Hiss, Alger


Hiss, Alger
born Nov. 11, 1904, Baltimore, Md., U.S.
died Nov. 15, 1996, New York, N.Y.

U.S. government official.

He attended Harvard Law School and clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He worked at the U.S. State Department in the 1930s, attended the Yalta Conference (1945) as an adviser to Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, was briefly secretary-general of the fledgling UN, and served as head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1946–49). In 1948 Whittaker Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Hiss had been a fellow member of a communist spy ring in the 1930s. When Chambers repeated the charge in public, unprotected by congressional immunity, Hiss sued him for slander. In a federal grand-jury investigation of the case, both Chambers and Hiss testified; Hiss was later indicted on two charges of perjury. His first trial (1949) ended with a hung jury; at his second trial (1950) he was found guilty. He was released from jail in 1954, still protesting his innocence. In 1996 the release of secret Soviet cables intercepted by U.S. intelligence during World War II provided strong evidence of Hiss's guilt. The Hiss case seemed to lend substance to charges by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of communist infiltration in the State Department; it also brought national attention to Richard Nixon, whose hostile questioning of Hiss during the HUAC hearings did much to establish his reputation as a fervent anticommunist.

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▪ 1997

      U.S. government official (b. Nov. 11, 1904, Baltimore, Md.—d. Nov. 15, 1996, New York, N.Y.), was a central figure in an espionage case that ushered in the anticommunist McCarthy era and brought Richard M. Nixon to national attention as one of the most prominent congressional investigators in the case. Hiss received a bachelor's degree (1926) from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and a degree (1929) from Harvard Law School before serving (1929-30) as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He entered (1933) government service during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and by 1936 was working at the State Department. At the 1945 Yalta Conference, Hiss was an adviser to Roosevelt, and at the conference in San Francisco that created the UN, he served as temporary secretary-general. After the FBI had been alerted to the possibility that Hiss was a Soviet agent, it was arranged for him to become (1946) the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a largely ceremonial position that he held until 1949. In 1948, in hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, former Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss of having been a member of a communist espionage ring in the 1930s. Hiss denied the charges and, when Chambers repeated them publicly, sued him for slander. Chambers then produced material that he claimed Hiss had given him to pass along to the Soviets. Both men testified before a federal grand jury, which believed Chambers. As the statute of limitations on espionage had run out, Hiss was indicted on two charges of perjury. A first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted (1950) after a second trial and subsequently served more than three years of a five-year prison sentence, all the while continuing to maintain his innocence. In 1992, after the Cold War had ended, Hiss thought he finally had been vindicated when a Russian general in charge of military and KGB intelligence archives announced that he had found no evidence that Hiss had been a spy. The general later recanted, however, and in 1996 the U.S. National Security Agency released documents suggesting that Hiss could have been the Soviet agent known as "Ales."

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▪ United States official
born November 11, 1904, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
died November 15, 1996, New York, New York

      former U.S. State Department official who was convicted in January 1950 of perjury concerning his dealings with Whittaker Chambers (Chambers, Whittaker), who accused him of membership in a communist espionage ring. His case, which came at a time of growing apprehension about the domestic influence of communism, seemed to lend substance to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (McCarthy, Joseph R.)'s sensational charges of communist infiltration into the State Department. It also brought to national attention Richard M. Nixon (Nixon, Richard M.), then a U.S. representative from California, who was prominent in the investigation that led to the indictment of Hiss.

      Hiss was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University (A.B., 1926; Phi Beta Kappa) and of Harvard Law School (1926–29) and was law clerk (1929–30) to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1933 he entered government service in President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Roosevelt, Franklin D.)'s administration and served successively in the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, and State. He attended the Yalta Conference (1945) as an adviser to Roosevelt and later served as temporary secretary-general of the United Nations (San Francisco Conference). In 1946 he was elected president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a position he held until 1949.

 In 1948 Chambers, a self-professed former courier for a communist underground “apparatus” in Washington, D.C., accused Hiss of having been a member of the same “apparatus” before World War II. Hiss denied the charge, which was originally made before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. When Chambers repeated the charge publicly, away from the House committee chamber where his words were protected by congressional immunity, Hiss sued him for slander. On December 6, 1948, the House committee released sworn testimony by Chambers that Hiss had provided him (Chambers) with certain classified State Department papers for transmission to a Soviet agent. Hiss promptly denied the accusation “without qualification.” In a federal grand-jury investigation of the case, both Chambers and Hiss testified; and Hiss was indicted on December 15 on two charges of perjury, specifically charging that Hiss lied both when he denied that he had given any documents to Chambers and when he testified that he did not talk to Chambers after January 1, 1937. Arraigned, Hiss pleaded not guilty. Hiss's first trial in 1949 ended in a hung jury. In the second trial, which ended early in 1950, he was found guilty. At both trials Chambers's sanity was a prominent issue. After serving more than three years of a five-year prison sentence, Hiss was released in 1954, still asserting his innocence. During the following decades the issue of Hiss's guilt was kept open by outspoken defenders, principally from the American political left, who consistently maintained that he had been unjustly convicted.

      In 1992 Hiss asked Russian officials to check the newly opened archives of the former Soviet Union for information pertaining to the case. Later that year General Dmitri A. Volkogonov, a historian and chairman of the Russian government's military intelligence archives, announced that a comprehensive search had revealed no evidence that Hiss had been involved in a Soviet spy ring. Many scholars, however, doubted that any search could divulge all the secrets of the complex Soviet intelligence operation—Volkogonov's search did not include Soviet military intelligence files—and therefore felt that the question of Hiss's innocence remained unresolved. In 1996 the release of secret Soviet cables that had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence during World War II provided strong evidence for Hiss's guilt.

Additional Reading
Of the several books written on the Hiss case, the most significant are Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978), which argues Hiss's guilt; and John Chabot Smith, Alger Hiss, the True Story (1976), which is largely a defense of Hiss.

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Universalium. 2010.

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