In his Own Words

In 1980, as tensions ran high in America with the presidential elections playing out over the long-running Iranian hostage crisis, Alger Hiss re-examined the McCarthy period for Barrister magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. In his analysis, Hiss explores the roots of witch hunting and addresses the question, "Can it happen again?" Click here to read the article.

Need some background on the case? Click here:

- The Timeline
- The Bookshelf

- The Cast

Video Clip

Watch related video clips:

Hiss Describes the Hostile Political Climate

The Creation of the Loyalty Board

"A Drama of Contradictions"



America in the Late 1940s:

"Most Americans," the Cold War historian Kai Bird has written ("A Foreign Policy for the Common Citizen,"
The Nation, May 8, 2000), "have no memory of the designs Franklin Roosevelt's New Dealers had for postwar American foreign policy." Bird says the reason is "the duration and intensity of the Cold War make it difficult to remember what might have been the common-sensical path not taken at the end of World War II."

Here is Bird's list of what President Roosevelt had in mind for the postwar world: "Human rights, self-determination and an end to European colonization in the developing world, nuclear disarmament, international law, the World Court, the United Nations - these were all ideas of the progressive left. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were initially conceived as vehicles for internationalizing the New Deal."

That policy, according to Bird, was embodied in what Roosevelt had called the "Four Freedoms" - "an attainable world in which there would be not only freedom of speech and worship but also freedom from want and fear."

With Roosevelt's death, in April 1945, policies of fear were re-introduced. Near the end of his life, Alger Hiss, who, as Secretary General of the United Nations organizing conference in San Francisco in 1945, had played an important role in the founding of the U.N., recalled an early postwar conversation with Dean Acheson, who became Secretary of State under President Harry S Truman, Roosevelt's successor. The Cold War with the Russians was then just emerging, and Acheson, Hiss recalled, considered it valuable to warn American lawmakers repeatedly about the many misdeeds of America's rival superpower, the Soviet Union.

"If you don't scare Congress, Alger, they'll go fishing," Acheson had said. "But, Dean," Hiss had replied, "if you do scare them, they'll go crazy."

Two years later, when Hiss was himself accused before a Congressional committee (first of Communist sympathies and later of espionage for the Soviet Union), the Hiss case became one of the defining - and still highly controversial - episodes of the Cold War.

Victor Rabinowitz, who served as Alger Hiss's attorney during the 1970s, offered this summary of the postwar years that led up to the Hiss case (it appears in the 1978 coram nobis brief Rabinowitz wrote petitioning the federal government to reopen the Hiss case, based on what was then newly uncovered evidence that had been released to Hiss by the FBI).

The trial of Alger Hiss was one of the great state trials in the recent history of the United States. It had its genesis in the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the summer and fall of 1948, but those hearings themselves were part of the larger picture of the Cold War. The House Committee hearings took place against the closely contested 1948 presidential election between President Truman and Governor Thomas E. Dewey, which itself was set against the increase in political tensions both nationally and internationally. 

USSR FlagIn March 1946, Sir Winston Churchill had delivered his "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri. The Soviet blockade of Germany followed shortly thereafter and the Berlin airlift began in response. In February 1948 the Soviet Union had occupied Czechoslovakia, and events in Greece had raised fears that armed conflict between the Western powers and the Soviet Union might break out in that area of the world. 

Tensions also increased internally. President Truman had instituted a Loyalty Program for all federal employees as early as March 1947; Congressmen Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon had combined to sponsor a bill outlawing the Communist Party; and labor unions were wracked with charges of "Red" leadership, resulting in the wholesale expulsion of many militant leaders.

President TrumanThe House Committee on Un-American Activities played its own role in the political conflicts that were developing. In the summer of 1948, Elizabeth Bentley had submitted to the Committee her tale of Communist conspirators in the country; J. Parnell Thomas, then chairman of the Committee, said, years later, that the chairman of the Republican National Committee "was urging me in the Dewey campaign to set up the spy hearings . . . in order to put the heat on Truman" (N.Y. Times, Feb. 8, 1954).

It was in this setting that, on August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers testified at a HUAC hearing that Hiss had been a member of an "underground" group of the Communist Party during his government employment from 1934 to 1937. At the time Chambers made his charges, Hiss was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, after having rendered distinguished service in the government. His employment in the State Department, and his close association with the Yalta Conference and the United Nations, made him a prominent target for the anti-Truman forces. His conviction quickly became a political issue and, for some, a political necessity. 


| Home | Site Map | Courtroom | Bookshelf | Timeline | Cast | Who Was Alger Hiss |