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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1948 - In the News -Alger Hiss
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1948!
Alger Hiss was born in 1904 in Baltimore, Maryland. Despite the suicide of his father, death of a sister and a brother, and numerous other personal set-backs, Hiss graduated from Johns Hopkins University and went on to attend Harvard Law School.

Hiss was hired as Clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. After working for a NY firm, and then for a Washington DC lawfirm, Hiss was brought into the "new deal" administration of Franklin Roosevelt and went to work for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration.

Alger Hiss
By July 1934, Hiss had distinguished himself in the new administration and received an appointment as counsel to the Nye Committee of the US Senate. The group, charged with investigating profiteering in the munitions industry, certainly didn't earn Hiss any "brownie" points with the munitions industry leaders.

It was during his period with the Nye Committee that Hiss encountered a part-time writer named George Crosley. Years later, Hiss would learn that Crosley was actually a pseudonym for Whittaker Chambers.

In August 1935, Hiss joined the Justice Department as the special assistant to the Solicitor General. Hiss worked on the government briefs in defense of his former employer, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The existence of the AAA was being challenged on Constitutional grounds, and Hiss worked hard to help the agency maintain its place within the federal government.

In September 1936, Hiss was invited by Secretary of State Sayre to join the State Department's Trade Agreements division as Sayre's assistant. Hiss accepted the position.

Hiss continued to move up through the ranks of the State Department, working in various positions. Of course, his lateral and upward mobility within a government agency is no different than every other highly-educated, dedicated employee in any other federal agency or corporate environment. This manuevering would come back to haunt him later though as detractors saw his federal "social climbing" to be a cover for his positioning to do covert communist work.

Hiss helped to organize the Dumbarton Oaks Conference during which the foundations for the United Nation were sketched out. He also participated with Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. By the age of 40, Hiss was chosen as Secretary General of the San Francisco Conference responsible for drafting the charter for the United Nations.

Unfortunately, as Hiss was experiencing a meteoric rise through government service, Crosley (actually Chambers) was making allegations directly and through third parties against Hiss. Claiming that Hiss was a communist, Chamber's stories finally got the attention of a young Congressman, Richard M. Nixon.

By August 1948, Crosley (Chambers) appeared before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. He claimed that although he left the communist party in 1937 and that his group did not participate in espionage, Hiss was a member of the party when he left and was probably still a member. His implication was that Hiss was not just a member of the party, but was engaged in passing State Department secrets to the communists.

Hiss appeared before the committee and denied all allegations made by Chambers. Hiss insisted that he be able to confront his accuser face-to-face. Hiss, still unaware that Crosley was actually Chambers, denied knowing anybody named Whittaker Chambers.

Hiss was taken aback when confronted with the person he knew as George Crosley. His denial of knowing Chambers was an innocent denial. There was no possible way that Hiss could have known of the subterfuge. The committee was unimpressed. Hiss then challenged Chambers to speak away from the protection of the committee and make his allegations publicly.

Chambers appeared on Meet the Press and leveled the same allegations about Hiss. Hiss responded immediately by filing a suit for libel. As the suit was pending, Chambers contacted Nixon and the committee to offer "proof" of Hiss's guilt.

Chambers ultimately produced a sheaf of papers (65 pages or so) that were supposedly State Department documents that Hiss passed to Chambers back in the late 30's. On a second document provision excursion (in a pumpkin field no less!) Chambers then produced several rolls of undeveloped microfilm which he claimed contain more documents that Hiss passed to him.

Despite the fact that only 58 documents appeared on the rolls of film and that many of them post-date the time (1938) when Chambers claimed to have left the party, and despite the fact that another State Department employee from the Trade Agreement section actually testified that he gave Chambers the documents, with only one day left on the Grand Jury panel, an indictment against Hiss was obtained for perjury. The statute of limitations had expired on any charges of treason.

At the time the charges were brought against Hiss, he was the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Congressional Committee, in particular Richard Nixon, made known to the Carnegie Endowment not just the charges formally made against Hiss, but also the unsubstantied allegations made by Chambers. The Endowment had little choice but to relieve Hiss of his post.

With two charges of perjury against him, Hiss faced not one, but two trials. The first trial ended with a hung jury.  The second trial found him guilty. He received a sentence of sixty months in a Federal penitentiary.

It should be noted that:

  • Hiss never once waivered in proclaiming his innocence right up until his death in 1996 at the age of 92.
  • Many of the original participants in the hearings and subsequent trials were dead before a Freedom of Information Act release of documents could have helped with a new trial.
  • Richard M. Nixon, at the time of the hearings an unknown congressman, ultimately catapulted himself into the White House.
  • In 1972, the "Hiss Act" was deemed unconstitutional and Alger Hiss was returned his federal pension previously denied under the Act.
  • In 1975, the State of Massachusetts readmitted Hiss to the Bar stating clearly that he had demonstrated the moral character necessary to be a member of their Bar. It should be noted that this was the first time an attorney was reinstated in the Massachusetts Bar.
  • Despite proof contained in the FOIA documentation that the FBI committed serious errors during the investigation of his case, two courts denied his request for a new trial. The Supreme Court declined to hear his case, as well.
  • In 1999, the grand jury documents were released in a precedent setting ruling. Those documents revealed Chamber's lies and Nixon's manipulation of the committee. Unfortunately, the documents were released three years after Hiss died.
  • The pursuit of justice for Alger Hiss continues by his friends, family, and other interested individuals.
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