies because many documents had been destroyed.¡¨[Smith, ii] Nevertheless, the interview with the Russian General did not explain that he had ever been a spy.
Because Russian Intelligence contained no evidence that he had ever been a spy, it truly means that he had never been a spy. The closest way to ever actually convict Hiss was from ¡§Venona,¡¨ a secret intelligence project. A single document referred to an agent code-named ¡§Ales,¡¨ a State Department official who had flow from the Yalta Conference to Moscow. They suggested that it was probably Alger Hiss. He had denied this name and issued his excuse. He said, ¡§I went to Moscow merely to see the subway system.¡¨[Hiss, 212] Not a single document proved the charge that he collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.
Friends, associates, and even he refuse to belief that Alger Hiss was a Communist spy because they know it was not true. Hiss died on November 15, 1995, at the age of 92. People still ask whether or not he was one of the country¡¦s longest suffering victims or one of the century¡¦s greatest liars.