Obituary: Alger Hiss

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The Independent Online
Now that Alger Hiss has died historians must be hoping that among his papers he has left a memorandum explaining his role in the most important trial in modern American political history. For the case of USA v Alger Hiss was decisive in shaping McCarthyism, which came to dominate American political life between about 1949 and the end of the 1950s.

It all began on 3 August 1948 when Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor on Time magazine, told an open hearing of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities that in the 1930s he had been part of a Communist network in Washington DC. The network had included a State Department official named Alger Hiss, and though Chambers named a handful of others Hiss alone cabled the committee and demanded the opportunity to deny Chambers's charges.

By then Hiss was president of the Carnegie Peace Endowment and, aged 44, at the height of a brilliant career. For a moment it began to look like a terrible case of mistaken identity. But when Hiss was finally confronted with Chambers he somewhat reluctantly identified him as a down-and-out journalist he had briefly known and helped named George Crosley.

Chambers, a man of many aliases, denied ever having used that one. Instead, he alleged that while they worked together for the CP underground Hiss had turned over his old apartment to him, given him a car, loaned him $400 and accepted an expensive carpet as a present from the Party. He also gave some impressive details about Hiss's personal life.

As doubts grew about Hiss's story that he had known Chambers only slightly, sublet his former apartment to him for a month, thrown in a beat-up old Ford as part of the deal, accepted a cheap rug as part- payment and withdrawn $400 from his account to buy furnishings, Hiss began to act like a defendant, guarding himself against possible charges of perjury. He used the words, "To my best recollection" 198 times at one committee hearing.

His most hostile questioner, a young Congressman named Richard Nixon, was scathing about this. "You can certainly testify `Yes' or `No' as to whether you gave Crosley a car," he asserted. "How many cars have you given away in your life, Mr Hiss?"

Hiss challenged Chambers to repeat his story when not protected by Congressional privilege, and when he did so sued him for $75,000. Only then did Chambers, who had repeatedly denied spying or having any documentary evidence to back his story, suddenly produce copies of State Department documents and, with much melodrama, five rolls of microfilm which he had hidden in a pumpkin on his Maryland farm.

These so-called "Pumpkin Papers" proved the undoing of Alger Hiss. Some were in his own handwriting, while others had been typed on a Woodstock typewriter he had owned in the 1930s. Chambers, who admitted to being a Communist, a spy and a perjurer, was given immunity while Hiss was indicted for perjury in having denied Chambers's charges. Though the indictment may have been perjury, the real issue was treason in having passed state secrets to the Soviet Union and, after two trials (the first jury split 8-4 for conviction), Hiss was found guilty and sentenced to five years in jail, on 25 January 1950.

Within weeks an obscure Senator named Joseph R. McCarthy had made his celebrated Wheeling speech claiming he had a list of 205 Communists "known to the Secretary of State" still working in the State Department. McCarthyism had been born and the Hiss case had acted as midwife. For the McCarthyite brand of anti- Communism, with its charge of "20 years of treason", was above all based upon the doctrine of "guilt by association" and was important politically as a Republican party indictment of the Democratic party's New Deal reformism of the 1930s. And who better personified the New Deal than the superior, snobbish, "Ivy League" civil servant Alger Hiss?

His career had been impressive. After Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School Hiss had been picked to serve as clerk to the formidable Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and thence joined government service during the New Deal. He had settled at the State department and, during the Second World War, attended Yalta and been secretary to the San Francisco Conference which established the United Nations. He combined brains and administrative ability with good looks, manners, taste and a precise concern, verging at times on the obsessional, to tell the exact truth.

The contrast with Chambers was what gave the case drama. Chambers was like the anti-hero of a 19th-century Russian novel. Born in 1901 of poor, artistic parents, he had a desperately unhappy childhood, but he possessed an unusual creative intelligence and admission to Columbia University might have been his passport to success. Chucked out for blasphemy and lying, he spent 15 years wandering America and Europe, a penniless failure, and joined the CP, where he claimed he met Hiss.

Breaking with Communism after the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 he made repeated attempts to warn the government about Hiss, to no avail. He joined Time, became a Christian, and started to make something of his life. With the Cold War, the mood in America changed and suddenly people were willing to believe his story about Hiss.

The hysterical paranoia about Communism in America in the years between 1946 and 1950 made it difficult for Hiss to receive a fair trial, and his supporters have long presented him as an American Dreyfus. For years it seemed possible he had been the victim of a gigantic plot, involving Chambers and the FBI, to frame him by making a fake copy of Woodstock N230099 on which the stolen papers had been typed. Revelations during Watergate about security service activities made this more plausible, and Hiss sustained a lifelong campaign for vindication.

After 40 years of disappointment he claimed he had achieved this in October 1992 when General Dmitri Volkogonov, having combed Soviet intelligence files, announced, "Not a single document substantiates the allegation that Mr A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union." Hiss commented, "I can't imagine a more authoritative source than the files of the old Soviet Union."

However, Oleg Gordievsky, a recent defector, named Hiss as a former Soviet agent, and lack of substantiation of this in current Soviet files did not dispose of the question. Moreover, evidence more recently uncovered in Hungarian security files seems to show that Hiss was indeed part of an American Communist spy ring.

Moreover, the real evidence against Hiss was found by the historian Allen Weinstein in the files of Hiss's own defence lawyers. This drove Weinstein to conclude in his book Perjury, published in 1978, that Hiss had committed perjury and was "guilty as charged".

He shows that while Hiss was telling the FBI, the grand jury and two trial juries that he had completely forgotten the make of his 1930s typewriter, or how he had disposed of it, he actually remembered quite clearly to whom he had given the old Woodstock and produced it himself only to stop the FBI locating it.

His lawyers' own papers further contain compelling evidence that handwritten notations on the typed State Department documents were written by Hiss or his wife Priscilla, that the style in which they were typed was hers, and that Chambers's story that transfer of the old Ford had been arranged by the Party was true.

Moreover, Josephine Herbst, wife of a member of the Communist underground in Washington, recalled Hiss's belonging to the group and meeting Chambers. All of this would have been ruinous to Hiss if revealed, and one of the defence's chief problems was keeping it from coming to light.

Chambers died in 1961, but although he was a pathological liar his story has held up remarkably well. Hiss, with his scrupulous desire to tell the truth, seems not to have done so. We do know that a Communist underground group existed in Washington in the 1930s, and that its members included Lee Pressman, who gave Hiss his first government job, John Abt, Hal Ware and Nathan Witt, all graduates of Harvard Law School like Hiss.

We can guess that some personal grudge, possibly rejected homosexual love or envy of Hiss's apparently effortless rise to success, might have in part motivated Chambers. But he only faltered once at the HUAC hearings in 1948. That was when he said through tears that while he had always liked Hiss he had to testify against him now "with remorse and pity, but in a moment of history in which this nation now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise".

Now that the Cold War is over it is hard to recreate the dreadful atmosphere from the era of Titus Oates which suffused the late 1940s in America. The Hiss-Chambers case was decisive in poisoning that atmosphere still further. Hiss spent nearly 50 years trying to prove he was its most innocent victim. Now that he has died, the last hope we had of learning the whole truth about his fascinating case has gone.

Alger Hiss, government servant: born Baltimore, Maryland 11 November 1904; married Priscilla Fansler (died 1985; one son), 1985 Isabelle Johnson; died New York 15 November 1996.