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