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Alger Hiss, the son of a businessman, Charles Hiss, was born in Baltimore on 11th November, 1904. He had two sisters and two brothers: Anna (1893), Mary Anne (1895), Bosley (1900) and Donald (1906).
When he was only two years old, his father committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. Alger Hiss later wrote in Recollections of a Life (1988): "My father had been an executive of a large wholesale dry-goods firm, a man overwhelmed by financial and family worries. Suicide was a blow that was shameful as well as tragic for any family in those years, and mine reacted to the shame by silence. I did not know that my father had taken his own life until I was about ten years old and I overheard the remark of a neighbor sitting on her front steps talking with another neighbor." Hiss claimed that he had a happy childhood: "On the whole, however, my childhood memories are of a lively and cheerful household, full of the bustle of constant comings and goings. The shock of learning by accident of my father's suicide was lessened by the warm family spirit I remember so well."
After the death of Charles Hiss, Eliza Millemon Hiss (Aunt Lila), his father's unmarried middle sister, moved into the family home: "I was closer to her (Aunt Lila) than I was to my mother. This may have been partly due to my mother's being the family magistrate, although her severest punishment was a slap with a ruler on the palm of an extended hand. When I went to my mother for solace of a hurt, I was likely to receive a homily on how best to get on in the world. In contrast, Aunt Lila could be counted on for sympathetic understanding.... Aunt Lila wanted something different for us, something less worldly. She wanted us to share her love of literature, her respect for learning and morality."
The journalist, Murray Kempton, also lived in Baltimore at this time: "They lived near Lanville Street, which is the heart of shabby gentility in Baltimore. As he grew up, more substantial families around him were moving out into the suburbs. The Hisses stayed there in a neighborhood slowly running down. They were not a family of special social prestige, but the Baltimore in which Alger Hiss grew up had its own corner for the sort of family that... rested on that border between respectability and assured position. In the circumstances of her life, society felt a particular sympathy for Alger Hiss's mother."
In 1926 Alger Hiss suffered another family tragedy when his older brother, Bosley Hiss, died of Bright's disease: "I have long thought that Bosley was romantically elevated... within the family. His charm and precocious talents were enhanced and frozen by his lingering illness and early death... After his death, I heard for a number of years constant references... about his magnetism, wit, and scintillating bon mots deflating pompous and self-important people... He had a somewhat willful, romantic vanity that showed itself in scorn for complacency and hypocricy."
Hiss did very well at secondary school. His high school yearbook described him as "a witty, happy, optimistic person," whose "happy habits" made him "irresistible" to his contemporaries. One of his cousins said he had "an unusual genial and happy nature," and another relative commented that he "inherited... unselfishness, tolerance, and a broad outlook" from his father. It seems that he "hardly ever to have expressed... any hostility" towards "his surroundings or acquaintances".
Hiss was educated at John Hopkins University and Harvard Law School (1926-29), where he came under the influence of Felix Frankfurter. In his autobiography he pointed out: "Felix Frankfurter was far and away the most colorful and controversial member of the faculty.... He was always conspicuous, despite his small stature, as he moved about the campus. This was because as he bounced along - short, dynamic, articulate - he was invariably surrounded by a cluster of students. Frankfurter was always teaching, in class and out. His didactic style was challenging, even confrontational. He invited discussion and he reveled in sharp exchanges. These continued after class had ended. But Frankfurter was not popular with the majority of his students or his fellow faculty members. In both cases the reasons, I believe, were the same. Frankfurter was cocky, abrasive, and outspoken. His style was simply not theirs. In addition, Frankfurter was the leader of the liberal wing of the faculty. Most of his older colleagues were politically conservative, as were most of the students."
Frankfurter was also impressed with Hiss and arranged for him to work for the Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes. "Near the conclusion of my final year at Harvard Law School, I was surprised - indeed, overwhelmed - to receive a handwritten note from Justice Holmes. It informed me that on the recommendation of Felix Frankfurter, my favorite Harvard professor, the Justice had chosen me as his private secretary for the following year. Holmes wrote that if I were to accept I was to report to his house in Washington on the Friday before the first Monday in October (the fall term of the Supreme Court begins on that Monday). He added that because of his age - he was then eighty-eight - he must reserve the right to resign or die. This appointment was to me a much more important certification of my accomplishment as a law student than was the diploma iself. The opportunity to continue my legal education under the supervision of this eminent jurist was by far the greatest prize the law school could offer."
In 1929, Hiss's sister, Mary Ann, after a late-night argument with her husband, Elliot Emerson, a Boston stockbroker, had killed herself by swallowing a bottle of Lysol. Apparently they had been having financial problems and like her father, Emerson was facing bankrupcy. When he heard the news he described himself as "shocked and uncomprehending" and described it as a "sudden, irrational act."
Alger Hiss met Priscilla Fansler when he was only 19 on a trip to London. Although they exchanged addresses, she showed no particular interest in him. In 1926 she married Thayer Hobson. Later that year she gave birth to a son, Timothy. However, shortly afterwards they separated, and eventually, in January 1929, divorced. She then began a relationship with William Brown Meloney, who worked with her on Time Magazine, and was a married man. Priscilla became pregnant and hoped to marry Meloney. He rejected the idea and demanded that she had an abortion.
Meloney broke of his relationship with Priscilla. Soon afterwards she resumed her relationship with Alger Hiss. As G. Edward White, the author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004), has pointed out: "From her perspective, Alger Hiss may have seemed a more attractive prospect for marriage. He was holding down a very prestigious job, with a decent salary, and he was likely to have a bright future in the legal profession. His continuing to court her, after she had twice rebuffed him for other men, suggested that his attitude to her approached devotion. He had already shown himself to be gifted at helping people in distress. He was a prospective father for her son Timothy." Alger's mother apparently objected to the relationship and sent him a telegram on the day of the wedding, on 11th December, 1919, that warned, "Do Not Take This Fatal Step."
Susan Jacoby has argued in Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009) that the marriage was out of character: "The only unusual step Hiss took as a young man on the way up was his marriage to Priscilla Fansler Hobson, who had a young son by her first husband. Marrying a divorced woman in 1929 was not a move calculated to advance one's social or career prospects... The young attorney was also violating Justice Holmes's well-known rule that his secretaries remain unmarried in order to devote their full attention to him."
After leaving the employment of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hiss joined Choate, Hall & Stewart, a Boston law firm. "I took an apartment in Cambridge and went by subway to their offices on State Street... The advent of the Depression had already made a differeence in the mood and general atmosphere of Boston. Along with others who had been concerned only occasionally, and in a minor way, with social conditions, I became increasingly aware of the growing unemployment and economic malaise. One's responsibility for the worsened conditions of others became a recurring topic."
In 1931 Alger Hiss moved to New York City and joined the firm of Cotton, Franklin, Wright, and Gordon. His biographer, Denise Noe, pointed out: "As a young man, the slim, handsome, and dapper Alger impressed most people as self-confident and more than a few as arrogant. He appeared to have avoided the depression that afflicted other members of his family and achieved success at a young age."
Priscilla Hiss held left-wing opinions and in 1930 joined the Socialist Party of America. Her initial involvement consisted primarily of working at soup kitchens set up for unemployed people who lived in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She told her husband about "the growing breadlines and soup kitchens, the shanty towns in parks and vacant lots, the beggars that gave sharp reality to accounts of similar and even worse conditions throughout the country." Hiss later claimed: "I had concluded that the Depression was not a natural disaster; it had been avoidable. It was the result of decrepit social structures, of mismanagement and greed. The old order had for long years blocked needed reforms and by its blunders and corruption had precipitated the crash. Our nation, rich in resources and talent, would under vigorous new leadership undo the damage and enact reforms that would prevent future disasters."
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Alger Hiss had regular meetings with Felix Frankfurter and the two men discussed the political situation in the United States: "From his teaching and my own observations I had become convinced that only large-scale governmental activities could meet the demands of the Depression. I had begun to see the total inadequacy of private charitable activities, and I became acutely aware of the shallowness of my conventional concern for the welfare of others. Later, when I moved to New York City, I saw daily the growing breadlines and soup kitchens, the shanty towns in parks and vacant lots, the beggars along with men who masked their appeal for alms by 'selling' an apple. My continuous personal encounter with mounting misery gave sharp reality to accounts of similar and even worse conditions throughout the country."
In the 1932 Presidential Election Hiss supported Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Once Roosevelt's candidacy was announced, I was strongly attracted to his banner, but had no thought that I would do more to advance his cause than urge my friends to vote for him. Nonetheless, I had wanted to do something constructive in a private capacity, something that would help in a small way to set things right. That desire to participate led me to offer my legal skills to a small group of young and similarly motivated New York lawyers who had come together to issue a journal for labor lawyers and those representing hard-pressed farmers."
President Roosevelt appointed Henry A. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture. On 11th March, Wallace reported: "The farm leaders were unanimous in their opinion that the agricultural emergency calls for prompt and drastic action.... The farm groups agree that farm production must be adjusted to consumption, and favor the principles of the so-called domestic allotment plan as a means of reducing production and restoring buying power." The conference also called for emergency legislation granting Wallace extraordinarily broad authority to act, including power to control production, buy up surplus commodities, regulate marketing and production, and levy excise taxes to pay for it all.
John C. Culver and John C. Hyde, the authors of American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace (2001) have pointed out: "The sense of urgency was hardly theoretical. A true crisis was at hand. Across the Corn Belt, rebellion was being expressed in ever more violent terms. In the first two months of 1933, there were at least seventy-six instances in fifteen states of so-called penny auctions, in which mobs of farmers gathered at foreclosure sales and intimidated legitimate bidders into silence. One penny auction in Nebraska drew an astounding crowd of two thousand farmers. In Wisconsin farmers bent on stopping a farm sale were confronted by deputies armed with tear gas and machine guns. A lawyer representing the New York Life Insurance Company was dragged from the courthouse in Le Mars, Iowa, and the sheriff who tried to help him was roughed up by a mob."
A new agency, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was created to oversee programs designed to alleviate the economic plight of farmers. Felix Frankfurter arranged for Hiss to be offered a position working under Jerome Frank AAA's general counsel. This brought him into conflict with the head of the AAA, George N. Peek. It has been argued by John C. Culver that "Frank was liberal, brash, and Jewish. Peek loathed everything about him. In addition, Frank surrounded himself with idealistic left-wing lawyers... whom Peek also despised." This included Hiss, Adlai Stevenson, and Lee Pressman. Peek later wrote that the "place was crawling with... fanatic-like... socialists and internationalists."
Harold Ware, the son of Ella Reeve Bloor, was a member of the American Communist Party and a consultant to the AAA. Ware established a "discussion group" that included Alger Hiss, Nathaniel Weyl, Laurence Duggan, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Henry H. Collins, Lee Pressman and Victor Perlo. Ware was working very close with Joszef Peter, the "head of the underground section of the American Communist Party." It was claimed that Peter's design for the group of government agencies, to "influence policy at several levels" as their careers progressed".
Susan Jacoby, the author of Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009), has pointed out: "Hiss's Washington journey from the AAA, one of the most innovative agencies established at the outset of the New Deal, to the State Department, a bastion of traditionalism in spite of its New Deal component, could have been nothing more than the rising trajectory of a committed careerist. But it was also a trajectory well suited to the aims of Soviet espionage agents in the United States, who hoped to penetrate the more traditional government agencies, like the State, War, and Treasury Departments, with young New Dealers sympathetic to the Soviet Union (whether or not they were actually members of the Party). Chambers, among others, would testify that the eventual penetration of the government was the ultimate aim of a group initially overseen in Washington by Hal Ware, a Communist and the son of Mother Bloor... When members did succeed in moving up the government ladder, they were supposed to separate from the Ware organization, which was well known for its Marxist participants. Chambers was dispatched from New York by underground Party superiors to supervise and coordinate the transmission of information and to ride herd on underground Communists - Hiss among them - with government jobs."
Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the Ware Group: "The Washington apparatus to which I was attached led its own secret existence. But through me, and through others, it maintained direct and helpful connections with two underground apparatuses of the American Communist Party in Washington. One of these was the so-called Ware group, which takes its name from Harold Ware, the American Communist who was active in organizing it. In addition to the four members of this group (including himself) whom Lee Pressman has named under oath, there must have been some sixty or seventy others, though Pressman did not necessarily know them all; neither did I. All were dues-paying members of the Communist Party. Nearly all were employed in the United States Government, some in rather high positions, notably in the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, the National Labor Relations Board, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Railroad Retirement Board, the National Research Project - and others."
In 1934 Alger Hiss was appointed as chief counsel to the Munitions Investigating Committee that had been established by Gerald P. Nye. Hiss explained in Recollections of a Life (1988): "In the late summer of 1934, I took an additional job - that of counsel to the Senate Committee to Investigate the Munitions Industry. That committee, headed by Senator Gerald P. Nye, Republican of North Dakota, had asked the Agricultural Adjustment Administration for the loan of my services. The committee received strong support from two large sectors of the public. One group, which included almost all veterans, resented the profiteering associated with arms contracts. The other, especially strong in the Midwest, cherished the long-standing American isolationist sentiments."
Hiss admitted that: "Much of the New Deal's ardor was prompted by resentment of the corporate greed that had preceded and in part precipitated the Depression. Consequently, many of us New Dealers were sympathetic to the Nye Committee's populist fulminations against war profiteers.... The initial concentration on the questionable practices and the profits of aviation and shipbuilding concerns was followed by investigations of the Du Pont company and its relations with its foreign counterparts and other American businesses. The resulting hearings demonstrated cartel-like arrangements among firms like Vickers of Britain, Bofors of Sweden, Schneider-Creusot of France, and I. G. Farben of Germany."
Hiss involvement with the Munitions Investigating Committee made him especially interesting to Joszef Peter. In the course of its investigations of the munitions industry, Hiss would have access to correspondence that discussed military policies of the United States government. Peter asked Whittaker Chambers to come to Washington to oversee the formation of a special "parallel apparatus" whose members would report directly to the GPU, the Soviet agency in charge of military intelligence.
In 1936, Alger Hiss began working under Cordell Hull in the State Department. Alger was an assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis Bowes Sayre and then special assistant to the director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs. When Sayre went to the Philippines in late 1939 as United States High Commissioner. Hiss now became an assistant to Stanley Hornbeck, a special adviser to Hull on Far Eastern affairs.
Alger Hiss argues that like most of his colleagues he was shocked by the attack on Pearl Harbor: "Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor caught the State Department as completely by surprise as it did the naval and military personnel at the base itself. I arrived at the Department that Sunday afternoon to a scene of confusion and uncertainty. Like me, others had hurried from their homes on hearing the radio announcement. Knots of officials congregated in the corridors and discussed the astounding news. Succeeding reports from Hawaii were dismaying. The damage had been catastrophic. The Pacific fleet had been put out of action."
In 1944 he became an assistant to Leo Pasvolsky, the first head of the Office of Special Political Affairs. In this capacity he worked closely with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius in planning for the post-war world. "By 1943, the scales of war had tilted more and more in our favor. The State Department increased its emphasis on preparing terms for peace and formulating our postwar policies. I was transferred to the division engaged in postwar planning, including especially plans for the United Nations. I served as secretary of the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations in the summer of 1944."
In February, 1945, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met to discuss what would happen after the Second World War. The conference was held in Yalta on the north coast of the Black Sea in the Crimean peninsula. With Soviet troops in most of Eastern Europe, Stalin was in a strong negotiating position. Roosevelt and Churchill tried hard to restrict post-war influence in this area but the only concession they could obtain was a promise that free elections would be held in these countries. Alger Hiss attended the conference with his boss, Edward Stettinius.
Some of the British politicians who attended the Yalta Conference believed that Stalin achieved the most from the negotiations. For example, Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister, pointed out: "Roosevelt was, above all else, a consummate politician. Few men could see more clearly their immediate objective, or show greater artistry in obtaining it. As a price of these gifts, his long-range vision was not quite so sure. The President shared a widespread American suspicion of the British Empire as it had once been and, despite his knowledge of world affairs, he was always anxious to make it plain to Stalin that the United States was not 'ganging up' with Britain against Russia. The outcome of this was some confusion in Anglo-American relations which profited the Soviets. Roosevelt did not confine his dislike of colonialism to the British Empire alone, for it was a principle with him, not the less cherished for its possible advantages. He hoped that former colonial territories, once free of their masters, would become politically and economically dependent upon the United States, and had no fear that other powers might fill that role."
However, Alger Hiss disagreed with this analysis: "As I look back on the Yalta Conference after more than forty years, what stand out strikingly are the surprising geniality as host and the conciliatory attitude as negotiator of Joseph Stalin, a man we know to have been a vicious dictator. I am also reminded that in almost all of the analyses and criticism of the Yalta accords that I have read, I have not seen adequate recognition of the fact that it was we, the Americans, who sought commitments on the part of the Russians. Except for the Russian demand for reparations, coolly received by the United States, all the requests were ours. And, except for Poland, our requests were finally granted on our own terms. In agreeing to enter the war against Japan, Stalin asked for and was granted concessions of his own, but the initiative had been ours - we had urgently asked him to come to our aid."
Christopher Andrew, the author of The Mitrokhin Archive (1999), is an historian who believes that Joseph Stalin completely out-negotiated Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill: "The problem which occupied most time at Yalta was the future of Poland. Having already conceded Soviet dominance of Poland at Tehran, Roosevelt and Churchill made a belated attempt to secure the restoration of Polish parliamentary democracy and a guarantee of free elections. Both were outnegotiated by Stalin, assisted once again by a detailed knowledge of the cards in their hands. He knew, for example, what importance his allies attached to allowing some 'democratic' politicians into the puppet Polish provisional government already established by the Russians. On this point, after initial resistance, Stalin graciously conceded, knowing that the 'democrats' could subsequently he excluded. After first playing for time, Stalin gave way on other secondary issues, having underlined their importance, in order to preserve his allies' consent to the reality of a Soviet-dominated Poland. Watching Stalin in action at Yalta, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, thought him in a different league as a negotiator to Churchill and Roosevelt."
It has been argued by G. Edward White, the author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004) that Hiss himself had a profound impact on the conference. "Hiss's increased access to confidential sources, especially after he became an assistant to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, made it possible for him to funnel intelligence information of considerable value to the Soviets. For example, Hiss's placement, coupled with that of the British Soviet agent Donald Maclean, who held a high-level post in the British Embassy in Washington from 1944 to 1949, meant that Stalin had a firm grasp of the postwar goals of the United States and Great Britain before the Yalta Conference."
White points out that Hiss, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and other British-based Soviet agents in "providing a regular flow of classified intelligence or (confidential) documents in the run-up to (Yalta.)" A recently released KGB document dated March 1945 shows that the Soviets were very pleased with Hiss's contribution during the Yalta Conference: "Recently ALES (Hiss) and his whole group were awarded Soviet decorations. After the Yalta conference, when he had gone on to Moscow, a Soviet personage in a cry responsible position (ALES gave to understand that it was Comrade Vyshinsky, deputy foreign minister), allegedly got in touch with ALES and at the behest of the military NEIGHBOURS (GRU) passed oil to him their gratitude and so on."
Whittaker Chambers stopped being a Soviet spy in 1938. The following year he left the American Communist Party and joined Time Magazine. It soon became clear that Chambers was a strong anti-communist and this reflected the views of the owner of the magazine, Henry Luce, who arranged for him to be promoted to senior editor. Later that year he joined the group that determined editorial policy. Chambers wrote in his memoirs: "My debt and my gratitude to Time cannot be measured. At a critical moment, Time gave me back my life."
In 1939, Chambers met the journalist, Isaac Don Levine. Chambers told Levine that there was a communist cell in the United States government. Chambers recalled in his book, Witness (1952): "For years, he (Levine) has carried on against Communism a kind of private war which is also a public service. He is a skillful professional journalist and a notable ghost writer... From the first, Levine had urged me to take my story to the proper authorities. I had said no. I was extremely wary of Levine. I knew little or nothing about him, and the ex-Communist Party, but the natural prey of anyone who can turn his plight to his own purpose or profit."
In August 1939, Levine arranged for Chambers to meet Adolf Berle, one of the top aides to President Franklin D. He later wrote in Witness: "The Berles were having cocktails. It was my first glimpse of that somewhat beetle-like man with the mild, intelligent eyes (at Harvard his phenomenal memory had made him a child prodigy). He asked the inevitable question: If I were responsible for the funny words in Time. I said no. Then he asked, with a touch of crossness, if I were responsible for Time's rough handling of him. I was not aware that Time had handled him roughly. At supper, Mrs. Berle took swift stock of the two strange guests who had thus appeared so oddly at her board, and graciously bounced the conversational ball. She found that we shared a common interest in gardening. I learned that the Berles imported their flower seeds from England and that Mrs. Berle had even been able to grow the wild cardinal flower from seed. I glanced at my hosts and at Levine, thinking of the one cardinal flower that grew in the running brook in my boyhood. But I was also thinking that it would take more than modulated voices, graciousness and candle-light to save a world that prized those things."
After dinner Chambers told Berle about Alger Hiss being a spy for the Soviet Union. He also told him that Joszef Peter was "responsible for Washington Sector". He also identified the State and Treasury Departments as containing several underground members of the American Communist Party. This included Donald Hiss, Harold Ware, Nathan Witt and Julian Wadleigh. Chambers left the meeting with the impression that Berle was going to pass this information to Roosevelt. Although he did record his conversation with Chambers in a memorandum that suggested a prompt follow-up, nothing happened for several years.
According to Chambers, Berle reacted to the news about Hiss with the comment: "We may be in this war within forty-eight hours and we cannot go into it without clean services." John V. Fleming, has argued in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) Chambers had "confessed to Berle the existence of a Communist cell - he did not yet identify it as an espionage team - in Washington." Berle, who was in effect the president's Director of Homeland Security, raised the issue with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "who profanely dismissed it as nonsense."
In 1943 the FBI received a copy of Berle's memorandum. Whittaker Chambers was interviewed by the FBI but J. Edgar Hoover concluded, after being briefed on the interview, that Chambers had little specific information. However, this information was sent to the State Department security officials. One of them, Raymond Murphy, interviewed Chambers in March 1945 about these claims. Chambers now gave full details of Hiss's spying activities. A report was sent to the FBI and in May, 1945, they had another meeting with Chambers.
In August 1945, Elizabeth Bentley walked into an FBI office and announced that she was a former Soviet agent. In a statement she gave the names of several Soviet agents working for the government. This included Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie. Bentley also said that a man named "Hiss" in the State Department was working for Soviet military intelligence. In the margins of Bentley's comments about Hiss, someone at the FBI made a handwritten notation: "Alger Hiss".
The following month, Igor Guzenko, a clerk in the Soviet Embassy in Ottowa, defected to the Canadian authorities. He gave them a large number of documents detailing the existence of a large Soviet military intelligence network in Canada. Guzenko was also interviewed by the FBI. He told them that "the Soviets had an agent in the United States in May 1945 who was an assistant to the secretary of state, Edward R. Stettinius." Alger Hiss was Stettinius's assistant at the time."
The FBI sent a report on Hiss to the Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in November 1946. It concluded that Hiss was probably a Soviet agent. Hiss was interviewed by D.M. Ladd, the FBI's Assistant Director, and denied any associations with Communism. The State Department security officials restricted his access to confidential documents, and the FBI wiretapped his office and home phones.
Dean Acheson came under pressure to sack Hiss. Acheson refused to do this and instead contacted John Foster Dulles, who was on the board of directors of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dulles arranged for Hiss to become president of the organization. At first Hiss refused to go and said he would rather stay and answer his critics. However, Acheson insisted and suggested that "this is the kind of thing which rarely, if ever, gets cleared up."
On 3rd August, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He testified that he had been "a member of the Communist Party and a paid functionary of that party" but left after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. He explained how the Ware Group's "original purpose" was "not primarily espionage," but "the Communist infiltration of the American government." Chambers claimed his network of spies included Alger Hiss.
Chamber's accusations made headline news. Hiss immediately sent a telegram to John Parnell Thomas, HUAC's acting chairman: "I do not know Mr. Chambers, and, so far as I am aware, have never laid eyes on him. There is no basis for the statements about me made to your committee." Hiss asked for the opportunity to "appear... before your committee to make these statements formally and under oath." He also sent a copy of the telegram to John Foster Dulles.
On 5th August, 1948, Hiss appeared before the HUAC: "I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party. I do not and never have adhered to the tenets of the Communist Party. I am not and never have been a member of any Communist-front organization. I have never followed the Communist Party line, directly or indirectly. To the best of my knowledge, none of my friends is a Communist.... To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two representatives of the Federal Bureau of investigation asked me if I knew him... I said I did not know Chambers. So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like to have the opportunity to do so."
G. Edward White, the author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004) has pointed out: "By his categorical disassociation of himself from even the slightest connection with Communism or Communist-front activities, Hiss set in motion a narrative of his career that he would devote the rest of his life to telling and retelling. In that narrative Hiss was simply a young lawyer who had gone to Washington and became committed to the policies of the New Deal and international peace. His career had been a consistent effort to promote those ideals. He had never been a Communist, and those who were accusing him of being such were seeking to scapegoat him for partisan purposes. They were a pack of liars, and he was their intended victim."
Richard Nixon now joined in the controversy. He argued that "while it would be virtually impossible to prove that Hiss was or was not a Communist... the HUAC... should be able to establish by corroborative testimony whether or not the two men knew each other." Nixon now became the head of a subcommittee to pursue the inquiry of Alger Hiss. HUAC called Hiss back for an executive session in New York City. This time he admitted that he did know Whittaker Chambers but at the time he used the name George Crosley. He also agreed with Chambers's testimony that he had rented him an apartment but denied that he was ever a member of the American Communist Party. Hiss added: "May I say for the record at this point that I would like to invite Mr. Whittaker Chambers to make those same statements out of the presence of the committee, without their being privileged for suit for libel. I challenge you to do it, and I hope you will do it damned quickly."
On 17th August, 1948, Chambers repeated his claim that "Alger Hiss was a communist and may be now." He added, "I do not think Mr. Hiss will sue me for slander or libel." At first Hiss hesitated but he realised that if he did not sue Chambers he would be considered guilty of being a communist. After lengthy discussions with several lawyers, Hiss filed a suit against Chambers on 27th September, 1948.
On 15th December, 1948, the grand jury asked Alger Hiss whether he had known Whittaker Chambers after 1936, and whether he had passed copies of any stolen government documents to Chambers. As he had done previously, Hiss answered no to both questions. The grand jury then indicted him on two counts of perjury. The New York Times reported that he "appeared solemn, anxious, and unhappy" with a grim and worried look". It added that to "observers it seemed obvious that he had not expected to be indicted".
The trial began in May 1949. Hiss later recalled in Recollections of a Life (1988): "Running the gauntlet of the press was, in a sense, a more wearing ordeal than the trials themselves. Inside the courtroom, I not only had the support of my lawyers, but about half of those who daily filled the courtroom were friends or evident sympathizers. But almost every morning as my wife and I left the door of our apartment house at Eighth Street and University Place, unaccompanied by supporters, we were besieged by reporters and often photographers. New York then had several more newspapers than it does now and all the papers and the wire services covered the trials. Dutiful lawyer to the core, I answered no questions, pointing out as politely as possible that it would be inappropriate for me to comment while the case was still in progress. Likewise, I also would not stop to pose for photographers, although they were of course free to take shots as we walked along. In consequence, we were often a public spectacle, Priscilla and I walking resolutely along with photographers walking backward a few paces ahead of us."
The trial began in May 1949. The first piece of evidence concerned a car purchased by Chambers for $486.75 from a Randallstown car dealer on 23rd November, 1937. Chambers claimed that Hiss had given him $400 to buy the car. The prosecution was able to show that on 19th November Hiss had withdrawn $400 from his bank account. Hiss claimed that this was to buy furniture for a new house. But the Hisses had not signed a lease on any house at that time, and could produce no receipts for the furniture.
The main evidence that the prosecution produced consisted of sixty-five pages of re-typed State Department documents, plus four notes in Hiss's handwriting summarizing the contents of State Department cables. Chambers claimed Alger Hiss had given them to him in 1938 and that Priscilla Hiss had retyped them on the Hisses' Woodstock typewriter. Hiss initially denied writing the note, but experts confirmed it was his handwriting. The FBI was also able to show that the documents had been typed on Hiss's typewriter.
In the first trial Thomas Murphy stated that if the jury did not believe Chambers, the government had no case, and, at the end, four jurors remained unconvinced that Chambers had been telling the truth about how he had obtained the typed copies of documents. They thought that somehow Chambers had gained access to Hiss's typewriter and copied the documents. The first trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.
The second trial began in November 1949. One of the main witnesses against Hiss in the second trial was Hede Massing. She claimed that at a dinner party in 1935 Hiss told her that he was attempting to recruit Noel Field, then an employee of the State Department, to his spy network. Whittaker Chambers claims in Witness (1952) that this was vital information against Hiss: "At the second Hiss trial, Hede Massing testified how Noel Field arranged a supper at his house, where Alger Hiss and she could meet and discuss which of them was to enlist him. Noel Field went to Hede Massing. But the Hisses continued to see Noel Field socially until he left the State Department to accept a position with the League of Nations at Geneva, Switzerland-a post that served him as a 'cover' for his underground work until he found an even better one as dispenser of Unitarian relief abroad."
Alger Hiss wrote in his autobiography, Recollections of a Life (1988): "Throughout the first trial and most of the second, I was confident of acquittal. But as the second trial wore on, I realized that it was no ordinary one. The entire jury of public opinion, all of those from whom my juries had been selected, had been tampered with. Richard Nixon, my unofficial prosecutor, seeking to build his career on getting a conviction in my case, had from the days of the congressional committee hearings constantly issued public statements and leaks to the press against me. There were moments when I was swept with gusts of anger at the prosecutor's bullying tactics with my witnesses and his devious insinuations in place of evidence - tactics that unfortunately are all too common in a prosecutor's bag of tricks... It was almost unbearable to hear the sneers of the prosecutor as he cross-examined my wife and other witnesses."
Hiss was unhappy with the way he was dealt with in court: "When it was my turn to be cross-examined, the ordeal was of a different sort. Here, court procedures are all weighted in favor of the questioner. The witness may not argue or explain. I was able only to answer directly and briefly, however weighted or hostile the question. My lawyer could object to improper questions, but at the risk of letting the jury get the impression that we were reluctant to have the subject explored. But I was at least not forced to remain mutely impassive, and I was confident that later my lawyer could correct false impressions which bullying cross-examination might leave. It was especially in those moments of provocation triggered by false insinuations that anger and fatigue were to be guarded against. I lost my temper at least once and immediately realized I had erred. The etiquette of the bull ring did not permit the tormented to show even annoyance. I sensed that the jury thought the prosecutor must have scored a point if I reacted so sharply."
The second jury found Hiss guilty of two counts of perjury and on 25th January, 1950, he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The Secretary of State Dean Acheson, was asked later that day about the Hiss trial. He replied: "Mr. Hiss's case is before the courts, and I think it would be highly improper for me to discuss the legal aspects of the case, or the evidence, or anything to do with the case. I take it the purpose of your question was to bring something other than that out of me... I should like to make it clear to you that whatever the outcome of any appeal which Mr. Hiss or his lawyers may take in this case, I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss. I think every person who has known Alger Hiss, or has served with him at any time, has upon his conscience the very serious task of deciding what his attitude is, and what his conduct should be. That must be done by each person, in the light of his own standards and his own principles... My friendship is not easily given, and not easily withdrawn."
Alger Hiss's appeal was unanimously denied and on 22nd March, 1951, he was sent to a maximum security federal facility in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. "Often while I was at Lewisburg, and since, I have remarked upon the similarities between prison and the army. Both institutions are designed to control large numbers of men. Both supply food, clothing, and shelter for large groups. Both must organize the activities of their charges and provide some recreation to balance the workload. Most important of all, both must impose strict discipline in order to ensure that these functions are carried out. An essential element in the successful implementation of discipline by each institution is the process of depersonalization. Privacy disappears; there is no individuality of dress; food and activities are as uniform as the clothing. At Lewisburg we marched in columns of twos to meals and to movies."
Alger Hiss gave free legal advice to Frank Costello and other Mafia figures. This gave him protection from anti-Communist inmates. On 27th November, 1954, William Remington was murdered by two inmates, George McCoy and Lewis Cagle. Remington, like Hiss, was serving a sentence for perjury in connection with alleged spying for Soviets. Apparently, a similar plot was attempted against Hiss but he was protected by his criminal friends.
Hiss taught several prisoners to read and write. G. Edward White, the author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004), has pointed out: "Hiss... was an instinctive and habitual altruist. He liked helping people in need, even if the help imposed burdens on him. Caring about, and helping others, reinforced his sense of his own powers." Hiss actually told his son, Tony Hiss: "I like people when they are in trouble. Then they have to like you, and you can feel powerful by helping them." Even his great enemy, Whittaker Chambers, spoke of his "great gentleness and sweetness of character".
The journalist, Murray Kempton, says that Hiss was very popular in Lewisburg: "Hiss as an inmate was kind; he was helpful; he was indeed a comrade you could ask to hide your contraband and know he'd never either use it himself or hand it over to the guard." Meyer Zeligs claims that when Hiss was released from prison on 27th November, 1954, "there were rousing cheers from the bleak prison windows".
Alger Hiss lost his license to practice law and his fear that "informal blackballing" would make it difficult for him to obtaining employment. As Alger later pointed out, that "Priscilla wanted us to flee the scenes of her torment. She suggested we change our names and try to get posts as teachers at some remote experimental school oblivious to public opinion." Hiss disagreed and wanted as much publicity as possible to show the world he had not given government secrets to the Soviets. As part of this campaign he published his memoirs, In the Court of Public Opinion (1957).
In 1957 Fred J. Cook was asked by Carey McWilliams, the editor of the Nation Magazine, to look into the Alger Hiss case. Cook replied: "My God, no, Carey. I think he's as guilty as hell. I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole." Two weeks later McWilliams contacted Hiss again. "Look, I have a proposition to make you. I know how you feel about the case, but I've talked to a lot of people who I trust. They say if anybody looked hard at the evidence they'd have a different opinion. You're known as a fact man. Will you do this for me? No obligation. Will you at least look at the facts?"
Cook agreed and he later recalled that he changed his mind on the case after he examined the testimony of Whittaker Chambers. He later recalled: "Well, here was a guy who committed perjury so many times - admittedly so. I didn't see how anybody could trust anything he said. The typing process as he described it didn't make sense. Why would the Hisses spend all that time typing the documents when they supposedly had a whole system set up to photograph them? It was like that with the whole damn thing. When you looked at the government's case, it didn't make any sense down the line, anywhere. One after another as the arguments against Hiss fell apart, I realized I had been brainwashed by my own profession. Until then, I thought that if the story against him was generally accepted, then it had to be true. I should have known better, but I didn't."
Cook's article on Alger Hiss was published in Nation Magazine on 21st September, 1957. He argued that Hiss was a victim of McCarthyism and was not guilty of the accusations made by Whittaker Chambers who had accused Hiss of being a Soviet spy while working for the State Department. Hiss later commented: "It was the times. There was this great wave of hysteria about the great Russian communist menace, and I think the jury was susceptible to that. A lot of average people were. When you have an hysteria like that built in and bastards like Joe McCarthy are beating the drums, it affects the average person. They figure when there's smoke, there has to be fire."
Cook argued that both the FBI and HUAC had political reasons for victimizing Hiss. He also suggested that the FBI would have had the resources to build a typewriter with a typeface that appeared to match that of the Hiss family. Hiss, Cook concluded, might have been "an American Dreyfus, framed at the highest level of justice for political advantage". Cook's book on the case, The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss, appeared in 1958.
In 1958 Priscilla Hiss asked her husband to leave the family home. Alger spent "the next several years in rented rooms and friend's apartments". However, when he became involved with another woman in the 1960s she refused to divorce him. Tony Hiss has pointed out that his mother "alternated between cursing Al for leaving and making plans for what she'd do after he came back."
In 1971, the historian, Allen Weinstein, wrote an article where he argued that he was not convinced that Hiss was guilty, but doubted whether Hiss could be proven innocent given the evidence about the case that had thus far been made public. He suggested that a definitive understanding of the case would not be possible without the release of "the executive files of HUAC," "the relevant FBI records," and "the grand jury records." Weinstein contacted Hiss and he agreed for him to have access to his defense files. In 1972 he supported Weinstein's Freedom of Information suit to obtain FBI and Justice Department files on the case.
In the early 1970s Hiss was busy giving lectures at universities on his innocence. In 1972 the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged the ruling that made any government employee convicted of perjury in a case involving national security ineligible for a pension. The decision resulted in Hiss receiving 11 years' worth of back payments of his pension. In 1975 Hiss had his license to practice law in Massachusetts reinstated.
The journalist, John Chabot Smith published Algar Hiss: The True Story in 1976. In the book he argued that Hiss had been framed by Whittaker Chambers, who had typed the copies of the stolen documents himself. Smith claimed that in the spring of 1935 Chambers stayed at Hiss's "empty apartment" when it was "still full of its owner's furniture." Smith suggested that this included the Woodstock typewriter and therefore enabled him to use it to type up the stolen government documents."
William A. Reuben was probably Alger Hiss's greatest supporter. In 1974 he started his own campaign to persuade the FBI to release all the files on the Hiss case. David Remnick claimed that he had "devoted much of his adult life to vindicating Alger Hiss and clearing the Rosenbergs". Victor Navasky described Reuben as "to the left of Alger and just about everyone else" among Hiss's supporters, and suggested that if he had heard that on his deathbed Hiss had confessed to being a Communist and Soviet agent, he "wouldn't believe it."
In April 1976, the journalist, Philip Nobile, published an article on Alger Hiss in Harper's Magazine. He argued the prosecution's failure "to link Hiss to the actual typing of the documents" and "the lack of any witness supporting Chambers's party association with Hiss," Nobile felt, "troubled many open minds." Hiss told Nobile "the same old story of an unsound informer, forgery by typewriter, ruthless enemies of the New Deal, anti-Communist hysteria, and a poisoned jury." Nobile asked: "Why would he be peddling this tired line of defense... if it weren't true."
Nobile contacted 104 well-known individuals and asked them if they considered Hiss guilty or not guilty. Those who voted guilty were Sidney Hook, William F. Buckley, Clare Booth Luce, Dwight McDonald, Norman Podhoretz, John S. Service and Gary Wills. Those voting "not guilty" included Gus Hall, Abe Fortas, Lillian Hellman, Carey McWilliams, Arthur Miller, Victor Navasky and Robert Sherrill.
Allen Weinstein began his investigation of Alger Hiss with the belief that he was innocent. Hiss agreed to cooperate with Weinstein in his attempts to obtain information from the FBI. As Weinstein pointed out: "Given the fact that I published an article which had argued for his innocence, and given the fact that... my premise was that he seemed to be innocent. Why not cooperate fully with me? I expected to be finding evidence that would help clear him."
The FBI refused to disclose these documents and so Weinstein concentrated on investigating Hiss's defense files. He discovered that his lawyer in the first perjury trial, Edward McLean (Debevoise, Plimpton and McLean) had doubts about his innocence. McLean believed that Priscilla Hiss was probably a Soviet spy and that Hiss was "at the very least, Alger was shielding Priscilla Hiss". His lawyers were concerned that he had originally lied about her membership of the Socialist Party of America. They were also convinced that she was fairly close to Whittaker Chambers. In February, 1950, Mclean withdrew from the case. William Marbury (Marbury, Miller and Evans) was also highly skeptical of Priscilla's evidence. Marbury was interviewed by Weinstein in 1974: "He (Marbury) had begun to have some very serious questions about the completeness of Hiss's account."
Weinstein also interviewed Meyer Schapiro, a close friend of Chambers (he had died in 1961). He confirmed that Chambers had a close association with Hiss. He was also with Chambers when he purchased a rug for Hiss in December 1936. Hiss had claimed that he had broken off his relationship with Chambers in 1935. Weinstein checked with the Massachusetts Importing Company that had sold the rug to Chambers and they agreed that the transaction took place in 1936.
After a legal struggle the FBI began releasing files on the Hiss case in October 1975. In February 1976 Weinstein told the New Republic that the files showed no evidence of an FBI conspiracy, only that the FBI had occasionally been inept or incompetent. Other documents released included the transcript of an interview with William Edward Crane, a FBI informant and a member of Chambers's network. He confirmed much of what Chambers had said about Hiss. Weinstein told the New York Times that "a preliminary look (at the declassified files) fails to bear out the most commonly raised conspiracy claims" against the FBI.
Allen Weinstein met Hiss in March 1976. He told him: "When I began working on this book four years ago, I thought that I would be able to demonstrate your innocence, but unfortunately, I have to tell you, that I cannot; that my assumption was wrong... I had a number of unresolved questions about Whittaker Chambers's testimony when I began. Even then I wasn't convinced that either of you had told the complete truth. I thought, however, that you had been far more truthful than Chambers. But after interviewing scores of people, looking at the FBI files, finding new evidence in private hands, and reading all of your defense files, every important question that had existed in my mind about Chambers's veracity on key points arose, and... none of them have been answered satisfactorily." Hiss replied: "I've always known you were prejudiced against me."
Weinstein's book, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, was published in the spring of 1978. Victor Navasky, the editor of Nation, made a bitter attack on Weinstein: "Whatever his original motives and aspirations, Professor Weinstein is now an embattled partisan, hopelessly mired in the perspective of one side, his narrative obfuscatory, his interpretations improbable, his omissions strategic, his vocabulary manipulative, his standards double, his corroborations circular and suspect, his reporting astonishingly erratic.... His conversion from scholar to partisan, along with a rhetoric and methodology that confuse his beliefs with his data, make it impossible for the non specialist to render an honest verdict in the case."
Alexander Cockburn published an article in Village Voice on 28th May, 1979, where he reported that Samuel Krieger had successfully sued Weinstein over his allegations in his book that he was a fugitive from arrest for a murder. "Weinstein's scholarship and research procedures have been plainly damaged by the whole Krieger affair." Weinstein argued that Chambers had recruited Samuel Krieger (alias Clarence Miller) into the American Communist Party. He then went onto say that Clarence Miller had escaped from jail in North Carolina in 1929 and became a fugitive in the Soviet Union. He wrote: "Krieger became an important Communist organizer during the Gastonia textile strike of 1929. After being jailed by local authorities, Krieger and several other union leaders fled to the Soviet Union." What the author did not know was that there were two communists using the name "Clarence Miller". It was the other one who fled to the Soviet Union. Krieger had admitted to being a Communist organizer but had been misidentified as a fugitive."
Alger Hiss had been separated from Priscilla Hiss since 1958. In the early 1960s he began living with Isabel Johnson. She was a long-time socialist and had been romantically involved with Howard Fast and was married to screenwriter Lester Cole, one of the Hollywood 10. Alger's son, Tony Hiss, described her as "a tall, good-looking blonde".
Priscilla refused to divorce her husband but on her death in 1984 Alger married Isabel. They moved to a house in East Hampton, on Long Island. She joined his campaign to have his conviction overturned and helped him write Recollections of a Life (1988). In 1986 when David Remnick interviewed Hiss for a feature story in the Washington Post Magazine, she "would say a quick hello" to him she "would not be interviewed or photographed."
In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the individual republics contained within it faced the prospect of becoming autonomous governmental units. The largest of these republics, Russia, seized the property of the former Soviet government, including the archives of the Communist Party. The following year Hiss wrote a letter to several Russian officials, seeking information about himself in former Soviet archives. In the letter he stated that he was 88 years old and wanted to die peacefully, and he asked for evidence that would confirm that he was "never a paid, contracted agent for the Soviet Union." He also told them he was sending his representative, John Lowenthal, to Moscow in a few weeks time.
Lowenthal met with General Dmitri A. Volkogonov, a Soviet official historian, in September 1992. Volkogonov arranged for Yevgeny Primakov, the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Agency, to search KGB archives. The following month Volkogonov presented Lowenthal with a letter stating that after examining "a great amount of materials... we have not found a single document... that substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence sources of the Soviet Union... Hiss... had never and nowhere been recruited as an agent of the intelligence services of the USSR and was never a spy of the Soviet Union." Volkogonov added: "The fact that Hiss was convicted in the 1950s was a result of either false information or judicial error... You can tell Alger Hiss that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart."
This letter from Volkogonov made headline news in the United States. Hiss told the New York Times: "It's what I've been fighting for 44 years... I think this is a final verdict on the thing. I can't imagine a more authoritative source than the files of the old Soviet Union". He told the newspaper that he "rationally, I realized time was running out, and that the correction of Chambers's charges might not come about in my lifetime... but inside I was sure somehow I would be vindicated." Hiss also gave an interview to the Washington Post and used the opportunity to attack J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI at the time: "J. Edgar Hoover acted with malice trying to please various people who were engineering the Cold War."
However, Volkogonov came under attack from some leading experts on the KGB. The historian, Richard Pipes, pointed out that "there are a lot of things Volkogonov might not have seen... There are archives within archives... to say that that there was no evidence in any of the archives... was not very responsible." Alexander Dallin of Stanford University took a similar view, pointing out that "given the labyrinthine nature of the Soviet bureaucracy and the sensitivity of military and foreign intelligence operations... Volkogonov might have unknowingly overstated his findings."
Dmitri A. Volkogonov gave an interview in a Moscow newspaper in November 1992 that admitted that he had looked for only two days in the KGB archives for material on Alger Hiss. He pointed out that "what I saw gives no basis to claim a full clarification". Volkogonov went on to say that John Lowenthal had "pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced" and that he was aware that Hiss "wanted to die peacefully".
In the early 1990s several American academics were given access to KGB files. This included Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes. Their book, The Secret World of American Communism was published in 1995. The book was a collection of 92 documents from the 1930s and 1940s, with commentary by the authors. The documents consisted of communications between members of the American Communist Party and officials in Moscow. The authors argued that these documents conclusively demonstrated that the party's actions and policies were being directed by Joseph Stalin.
Klehr and Haynes were unable to find Hiss's name on any documents, they did find plenty of evidence to support the testimony of Whittaker Chambers. This included the information that Joszef Peter was the controller of the American Communist Party's secret apparatus between 1932 and 1938. In his book, Witness (1952), Chambers had argued: "The Soviet espionage apparatus in Washington also maintained constant contact with the national underground of the American Communist Party in the person of its chief. He was a Hungarian Communist who had been a minor official in the Hungarian Soviet Government of Bela Kun. He was in the United States illegally and was known variously as J. Peters, Alexander Stevens, Isidore Boorstein, Mr. Silver, etc. His real name was Alexander Goldberger and he had studied law at the university of Debrecen in Hungary."
Tony Hiss has claimed that by 1995 Alger Hiss's body was "almost completely worn out" making him "a prisoner of his own physical frailties." In March 1996, Hiss was distressed when the newspapers carried stories of a cable that that had been sent by Anatoli Gromov, on 30th March, 1945, had been intercepted by the National Security Agency (NSA). Gromov was the controller of Washington-based NKVD agents. The cable included details of a conversation that had taken place between Iskhak Akhmerov and an agent with the codename Ales. The cable claimed that Ales had worked for the Neighbors (GPU) since 1935 and that he had been to the Yalta Conference and afterwards visited Moscow. An analyst at the NSA had written on 8th August, 1969, that Ales was "probably Alger Hiss".
Eric Breindel, writing in the Wall Street Journal, described the cable as "the smoking gun in the Hiss case". He went on to argue: Folks who refuse to recognize this document's implications, are likely to be the sort who would insist on Mr. Hiss's innocence even if he confessed." Hiss was contacted by journalists but he was too ill to be interviewed. However, his son Tony, denied his father was "Ales" and had only spent a brief time in Moscow after the Yalta Conference.
Alger Hiss died on 15th November, 1996. Evan Thomas, writing in Newsweek, suggested that Hiss "probably was a Soviet spy" and that in protesting his innocence he "was just a very good spy, deceitful to the end." However, some commentators, such as Peter Jennings on ABC News, had concentrated on the early statements of Dmitri A. Volkogonov, claiming that he had been vindicated by the Russians. Robert Novak pointed out that Volkogonov had retracted his statement and referred to a "deep-seated reluctance within the American liberal establishment to acknowledge that Hiss was a liar, spy, and traitor."
George Will, writing in the Washington Post, denounced Hiss and his supporters: "Alger Hiss spent 44 months in prison and then his remaining 42 years in the dungeon of his grotesque fidelity to the fiction of his innocence. The costs of his unconditional surrender to the totalitarian temptation was steep for his supporters. Clinging to their belief in martyrdom in order to preserve their belief in their "progressive" virtue, they were drawn into an intellectual corruption that hastened the moral bankruptcy of the American left."
In 1999 Allen Weinstein published The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America. He had spent several years examining the KGB archives and came across a considerable amount of material that showed Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. This included a memorandum sent by Hede Massing, a Soviet spy based in New York City, to Moscow. It concerned her attempts to recruit Noel Field. According to Massing's report he had been recently approached by Alger Hiss just before he left to attend a conference in London: "Alger Hiss (she used his real name because she was unaware of his codename) let him know that he was a Communist, that he was connected with an organization working for the Soviet Union and that he knew Ernst (Field) also had connections but he was afraid they were not solid enough, and probably, his knowledge was being used in a wrong way. Then he directly proposed that Ernst give him an account of the London conference."
Hede Massing continued in the memorandum how another spy in the network, Laurence Duggan, was being involved: "In the next couple of days, after having thought it over, Alger said that he no longer insisted on the report. But he wanted Ernst to talk to Larry and Helen (Duggan) about him and let them know who he was and give him (Alger Hiss) access to them. Ernst again mentioned that he had contacted Helen and Larry. However, Alger insisted that he talk to them again, which Ernst ended up doing. Ernst talked to Larry about Alger and, of course, about having told him 'about the current situation' and that 'their main task at the time was to defend the Soviet Union' and that 'they both needed to use their favorable positions to help in this respect.' Larry became upset and frightened, and announced that he needed some time before he would make that final step; he still hoped to do his normal job, he wanted to reorganize his department, try to achieve some results in that area, etc. Evidently, according to Ernst, he did not make any promises, nor did he encourage Alger in any sort of activity, but politely stepped back. Alger asked Ernst several other questions; for example, what kind of personality he had, and if Ernst would like to contact him. He also asked Ernst to help him to get to the State Department. Apparently, Ernst satisfied this request. When I pointed out to Ernst his terrible discipline and the danger he put himself into by connecting these three people, he did not seem to understand it."
In a review of Weinstein's book, Thomas Powers argued: "Much additional evidence about Hiss's involvement with the Soviets has turned up since the voluminous and explicit claims by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley in the 1940s, claims which no serious scholar of the subject any longer dismisses... while the excesses of McCarthyism may be fairly described as a witch hunt, it was a witch hunt with witches, some in government.... What Whittaker Chambers had claimed was true, and it was convincingly and obviously true by the time Hiss went to jail for perjury. Hiss's denial, and his persistence in it for decades, and his support in it by so many otherwise smart people, was one of the great intellectual contortion acts of history. The evidence now... is simply overwhelming."
Powers went on to ask the question: "What continues to astonish and bewilder me now is why Hiss lied for fifty years about his service in a cause so important to him that he was willing to betray his country for it. The faith itself is no problem to explain: hundreds of people shared it enough to do the same thing, and thousands more shared it who were never put to the test by a demand for secrets. But why did Hiss persist in the lie personally? Why did he allow his friends and family to go on carrying the awful burden of that lie?"
G. Edward White, the author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004), attempts to answer this difficult question: "Alger Hiss can no longer be seen as a figure of ambiguity. This is so even though his psychological makeup was highly complex, and his motivation resists easy characterization. The ambiguity associated with Hiss was created by his regularly asserting things about himself and his life that were not true, and by others - for their own ideological reasons and because of Hiss's extraordinarily convincing persona - choosing to believe them.... In short, many Americans found qualities in Hiss they could identify with or admire. And many found qualities in Hiss's antagonists that, retrospectively, they found distasteful. The anti-Communism of the Cold War era appeared to many as simple-minded and repressive. Richard Nixon demonstrated that becoming president of the United States did not divest a person of mean-spiritedness and a lack of principles. J. Edgar Hoover's carefully constructed image as a virtuous G-man came apart under closer scrutiny. When one totaled up Hiss's favorable associations and the notoriety of his enemies, his continued professions of innocence took on to some an air of nobility."
As with the vivid color differences of my initial recollections, the separate roles of Aunt Lila and my mother were always clear. There was no confusion as to their household functions. My mother was in charge. Lila was her assistant, an assistant whose help was pretty much limited to being a companion for the children.
My father had been an executive of a large wholesale dry-goods firm, a man overwhelmed by financial and family worries. I did not know that my father had taken his own life until I was about ten years old and I overheard the remark of a neighbor sitting on her front steps talking with another neighbor. As my younger brother and I passed by, we heard her say, "Those are the children of the suicide."
Donald and I had been shielded from the shameful act; there was not even a hint of a family secret. The solicitude of relatives and friends for my immediate family was demonstrated in part by their reticence. The tragedy that had overwhelmed the household had been relegated to the sphere of nonexistence. Consequently, I was angered by the callous remark that I believed to be false and insulting. It remains one of my most painful and indelible memories.
On the whole, however, my childhood memories are of a lively and cheerful household, full of the bustle of constant comings and goings. The shock of learning by accident of my father's suicide was lessened by the warm family spirit I remember so well. Donald and I went immediately to Bosley, as our confidant. We wanted to protect our mother from the ugly remark, for we of course accepted the then prevailing view of suicide. But, to our consternation, Bosley did not share our disbelief and anger. Instead, like the journalist he later became, he went to the offices of the Baltimore Sun and examined old copies of the paper. He then solemnly confirmed the report we had so vigorously rejected.
I recognized that my mother and the other adults in my life had known of the suicide, but somehow I did not feel resentment at having been kept in the dark. Once I had learned the adult secret, I joined in the family policy of silence. I must have felt that if my mother wouldn't talk to me about it, neither should I talk about it within the family. It was years before I mentioned my father's suicide to anyone but Donald, and even we spoke of it rarely.
I certainly never broached the subject to Aunt Lila, though in many ways I was closer to her than I was to my mother. In contrast, Aunt Lila could be counted on for sympathetic understanding. My mother's fortitude in adversity was magnificent, but she was not cut out for the role of confidante. My father had left her our house and a modest income, which she used to raise and educate us all. One of her duties, she felt, was to prepare us for our role in life. Conventional in her values, she was ambitious for our success in a material sense.
Aunt Lila wanted something different for us, something less worldly. She wanted us to share her love of literature, her respect for learning and morality. But she was not preachy, so that her wishes were never just words of advice. I felt I had an ally in her, if a silent one, when I resisted my mother's favorite admonition: "Put your best foot forward." Long before I read Henry James, I was suspicious of the bitch goddess Success. And in retrospect, I can see that Aunt Lila's persistent commitment to things of the spirit gave a nice balance to my mother's emphasis on the importance of life's practical demands.
My clearest recollections of Aunt Lila are of her reading aloud to us. She began this practice before I was old enough to be an orderly member of her audience. This was a carryover of a familiar nineteenth-century American custom. She read in a clear, conversational tone. Yet her readings were a performance, a festive occasion, and perhaps it was here that my lifelong love of the theater began. Lila's audience often included friends of my older siblings and sometimes adults. When the girls went away to college, we boys continued to receive the rich benefits of Aunt Lila's reading and other literate gifts.
The Hisses were not a distinguished family run down. in his final tragedy, his friends and enemies would join in exaggerating the nobility of his origins. When disaster came to him, he was listed in the Washington Social Register, but his mother was not in its Baltimore edition.
Alger Hiss's father was a wholesale grocer; he committed suicide when Alger was nine. His older brother was a bohemian who died young. They lived near Lanville Street, which is the heart of shabby gentility in Baltimore. In the circumstances of her life, society felt a particular sympathy for Alger Hiss's mother.... In a family like this one.... it was better to be a boy than a girl, if only because Baltimore needed more boys than girls at debutante
Alger Hiss was born in 1904, the fourth of five children in an upper-middle-class Presbyterian family in Baltimore. The Hiss family was financially comfortable but emotionally troubled. When Alger was only two years old, his father committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. When Alger was 25, his sister Mary Ann committed suicide by drinking a household cleanser. Hiss’s older brother Bosley, died when he was in his early twenties of Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder aggravated by Bosley’s overindulgence in alcohol.
As a young man, the slim, handsome, and dapper Alger impressed most people as self-confident and more than a few as arrogant. He appeared to have avoided the depression that afflicted other members of his family and achieved success at a young age. Hiss graduated from John Hopkins University in 1926. While there, he shone both academically and in extracurricular activities. He was a Phi Beta Kappa, a cadet commander in ROTC, and was voted “most popular student” by his graduating class.
When I was a student at the Harvard Law School, from September 1926 until June 1929, Felix Frankfurter was far and away the most colorful and controversial member of the faculty. Brilliant and irrepressible, he was much more than a campus figure. His innumerable close friendships with leaders all over the country and abroad had already made him a man of national prominence by the time I was his student.
He was always conspicuous, despite his small stature, as he moved about the campus. This was because as he bounced along-short, dynamic, articulate - he was invariably surrounded by a cluster of students. These continued after class had ended.
But Frankfurter was not popular with the majority of his students or his fellow faculty members. In both cases the reasons, I believe, were the same.
Frankfurter was cocky, abrasive, and outspoken. Most of his older colleagues were politically conservative, as were most of the students.
The great legal scholar Dean John H. Wigmore of the Chicago Law School was among Frankfurter's opponents in the dispute over the Sacco and Vanzetti case, calling Frankfurter with distaste a "plausible pundit" - fighting words in the mannerly decorum of academia in those days. A stout civil libertarian, Frankfurter was a vigorous champion of the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, right up to their execution in the summer of 1927 and afterward. He participated actively in groups formed to aid them, and he spoke and wrote tirelessly in their behalf. Frankfurter and those who shared his views were shocked at what they considered glaring errors in the conduct of the trial by the prosecutor-errors uncorrected, and indeed compounded, by the judge. Prejudice had run high against the defendants as Italians and as anarchists, and Frankfurter was outraged by instances where prejudice affected the conduct of the case. It raised questions about the fairness of Massachusetts justice, polarized opinions in that state, and aroused strong feeling throughout the nation and the western world.
Frankfurter's prominence in the Sacco-Vanzetti case made him a marked man in Boston, an object of bitter hostility on the part of the conservatives. It brought him into sharp conflict with the president of his own university, A. Lawrence Lowell, who served on the Massachusetts commission that recommended against clemency. The executions did not put a stop to Frankfurter's charges of a gross miscarriage of justice, or to the rancor aroused by the case. Wherever Frankfurter went, he attracted attention. During intermissions at Symphony Hall, where Boston's prominent citizens gathered, he was both glared at and beamed upon as he bounced and bobbed through the crowded lobbies. He seemed to enjoy the notoriety.
At the same time that Frankfurter's fearless championing of Sacco and Vanzetti made him a target of conservatives, it won him national acclaim from liberals as a defender of civil liberties. His stand was thoroughly consistent with his political views in general. He tended to speak with almost ribald disapproval of those he considered the reactionaries in our society, including judge Webster Thayer, who had presided at the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and had expressed his prejudices against them to a golfing companion. Such people, Frankfurter would say impishly, regarded themselves as men of importance but were really closer to being "the scum of society." He would utter such comments only at home with friends, but he never attempted to disguise his views in class, either.
Harvard Law School's traditional method of teaching involves sharp, incisive, even sarcastic questioning. While the technique often causes embarrassment or humiliation for the students, the practice, at least in my day, was generally accepted as a helpful means of sharpening their wits, teaching them to think and speak precisely when challenged. Frankfurter's obvious enjoyment of this form of verbal fencing made many of his students feel that he was displaying personal hostility, engaging in unfair ridicule. I didn't take any of his large lecture courses, so I can't personally assess those complaints. But I can well imagine Frankfurter being carried away by his showman's gifts and a large audience.
Frankfurter was a dedicated teacher, generous with his time, sympathetic to the aspirations of youth. I think his unpopularity with many students was based less on his teaching style than on his political views.
We students in his small seminars had full opportunity to benefit from his remarkable personality. His energy, his vitality electrified the room from the moment he came in. Yet his manner with us was gentle. Usually in high good spirits, he would from time to time explode into laughter or into an outburst of friendly remonstrance if one of us said something he found ludicrously or perversely incorrect. He was as demanding of us for accuracy as he was reputed to be of the men in his large classes, but with us there was no hint of ridicule.
In the two seminars I took with him, our subjects were the federal courts and administrative tribunals. They were fields he had made his special domain. In another's hands, the material might have been dustily technical. Felix, as we students spoke of him to one another, had the love of his subject, and the ability to impart it, that marks the true teacher. He venerated "the rule of law" and passionately strove for its evenhanded administration. He knew personally, or knew all about, the judges and commissioners whose rulings we examined. He was understanding of the pressures they faced, but when they failed to exemplify the high standards he set, he was stern in disapproval.
His emphasis on practical realities, including the human factors, made the courses seem like internships.
Frankfurter's enthusiasm for high-principled federal service was infectious. Many of us who were his students at Harvard later responded to the New Deal's need for lawyers, and he presided proudly over our recruitment into federal service.
Near the conclusion of my final year at Harvard Law School, I was surprised-indeed, overwhelmed-to receive a handwritten note from Justice Holmes. He added that because of his age - he was then eighty-eight-he must reserve the right to resign or die. The opportunity to continue my legal education under the supervision of this eminent jurist was by far the greatest prize the law school could offer.
Holmes had had a new secretary annually since his appointment by President Theodore Roosevelt to the Supreme Court in 1902. As Holmes and his wife were childless, the secretaries had played a special role in the justice's life, in some ways serving as surrogate sons. I was the first of them, however, to be permitted to read aloud to him. That privilege enabled me to have a considerably closer personal relationship with the justice than the post itself called for and also brought about that special bonus that I would otherwise have missed in my year of service with him: I became privy to the existence of the justice's Black Book, his most personal record of his legal and general reading and the nearest thing to a diary that he kept. After his death, his executor, John Palfrey, had facsimile copies made of the Black Book and sent one to each of his secretaries, with the appropriate stipulation that none of us permit publication or duplication of it. The original is kept with the Holmes papers at the Harvard Law School Library, where it is available for examination by scholars.
I had had no previous hint of any possibility that I might spend a year with the great justice. He was the revered and beloved idol of students and faculty. I had not even known how his secretaries were chosen. Frankfurter, who had become my friend as well as my teacher, had with proper delicacy not mentioned his role as the selector of secretaries for both Holmes and Justice Louis D. Brandeis, much less that he had chosen me. No other honor or piece of good fortune has been such a source of delight for me as was that enchanted year I spent with Holmes beginning in October 1929. And no other relationship has had a deeper or more lasting influence.
Later that October, I was attending the performance of some now forgotten play. At intermission, I witnessed a number of men hurrying up the aisles and to the exits, leaving their companions behind. In the lobby, there was an air of agitation, and a great many men were waiting impatiently in lines that had formed at the few public telephones. Others dashed out to the sidewalk. Only when I saw the next day's newspaper did I realize that I had witnessed the herald of the Great Depression in the stock market crash of October 24. The anxious men must have been trying to reach their brokers in attempts to salvage something from the margin accounts that were a feature of the prosperous late 1920s and their constantly rising bull markets. The news made little impression on me at the time, because I was completely preoccupied with a wholly different world.
I recall a talk that Frankfurter gave to an assortment of businessmen and bankers who were among Boston's leading citizens. He pleaded with them to make larger contributions to private charities for the benefit of the unemployed and others in financial difficulty. He intimated that this would be a means of forestalling social unrest with its consequent threats to their persons and properties. I found myself, somewhat presumptuously, believing that Frankfurter should have gone beyond a call for personal generosity. From his teaching and my own observations I had become convinced that only large-scale governmental activities could meet the demands of the Depression. I had begun to see the total inadequacy of private charitable activities, and I became acutely aware of the shallowness of my conventional concern for the welfare of others.
Later, when I moved to New York City, I saw daily the growing breadlines and soup kitchens, the shanty towns in parks and vacant lots, the beggars along with men who masked their appeal for alms by "selling" an apple. My continuous personal encounter with mounting misery gave sharp reality to accounts of similar and even worse conditions throughout the country.
Once Roosevelt's candidacy was announced, I was strongly attracted to his banner, but had no thought that I would do more to advance his cause than urge my friends to vote for him. That desire to participate led me to offer my legal skills to a small group of young and similarly motivated New York lawyers who had come together to issue a journal for labor lawyers and those representing hard-pressed farmers. The group had assumed a rather grandiose title: The International Juridical Association-the choice of the word "International" no doubt to make clear the more than American extent of the Depression. As I recollect, though, our efforts were limited to examination of domestic decisions.
We reasoned that most lawyers engaged in helping those severely hurt by the Depression would be hard put to undertake extensive research on their own. Therefore, we could supply a needed service. Like the others in the group, I contributed some of my free time to reading the latest court decisions in order to find current precedents that would be of use to those we wished to serve. By personal choice and because of my boyhood summers on an uncle's farm in Maryland, I became responsible for reading the decisions that dealt with agricultural issues.
The part-time research-my initiation to pro bono Publico work that is part of a lawyer's social responsibility-was a step in my growing acceptance of political commitment. The cases I read for the journal in 1932, which would not otherwise have come to my attention, made me realize how little access the victims of the Depression had to legal services and how little geared to their needs our legal system was. I learned that social justice also required political reform.
My work on the little journal likewise gave me a sense of identification with members of organized groups like labor unions and farm associations, who by joint efforts and with concrete social and political programs were actively trying to help themselves weather the Depression. Here was a sizable constituency urging reforms and prepared to support political action to gain them. Without realizing it, I was already indirectly in touch with the grass roots of the New Deal.
By the time of Roosevelt's victory that November, I had become totally convinced that he was bound to succeed in the urgent task of relief and reform. I had concluded that the Depression was not a natural disaster; it had been avoidable. Our nation, rich in resources and talent, would under vigorous new leadership undo the damage and enact reforms that would prevent future disasters. My optimism was plainly shared by great numbers of those supporting Roosevelt; that in turn bolstered mine. Here was the emergence of a cohesive political force. This was not the fictive public of cartoonists and editorial writers. I was conscious of a feeling of kinship with a host of like-minded fellow citizens. The feeling was exhilarating and new to me.
My acceptance of a political commitment in response to Roosevelt's assumption of office represented the final major change in my social and political attitude. At the time, I did not sort out the various changes in my thinking. But in retrospect I can see that there was a gradual progression.
My awareness of acute social needs demanded a shifting of perspective in my ethical outlook. I was no longer concerned with what convention expected from me. The focus became the needs of others as I saw them. Before, the essence of my posture was propriety - my living up to what was expected of me. This pharisaical position, possible in the 1920s, was no longer so when misery and suffering were the common lot of millions of Americans.
My desire to follow the directive in Frankfurter's telegram was therefore prompt and wholehearted. I was more ready for it than I had realized. Here again, as with my participation in the International Juridical Association, I found that the views I had so recently reached and my inclination to act on them were shared by others of my age with backgrounds quite like my own. But though I was thus not the only young lawyer who went to Washington that March of 1933, there were not all that many of us. We were entitled to think of ourselves - and we most certainly did - as a select few. I had this time taken a step or two in advance of the ranks of my generation, even of my close associates, though some of them came soon after.
The position offered me by Jerome Frank was to be one of his two assistant general counsels in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. That agency, created by the Agricultural Adjustment Act of May 12, 1933, was set up as an integral part of the Department of Agriculture. The act was one of the torrential series of major enactments that issued from Congress during the "Hundred Days."
Until the agency's administrative procedures were established, Jerome Frank and I and other AAA recruits worked without salary, preparing drafts of proposed legislation and working on proposed future projects. Our time was fully occupied by these tasks and by consultations with experts from the Department of Agriculture, who educated us about the details of the catastrophic agricultural situation. My boyhood farm experiences and my recent experience with the International Juridical Association made much of this tutoring familiar and all of it congenial.
Agricultural production had been expanded during World War I, often by the sowing of marginal land. Cessation of wartime demand soon led to surpluses of cotton, corn, and wheat - to mention only the basic crops. This in turn had brought low prices, lowered farm values, and made a heavy burden of mortgages taken out before the stock market crashed in October 1929. The protective tariff, the Smoot-Hawley Act, passed in 1930 in an attempt to reduce competition in the domestic market for a variety of industrial products, had made matters worse for farmers. By reducing U. S. imports, it also reduced foreign holdings of dollars for the purchase of American farm exports, thus increasing the glut at home and further driving down prices.
The main thrust of the AAA was to raise farm prices by reducing production. This was to be done by two programs: contracts between the government and farmers to reduce their crops, and agreements among food processors and wholesalers to restrict their output. My job was in the former area. I was in charge of the section, composed of about twenty-five lawyers, that drafted contracts for paying farmers to reduce their production. This meant that my fellow lawyers and I worked with the commodity experts within the Department of Agriculture and the AAA on provisions suitable for controlling the production of the individual crops. In this manner we ourselves became familiar with the details of land tenure and informed about the soil and climate conditions most beneficial for the basic agricultural products.
With the appropriate agricultural experts, we would then hammer out the separate provisions of the various types of contracts. Drafts of the contracts were also taken up with the Farm Extension representatives in the local areas where contracts would be sent for signature.
My responsibilities also included supervision of the Opinion Section, which, as its name suggests, was responsible for giving legal opinions as to the meaning and scope of authority permissible under the act we were administering.
Cotton was already in bloom when the act was passed. For this reason, the cotton contracts called for plowing under a proportion of the plants, while, with respect to most other crops, contracts became effective only for the succeeding year and provided for reduced planting. Because the glut in cotton was extensive and because of the importance of cotton to the entire South, the cotton "plow-up" program was by far the most significant of the AAA's early programs.
It was at the same time the most controversial. Destruction of useful products cut across the grain of popular sentiment at a time when those who were out of work found themselves short of necessities.
Some of the criticism of the cotton program relied on humor to make its point. Though a stubborn animal, the southern mule had been trained to walk delicately between the cotton rows at this time of year, pulling the cultivator to turn over the weeds. Soon it was reported that farmers found it difficult to persuade the mules to forget their training: The animals balked at having to trample the cotton plants as they dragged behind them the plows turning up the rows. When Paul Porter, one of my friends in the AAA, told of this item of mulish behavior in a public account of a trip he'd made in the South, it drew the jibe from critics that even a jackass knows better than to plow up cotton.
Those opposed to the AAA's programs also objected to the contract that called for the slaughter of pregnant sows and little pigs in order to raise hog prices. But hog prices did go up, as did cotton prices. So, in terms of the AAA's principal objectives, the result of these and other programs was gratifying. Farm prices in general rose, the morale of farmers improved, and we were on our way to the creation of a farm production control program, which, with increasing drawbacks, has lasted to this day.
For those of us who had come to the New Deal as social reformers, there were, however, some disturbing aspects of the AAA's cotton programs. Wheat, corn, and tobacco crops could be subjected to production controls with beneficial results to all who produced these crops. Cotton, by contrast, was still produced in the main on large plantations, which supported numbers of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Each contract normally covered a separate farm, and its benefit payment went to the owner. For cotton, it seemed to us liberals in the AAA that, instead of this practice, shares of the compensation payment should go directly to the tenant farmers and sharecroppers whose crops were actually turned under. The contract form we drafted so provided. However, some of the landlord-owners, whose relations with their tenants were highly paternalistic, almost feudal, thought that all payment checks should go first to them and that they should make the disbursements.
The contract provision brought me, a mere bureaucrat, the distinction of a personal call in my office from the formidable dean of conservative southern senators, "Cotton Ed" Smith, Democrat from South Carolina. He wanted to know why he shouldn't be trusted to pay out shares of benefit payments to his own "nigras." I replied that I did not make policy; the Senator would have to address himself to my superiors. They stood firm. And, fortunately, most cotton farmers found the payment provisions acceptable. The sign-up campaign was not adversely affected, and this conflict between long-established traditions and liberal principles was handily solved.
But as we began drafting the contract for the cotton crop that would be harvested in 1934, we were faced by the plight of tenants and croppers who would be idled by the reduction in acreage. The political power of the big plantation owners was too great for us to prevent evictions.
A different conflict of interest was raised for us by the marketing agreements that permitted processors and wholesalers to fix prices and limit output. On one occasion, Senator James Pope of Idaho, a Democrat, a model of propriety and a stalwart supporter of the New Deal, called Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace to say that some of the finest people in Idaho, large-scale pear growers, had complained to him that young lawyers of the AAA had been insisting on provisions in their marketing agreements that would be injurious to their interests. He told Wallace that he didn't want to bring pressure on the Secretary's independent judgment-he just wanted to pass along the information. On the following day, the Senator called again, now to say that a delegation of small growers had just paid him a visit. They had been delayed in reaching Washington because, for financial reasons, they had come east by car. They complained to him of the undue influence of the big growers and praised the efforts of AAA officials to protect the rights of the small fellow. Pope said he was washing his hands of the situation and leaving it entirely up to Wallace.
My chief colleagues in Jerome Frank's office and I were part of a legion of Young Turks who manned many of the legal jobs of the early New Deal. We were few enough in number and similar enough in backgrounds and beliefs to feel common bonds. We were a band of brothers-members of a citizens' militia in mufti, mustered to fight the ills of the Depression. As a matter of course we consulted one another on our official problems. Our mutual stimulation ensured group efforts that went beyond the sum of our individual talents and energies. Functioning in a novel national predicament, we were creating our own precedents. The latest solution of one legislative or litigative problem was shared as likely to be useful in the daily duties of our fellows. We came together at lunch or dinner or of an evening in informally assembled work teams to deal with common concerns or with assuring coordination or cooperation among our various bureaus. Plans to create a new agency-such as the national Labor Relations Board - quite naturally called forth a gathering of an ad hoc group to formulate a program, to draft legislation or regulations.
Hiss's Washington journey from the AAA, one of the most innovative agencies established at the outset of the New Deal, to the State Department, a bastion of traditionalism in spite of its New Deal component, could have been nothing more than the rising trajectory of a committed careerist. Chambers, among others, would testify that the eventual penetration of the government was the ultimate aim of a group initially overseen in Washington by Hal Ware, a Communist and the son of Mother Bloor, who had rejoiced in the "sentiment" that the Popular Front had engendered in the Party. Hiss, Chambers would testify, was a member of the Ware group. Chambers was dispatched from New York by underground Party superiors to supervise and coordinate the transmission of information and to ride herd on underground Communists-Hiss among them-with government jobs. A consistent theme of many of Hiss's defenders from the sixties on would be that Chambers had never been a Soviet spy-that his account of his secret life as an agent was as delusional as his claim of having been a close friend of Alger and Priscilla Hiss.
In the late summer of 1934, I took an additional job-that of counsel to the Senate Committee to Investigate the Munitions Industry. The other, especially strong in the Midwest, cherished the long-standing American isolationist sentiments.
In the early days of the Nye Committee, as the body soon became known, its emphasis was upon "taking the profits out of war." The theme was widely popular at the time, and the committee was given major press coverage. Hitler's bellicose statements following his accession to power, in January 1933, had stirred fears of war which brought with them demands for rearmament among Germany's neighbors. Military orders from abroad were attractive to Depression-ridden American manufacturers of airplanes and other products useful for war-making...
Much of the New Deal's ardor was prompted by resentment of the corporate greed that had preceded and in part precipitated the Depression. Consequently, many of us New Dealers were sympathetic to the Nye Committee's populist fulminations against war profiteers. Sympathy for the purposes of the committee no doubt played some part in my being lent to them, but the AAA had a more direct reason to assist the committee. Two of its members were also on the Senate Committee on Agriculture.
The presence on the Nye Committee of Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan no doubt also increased the willingness of the AAA to cooperate with the committee. Vandenberg was notable for his vigor and ability as a leading Republican member of the Senate. For my part, I found the subject matter to be of national importance, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to gain more experience in the preparation of factual briefs of evidence and the examination of witnesses...
The members of the committee were a diverse and interesting lot. Only Senator Warren Barbour, Republican of New Jersey, took little or no interest in the proceedings. In my few contacts with him I found him colorless. In this respect he was not only unlike his committee colleagues but also quite unlike his naturalist brother, Thomas, a personal friend of justice Holmes. I had met Thomas Barbour during the year I served with the justice and remembered vividly that he could always be counted on for extraordinary tales of adventure and misadventure - such as the one about the escape from its container of a large boa constrictor that he had smuggled aboard an overnight Pullman car.
The other members of the munitions committee were all men of prominence, and each was a distinct personality. Nye, the chairman, was a Midwest populist who was friendly, outgoing, and breezy in manner. For him, the committee's subject matter and its extensive public visibility were important political assets that he made the most of. He was the panel's customary spokesman and as such was usually accompanied by a reporter or two as he moved across the Capitol grounds, and a cluster of pressmen often besieged his office.
James P. Pope, Democrat of Idaho, was a large, gentle, and kindly man. Liberal in his political views, he was a staunch supporter of the New Deal and later became a member of the board of directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Homer Bone, Democrat of Washington, and like Pope a stalwart New Dealer, was a veteran of the political struggle for publicly owned power in the state of Washington. Like most New Deal advocates, Bone was no friend of big business. His espousal of the cause of public power had come about because, he said, large utilities were able to influence, if not control, regulating bodies set up to oversee their procedures and profits. "Who will regulate the regulators?" he was fond of asking in sessions with the committee staff when discussions turned to the possibility of wartime regulation to "take the profits out of war." Bone was intelligent, informed, and readily accessible to staff members. He later became a federal appellate judge.
The secretary of the Nye Committee was Stephen Raushenbush, an able and vigorous man with a long history of identification with liberal causes. Raushenbush was the chief intellectual force of the committee; he chose the topics to be covered and the companies and individuals to be investigated. He put together a small, hard-working staff some, like me, borrowed from the executive departments, and some who were volunteers (especially in the summer) from academia, including graduate students; still others were hired from the private sector as full-time staff members.
One of these latter, Robert Wohlforth, was Raushenbush's chief assistant. Wohlforth exemplified the youthfulness of most of us. Able and iconoclastic, he was hardly more than thirty but was sophisticated and fearless of the prestigious lawyers who usually confronted us when we questioned their clients.
The initial concentration on the questionable practices and the profits of aviation and shipbuilding concerns was followed by investigations of the Du Pont company and its relations with its foreign counterparts and other American businesses. Farben of Germany. But at one stage of its work the committee's main interest shifted to Du Pont's profits during World War I, particularly to the construction by the company of the Old Hickory plant for the manufacture of explosives. This factory was paid for by the government on the basis of contracts that called for the payment of the costs, plus a percentage of those costs as a fee to repay the company for its efforts. Contracts of this kind provided little incentive for keeping costs low - the higher the costs, the bigger the fee.
The productive sources, though few in number, occupied unusually high (or strategic) positions in the Government. The No.1 source in the State Department was Alger Hiss, who was then an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State, Francis Sayre, the son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson. The No. 2 source in the same Department was Henry Julian Wadleigh, an expert in the Trade Agreements Division, to which he had managed to have himself transferred from the Agriculture Department. He had done so at the request of the Communist Party (Wadleigh was one of the fellow travelers) for the purpose of espionage. The source in the Treasury Department was the late Harry Dexter White. White was then an assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau. Later White became an assistant secretary of the Treasury, at which time he was known to Elizabeth Bentley. The source in the Aberdeen Proving Ground was Vincent Reno, an able mathematician who was living at the Proving Ground while he worked on a top-secret bombsight. Under the name Lance Clark, Reno had been a Communist organizer in Montana shortly before he went to work on the bombsight. The active source in the Bureau of Standards I shall call Abel Gross.
Thus, the group of active sources included: one assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State; one assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury; a mathematician working on one of the top-secret military projects of that time; an expert in the Trade Agreements Division of the State Department; an employee in the Bureau of Standards. The contacts included: two employees in the State Department and a second man in the Bureau of Standards.
In addition, the apparatus claimed the services of the Research Director of the Railroad Retirement Board, Mr. Abraham George Silverman, whose chief business, and a very exacting and unthankful one too, was to keep Harry Dexter White in a buoyant and co-operative frame of mind. Silverman also passed on as "economic adviser and chief of analysis and plans, assistant chief of air staff, material and services, air forces," into Miss Bentley's apparatuses. I did not recruit any of these men into the Communist Party or its work. With one possible exception (the mathematician), all of them had been engaged in underground Communist activity before I went to Washington or met any of them.
The espionage production of these men was so great that two (and, at one time, three) apparatus photographers operated in Washington and Baltimore to microfilm the confidential Government documents, summaries of documents or original memoranda, that they turned over. Two permanent photographic workshops were set up, one in Washington and one in Baltimore. Furthermore, the apparatus was constantly seeking to expand its operation. One of the Communists in the State Department and Vincent Reno, the man in the Aberdeen Proving Ground, were late recruits to the apparatus. Most of the sources were career men. In Government they could expect to go as far as their abilities would take them, and their abilities were considerable.
It is hard to believe that a more highly placed, devoted and dangerous espionage group existed anywhere. Yet they had rivals even in the Soviet service. While trying to expand the secret apparatus, Alger Hiss, quite by chance, ran across the trail of another Soviet espionage apparatus. This was the group headed (in Washington) by Hede Massing, the former wife of Gerhardt Eisler, the Communist International's representative to the Communist Party, U.S.A. In this second apparatus was Noel Field, a highly placed employee of the West European Division of the State Department. Field, his wife, brother and adopted daughter all disappeared into Russian-controlled Europe during the Hiss Case, in which he was involved. Among the Massing apparatus' contacts was Noel Field's close friend, the late Laurence Duggan, who later became chief of the Latin-American Division of the State Department.
Moreover, the Washington apparatus to which I was assigned was only one wing of a larger apparatus. Another wing, also headed by Colonel Bykov, operated out of New York City, and was concerned chiefly with technical intelligence. It numbered among its active sources: the head of the experimental laboratory of a big steel company; a man strategically connected with a well-known arms company; and a former ballistics expert in the War Department. Presumably there were others. I learned the identities of these sources from an underground Communist known by the pseudonyms of "Keith" and "Pete." Keith had been Colonel Bykov's contact man with them. Later he became one of the photographers for the Washington apparatus. Incidentally, he has on all material points corroborated my testimony about him, about our joint activities, and the technical sources.
There were no doubt other apparatuses of the G.P.U. and the Fourth Section in Washington, of which I knew nothing. Behind this multiplying of organizations is what Communists call "the principle of parallel apparatuses." This is a swollen way of saying that a variety of self-contained underground apparatuses, ignorant of one another's existence, operate side by side for more or less the same purpose. For the Russians are great believers in bulk. They are not highly selective, and they mass their apparatuses in about the same way that they mass their artillery.
The Washington apparatus to which I was attached led its own secret existence. One of these was the so-called "Ware group," which takes its name from Harold Ware, the American Communist who was active in organizing it. Nearly all were employed in the United States Government, some in rather high positions, notably in the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, the National Labor Relations Board, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Railroad Retirement Board, the National Research Project - and others.
Hiss's increased access to confidential sources, especially after he became an assistant to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, made it possible for him to funnel intelligence information of considerable value to the Soviets. For example, Hiss's placement, coupled with that of the British Soviet agent Donald Maclean, who held a high-level post in the British Embassy in Washington from 1944 to 1949, meant that Stalin had a firm grasp of the postwar goals of the United States and Great Britain before the Yalta Conference. A recent study, in highlighting Soviet intelligence success in the 1940s, singled out the contributions of Hiss, Maclean, and other British-based Soviet agents in "providing a regular flow of classified intelligence or (confidential) documents in the run-up to (Yalta.)" "Some sense of how Moscow felt that good intelligence had contributed to Stalin's success at Yalta," the study concluded, "is conveyed by Moscow's congratulations to Hiss." The reference was to a secret meeting in Moscow, just after the Yalta Conference, at which Hiss was personally thanked for his efforts by Deputy Soviet Premier Andrei Vyshinki.
Although there is clear evidence that Maclean and Hiss knew each other comparatively well, and were in a position to consult with one another publicly about postwar planning measures involving the Soviets, Hiss regularly denied any memory of even having met Maclean.
Hiss's access to information also meant that the Soviets could use him to learn a good deal about prospective United States policy toward the Far East, because Hiss had been privy to internal deliberations about postwar goals in that region as an adviser to Hornbeck. In addition, State Department records show that Hiss, when affiliated with the Office of Special Political Affairs, had made requests for confidential information from the Office of Strategic Services on postwar atomic energy policy and the internal security of Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union. In this period Hiss had the sponsorship, within the State Department, of Hornbeck, Pasvolsky, Stettinius, and Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
Yalta was to prove an even bigger success for Soviet intelligence than Tehran. This time both the British and the American delegations, housed respectively in the ornate Vorontsov and Livadia palaces, were successfully bugged.
The mostly female personnel used to record and transcribe their private conversations were selected and transported to the Crimea in great secrecy. Not till they arrived at Yalta did they discover the jobs that had been assigned to them. The NKGB sought, with some success, to distract both delegations from its surveillance of them by lavish and attentive hospitality, personally supervised by a massive NKGB general, Sergei Nikiforovich Kruglov. When Churchill's daughter, Sarah, casually mentioned that lemon went well with caviar, a lemon tree appeared, as if by magic, in the Vorontsov orangery. At the next Allied conference, in Potsdam, General Kruglov was rewarded with a KBE, thus becoming the only Soviet intelligence officer to receive an honorary knighthood.
Stalin was even better informed about his allies at Yalta than he had been at Tehran. All of the Cambridge Five, no longer suspected of being double agents, provided a regular flow of classified intelligence or Foreign Office documents in the run-up to the conference, though it is not possible to identify which of these documents were communicated to Stalin personally. Alger Hiss actually succeeded in becoming a member of the American delegation. The problem which occupied most time at Yalta was the future of Poland. He knew, for example, what importance his allies attached to allowing some `democratic' politicians into the puppet Polish provisional government already established by the Russians. On this point, after initial resistance, Stalin graciously conceded, knowing that the `democrats' could Subsequently he excluded. Watching Stalin in action at Yalta, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, thought him in a different league as a negotiator to Churchill and Roosevelt: "He is a great man, and shows up very impressively against the background of the other two ageing statesmen." Roosevelt, in rapidly failing health and with only two months to live, struck Cadogan, by contrast, as "very woolly and wobbly".
Roosevelt and Churchill left Yalta with no sense that thcy had been deceived about Stalin's true intenrions. Even Churchill, hitherto more sceptical than Roosevelt, wrote confidently, "Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I'm wrong about Stalin." Some sense of how Moscow felt that good intelligence had contributed to Stalin's success at Yalta is conveyed by its congratulations to Hiss.
Recently ALES (Hiss) and his whole group were awarded Soviet decorations. After the Yalta conference, when he had gone on to Moscow, a Soviet personage in a cry responsible position (ALES gave to understand that it was Comrade Vyshinsky, deputy foreign minister), allegedly got in touch with ALES and at the behest of the military NEIGHBOURS (GRU) passed oil to him their gratitude and so on.
I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party. To the best of my knowledge, none of my friends is a Communist....
To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two representatives of the Federal Bureau of investigation asked me if I knew him... So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like to have the opportunity to do so.
By his categorical disassociation of himself from even the slightest connection with Communism or Communist-front activities, Hiss set in motion a narrative of his career that he would devote the rest of his life to telling and retelling. They were a pack of liars, and he was their intended victim.
Richard Nixon: As of course, Mr. Hiss, you are aware, the committee has a very difficult problem in regard to the testimony which has been submitted to the committee by Mr. Chambers and by yourself. As you have probably noted from the press accounts of the hearings, Whittaker Chambers during the period that he alleges that he knew you was not known by the name of Whittaker Chambers. He has testified that he was known by the name of Carl. Do you recall having known an individual between the years 1934 and 1937 whose name was Carl?
Alger Hiss: I do not recall anyone by the name of Carl that could remotely be connected with the kind of testimony Mr. Chambers has given.
Richard Nixon: I am now showing you two pictures of Mr. Whittaker Chambers, also known as Carl, who testified that he knew you between the years 1934-37, and that he saw you in 1939. I ask you know, after looking at those pictures, if you can remember that person either as Whittaker Chambers or as Carl or as any other individual you have met.
Alger Hiss: May I recall to the committee the testimony I gave in the public session when I was shown another photograph of Mr. Whittaker Chambers, and I had prior to taking the stand tried to get as many newspapers that had photographs of Mr. Chambers as I could. I testified then that I could not swear that I had never seen the man whose picture was shown me. Actually the face has a certain familiarity. I think I also testified to that.
Chambers had been shown to be inaccurate about almost every detail of his personal life, from when and how he left Columbia University and the New York Public Library to how he made a living, to whether his mother worked, to when he got married and how old his brother was when he committed suicide. More important, he had contradicted his earlier testimony given to the Committee on numerous crucial subjects, from when he joined and left the Communist Party and how long he was in it, to whether he had known Harold Ware, to how and where he first met Alger Hiss. Since he had testified under oath in both instances, it was clear that either he had willfully perjured himself or that he was a man incapable of differentiating truth from fiction.
However, there was one important thing he had remained consistent about, as he had been for the last nine years: he still maintained that whatever he and Hiss did in the underground, espionage was not part of their activities. "Alger Hiss didn't do anything of this character," Chambers said near the close of his examination on November 5. "I never obtained documents from him."
Throughout the first trial and most of the second, I was confident of acquittal. Richard Nixon, my unofficial prosecutor, seeking to build his career on getting a conviction in my case, had from the days of the congressional committee hearings constantly issued public statements and leaks to the press against me.
There were moments when I was swept with gusts of anger at the prosecutor's bullying tactics with my witnesses and his devious insinuations in place of evidence-tactics that unfortunately are all too common in a prosecutor's bag of tricks. But at the time, my optimism prevailed over my anger. The mood at Andre's was my usual one. Nevertheless, I felt that I was facing trial by ordeal in the medieval sense of whether I could summon up sufficient physical strength to survive.
It was almost unbearable to hear the sneers of the prosecutor as he cross-examined my wife and other witnesses. How can one maintain an appearance of calm under such circumstances? I did, but at great cost in energy. The decorum imposed by court etiquette is an ordeal in itself. It was unnatural at such times for me to be impassive. There is no "proper" reaction. One sits naked before the inquisitive, and perhaps, as in this case, prejudiced jury. At times I despaired of justice. In court, fatigue and anger were my true enemies, though I did not usually recognize them as such. My sleeping hours were short and tension added its toll to normal fatigue. I often used the brief recesses to stretch out for a few moments on one of the tables in the room reserved for my counsel's deliberation.
When it was my turn to be cross-examined, the ordeal was of a different sort. I sensed that the jury thought the prosecutor must have scored a point if I reacted so sharply.
As I sat there, I recognized to what extent a jury trial is really a contest between two opposing lawyers. Only they are active throughout the entire procedure. They are the principal actors, always at the center of the stage. The more complex the issues, the more the jury is led to judge the significance of the evidence by the demeanor of counsel. As a witness, even as the defendant, I felt at times like a pawn in a game played by others. This sense of the law as the rules for a game of chance, so foreign to my previous experience as a nontrial lawyer and to my commitment to the rule of law, was unsettling. I had never before seen a jury. Often I felt like a spectator rather than a participant in my own trial. I was dismayed to feel how little I could do to help myself in the gladiatorial combat of others that was so crucial to my own life. This sense of powerlessness only increased my outrage as I had to sit by, as impassively as possible, listening to false testimony - to lies - and watching the theatrical solemnity with which factitious documents became formal exhibits.
The trial will be haunted at every turn by the great political issue that bedevils the conscience and well-being of every responsible citizen of a democratic country. Has a democrat the right to be a communist and to keep his job and a good opinion of society?
Across the square in which Mr Hiss will be tried, the trial of 11 communist leaders goes on to try to establish for the first time a court test of whether a communist is ipso facto a man dedicated to overthrow by force the government of this country. In the public mind the two trials set up a riptide in the ocean of fear and distrust that washes across all American discussion of communism. It is the sense of this embroilment in a conflict of belief that is happening to lesser men now suspect in their fields of scholarship or government, and the degree of mystery that surrounds the personal relationship of two brilliant young men, that has made this trial fascinating to people uninterested in the legal issue and made it read so far like an unwritten novel by Arthur Koestler.
This morning Alger Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison for perjury. This afternoon the drama moved to Washington, to Secretary of State Acheson's press conference. The question was: "Mr. Secretary, have you any comment on the Alger Hiss case?" Mr. Acheson replied in these words: "Mr. I take it the purpose of your question was to bring something other than that out of me." And then Mr. Acheson said, "I should like to make it clear to you that whatever the outcome of any appeal which Mr. That must be done by each person, in the light of his own standards and his own principles. For me," said Mr. Acheson, "there is very little doubt about those standards or those principles. I think they were stated for us a very long time ago. They were stated on the Mount of Olives, and if you are interested in seeing them, you will find them in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, beginning at Verse 34."
We are reliably informed that Secretary Acheson knew the question was coming but had not discussed his answer with President Truman because he regarded it as a personal matter. When Mr. Acheson was up for confirmation before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was questioned about Alger Hiss, said he was his friend and added, "My friendship is not easily given, and not easily withdrawn." He proved that today.
Often while I was at Lewisburg, and since, I have remarked upon the similarities between prison and the army. At Lewisburg we marched in columns of twos to meals and to movies.
In federal prisons, each new arrival is placed in a separate cell, where he is kept locked up most of the time. This semisolitary confinement is somewhat euphemistically called quarantine, ostensibly to prevent diseases from reaching the main body of prisoners. The forty to fifty men in quarantine at the same time march to meals together in a separate area of the mess hall and share their segregated exercise and library hours. After a couple of weeks some of these newcomers are placed in temporary dormitories of their own. The segregation simplifies the physical and psychological examinations of the new arrivals. It also makes most of the men actually welcome their transfer into the general prison population.
The quarantine period lasts about a month. For most of the men in my entering batch, the limited solitary confinement was harsh punishment. We were even forbidden to call from one cell to the next. In addition, we were not allowed to "make commissary" - that is, we could not purchase cigarettes or candy at the prison store. We were told that it took several weeks for deposits to be received from our families and for individual accounts to be set up.
This initial period of confinement at least gave me the opportunity for uninterrupted reading. A visit to the library, which was large for a place like Lewisburg, had been one of our first forays. Its holdings were variegated. Many of the books would have outraged Senator Joseph McCarthy. There had been earlier political prisoners at Lewisburg. Mr. Smith, the librarian, in order to increase his holdings despite his limited budget, had allowed books to be sent to the prisoners from the outside, the books to remain in the library. The collected letters of Krupskaya, Lenin's widow, were there. So was The Sword and the Scalpel, the story of Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who joined the Chinese Red Army in the early days of the Chinese Revolution.
The Russian general in charge of intelligence archives declared that they contained no evidence Hiss had ever been a spy. He subsequently recanted his assertion, however. And four years after, researchers digging through U.S. intelligence documents found intercepts of Soviet transmissions that suggested an American known as "Ales," perhaps Hiss, had been spying on the U.S. during that era
On his and your request, I carefully studied many documents from the archives of the intelligence services of the USSR as well as various information provided for me by the archive staff. On the basis of a very careful analysis of all the information available, I can inform you that Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. When in the 40's he worked as a diplomat, Mr. Hiss did have official professional contacts with Soviet officials. But Mr. Hiss had never and nowhere been recruited as an agent of the intelligence services of the USSR. Not a single document, and a great amount of materials has been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. Probably, such old allegations are based on a misunderstanding or incorrect information. I believe that public opinion should have long since cleared Mister Hiss of the old suspicions, which are completely groundless.
Here we go again. New York Post editor Eric Breindel, writing in The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, insists that the recent release by the National Security Agency of an encrypted document sent by a Soviet spy in Washington to his superiors in Moscow on March 30, 1945, constitutes "the smoking gun in the Hiss case," proving "beyond doubt" that Hiss "was still a Soviet agent in 1945."
Since I am writing in what Breindel (who has died since this article was written) preemptively calls "America's leading forum for Alger Hiss apologia," one could be forgiven for expecting yet another plea for justice for Hiss. Sorry. I take no position on guilt or innocence (in truth, I still can't make up my mind). Today's lesson deals instead with a disturbing nexus of scholarship, journalism and Cold War fanaticism that, based on either a careless or a deliberately malicious reading of declassified national security documents, threatens our ability ever to make sense of the past half-century of our history.
The drill has become a familiar one: Hitherto secret documents or ex-spy confessions, often backed up by a major publishing campaign, reveal that so-and-so was a spy all along. Journalists trumpet the charge, calling on "respected" academics to either endorse or debunk the charges. Depending on the usually predictable political orientation of the academic in question, a person's reputation is either destroyed or merely damaged. The story then goes away until the next batch of documents appears or the next spy gets religion.
The major news of the second batch of Venona releases dealt with Alger Hiss, long the period's most fascinating case. The definitive examination is generally considered to be Allen Weinstein's "Perjury," and Weinstein is most often the scholar whom journalists choose to consult. The product of prodigious research, "Perjury" received the liberal/leftist seal of approval from Irving Howe and Garry Wills, among the most honorable and fair-minded scholars this country has produced. Yet serious scholars, among them the publisher of this magazine, have discovered important discrepancies in Weinstein's use of sources that he has never been able to explain. One of his sources sued him for libel and won a published retraction from The New Republic (which published Weinstein's defense) and, according to New York magazine, a "substantial five-figure sum" in settlement. Weinstein has repeatedly promised during the past decade and a half to allow inspection of his notes, but he has refused all requests, going so far as to turn scholars away from his door when they arrived for ap-pointed interviews.
Weinstein went on to become an informal adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and his mantle has been inherited by Eric Breindel. Breindel is not a scholar by any definition of the term. He has never written a book, or any significant historical study in a professionally refereed publication, as far as I am aware. He is paid to express Rupert Murdoch's opinions, and his work demonstrates all the scrupulousness that such an association might imply. He also freelances for Marty Peretz and Norman Podhoretz on matters related to Alger Hiss.
Breindel's claim to have discovered a "smoking gun" in the Venona documents is based on a cable sent to Moscow by the spy Anatoli Gromov about a talk he had with Ishak Akhmerov, whom Breindel identifies as "one of the most important Soviet agents ever to serve in the U.S." (also Hopkins's alleged controller). The March 30, 1945, cable identifies an agent named "Ales" who has been "obtaining military information." Breindel makes much of the fact that, according to Gordievsky, Akhmerov had discussed Hiss and other U.S. agents he allegedly controlled when he first brought up Hopkins. Here's the kicker: "Gordievsky - who did not have access to the Venona cables when he produced his memoir - reports without reservation that Alger Hiss's Soviet codename was 'Ales.' In a 1989 essay, Thomas Powers likewise declares that Hiss was known to Moscow as 'Ales.'"
Breindel might have had a case here, but for one unfortunate fact: Gordievsky's source was Powers. (Perhaps unacquainted with the process of checking footnotes, Breindel apparently did not bother to look up the source for the claim regarding Hiss's alleged code name.) When I called Powers to ask him where he heard the original story, he named a counterintelligence agent who had told him about it after seeing the very same Venona document. Powers said there was "no question that the agent was referring to the same document that was just released." In other words, Breindel's corroborative pieces of evidence turn out to be the same document he is alleging to corroborate. Some smoking gun.
Breindel notes that the NSA. glossary "prepared for internal use" says Ales is "probably" Alger Hiss, and adds that Hiss apologists will make too much of that modifier. But the author should have leveled with his New Republic readers by noting that this "glossary" was written by an unknown NSA functionary and dated twenty-four years after the original cable, and is not supported by any corroborative evidence. NSA consultant David Kahn says that while the work of the code-breakers may be airtight, he would not vouch for the agents' identifications.
Breindel continues that "almost everything in the message conforms to representations about Hiss made by previous sources, including Whittaker Chambers." Again, not quite. Neither Chambers nor anyone else has previously asserted that Hiss was passing on military information (aside from extremely tangential material included in State Department documents). How would Hiss, a mid-level functionary at State, have been privy to secret military information in the first place? In The Wall Street Journal Breindel falsely identifies the telegram's sender, Gromov, as "the KGB's station chief in Washington." In The New Republic, however, he correctly names him as "the NKVD's station chief." (The NKVD was the party security service that predated the KGB.) Either way, what was Hiss, whom Breindel now claims to have been working for Soviet military intelligence - the GRU - doing reporting to the civilians? The two services may have shared information on occasion at the very highest levels of the Soviet Politburo, according to noted Soviet intelligence historian Amy Knight, but they are hardly known for interservice cooperation.
The logical leaps necessary to substantiate Breindel's argument are hardly more reassuring. Since, as Breindel insists, Hiss remained a spy through 1945, it is "no wonder Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko - in a rare manifestation of postwar Soviet-American cooperation - told his U.S. counterparts in the summer of 1945 that Moscow wouldn't object to the appointment of Mr. Hiss as secretary-general of the U.N.'s founding conference." I get it. The Soviets have this incredibly useful top-level spy passing them valued military information and decide, just for the fun of it, to put a red light on his head by publicly anointing him as the only Soviet-approved U.S. official in the diplomatic corps. This last argument, repeated in both The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, is sloppy even by Murdochian standards.
Most incredible of all, Breindel goes Gordievsky one better by suggesting that Harry Hopkins was a Soviet agent while serving under FDR. Breindel's evidence for this outlandish charge doesn't even measure up to his kamikaze attack on Hiss. It seems rather churlish to take offense at the sight of desperate ex-KGB agents cashing in on their murderous pasts by "remembering" sensational charges for which U.S. publishers are willing to pony up major advances. After all, these guys lied for a living. But the spectacle of U.S. Cold Warriors rushing to endorse the unsupported braggadocio of the Evil Empire's killer elite, rewrite history and destroy honorable reputations, is distasteful in the extreme. Until the media reject this new form of ideological hucksterism in favor of bona fide documentation of genuine espionage, our history will remain hostage to right-wing campaigns to smear and destroy. Such tactics display a contempt for history not exactly unknown in the now-defunct nation these men profess to detest.
As if progressives had not in recent years been battered and bludgeoned enough already, we now learn that J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers & company really got it right: all Communists are/were actual, or wannabee, Russian spies. We also learn that during the Cold War years (and even before) hordes of leftists were abroad in the land, stealing "our" atomic secrets (and God only knows what else) for delivery to Joseph Stalin.
In recent days, this message has been dunned into our ears by such opinion-makers as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Theodore Draper, Michael Thomas, Edward Jay Epstein and David Garrow in the pages of The New York Times, The New Republic, Commentar, Wall Street Journal, The National Review, the "McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," and lots more (without a dissenting voice to be heard anywhere).
This all-out blitz has been fueled by The Secret World of American Communism, written by Professor Harvey Klehr, of Emory University, John Earl Haynes, of the Library of Congress, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, formerly of the Comintern Archives in Moscow at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents in Recent History. The authors claim to have put together a "massive documentary record" from the hitherto secret Comintern archives, revealing "the dark side of American communism." These documents establish, they say, proof both of "Soviet espionage in America" and of the American Communist Party's "inherent" connection with Soviet espionage operations and with its espionage services; and that such spy activities were considered, by both Soviet and the American CP leaders, "normal and proper."
Such assertions are not all that different from what J. Edgar Hoover (and his stooges) were saying half a century ago. But what reinforces the authors' statements are not only the documents from the Russian archives they claim to have uncovered, but also the imposing editorial advisory committee assembled to give this project an eminent scholarly cachet. This editorial advisory committee consists of 30 academics whose names are listed opposite the title page. They include seven Yale University professors, along with professors from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Brandeis, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh and Rochester universities. There are also an equal number of members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of officials of various Russian archives.
Reproduced in the book are 92 documents offered by the authors as evidence of what they say is the United States Communist Party's continuous history of "covert activity." These documents, according to Professor Steven Merrit Minor in The New York Times Book Review, reveal that American Communists "relayed atomic secrets to the Kremlin" and also support the testimony of Whittaker Chambers and others that the American Communist Party was engaged in underground conspiracies against the American Government. The authors also say that the documents suggest that those "who continued to claim otherwise were either willfully naive or, more likely, dishonest."
In actuality, many of the documents are ambiguously worded or in some sort of code known only to the senders and recipients. They often contain illegible words, numbers and signatures; relate to unidentifiable persons, places and events; and are preoccupied with bookkeeping matters, inner-party hassles or with protective security measures against FBI and Trotskyite spies. Most importantly, not a single document reproduced in this volume provides evidence of espionage. Ignoring all evidence that contradicts their thesis, the authors attempt to make a case relying on assumption, speculation, and invention about the archival material and, especially, by equating secrecy with illegal spying.
The book's high points are sections relating to what the authors call atomic espionage and the CP Washington spy apparatus. As someone who has carefully examined the archives at the Russian Center, and who over the past four decades has studied the trial transcripts of the major Cold War "spy" cases, I can state that "The Secret World of American Communism," notwithstanding its scholarly accouterments, is a disgracefully shoddy work, replete with errors, distortions and outright lies. As a purported work of objective scholarship, it is nothing less than a fraud.
In this context, certain facts ought to be noted:
* The Moscow archives contain no material relating to these key figures in the Cold War "spy" cases: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, Ruth and David Greenglass, Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing, Noel Field, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Colonel Boris Bykov and J. Peters. In my possession is a document, responding to my request, and dated October 12, 1992, signed by Oleg Naumov, Deputy Director of the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History, attesting that the Center has no files on, or relating to, any of the above-named persons.
* Despite the authors' assertion that the documents in this volume show that the CPUSA's elaborate underground apparatus collaborated with Soviet espionage services and also engaged in stealing the secrets of America's atomic bomb project, not one of the 92 documents reproduced in this book supports such a conclusion.
* The authors claim the documents corroborate Whittaker Chambers' allegations about a Communist underground in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and while the authors concede that Alger Hiss's name does not appear in any of the documents, they assert that the "subsequent documentation has further substantiated the case that Hiss was a spy." Yet, not one document from the Russian archives supports any of these damning statements.
A total of 15 pages in "Secret World" have some reference either to Hiss or Chambers. By my count, these contain 73 separate misrepresentations of fact or downright lies. For example, the authors claim that J. Peters "played a key role in Chambers' story" that Hiss was a Soviet spy. Peters played no role in Chambers' story about espionage. Chambers said that the key figure in his espionage activities with Hiss was a Russian named "Colonel Boris Bykov," a character whose identity the FBI spent years futilely trying to establish.
The authors claim Chambers testified he worked in the Communist underground in the 1930s with groups of government employees who "provided the CPUSA with information about sensitive government activities." In fact, Chambers testified to the exact contrary on 12 separate occasions.
References to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their case can be found on five pages. In those pages, by my tally, are 31 falsehoods or distortions of evidence. For example, the authors say the Rosenbergs' conviction was for "involvement in...atomic espionage." In fact they were convicted of conspiracy, and no evidence was ever produced that they ever handed over any information about anything to anyone.
The authors also say the Rosenbergs were arrested as a result of information the authorities obtained from Klaus Fuchs, which led to Harry Gold, who led them to David Greenglass, who implicated the Rosenbergs. All of these statements are based on an FBI press release. In fact, no evidence has ever been produced that indicates that Fuchs, Gold or Greenglass ever mentioned the Rosenbergs before their arrests.
Discussing one other "spy" case, that of Judith Coplon, against whom all charges were dismissed, the authors in typical contempt of official court records write that "there was not the slightest doubt of her guilt." In comments running no less than half a page, they invent a scenario of the Coplon case that contains 14 outright lies and distortions. For instance, the authors say she "stole" an FBI report and she was arrested when she handed over' the stolen report "to a Soviet citizen." All these statements are false; in her two trials, no evidence was ever adduced that she ever stole anything or that she ever handed over anything to anyone.
They couldn't name Hiss if they did not even know him. The one telling fact which came out after the fact relates to the IBM analysis which concluded beyond the shadow of a doubt that the typewriter style or font used to produce the Pumpkin Papers did not even exist when these papers were allegedly found and typed.
Any other discussion, speculation or prevarication must first accept the fact of the forged papers as historical truth. The only discussion worth having in fact is who persecuted Hiss and why did they choose him as a target?
I think the answer is Wickliffe Preston Draper of The Pioneer Fund and his close crony Nathaniel Weyl who inadvertently admitted to me in a phone conversation that Weyl himself was guilty of a violation of the Neutrality Act during the Bayo-Pawley affair involving anti-Castro exiles. He lived out the rest of his life in the fear that he would be arrested and charged with this crime and others he admitted to in the course of the conversation including being an accessory after the fact to murder as he watched some of the anti-Castro exiles being shot in front of his eyes.
Alger kept insisting on the report, and Ernst (Field) was forced to tell him that he needed to consult his "connections."
In the next couple of days, after having thought it over, Alger said that he no longer insisted on the report. Ernst talked to Larry about Alger and, of course, about having told him "about the current situation" and that "their main task at the time was to defend the Soviet Union" and that "they both needed to use their favorable positions to help in this respect." Larry became upset and frightened, and announced that he needed some time before he would make that final step; he still hoped to do his normal job, he wanted to reorganize his department, try to achieve some results in that area, etc."
Evidently, according to Ernst, he did not make any promises, nor did he encourage Alger in any sort of activity, but politely stepped back. Apparently, Ernst satisfied this request.
When I pointed out to Ernst his terrible discipline and the danger he put himself into by connecting these three people, he did not seem to understand it. He thought that just because "Alger was the first to open his cards, there was no reason for him to keep a secret." Besides, Alger announced that he was doing it for "us" and because of the fact that he lived in Washington, D.C.... and, finally, since I was going to go out of the country for a while, he thought it would be a good idea to establish contact between us.
The "Ales" cable is not proof that Hiss was a spy, just useful supporting evidence. Whether Hiss is mentioned in other Venona cables still unread is of course unknown, and no GRU intelligence files about Hiss or any other spy have been released....
Much additional evidence about Hiss's involvement with the Soviets has turned up since the voluminous and explicit claims by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley in the 1940s, claims which no serious scholar of the subject any longer dismisses... while the excesses of McCarthyism may be fairly described as a witch hunt, it was a witch hunt with witches, some in government....
What Whittaker Chambers had claimed was true, and it was convincingly and obviously true by the time Hiss went to jail for perjury. is simply overwhelming...
What continues to astonish and bewilder me now is why Hiss lied for fifty years about his service in a cause so important to him that he was willing to betray his country for it. But why did Hiss persist in the lie personally? Why did he allow his friends and family to go on carrying the awful burden of that lie?"
Alger Hiss can no longer be seen as a figure of ambiguity. The ambiguity associated with Hiss was created by his regularly asserting things about himself and his life that were not true, and by others - for their own ideological reasons and because of Hiss's extraordinarily convincing persona - choosing to believe them. In thinking about the Alger Hiss that remains after that aura of ambiguity is lifted from him, the place to start is to summarize the qualities that have attracted Americans to him, and to begin to see him as a rare, but constant presence in our world: the consummate spy.
The persona that Hiss presented, as his campaign for vindication evolved, contained qualities that resonated for overlapping circles of late twentieth-century Americans. Hiss was a product of elite academic institutions in a time period in which education was becoming the most important index of social status in America. He was identified with justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the judge most familiar to twentieth-century Americans. He was associated with the birth of the United Nations, an aspirational symbol of international peace. He was one of numerous Americans who had been optimistic about the prospective path of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. If he had been in the left wing of the New Deal, seeking to experiment with collectivist solutions to the problems of farmers and industrial laborers in the Depression, many other Americans similarly felt that only thoroughgoing reforms could alleviate the economic crisis of the 1930s. If he had believed that the United States and the Soviet Union would cooperate to further world peace through the United Nations, so had most Americans at the close of World War II.
In short, many Americans found qualities in Hiss they could identify with or admire. Edgar Hoover's carefully constructed image as a virtuous "G-man" came apart under closer scrutiny. When one totaled up Hiss's favorable associations and the notoriety of his enemies, his continued professions of innocence took on to some an air of nobility.
Many people thus wanted to believe that Alger Hiss was innocent, and Hiss helped them by embroidering his narrative of innocence over the years, tailoring it to the changing tastes of an elite segment of public opinion, from which almost all of the information and perceptions about Hiss originated. As he shaped and reshaped his campaign for vindication, Hiss maintained his constant air of persistent, patient evenness. From Brock Brower in 1960, to Robert Alan Aurthur and Philip Nobile in the 1970s, to David Remnick in 1986, being in the company of Alger Hiss, and hearing him talk about his case, was a seductive experience. When one was outside the company of Hiss, and looked at the evidence, his guilt might have seemed more probable, but when one encountered him, and became exposed to his combination of graciousness and apparent serenity, ambiguity began to take over.
How was Hiss able to project, over so many years, an air of absolute confidence, even serenity, about his eventual vindication? How, especially, was he able to do so when he knew that his campaign was a confidence game, and that vindication would be a massive falsehood? Hiss's remarkable ability to sell himself and his campaign came from the vital role that his narrative of innocence played in his efforts to fashion, and to preserve, an integrated vision of his life. Integration-1 am using that term in the psychological sense of completeness, self-fulfillment, and inner peace was achieved, for Hiss, not by being innocent of covert espionage activity but by successfully pretending to be innocent.' Succeeding at this pretense of innocence-his version of vindication-would have meant that Hiss could see himself as an integrated personality who had lived a complete life.
Vindication meant that Hiss could take enhanced satisfaction in the work he had put in as a Soviet agent, now found not to have happened, and thus shoved, perhaps forever, behind the looking glass. It meant that he could take pride in acting as Soviet agents in the United States were instructed by their handlers to act. Never reveal your covert existence, they were told; if exposed, categorically deny any complicity; if convicted, strenuously maintain your innocence as long as you live...
A biographer of Fuchs speculated that he had been "dominated by the religious and ethical righteousness of his father" and "devastated by the suicides of his mother and sister," and had "retreated into the world of Communism and espionage, where he felt morally virtuous, politically active, and personally fulfilled." Although Hiss associated dominance and suicide with a different set of parents, the parallels are striking.
I believe that Hiss should be understood as one sort of human actor in the sweep of history, not as another. If Hiss is to be seen primarily as an actor connected to a distinctive time in twentieth-century American life, when the domestic and international politics of the United States first reoriented themselves around the ideology of Cold War anti-Communism, and then distanced themselves from that ideology, he will be in danger, as are all historic personages identified with particular eras, of disappearing from view as that era comes to be perceived as remote. He should be thought of, instead, as one of the successful spies in American history, not only because of the quality and duration of his espionage for the Soviet Union, but because of his singular ability, in his successive looking-glass wars, to deceive so many persons about the secret dimensions of his life.
Hiss was a complex, troubled, ingratiating, formidable personality who was in many respects ideally suited to maintain a secret life. If there is such a person as a natural successful spy, who could conceal the existence of his covert activities as skillfully as he engaged in them, Alger Hiss seems to have been one.... Not many people seek psychic integration through spying and lying. Even fewer are so good at those tasks that they come close to achieving their version of it. Alger Hiss was one. There have been and there will be others.
Biography of Alger Hiss: Government Official Accused of Spying
Alger Hiss was a former State Department officer who was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union by a former friend in the late 1940s. Controversy over whether Hiss was guilty or innocent became a national sensation and one of the first public spectacles of the McCarthy Era.
Fast Facts: Alger Hiss
- Known For: Accused of spying and convicted of perjury during the McCarthy Era, sparking massive public debate across the U.S.
- Occupation: Lawyer, government official, and diplomat
- Born: November 11, 1904 in Baltimore, Maryland
- Education: Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Law School
- Died: November 15, 1996 in New York, New York
A Byte Out of History
The jury returned from its deliberations on January 21, 1950 years ago this month. The verdict? Guilty on two counts of perjury.
Alger Hiss, a well-educated and well-connected former government lawyer and State Department official who helped create the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II, was headed to prison in Atlanta for lying to a federal grand jury.
The central issue of the trial was espionage. In August 1948, Whittaker Chambers—a senior editor at Time magazine—was called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to corroborate the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, a Soviet spy who had defected in 1945 and accused dozens of members of the U.S. government of espionage. One official she named as possibly connected to the Soviets was Alger Hiss.
The FBI immediately began probing her claims to ensure those who were credibly named—including Hiss—did not continue to have access to government secrets or power. As the investigation into Bentley and related matters deepened in 1946 and 1947, Congress became aware of and concerned about the case. Details leaked to the press, and the investigation became national news and embroiled in partisan politics in the run up to the 1948 presidential election.
Chambers, who had renounced the Communist Party in the late 1930s, testified reluctantly that hot summer day. He ultimately acknowledged he was part of the communist underground in the 1930s and that Hiss and others had been members of the group.
In later testimony, Hiss vehemently denied the accusation. After all, Chambers had offered no proof that Hiss had committed espionage or been previously connected to Bentley or the communist group.
View Soviet spy Elizabeth Bentley’s FBI file.
It could have ended there, but members of the committee—especially then-California Congressman Richard Nixon—prodded Chambers into disclosing information suggesting there was more to his story and his relationship with Hiss. In later testimony, Hiss admitted knowing Chambers in the 1930s, but he continued to deny any ties to communism and later filed a libel suit against his accuser.
The committee was torn. Who was telling the truth, Hiss or Chambers? And should either be charged with perjury?
A key turn of events came in November 1948, when Chambers produced documents showing both he and Hiss were committing espionage. Then, in early December, Chambers provided the committee with a package of microfilm and other information he had hidden inside a pumpkin on his Maryland farm. The two revelations, which became known as the “Pumpkin Papers,” contained images of State Department materials—including notes in Hiss’ own handwriting.
It was the smoking gun the Justice Department needed. Hiss was charged with perjury he could not be indicted for espionage because the statute of limitations had run out. An extensive FBI investigation helped develop a great deal of evidence verifying Chambers’ statements and revealing Hiss’ cover-ups.
What Finally Convinced Most Skeptics
While the fights over Hiss were under way in the late 1940s and 1950s, the strongest evidence of his guilt remained classified, out of fear that revealing the evidence would expose U.S. signals intelligence capabilities to the Soviets. Beginning in 1943, the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, the forerunner of today’s National Security Agency, began a project that would later be codenamed Venona. The project began by studying Soviet diplomatic traffic that had been intercepted but unencrypted dating back to 1939, and grew to include ongoing Soviet messages. In one March 1945 message (a facsimile appears below), a Soviet spy discussed a meeting with an agent codenamed ALES:
While not revealing Hiss’s real name, the cable provided details about the agent codenamed ALES, including references to his travels and interactions, that matched the known movements of Hiss. The Venona cables were not released to the public until 1996.
Although occasional challenges still emerge, few today question that Hiss was indeed a spy. The meaning of the Hiss case, however, is more ambiguous. That Hiss was a spy who operated so freely for so many years suggests that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations took far too long to take the threat of espionage from the Soviet Union seriously. However, that the government under-reacted to Chambers’ revelations does not mean that the postwar spy hunt did not produce profound over-reactions and injustices, especially on the part of McCarthy. Perhaps, given the gray areas in which espionage necessarily operates, ambiguity is not only inevitable but appropriate for so famous an espionage case.
John Paul Martin - 4/9/2009
I am very interested in the Alger Hiss Case and would like to question the integrity of Whitaker Chambers. This article starts by claiming that the Hiss Defense was not able to show Whitaker Chambers as a liar, homosexual and disturbed man when in fact, his own FBI testimony, his book Witness, every analysis of his background and testimony of fellow victims prove exactly that. I would like to hear an argument in his defense. Thank you
George Robert Gaston - 4/19/2007
I think there are two reasons some people cling to the proposition that Alger Hiss was innocent of betraying his country.
First, Hiss was one of them. He was one of those who made up the core of the new American welfare state liberalism, expressed by the New Deal. His treason called to question a number of the ideas that were fundamental to American “progressive” thinking. The main of which was internationalism, one of the mainstays of political thinking in the post war United States. Therefore, the political, journalistic, social and academic elite rushed to his defense because their defense of Hess was in effect, self-defense.
We need to remember that at this time Ezra Pound’s unrepentant defense of fascism was rightly condemned by this elite group, while they excused, if not applauded, Jean-Paul Sartre’s sustained defense of Stalin.
Second, the messenger was wrong. The Hiss case was intermixed with these same peoples’ loathing For Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. I have often thought if Richard Nixon had caught the GRU or KGB Washington station chief in the act of going through State Department files, the people who defended Hess would have rushed to their defense.
Louis Nelson Proyect - 4/18/2007
"They should admit the thrust of what Joe McCarthy was doing".
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/17/2007
Defenders of Hiss are now few and far between, thanks to the Venona transcripts, Weinstein and Tanenhaus, et al. That's obvious from the fact they aren't jumping into this comment board. They have probably admitted they were wrong about Hiss to themselves, but otherwise are trying not to think about it. Unfortunately, they need to think about it. They need to adjust their collateral thoughts about the whole period. They should admit HUAC was doing good work, and the Hollywood blacklistings were deserved. They should admit the thrust of what Joe McCarthy was doing was right and good for the country, even if he was an oaf personally. And the same about Richard Nixon. They should condemn Asst. Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White. They should admit Roosevelt was taken advantage of by determined enemies of our country who were agents of Joe Stalin. (These people gave the Russians all our atomic secrets). They should change their attitude toward the memory of J. Edgar Hoover. Etc., etc. Liberals who have seen the light about Hiss cannot turn away after that and remain dishonest with themselves about all the rest. It's not easy for them, but they have smeared a lot of people who deserve apologies. They have preached many falsehoods in the classroom and need to make up for it.
Jason Blake Keuter - 4/16/2007
The main reason for denying Hiss was a Soviet Spy is ideological, or perhaps religious would be a better word. In fact, Hiss is emblematic of a larger, more important denial: the threat of communism.
Any left winger who begins admitting to Hiss being a spy, begins admitting that spying was actually done by the Soviets. This admission starts them down the perilous path towards confronting that socialism was not progressive but parasitic that there was no scientific or technological race between dynamic and free capitalism and moribund socialism that, instead, the US created and the Soviets stole. In fact, all of the so-called successes of communism have always been due to the west and capitalism. It's failures were all its own.
Alger Hiss and History
The 1948 Alger Hiss Case was a major moment in post-World War II America that reinforced Cold War ideology and accelerated America's late-1940s turn to the right. Hiss was one of the nation's most visible New Dealers. He sat right behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference and was the founding Secretary General of the United Nations. His public career embodied the reformist vision that linked FDR's domestic agenda to an internationalist foreign policy.
When Hiss was accused of spying for the Soviet Union and convicted of perjury, his case was seen as one of the most significant trials in twentieth-century America. It helped discredit the New Deal, legitimize the red scare, and set the stage for the rise of Joseph McCarthy. During the past decade, as scholars have gained access to the archives in the former Soviet Union and more U.S. documents have been declassified, there has been a renewed debate about the Hiss Case itself and the larger issues of repression, civil liberties, and internal security that many believe speak to current public policy discussions.
9 AM Welcome:
David Warrington (Harvard Law School Library) and Michael Nash (NYU)
Victor Navasky (Columbia University, Publisher Emeritus, The Nation.)
10:15 AM Alger Hiss: Public and Private
Norman Dorsen, (NYU) chair/comment
Bruce Craig (University of Prince Edward Island), "Alger Hiss Recent Explorations in Documenting the Public and Private Man"
Tony Hiss and Timothy Hobson, "Living with the Hiss Case"
11:30 AM The Case as History
David Oshinsky (University of Texas) chair/comment
Kai Bird (co-author American Prometheus: The Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer), "Who Was ALES?"
Svetlana A. Chervonnaya (independent Moscow-based scholar) "The Hiss Case: What do the Russian Files Say."
John Prados (Senior Fellow National Security Archives) " Cold War Reflections on Source Material."
"The Hiss Case-What do the Russian Files Really Say."
2:30 PM Repression, Espionage and the Red Scare (panel discussion)
Marilyn Young (NYU) chair comment: audience
Ellen Schrecker (Yeshiva University), Corey Robin (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Landon Storrs (University of Texas), Amy Knight (author How the Cold War Began), Jeffrey Kisseloff (independent scholar)4 PM Hiss in History
Michael Nash chair/comment
David Greenberg, (Rutgers University), "Alger Hiss and Richard Nixon"
Timothy Naftali (co-author Khrushchev's Cold War) "Alger Hiss and the Chambers' Secrets,"
G. Edward White (University of Virginia Law School) "Hiss and History"
5:30 PM A Final Perspective
Anthony Romero, Executive-Director, American Civil Liberties Union
The Conference will be held in the auditorium of the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center on the NYU campus 53 Washington Street (W 4th between Thompson and Sullivan Streets)
Alger Hiss - History
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1904, his father committed suicide when he was three years old.Attended the prestigious Johns Hopkins University from which he graduated in 1926. Moved on to Harvard University Law School and after graduation in 1929 served as a law clerk for the esteemed United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and then practiced law in New York and Massachusetts. In 1929 married Priscilla Fansler Hobson. Moved to Washington, D.C. in 1933 where he worked for the Roosevelt administration in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration until 1935. Next moved to the Department of Justice until 1936 and then to the State Department in 1936. Served as Secretary to the Nye Commission on Munitions as well as Assistant General Counsel to the Solicitor General of the United States.
At the State Department, was a very important figure, traveling with President Franklin Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference where Roosevelt met to discuss allied strategies for World War II. Served as a top aide to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
Served as the Secretary General for the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in which the United Nations was established. In 1946 was named President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and served in that capacity until 1948.
In 1948, Whitaker Chambers, the Senior Editor for Time Magazine and a former member of the Communist Party went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and testified that Hiss was a Communist and had passed classified State Department documents to Soviet agents.
Hiss denied the charges and offered to testify before the committee. In his testimony, he vehemently denied that he a Communist and stated that he had never even met Whitaker Chambers. Chambers responded by supplying detailed recollections of Hiss and his family with an uncanny accuracy. Hiss corroborated many of these recollections and explained that he may have known Chambers years earlier under a different name and in a different appearance. The highly regarded Hiss was now being viewed with some suspicion.
Chambers made an appearance on the American political television show “Meet the Press.” When asked about Hiss, Chambers repeated the statement he had made before the committee. Hiss immediately sued Chambers for slander. Chambers continued to provide evidence against Hiss, by providing photographs of documents that appeared to be re-typed copies of State Department documents which also included some notes in Hiss’ handwriting.
Chambers further produced undeveloped film which he had hidden in a hollowed out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. The film contained photographs of more classified State Department documents which were referred to thereafter as the “Pumpkin Papers.” The Justice Department was also working with information provided by a Soviet defector named Igor Gouzenko in 1945. Gouzenko had claimed that an assistant to the Secretary of State was a Soviet spy. The FBI had narrowed its search down to Hiss but did not have enough evidence to confront Hiss. The FBI also was able to find the typewriter that was alleged to have been used to retype the classified documents.Hiss was indicted for committing perjury. The trial ended in a hung jury but the second trial in on January 21, 1950 with Hiss being found guilty of perjury (note, Hiss was never found guilty of espionage).
He was sentenced to five years in prison and after his subsequent appeal and request for a new trial were denied he spent four and a half years in the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
The case became a cause celebre, debated across political lines with conservatives believing that Hiss was indeed guilty while liberals felt he was set up with circumstantial and shoddy evidence. Hiss maintained his innocence and spent the rest of his life trying to prove it. In 1996, however, the Venona messages were released, one of which described an assistant to the Secretary of State in 1945 who attended the Yalta Conference but was actually a Soviet spy. Sources at the National Security Agency have stated that this could refer only to Hiss. Hiss died in 1996.
Was Washington official Alger Hiss a Communist Spy?
U.S. diplomat Alger Hiss found himself in the crosshairs of a former Communist Party member determined to expose him as a Soviet spy, an accusation Hiss denied for the remainder of his life.
James Thomas Gay
Fifty years later people still ask the question about Alger Hiss: Was he or wasn’t he a Communist spy?
Statesman Alger Hiss gives his testimony to the House of Un-American Activities in 1950 after being accused of having communist sympathies. (Library of Congress)
The headline blared from the front page of the New York Times on August 4, 1948: “RED ‘UNDERGROUND’ IN FEDERAL POSTS ALLEGED BY EDITOR,” it read. “IN NEW DEAL ERA. Ex-Communist Names Alger Hiss, Then In State Department.”
The ex-Communist was Whittaker Chambers, a rumpled, rotund editor at Time magazine. In testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on August 3, Chambers said Hiss—the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former member of Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department—had been part of the United States Communist Party’s underground.
Chambers’ accusation reverberated like a bombshell in the Cold War atmosphere of 1948. “The case was the Rashomon drama of the Cold War,” said David Remnick in a profile of Hiss that he wrote for the Washington Post in 1986. “One’s interpretation of the evidence and characters involved became a litmus test of one’s politics, character, and loyalties. Sympathy with either Hiss or Chambers was more an article of faith than a determination of fact.” On the left was liberal New Dealism, represented by Hiss on the right were conservative, anti-Roosevelt and Truman forces personified by Chambers.
Depending on one’s politics, the idea that someone like Alger Hiss could be a Communist was either chilling or absurd. Erudite and patrician, Hiss had graduated from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School. He had been a protégé of Felix Frankfurter (a future Supreme Court justice) and later a clerk for Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1933, he joined Roosevelt’s administration and worked in several areas, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Nye Committee (which investigated the munitions industry), 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. The next year Hiss traveled to Yalta as part of the American delegation for the meeting of Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill. Later, he participated in the founding of the United Nations as temporary secretary general. 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’s accuser seemed to be his polar 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 that Communism would save a dying world. 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. A growing disenchantment with the Communist Party following news of the purge trials in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union caused Chambers to leave the underground. In the late 1930s, he abandoned Communism and became a fervent Christian and anti-Communist. He started working at Time in 1939 and eventually became one of the magazine’s senior editors.
Chambers had accused Hiss of being a Communist before his 1948 HUAC appearance. Following the signing of the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR in August of 1939—a disillusioning event for American Communists, who believed the Soviet Union would remain a sworn enemy of Hitler’s regime—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 happened. The Soviet Union, after all, was then an ally in the war against Nazi Germany.
By the summer of 1948 the global picture had changed. As the Cold War chilled, Communist infiltration of the government—real or imagined—became a serious issue for both Republicans and Democrats. The Justice Department had been investigating Communist infiltration since 1947, but its grand jury had not returned any indictments. Republicans, eager to gain control of the White House in the fall election, had been bashing the Democrats for being “soft on communism.”
On Capitol Hill, HUAC, dominated by Republicans and conservative Democrats, was looking into possible Communist penetration of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Committee members, particularly an ambitious freshman congressman from California named Richard Nixon, knew what was at stake. HUAC was a controversial body under fire for its heavy-handed tactics. If Chambers’ story proved false, HUAC’s reputation would suffer a potentially fatal blow.
Hiss learned about Chambers’ testimony from newspaper reporters and immediately demanded an opportunity to respond. On August 5 he appeared before the committee and read from a prepared statement. “I am not and have never been a member of the Communist Party,” 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.” Shown a picture of Chambers, Hiss 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.”
It appeared that Hiss had cleared his name. But Nixon—who had been told of suspicions about Hiss long before Chambers’ HUAC appearance—wasn’t satisfied. He argued that even if the committee could not prove Hiss was a Communist, it should investigate whether he ever knew Chambers. Nixon persuaded the other members to appoint him head of a subcommittee to investigate further.
At a session in New York City on August 7, Chambers provided more information. He said that Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, was also a Communist and that the Hisses knew him as “Carl,” one of the many names he used while working for the underground. He described the homes the Hisses occupied and the old Ford roadster and Plymouth they had owned. Hiss, Chambers said, insisted on donating the Ford for the use of the Communist Party despite the security risk.
Chambers’ information wasn’t completely accurate. He said the Hisses did not drink, but they did he described Hiss as shorter than he actually was he wrongly maintained that Hiss was deaf in one ear. However, he also provided information that indicated he knew them rather well. For instance, he reported that the Hisses were “amateur ornithologists” and had been much excited about observing a “prothonotary warbler” near the Potomac River.
On August 16 the committee summoned Hiss to appear in a secret session. This time Hiss conceded that a picture of Whittaker Chambers had “a certain familiarity,” but he was not prepared to identify the man without seeing him in person. He then described a man he had known in the 1930s and to whom he had briefly sublet his apartment. He hadn’t known him as “Carl,” but as “George Crosley.” Hiss described Crosley as a frumpish deadbeat with bad teeth who made ends meet by borrowing money and writing an occasional magazine article. When asked about the Ford, Hiss claimed he had given it to Crosley. Hiss also said Crosley had once given him an oriental rug in lieu of payment of rent. Chambers would later claim the rug was one of four he had given to “friends” of the Soviet people.
John McDowall, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, addressed Hiss. “Have you ever seen a prothonotary warbler?” he asked.
“I have, right here on the Potomac,” Hiss replied.
Nixon now wanted Chambers and Hiss to meet face to face. A meeting had been set up for August 25, but instead Nixon arranged to surprise Hiss with Chambers eight days ahead of schedule. In that tense and hostile meeting at New York City’s Commodore Hotel, Hiss asked Chambers to speak, looked at his teeth, and finally identified him as the man he knew as George Crosley. Hiss issued a challenge to his accuser. “I would like to invite Mr. Whittaker Chambers to make those same statements out of the presence of this committee without their being privileged for suit for libel. I challenge you to do it, and I hope you will do it damned quickly.”
The next confrontation was public, held on August 25 in a congressional hearing room in Washington. Public interest in the case gave it a circus atmosphere. The packed conference room was jammed with spectators, radio broadcasters, film cameramen and even hookups for live television. At this point Nixon and HUAC appeared openly hostile to Hiss. “You are a remarkable and agile young man, Mr. Hiss,” said one member of the committee after Hiss answered evasively about the fate of his Ford automobile.
Two days later Chambers appeared on the radio program “Meet the Press” and declared, “Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now.” A month later Hiss filed suit for damages. “I welcome Alger Hiss’s daring suit,” Chambers said. “I do not minimize the ferocity or the ingenuity of the forces that are working through him.”
As Hiss’s suit prepared to go to trial, the case took a new, even more serious turn. It changed the main issue from whether Alger Hiss was a Communist to whether he was a spy.
In his earlier statements before HUAC, Chambers denied being involved with espionage. His contacts in Washington acted only to influence government policy, not to subvert it, he had said. It was the same story he later told the Justice Department grand jury. But when facing pretrial examinations for the libel suit, Chambers changed his story. He told his lawyers that he could produce evidence that Hiss had given him government materials. When he had broken with the Communist Party 10 years earlier, Chambers said, 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.
Retrieved from a dusty dumbwaiter shaft, the materials turned out to include 65 pages of typewritten copies of confidential documents (all except one from the State Department), four scraps of paper with Hiss’s handwritten notes on them, two strips of developed microfilm of State Department documents, three rolls of undeveloped microfilm, and several pages of handwritten notes. All dated from the early months of 1938. Chambers turned over most of the evidence but initially held the microfilm back in reserve. Fearing the federal grand jury would indict him for perjury, Chambers finally handed over the microfilm to HUAC. With a flourish of cloak-and-dagger dramatics, he had hidden it in a hollowed out pumpkin on his Maryland farm.
The so-called “pumpkin papers” ratcheted interest in the case up another level. Nixon immediately flew home from a vacation cruise in the Caribbean and posed for newspaper photographs showing him peering intently through a magnifying glass at the microfilm strips. The next day Nixon received a shock when an official at Eastman Kodak said the film stock dated from 1945—meaning Chambers had lied when he said he had hidden the film in 1938. Shaken, Nixon phoned Chambers and angrily demanded an explanation. It turned out that none was needed. The Eastman Kodak source called back and corrected himself. The film stock dated from 1937.
Hiss, who also testified before the grand jury, claimed the materials were either fakes or had come from someone else. The grand jury thought otherwise and on December 15, 1948, it indicted Hiss for perjury, accusing him of lying when he said he had never given State Department or other government documents to Chambers and that he had had no contact with Chambers after January 1, 1937. Espionage charges were not possible because the three-year statute of limitations had expired.
The trial began at the Federal Building on Foley Square in New York City, on May 31, 1949, and lasted for six weeks. The prosecution emphasized its “three solid witnesses”—a Woodstock typewriter once owned by Alger and Patricia Hiss, the typed copies, and the State Department originals—as “uncontradicted facts.” According to Chambers, Hiss took documents home from his office so his wife could type copies on the Woodstock. Hiss then returned the originals to his office and gave Chambers the copies. Chambers had the copies photographed for his Soviet handlers.
The typewriting would prove central to the case. The Hisses had once owned a Woodstock, and a comparison of the State Department copies with letters typed in the 1930s by the Hisses on their Woodstock indicated that they came from the same machine.
Hiss’s defense focused on his reputation—his character witnesses included a university president several notable diplomats and judges, including Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Stanley M. Reed and Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. In contrast, the defense portrayed Chambers as a psychopathic liar and “moral leper” who could have acquired the microfilmed documents through many different channels. As for the handwritten notes, someone could have stolen them from Hiss’s office or trash basket.
After a long search, the defense team tracked down the Woodstock typewriter. The Hisses had given it to a maid, Claudia Catlett. The defense hoped to prove that the Catletts received the typewriter sometime before the spring of 1938, but neither Catlett nor her sons could substantiate the giveaway date, weakening the defense considerably.
The first trial ended in a hung jury, with eight of the twelve jurors voting to convict Hiss. The Justice Department quickly announced it would seek another trial.
The second trial began on November 17, 1949, and lasted three weeks longer than the first one. This time the jury found Hiss guilty. He would serve 44 months in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
The Cold War turned even colder in the years following Chambers’ first testimony and Hiss’s conviction, and continued to intensify after Hiss entered prison. China fell to the Communists in 1949, and the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb that same year. The following February, a little-known senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, announced at a speech in West Virginia that he had a list of 205 “card-carrying members of the Communist Party” who were employed by the State Department. His sensational and unfounded charges launched a red-baiting career that would make his name forever synonymous with witch-hunting demagoguery. As historian Allen Weinstein later wrote, “Alger Hiss’s conviction gave McCarthy and his supporters the essential touch of credibility, making their charges of Communist involvement against other officials headline copy instead of back-page filler.”
Richard Nixon benefited as well. His role in the Hiss case helped him secure a senate seat over Helen Gahagan Douglas, a liberal Nixon labeled “the Pink Lady.” 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 of the “six crises” he described in his political memoir of the same name.
Chambers, who published his account of the case in Witness, a 799-page bestseller published in 1952, died in 1961 of a heart attack, a hero of the American right. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom. Four years later, the Reagan Administration designated Chambers’ Maryland “pumpkin farm” as a national historic landmark.
Hiss, who published In the Court of Public Opinion in 1957 to present his side of the story, never stopped fighting to clear his name. “I’ve spent a great deal of time on the issue of ‘Why me?’ ” Hiss told writer David Remnick in 1986. “I came to the conclusion that it’s largely accident, that I was well down the list of those who were selected in order to bring about a change in American politics.” Hiss said that he wasn’t the real target he was merely a means “to break the hull of liberalism.”
Fortune began looking up for Hiss in 1972 when the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign the presidency. Nixon’s fall gave some credence to a wide spectrum of conspiracy theories involving fake typewriters, phony microfilm, and various collusions among the FBI, Nixon, HUAC, the CIA, the radical right, and the KGB. Hiss even theorized that Chambers, who had engaged in homosexual activity before his marriage, had a “deep attachment” to him, an unrequited passion that may have led Chambers to seek revenge. Hiss would return to that theme in a second book, Recollections of a Life, published in 1988.
Hiss’s prospects suffered a reverse in 1978 when Allen Weinstein published Perjury. Weinstein had set out to write an account sympathetic to Hiss. Using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to previously classified materials from the State Department, Justice Department, and FBI, Weinstein finally concluded that Hiss was guilty. In Newsweek, columnist George Will wrote that with Weinstein’s book, “the myth of Hiss’s innocence suffers the death of a thousand cuts, delicate destruction by a scholar’s scalpel.”
Over the years, Hiss attempted to have his case appealed. In 1978, using the newly acquired government documents, he petitioned the Supreme Court for a third time, declaring gross unfairness (a writ of error – coram nobis). On October 11, 1983, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear his case.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Hiss requested information from Soviet sources to clear his name. After extensive research, General Dimitri Volkogonov, head of the Russian military intelligence archives, declared, “Not a single document substantiates the allegation that Mr. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. You can tell Alger Hiss that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart.” But questions from suspicious conservatives forced Volkogonov to admit he hadn’t searched the complex and confusing archives in great depth and that many of the files had been destroyed after Stalin’s death in 1953.
In 1993, a Hungarian historian, Maria Schmidt, divulged material from Communist Hungarian secret police files that seemed to suggest Hiss’s guilt. In 1949 Noel Field, an American suspected of being a Communist spy, had been imprisoned in Hungary as a suspected American spy. Under interrogation he had incriminated Hiss, in a confession Schmidt found in Field’s dossier. Field, however, had recanted after his release, and Hiss defenders considered the Hungarian documents to be tarnished evidence.
Another piece of evidence came to light in 1996 when the CIA and National Security Agency made public several thousand documents of decoded cables exchanged between Moscow and its American agents from 1939 to 1957. These materials were part of a secret intelligence project called “Venona.” A single document, dated March 30, 1945, referred to an agent code-named “Ales,” a State Department official who had flown from the Yalta Conference to Moscow. An anonymous footnote, dated more than 20 years later, suggested “Ales” was “probably Alger Hiss.” Hiss, one of only four men who had flown from Yalta to Moscow, issued a statement denying he was “Ales.” He went to Moscow merely to see the subway system, he said.
Alger Hiss died on November 15, 1996, at the age of 92. Was he one of the century’s greatest liars or one of its longest-suffering victims? “I know he was innocent,” says John Lowenthall, a friend and legal representative who made a documentary, “The Trials of Alger Hiss,” in 1978. “For most people it’s not a matter of fact, it’s a matter of ideology and emotion. Most of the people who take the stand that Hiss was guilty built their careers on it.”
Yet while the preponderance of evidence does weigh heavily against Hiss, his unrelenting insistence of innocence will keep the door of doubt ever so slightly ajar. David Oshinsky wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the question of Hiss’s guilt or innocence has become, “like the case itself, part of our history. For intellectuals, left and right, it still taps the deepest personal values and political beliefs, raising questions about liberalism’s romance with Communism, and conservatism’s assault on civil liberties, years after the Cold War ended.”
A half-century after it started, the Hiss case remains a political dividing line.
James T. Gay is a professor of Hhistory at State University of West Georgia in Carrollton. This article was published in the May/June 1998 issue of American History. Subscribe here.
Alger Hiss and the Battle for HistoryView Inside Format: Cloth
A tough, evenhanded investigation of changing public perceptions of the Alger Hiss case and why it has served as a litmus test of American political loyalties for sixty years
Books on Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss abound, as countless scholars have labored to uncover the facts behind Chambers’s shocking accusation before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the summer of 1948—that Alger Hiss, a former rising star in the State Department, had been a Communist and engaged in espionage.
In this highly original work, Susan Jacoby turns her attention to the Hiss case, including his trial and imprisonment for perjury, as a mirror of shifting American political views and passions. Unfettered by political ax-grinding, the author examines conflicting responses, from scholars and the media on both the left and the right, and the ways in which they have changed from 1948 to our present post–Cold War era. With a brisk, engaging style, Jacoby positions the case in the politics of the post–World War II era and then explores the ways in which generations of liberals and conservatives have put Chambers and Hiss to their own ideological uses. An iconic event of the McCarthy era, the case of Alger Hiss fascinates political intellectuals not only because of its historical significance but because of its timeless relevance to equally fierce debates today about the difficult balance between national security and respect for civil liberties.
"There is a lifetime of erudition—about American society, the Soviet Union, and the way people bend their perceptions to fit their beliefs—in this wise and careful look at an episode that for decades inspired heated diatribes. Jacoby points out that those of us who don't believe in Hiss's innocence should still care about the issues of civil liberties that the case raised—and which are still highly relevant today."—Adam Hochschild, author of Half the Way Home and Bury the Chains
"This book is a jewel of historical understanding. With wit and psychological insight, Susan Jacoby untangles sixty years of knotted quarrels about the Alger Hiss case to calmly explain what all the fuss was about and why so many people still care."—Michael Kazin, Professor of History, Georgetown University and author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History
"[The] book is most memorable for the passion with which Jacoby trumpets certain sensible but often overlooked truths."—David Greenberg, The Washington Post
Interview with Alger Hiss: 'I will be upheld' by history
''The battle is never over as long as I am still functioning,'' said Alger Hiss over the telephone. Hiss has consented to a telephone interview with me, although he does not wish to be interviewed personally in his apartment off Gramercy Park here, where he has lived alone (he and his wife have separated) since his release from prison in 1954. Now he spends his time lecturing to college students, practicing law, and writing (''jottings, memoirs,'' he says).
In recent months the United States Supreme Court denied his petition to review the perjury conviction. This action seems to have marked the termination of all possible legal actions to reverse his conviction.
Hiss's voice sounds distant but firm:
''With the Freedom of Information Act I had great hopes that when we got evidence of withholding of evidence, it would vindicate me. It was a bitter disappointment that it failed in the courts. I think if we could have gotten the case to the courts earlier, things would have been different. The mood of the times is important.''
Has he seen the PBS dramatization and what does he think about it?
''Well, television is an entertainment medium, and it's not really for historical presentation. Any dramatization of actual events tends to distort them, and this is not an exception.
''The frenzied, almost hysterical attitude of some of the press, egged on by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI, created an emotional climate that made a fair trial impossible. That's not in the film.''
Does Hiss now feel that Chambers's sexual orientation has been stressed too much?
''I really don't want to comment on that. The film does show correctly that I did not want the issue brought up. Had the facts come out, though, there might have been quite a difference.''
How does Hiss account for the fact that the courts have not concluded that the information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act called for setting aside the conviction?
A pause and a chuckle. ''Judges make mistakes.''
After all these years, does Hiss now have any better perspective on the character of Whittaker Chambers?
''As various things have been published, I've learned more. There was a book called 'Friendship and Fratricide,' by Dr. Zeligs, a man who spent seven years studying people who knew Chambers. He comes to the conclusion that Chambers was psychologically unbalanced.''
Recently, President Reagan awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously to Whittaker Chambers. How does Mr. Hiss react to that?
''I was astonished. It seems to me a lowering of the standards and general purposes of that award. I can't believe that will be written down to Mr. Reagan's credit on the long run.''
At one point Chambers says, ''Nobody knows what this case is all about.'' What does Hiss feel this case was all about?
No hesitation here, either. ''The purpose of the case was to smear the New Deal and FDR. It later grew into the McCarthy era. After all, the Republicans had been out of power for 16 years at that time. J. Edgar Hoover lent himself to the people he thought would be coming into power.
''They were trying to attack Roosevelt indirectly. He was too popular to attack directly, but his lieutenants could be smeared, and they felt this would rub off on him and his policies. That's why, having been to Yalta and having worked on the preparation for the UN, I was in line to be a target. I was used as a substitute.''
Does Hiss believe the same kind of hysteria he feels was worked up could be repeated today?
''The attempts to revive domestic hysteria do not seem to have worked. The public is not prepared to accept another cold-war confrontation. We've had years of public education of the kind we didn't have then. A much higher percentage of people today have had a chance to examine history and think for themselves.''
Executive producer Lindsay Law has said he feels the dramatization has been evenhanded. Does Hiss agree?
Once again, the stubborn resolution fairly crackles over the wires. Hiss makes no pretense at evenhandedness.
''When you're dealing with a miscarriage of justice, there are not two sides. To deal with it evenhandedly distorts what happened.
''You know, there is clearance by legal action and there is clearance in the broader field of public opinion and history. I have no doubt I will be upheld in the broader scale.''