The Hiss Case in History

The Hiss case has maintained a persistent, restless, troubling presence in modern American history, straddling past and present as a piece of unfinished business. Some people today remember the Hiss case and its swirling charges of treason, lies, and Soviet espionage as a watershed event in post-World War II America that dramatically changed the course of thousands of American lives and the ways in which additional millions of Americans thought about the world. Other people are not quite sure if they have ever heard of Alger Hiss. For still others - some of them Hiss supporters; some of them detractors - the Hiss case has not yet receded into history, and, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, remains a living, unresolved, and now 21st-century event that arouses intense interest, stirs passionate debate, and exerts a continuing influence on national policy.

As a historical subject, the Hiss case is a fast-receding, mid-2Oth-century federal criminal case - a perjury indictment known officially as The United States of America v. Alger Hiss - that made front-page headlines year after year in the late 1940s and early 195Os: Newspapers of the time routinely called it "the trial of the century." Richard M. Nixon, then an unknown, first-term Congressman from California, became nationally famous for his pursuit of Alger Hiss, and 20 years later, in 1968, was elected president. Ronald Reagan, because of the Hiss case, turned his back on New Deal liberalism, embraced conservative views, and, after entering politics, became President in 1980.

The Hiss case helped launch the 1950s McCarthy period, a decade of fear and distrust. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's anti-communist crusade, during which 10,000 Americans lost their jobs, began less than three weeks after Alger Hiss's conviction in 1950. The Hiss case became as a mirror in which America saw disquieting reflections of itself during the early years of the Cold War. The British journalist, Alistair Cooke, who in 1950 published the first book about the trials of Alger Hiss, called it "A Generation on Trial." "The impact of the Hiss case on the movement of anti-communism to the center of the political stage," the historian James V. Compton wrote in 1973, "can scarcely be exaggerated."

The crux of the debate was clear: If Alger Hiss - who throughout his life steadfastly maintained his innocence - were guilty as charged, and passed government documents to the Soviet Union when he worked for the United States State Department in the 1930s, this would show that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal had been infiltrated and compromised by Communist spies. If Hiss were innocent, his conviction had been a historic miscarriage of justice.

That debate continues. A recent ProQuest database search through New York University Libraries' main Web site listed more than 350 American newspaper and magazine articles about Alger Hiss or some aspect of the Hiss case that were published during 1999 and 2000. In 1997, the Hiss case became an issue in Senate confirmation hearings over President Clinton's selection of Anthony Lake to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Lake had said on Meet the Press that he was not entirely convinced of Alger Hiss's guilt. During the hearings, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) stated that "I would find it very difficult to support a nominee who did not believe that Alger Hiss was a spy"; Lake later withdrew his nomination.

A year before, in 1996, former Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee for the presidency (against Richard Nixon), told a meeting of the American Historical Association that "I've always believed that Hiss was a victim of the 'Red Scare' and of Nixon's political rapacity. It is a national outrage that this essentially decent man went to prison as a consequence of the demagoguery of Nixon and the ignominious House Committee on Un-American Activities."

Alger Hiss, who lived for 47 years after his conviction, devoted those years to a quest for vindication. (He died in 1996 at the age of 92.) Along the way, he won several legal proceedings. His government pension was restored to him in 1972, and he was readmitted to the bar in Massachusetts in 1974 (Timeline). But although he brought his own case back to court in 1978, after securing the release of tens of thousands of pages of material from his FBI files (Courtroom), he was never able to have his conviction overturned. Whittaker Chambers, Hiss's accuser, who died in 1961 at the age of 61, received posthumous honors from the Reagan administration: President Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1984, and his Westminster, Maryland farm where he had once concealed the "Pumpkin Papers" (The Pumpkin Papers and the Baltimore Documents) was declared a national historic landmark in 1988. Every Halloween, Chambers' supporters gather in a Washington, D.C. Hotel or a ceremonial dinner meeting of the "Pumpkin Papers Irregulars," which is addressed by a prominent conservative (in 2000, it was Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor).

Since Hiss's 1950 conviction, more than two dozen books have examined the case (Bookshelf and Book Reviews); at least four more are in preparation. Many of the published books support part or all of Hiss's testimony; on the other hand, two of the most influential, Allen Weinstein's "Perjury" and Sam Tanenhaus's "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography," have been highly critical of Hiss. Continuing interest in the Hiss case has been sustained by the appearance of these and other books, such as Anthony Summers' and Robyn Swan's "The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon." Reviewing this book for the Chicago Tribune, John W. Dean, who served as counsel to the president during the Nixon administration, wrote that "The authors have reopened the debate on whether Hiss was framed."

Further interest in the Hiss case has also been stimulated by a series of recent and well-publicized developments:

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Alger Hiss appealed to the post-Communist Russian government to search their records for any evidence that could throw light on his case (Volkogonov on the Hiss Case).

In the mid-1990s, the partial release of Cold War files in both Russia and the U.S. sparked heatedly renewed debate among historians and journalists both about Hiss himself and about the extent to which Soviet intelligence had penetrated American government during the early years of the Cold War. (Venona and the Russian Files).

In a landmark 1999 ruling, a federal judge ordered the release of thousands of pages of grand jury testimony from the Hiss case. Judge Peter K. Leisure agreed with the contention put forward by historians and archivists, who had petitioned for the release of the documents that some federal cases are of such overriding historical importance that they need to be made public, despite the continuing presumption that in most cases secrecy protects the public's rights (The Grand Jury Minutes).

•In the fall of 2001, the House of Representatives released all executive session testimony and investigators' notes from the long-defunct House Committee on Un-American Activities, including 1948 material that dates to the very first days of the Hiss case (The Latest Evidence).

The search for the truth continues - and will necessarily extend into the future for some time to come. But Hiss supporters and Hiss detractors acknowledge that certain aspects cannot hope to be fully resolved until a full array of Cold War documents held in both Russia and the U.S. are made public (How You Can Help).

Under these circumstances, it's clear that "The Alger Hiss Story" Web site, even as it receives frequent and regular updates (The Latest Evidence and What's New On The Site) and incorporates comments and suggestions from its readers (Your Comments and We Remember Alger), has to think of itself as an interim document. It can, nevertheless, seek to perform several important, basic services for researchers, students, and their instructors (About This Site and For the Teacher).

Previously, the whole evolving thrust of the defense's arguments have only been available to students and researchers with the time and opportunity to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts where the Hiss case files are housed at the Harvard Law School library. Or, in the case of the recently released grand jury minutes, they must go to New York City or Washington. D.C. where the National Archives has made boxes of photocopies of these records available for public inspection. Also, the public papers of many of the figures who played prominent or supporting parts in the Hiss case are housed in research libraries across the country.

With the opening of "The Alger Hiss Story" everyone around the world with Internet access can log onto this new portal for immediate access to primary information about Alger Hiss, the Hiss case and related subjects, including parallel developments during the early Cold War years. Postings and links make available new scholarship, newly released official documents and archival material, such as trial testimony, court and government records, and commentary, that is maintained by many libraries and online repositories.

In addition, this Web site will present a complete summary of the charges against Alger Hiss and a comprehensive look at the case for the defense. These documents will be supplemented by a wide-ranging look at the public life and career of Alger Hiss (Who was Alger Hiss?), and will include the first assembling of his own writings, both published and private; transcripts of his interviews and the comments of his friends and contemporaries. It is hoped that by making this material available, the reader can evaluate Hiss's goals, accomplishments and his character.


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