Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A former U.S. State Department official, Alger Hiss was accused of being a communist spy by Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist Party member. After Chambers repeated the accusation on national television, Hiss sued him for libel. Hiss, in turn, was tried for perjury for denying to a grand jury that he passed documents to the Soviets and that he knew Chambers. The case remains one of espionage in the public memory, even though Hiss was never formally charged with spying.

Summary of Event

The perjury trial of Alger Hiss was held in the first few years of the fight against communism by Western powers following World War II. The scandal began with the investigations and hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), whose purpose was to ferret out communist infiltrators in the U.S. government. As the HUAC hearings took place in the summer and fall of 1948, they became themselves part of the larger picture of an emerging Cold War;and Soviet espionage[Soviet espionage] Cold War international politics that heightened public concerns about Soviet espionage in the 1930’s and 1940’s. [kw]Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury, Alger (Jan. 21, 1950) [kw]Perjury, Alger Hiss Is Convicted of (Jan. 21, 1950) Perjury;Alger Hiss[Hiss] Hiss, Alger Chambers, Whittaker State Department, U.S.;and Alger Hiss[Hiss] Communist Party;and government infiltration[government infiltration] House Committee on Un-American Activities;and Alger Hiss[Hiss] Perjury;Alger Hiss[Hiss] Hiss, Alger Chambers, Whittaker State Department, U.S.;and Alger Hiss[Hiss] Communist Party;and government infiltration[government infiltration] House Committee on Un-American Activities;and Alger Hiss[Hiss] [g]United States;Jan. 21, 1950: Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury[00860] [c]Law and the courts;Jan. 21, 1950: Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury[00860] [c]Government;Jan. 21, 1950: Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury[00860] [c]Politics;Jan. 21, 1950: Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury[00860]

Alger Hiss listens to a question during hearings with the House Committee on Un-American Activities in New York City in 1948.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The HUAC hearings in which Whittaker Chambers was called to testify and which form the basis of the case against Hiss began within a larger political context of postwar U.S. domestic and international politics. Domestically, a federal loyalty program required that all federal employees take an oath against communism, and U.S. Congress members sponsored a bill outlawing the Communist Party;outlawing of Communist Party in the United States. Internationally, the first major Cold War event to suggest a communist infiltration of the U.S. State Department was the 1945 Amerasia affair, in which federal agents raided the editorial office of the foreign affairs and communist-leaning journal Amerasia and found hundreds of classified federal documents.

The scandal involved two persons who could not have been more different. Hiss had an impeccable family background. He was a Harvard-trained lawyer and a former clerk of U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In 1933, Hiss accepted an offer to work in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, for which he served in various capacities. In 1936, he joined the U.S. State Department and was the key State official who presided over the meeting that founded the United Nations in 1945. After leaving the State Department in 1947, he joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as its president. Chambers, on the other hand, was a Columbia University dropout, a confessed former member of the Communist Party, and a journalist who came from a poor and troubled Philadelphia family.

Although hardly insightful, the HUAC proceedings exposed Hiss and Chambers for repeatedly giving stories that for the most part flatly contradicted each other. Chambers identified Hiss as a comrade of a Communist Party cell that operated in Washington, D.C., in 1930’s. Hiss not only denied any membership in the party but also claimed an unwavering loyalty to the United States.

Initially, Chambers’s testimony did not include charges of espionage against Hiss, but in a subsequent grand jury hearing, Chambers amended his previous statements to include espionage claims against Hiss for receiving and passing State Department documents to the Soviets. Chambers also testified that at a meeting hastily arranged to meet with the assistant secretary of state, Adolf Bearle, in 1939 he informed Bearle that Hiss was a communist. While a letter introduced at the hearings confirmed Chambers’s meeting, the content revealed nothing criminal.

Also testifying before HUAC was Elizabeth Bentley, who supported Chambers’s general assertion that a communist cell existed in the U.S. government. Bentley, an admitted Soviet agent, testified that she had been involved in passing documents obtained from a “nameless high-ranking government official” to the Soviets in the 1930’s. Also, even though Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Alger Hiss[Hiss] Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records show that the bureau began targeting Hiss as early as May, 1942, and met with Chambers twice in 1942 and 1945, that record does not confirm that Hiss was a spy. The records simply acknowledge that Chambers had testified that Hiss was one of the members of the Washington, D.C., communist cells operating in the State Department. While it is obvious what the FBI knew at the time, it is unclear what they did with that knowledge.

In his testimony, Chambers alleged that Hiss, among other government employees, had been a communist sympathizer during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Most of the alleged communists named by Chambers refused HUAC’s request to testify or answer questions, but Hiss was the exception. In a telegram sent to HUAC chairman Thomas, J. Parnell J. Parnell Thomas following Chambers’s testimony accusing him of being a communist, Hiss wrote, “I do not know Mr. Chambers, and insofar as I am aware, have never laid eyes on him.” Hiss also requested the right to appear before HUAC and make his denials formally and under oath. Before HUAC on August 5, Hiss’s denial of the charges against him was unequivocal, and he pleaded for a face-to-face confrontation with Chambers. He also challenged Chambers to repeat the charges outside the cover of congressional immunity, that is, outside the hearings.

Chambers repeated part of his testimony against Hiss on the television news program Meet the Press on August 27. Hiss sued him for libel, and Chambers countersued. In his filings, Chambers claimed for the first time publicly that Hiss had been a Communist Party informant during his tenure at the State Department. He also claimed that he passed information through Hiss to the Soviets—thereby making a claim of espionage against Hiss. These new claims turned out to be very significant.

Chambers insisted that Hiss was one of the most zealous Communist spies operating in Washington during the 1930’s, and he provided supporting evidence for his claim by producing fifty-eight microfilm frames of State Department documents that were dated 1938. He also submitted four penciled memoranda in Hiss’s handwriting and sixty-five typewritten pages purported to be copies of State Department communication. Chambers added that the typed papers were reproductions from originals made by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla Hiss, on a Hiss family typewriter. In Hiss’s perjury trial, these documents were key pieces of evidence.

On December 15, Hiss appeared before a federal grand jury in New York City and was indicted on two counts of perjury. In effect, the grand jury believed Chambers but not Hiss. The first count was for denying that he passed classified State Department documents to Chambers in 1938 and the second count was for denying that he met Chambers after 1937. Hiss was tried twice because his first trial ended in a hung jury in July, 1949. His second trial began on November 17, and he was found guilty of both counts on January 21, 1950. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Although the grand jury could not indict Hiss for espionage because he was protected by the statute of limitations, his trial and sentence was widely perceived by the public as an espionage case. That perception rings true today. Chambers, however, was never charged with a crime even though he admitted that he had lied to government officials.

Impact

The Hiss perjury and spy case remains notable for several reasons. First, Hiss was a former government official who was alleged to have betrayed his country, but for reasons that remain unclear. Some have argued that he was motivated by a profound ideological belief in communism. Second, the case assumed major political significance because it occurred during the start of the Cold War. Third, the case was a major catalyst in launching the careers of Richard Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;and Alger Hiss[Hiss] Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy, Joseph [p]McCarthy, Joseph[MacCarthy, Joseph];and Alger Hiss[Hiss] McCarthy to national prominence. Nixon admitted this in his book Six Crises (Nixon) Six Crises (1962). For McCarthy, the case provided ammunition for his infamous crusade against alleged communist infiltration of the federal government, which leads to another impact of the Hiss scandal. The case was a major validation of the claim of communist infiltration, and it inspired federal legislation intended to crack down on the American Communist Party.

In a landmark 1999 ruling, a federal judge ordered the release of thousands of pages of grand jury testimony from the Hiss case. Judge Leisure, Peter K. Peter K. Leisure stated that some federal cases are of such overriding historical importance that they need to be made public. In 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives ordered the release of all transcripts of HUAC executive-session testimony as well as investigators’ notes dating from the very first days of the HUAC hearings in 1948. Perjury;Alger Hiss[Hiss] Hiss, Alger Chambers, Whittaker State Department, U.S.;and Alger Hiss[Hiss] Communist Party;and government infiltration[government infiltration] House Committee on Un-American Activities;and Alger Hiss[Hiss]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gwynn, Beatrice. Whittaker Chambers: The Discrepancy in the Evidence of the Typewriter. London: Mazzard, 1993. Discusses a Cold War file, which was released in the 1990’s, that examines evidence presented by the U.S. government in the perjury case against Hiss.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiss, Alger. In the Court of Public Opinion. New York: Knopf, 1957. Hiss’s book on his reputation after the scandal also provides a thorough analysis of Chambers’s testimony. Includes documentary evidence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hiss, Tony. The View from Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1998. Hiss’s son provides a personal and profound portrayal of his father using previously unpublished prison letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summers, Anthony, and Robbyn Swan. The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. New York: Viking, 2000. This highly critical biography of Nixon devotes a chapter retelling the story of the Hiss case and Nixon’s role in that case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tiger, Edith. In Re Alger Hiss. New York: Hill & Wang, 1980. Includes a reproduction of Hiss’s 1978 petition, in which he asked the courts to overturn his guilty verdict on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Nigel. Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2007. Provides a detailed history of Cold War-era spy cases. Focuses on the compromised security of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, G. Edward. Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Examines and interprets Hiss’s struggle to deny accusations that he was a spy.

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