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Trials of the Century: Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss (far right) in the waning days of WWII.

Alger Hiss was, depending upon whom you believe, a Communist spy burrowed deeply in the Department of State or, alternatively, one of the earliest victims of the Red Scare that tore through the United States — promoted most ferociously by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy — and which destroyed many lives in the process.

Hiss had a long history of government service dating back to the early years of The Great Depression and lasting through the time when things began to go south for him. His highest profile assignment was the Yalta conference, during which Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill met near the end of World War II to discuss the post-war order, as it had become clear that Nazi Germany was nearing defeat and Imperial Japan was on the ropes.

This history of seeming dedication to American interests was called into question when Whittaker Chambers, a former declared member of the U.S. Communist Party went before the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) and alleged that Hiss was himself a secret Communist. (This is a post for another day, but there is little disagreement today that the idea of an “Un-American Affairs Committee” is itself un-American.)

President Harry Truman, to his credit, was vehemently opposed to HUAC, its members, and its odious mission. Alger Hiss went before the committee and its recently appointed chair, a young Representative by the name of Richard Milhouse Nixon — who went on to infamy as the 37th President of the United States — and was grilled about his relationship to Whittaker.

Hiss denied having any knowledge of Whittaker’s existence, much less having met with or conspired with the man. When shown a picture, however, Hiss admitted to having met the men, but insisted that Whittaker had used the alias “George Crosley.” In a moment of supreme Congressional high drama, Hiss interrogated Whittaker during a HUAC hearing, during which Whittaker alleged that the both of them were Communists.

Hiss sued Whittaker for defamation, which started the dominoes falling. In his defense, Whittaker produced State Dept. documents allegedly purloined by Hiss in 1938 and handed to Whittaker to deliver to Soviet agents in the U.S. Since the statute of limitations had run on espionage charges, prosecutors hauled Hiss before a jury on charges that he had perjured himself while testifying before Congress. He was convicted, serving nearly four years in a federal prison.

Hiss maintained his innocence until his death in 1996. In the years since, there have been investigations by private citizens presenting theories both for and against Hiss’ innocence. The real truth may never be known, but what is undeniably true is that this incident helped to light the fuse of the Red Scare, an ugly period in national history, and launch the career of Richard Nixon, author of another ugly period in national history.

Is Hiss a villain or a victim? Check out this New Yorker article written at the time of the Hiss affair for an on-the-ground look.