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Hear Alger Hiss talk about the political climate after FDR died.

 

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Who Was Alger Hiss?

A Brief Biography


Alger Hiss was born on November 11, 1904 in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the fourth of five children. In 1907, his father, an executive with a dry goods firm, committed suicide, leaving the children to be raised by their mother and aunt.

Alger Hiss and O.W. Holmes
Alger Hiss and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Hiss attended Johns Hopkins University and then Harvard Law School, where he came under the influence of future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He graduated from the law school in 1929. On Frankfurter's recommendation, Hiss received the honor of becoming Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's private secretary. Hiss would later say Holmes was the most profound influence in his life.

After his one-year appointment, Hiss joined the law firm of Choate, Hall & Stewart in Boston, Massachusetts. The next year, he and his wife Priscilla moved to New York, where she worked on a book while he joined another law firm. He stayed with the firm until 1933, when he received a telegram from Frankfurter, saying the country needed him. The telegram urged him to join the New Deal as an attorney with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, a program set up by FDR to help farmers who had been hurt by the Depression. 

In 1934, Hiss's services were loaned out to the Nye Committee of the U.S. Senate, which was investigating profiteering by the munitions industry. During this time, New Deal legislation was constantly under attack by conservatives, and, as a lawyer, Hiss became a point man whose specialty was defending the constitutionality of the new reforms. When the Nye Committee work was completed, he joined the Justice Department as special assistant to the Solictor General to help defend the AAA before the Supreme Court. The following year, he entered the Trade Agreements division of the State Department, as special assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, to gain firsthand experience that would help the government defend the constitutionality of the Trade Agreements Act.

In 1939, Hiss became assistant to Stanley Hornbeck, the State Department's Political Adviser in Charge of Far Eastern Affairs. Two years later, his son Tony was born. In 1944, as World War II was drawing to a close, he helped plan for peace. As deputy director of the Department's Office of Special Political Affairs, he was in charge of setting up the United Nations. Later that year, he headed the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which formally drew up the U.N. Charter.

In 1945, while serving as a member of the American delegation to the Yalta Conference, Hiss was named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. Later that year, he was Secretary General of the San Francisco Conference that organized the United Nations. After the conference - as the highlight of his government career - Hiss was asked to fly the new U.N. charter back to Washington in a special plane for President Truman's signature. "That was the day," Hiss said later, "when I realized exactly how important I really was - the charter had a parachute and I didn't."

Hiss left the government in 1946 to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foundation which under his leadership became a leading supporter of the U.N. He was serving in that capacity when before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948, Whittaker Chambers first made his public charges that Hiss was a secret communist. Hiss denied the charge and filed a libel suit against Chambers, but after Chambers produced a number of copies of State Department documents and said they were given to him by Hiss for transmission to the Soviet Union, perjury charges were brought against Hiss when he denied before a grand jury that he had committed espionage. The Hiss-Chambers affair would prove to be the watershed case of the McCarthy period and one of the most important of the century.

Hiss in Handcuffs
Alger Hiss in handcuffs

A first trial ended in a hung jury, but Hiss, who firmly maintained his innocence, was convicted in a second trial. He served 44 months in jail before his release in November 1954.

When he left prison, the other inmates stood at the windows to cheer him, something that had happened only once before, when Eugene V. Debs left jail in 1921. Hiss in later years reported that, for him, prison had been a place of learning and growing, saying that "three years in jail is a good corrective for three years at Harvard."

Disbarred, Hiss took a job as a salesman and wrote "In the Court of Public Opinion," in which he rebutted the government's case point by point. (continued in the next column)

Alger Hiss's Book, In the Court of Public Opinion
Alger Hiss's book, In the Court of Public Opinion.

 

 


Hiss and his wife separated in 1959. He continued to assert his innocence, and over the years evidence surfaced to back his claim, including some 40,000 pages of FBI documents released to him in the 1970s. Based on information in the documents which indicated that the FBI hid evidence that would have helped clear him, Hiss filed a petition of coram nobis, asking that the verdict be overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. The petition was turned down in Federal Court. Appeals were unsuccessful. In 1975, however, to his enormous personal satisfaction, Hiss was readmitted to the Massachusetts bar.

Hiss married his second wife, Isabel Johnson, in 1986. Two years later, he wrote his autobiography, "Recollections of a Life." His grandson, Jacob Hiss, was born in 1991. Alger Hiss died at the age of 92 on Nov. 15, 1996, still fighting for vindication.


We Remember Alger Hiss

What do friends and supporters have to say about Alger Hiss? Click here to find out.

Hiss in '57
Alger Hiss in 1957



Photo AlbumPhoto Album

Browse the photo album to see images of Alger Hiss drawn from throughout his life.


In His Own Words: Interviews With Alger Hiss and His Own Writings

Between 1951 and 1954, Alger Hiss poured forth many of his deepest reflections on life, literature, art, politics, nature, human nature, and the state of the world in the hundreds of letters he wrote home from prison to his wife and young son.  Extracts from dozens of these previously unpublished letters, which also include the games, puzzles, and stories he created for his son, form the core of "The View from Alger's Window," Tony Hiss's 1999 memoir about his father.  Click here for further information on this book.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alger Hiss began working on a history of the New Deal. The book was never completed. Among his notes for the book, however, was this remarkable essay on his own political journey that was intended to serve as the book's introduction. This piece, which is of major historical importance, tells not only Hiss's personal story, but in a larger sense it speaks for a whole generation of Americans who joined or supported the New Deal and its values. Click here to read Alger Hiss's "Liberal Manifesto."

In 1974, Alger Hiss was interviewed by James Day for the public television series Day At Night. Click here to read the transcript of this wide-ranging interview which, among other things, reveals Hiss's long-held faith in democracy as inspired by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In 1978, Alger Hiss was interviewed by Judah and Alice V. Graubart for their oral history of the 1930s, "Decade of Destiny" (Contemporary Books). Click here to read Hiss's recollections of the New Deal and of the 1930s, a decade that was crucial to Hiss's life and career.

In 1980, as tension ran high in America with the presidential elections playing out over the long running Iranian hostage crisis, Alger Hiss took a look back at the McCarthy period for Barrister magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. Hiss examines the roots of witch hunting and addresses the question, "Could it happen again?" Click here to read the article.

As one of the last surviving participants in the Yalta Conference and a lightning rod for criticism aimed at FDR's foreign policies, Hiss made a point of defending the agreements between the U.S. and Russia at Yalta in 1945. Click here to read his article, "Yalta: Modern American Myth," which appeared in The Pocket Book Magazine in 1955. Click here to read a brief article on Yalta he wrote for The Nation in 1982.

Alger Hiss was frequently accused of secretly having secretly forged a pro-Soviet policy at Yalta. In fact, Hiss argued for a tough anti-Soviet stance, as this story based on Hiss's notes from the conference indicates. Click here to read the article, as it appeared in The New York Times when the notes were released in 1955.

In a lengthy, candid 1978 interview for The Advocate, a news publication of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Alger Hiss discussed his coram nobis petition and other legal aspects of his case. Click here to read the interview.

Nine months before Whittaker Chambers made his first public charges that Alger Hiss had been, and perhaps still was, a Communist, Hiss wrote an influential article for The New York Times Sunday Magazine on behalf of the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe. Because the Soviets strongly opposed the plan, this article was presented at Hiss's second perjury trial as evidence of his clear anti-communist leanings. More than a half century later, the article provides insight into Hiss's political thinking and his strong humanitarianism. Click here to read the article and an introduction by the editors of this site.

Richard Nixon wrote about his "Six Crises" in his 1962 autobiography. Eleven years later during the Watergate hearings, Alger Hiss followed with "My Six Parallels," an article for The New York Times op ed page.

Courtesy of the United Nations is this wide-ranging 1990 interview with Alger Hiss about the organization's formative events he participated in and the people he knew. Click here to download the interview.

 


Alger Hiss's Correspondence

Alger Hiss corresponded with thousands of people during his life. His correspondents ran the gamut from prominent government officials, journalists and literary and academic figures to relatives, students, researchers ex-convicts, friends and enemies. The letters, to-and-from Hiss, provide a unique window onto his life and character.

This section will be updated regularly. Readers' contributions are welcome. Anyone willing to provide copies of Hiss's letters should contact the site at hiss.info@nyu.edu

Click here to read Alger Hiss's correspondence.

 


Alger Hiss: As the Press Saw Him

In 1960, journalist Brock Brower wrote an in-depth account of Alger Hiss's post-prison life and career for Esquire magazine. Click here to read his article.

 

 

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