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Alger Hiss

Harry S Truman

Alger Hiss: Harry Truman was the 33rd American President who served in office from April 12, 1945 to January 20, 1953. One of the important events during his presidency were the trials of Alger Hiss.

Definition and Summary of the Alger Hiss
Summary and definition:
Alger Hiss was a highly prominent member of the federal government who had attended the Yalta Conference and served as Secretary General at the meeting to discuss the formation of the United Nations (UN). He was accused by an ex-communist, writer and editor Whitaker Chambers, of being a communist before a highly public HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) hearing.

Alger Hiss was subsequently accused of acting as a soviet spy in 1938 and evidence was given in the form of microfilm documents referred to as the "Pumpkin Papers".

Richard Nixon, an HUAC committee member, conducted investigations in 1948 but due to the time limit of the Statute of Limitations Hiss was never tried as a soviet spy, instead he was charged with perjury. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. The case attracted massive publicity and launched the career of Richard Nixon as a tough anti-communist, brought the HUAC into prominence and led to the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism and the communist witch hunts during the Red Scare during the Cold War.

Who was Alger Hiss? Alger Hiss was U.S. State Department official who was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1948 and convicted of perjury in 1950 concerning his dealings with Whitaker Chambers, who accused him of membership in a communist spy ring.

Why was Alger Hiss famous? Alger Hiss was famous because of the high profile and publicity his case attracted with its dramatic elements, compelling characters, accusations of espionage and treason and so many ambiguities and inconsistencies to leave the issue of the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss in doubt for decades.

What were the 'Pumpkin Papers'? The 'Pumpkin Papers' were a series of microfilm documents (35-mm microfilm) produced by Whitaker Chambers  against Alger Hiss in the perjury trial in which Hiss was accused of lying about having passed State Department papers to Chambers.

Facts about Alger Hiss
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Alger Hiss.

Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 November 15, 1996) was  a brilliant Harvard law student who went on to serve as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

His career moved on and by the late 1930's he had become a key official in the United States Department of State during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration

In 1939 Whitaker Chambers, an American writer and editor and a former member of the U.S. Communist Party, told Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle that Alger Hiss was a communist.

Whitaker Chambers had been an active Communist Party USA member and Soviet spy until he renounced Communism and left the Communist Underground in 1937 and went into hiding for a year.

He concealed several rolls of microfilm documents he had collected in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm to avoid discovery. Chambers planned to use the documents as a "life preserver" to prevent the Soviets from killing him or threatening his family.

Whitaker Chambers became a senior editor at Time magazine and an outspoken opponent against Communism and an informant to the federal government, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, agreeing to reveal what he knew on the condition of immunity from prosecution.

In meetings with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle Whitaker Chambers named eighteen current and former government employees as spies or Communist sympathizers. One of the names was the high ranking state official, Alger Hiss.

Whitaker Chambers withheld his "life preserver" documents, later known as the "Pumpkin Papers" and  Adolf Berle found Whitaker Chambers information uncorroborated and unclear. Berle notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation of Chambers information in March 1940 and the FBI opened a file on Alger Hiss.

World War 2 (1939 - 1945) had broken out and the USSR had joined the Allies against Germany.  FBI took no immediate action against Alger Hiss, viewing the potential threat from the Soviets as minor, compared to the threat of Nazi Germany.

During WW2 Alger Hiss had achieved such prominence in the government that he had become the Director of the Office of Political Affairs and had attended the Yalta Conference and served as Secretary General at the 1945 San Francisco meeting to discuss the formation of the United Nations (UN)

World War 2 ended in victory for the Allies and defeat for Hitler and the Nazis but a new threat emerged in the US with fears of the spread of Communism which led to the second Red Scare and the start of the Cold War.

In November 1945 the Rev. John Cronin, an anti-communist Roman Catholic priest, circulated a report on Communists in the federal government. Cronin's source was Whitaker Chambers. The report names Alger Hiss. (The report was later given to Richard Nixon after he is elected to the House of Representatives).

The Loyalty Review Program was established in 1946 that required government employees to be screened in order to root out Communist influence in the federal government and the "Communist Witch Hunts" began.

In 1947 the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) came into prominence, investigating any suspicions of Communist subversion or propaganda by influential people in American society.

On February 1, 1947 Alger Hiss left the government to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

June 1947 FBI agents visit Hiss at his office. In the interview he denied being a Communist and said he never knew anyone by the name of Whitaker Chambers.

On August 3 1948 Whitaker Chambers was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and testified that Hiss was a member of an underground Communist Party group, but at this point did not make any accusations of espionage.

Many Americans were swept up in the wave of anti-communist hysteria, that would later be termed McCarthyism, and became divided over the Hiss-Chambers affair. President Harry Truman, concerned with the allegation that the high ranking government official who had presided over the UN Conference was a Communist, labeled the case as a "red herring".

On August 3 1948 Alger Hiss testified to the HUAC denying the charges and requesting to meet his accuser. The HUAC wanted to drop the case but the ambitious Richard Nixon, an HUAC committee member, persuaded the other members that he could produce evidence showing that Hiss had lied and that he knew Chambers. Nixon realized that the publicity surrounding the case would establish him as a tough anti-Communist.

Richard Nixon was put in charge of a subcommittee to privately question Chambers further about Alger Hiss. In a highly publicized event Chambers took Richard Nixon to his Maryland farm, where the "life preserver" microfilm of confidential documents was hidden in the hollow pumpkin. He accused Alger Hiss of giving him confidential State Department documents in 1938 to deliver to the Soviets and claimed that the microfilm "Pumpkin Papers" had been prepared on Hiss's own typewriter.

The "Pumpkin Papers" were presented to the HUAC and Richard Nixon grilled Hiss who vehemently denied the accusations. On August 25, 1948 Hiss and Chambers confronted each other in the dramatic televised HUAC hearing. It was the first Congressional hearing ever televised.

On August 27, 1948 Whitaker Chambers spoke, without congressional protection, on a national public affairs program on NBC radio called 'Meet the Press' and repeated his accusation that Alger Hiss was a Communist

On September 28, 1948 Alger Hiss filed a slander suit for $75,000 against Chambers alleging that his accusation, made on 'Meet the Press', that he was a communist was false.

The case was referred to the grand jury who held hearings in December 1948. Hiss could not be tried on charges of Espionage because the evidence for allegedly passing documents to the Soviets in 1938 had occurred more than 10 years ago, and the Statute of Limitations for espionage was 5 years. Instead he was tried for perjury (lying under oath).

The grand jury returned a two-count indictment of perjury charging that he had lied about giving Whitaker Chambers the official documents in 1938, and his claim that he had not even seen Chambers after January 1, 1937.

The first perjury trial, in June 1949, ended with the jury deadlocked eight to four for conviction and was retried in January 1950.

Alger Hiss was found guilty in the second trial on both counts of perjury and was sentenced to five years in prison.

He appealed his conviction but lost and served 44 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and was released in 1954. His career in law and public service was ruined.

Even after his conviction the case was far from over as Americans debated whether Alger Hiss had been a spy or whether Whitaker Chambers had lied.

The case launched the career of Richard Nixon and inflamed the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War which led to the rise in power of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

US American History
1945-1993: Cold War Era

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