Article by Daniel Rowe. Edited by Sarah Fagg.
“If you cover up, you’re going to get caught and if you lie you’re going to be guilty of perjury. Now basically that was the whole story of the Hiss case. It is not the issue that will harm you; it is the cover-up that is damaging.” Richard Nixon(1972)
Few criminal cases in the twentieth century have captivated such high levels of public interest, continued to generate controversy, or had such a profound impact on the landscape of American politics, as the Alger Hiss trial. The trial itself occurred at the very beginnings of the Cold War and centred around Whitaker Chambers, a writer for Time magazine, and Alger Hiss, a former State Department employee, who had close links and friendships with many of Washington’s political elite. The nature of the individuals involved and the outlandish allegations of espionage tactics served to attract high levels of public interest, helped to catapult Richard Nixon onto the national stage and laid the foundations for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous anticommunist crusades during the 1950s.
Occurring at the very beginnings of the Cold War, the Hiss trial set the tone for American attitudes towards Communism for the following decades. Though the charges against Alger Hiss related to events before the Second World War, the accusations against him did not emerge publically until 1948 when Richard Nixon, then a young congressman from California, used his position on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate allegations made by Whittaker Chambers. On August 3rd 1948 Chambers, a self-confessed former member of the Communist Party, was called to appear before HUAC. Chambers, in his testimony before the Committee, would accuse various individuals of being members of the Communist Party. It was the name of Alger Hiss that Richard Nixon would latch onto with characteristic tenacity, seeing Hiss as emblematic of entrenched Democratic politics.
To Richard Nixon, Alger Hiss was everything that was wrong with the political establishment in Washington. Hiss was a Harvard educated individual from a wealthy background who had served in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt and worked in the State Department under President Truman. With his links to the Democratic Party establishment, Hiss was a prime political target for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
In response to the public allegations of Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss issued a signed statement denying having had any previous knowledge or acquaintance with Chambers and asked to have the opportunity to appear before the committee. Repeating his previous statements on August 5th , Hiss swore under oath in front of HUAC that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, nor had he ever been associated with a man called Whittaker Chambers. Despite President Truman describing the HUAC testimony as ‘a red herring’, Richard Nixon continued to question Whittaker Chambers privately. After intense questioning in New York about the extent and nature of Chamber’s friendship with Hiss during the 1930s, Richard Nixon returned to Washington.
Nixon, now armed with personal information, provided by Chambers, about Hiss’ habits, hobbies and mannerisms, arranged for Alger Hiss to be called to testify again before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Under questioning Hiss admitted that he had a brief and fleeting association with a man he knew by the name of George Crossley, who fitted the general description he had been given of Whittaker Chambers. In a face to face confrontation, arranged the next day, Hiss would reluctantly acknowledge that he had previously known Whittaker Chambers, albeit by a different name. Significantly Hiss continued to deny having been a member of the Communist Party. In the face of the two conflicting accounts of their friendships, the committee continued to question Hiss and Chambers in televised congressional hearings.
Continuing to deny the allegations, Hiss instructed his lawyers to sue Chambers for libel. In the wake of the lawsuit, Chambers would now contend that Hiss gave him secret State Department documents in 1936. Asked by Hiss’ attorneys to produce written evidence of an association with the Hiss family, Whittaker Chamber’s produced an envelope containing sixty five typewritten State Department documents, five rolls of 35mm camera film and four handwritten notes from Hiss. (These documents have become known as the pumpkin papers since Chambers had hidden the films in a hollowed-out pumpkin.) These papers proved to be a sensational turning point in the committee’s investigation. The documents were significant in so far as they seemed to prove that Hiss knew Chambers long after 1936, but also that Hiss had handed over official State Department papers to Chambers. If the documents proved to be genuine, Hiss could face criminal prosecution for espionage.
Now facing charges of being a Soviet spy, Alger Hiss was brought to trial for perjury in May 1949. In his defence Hiss continued to reject associating with Chambers after 1937 and denied passing the State Department papers to Chambers. Hiss’ defence team would call several prominent character witnesses and Washington insiders to the stand, including Adlai Stevenson the future Democratic Party Presidential nominee and Felix Frankfurter, a Supreme Court Justice). Despite attempts by the defence team to persuade the jury of Chambers’ mental instability and Hiss’ impeccable character, the most damming evidence against Hiss came from an FBI agent, who testified that the State Department documents were typed on a typewriter that was known to have belonged to Hiss. On July 9 1949, the case went to the jury. The jury however proved unable to return a verdict. As a result, a second trial was convened at which Hiss was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison.
Hiss continued to protest his innocence right up until his death in 1996. In 1995 however, the release by the National Security Agency of intercepted communications from Soviet Agents in the United States seemed to indicate that Hiss may have been a Soviet Agent codenamed Ales.
The Hiss trial had a significant impact on American public and political life . To many, the successful conviction of Hiss seemed to confirm that there were, or had been, Communists serving at the very heart of government. This served to legitimise and bolster the spurious claims of Joe McCarthy in the ensuing years and led FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to embark on a systematic campaign of surveillance against a broad range of individuals. Largely as a result of his new found standing in the Republican Party in the wake of the Hiss case, Nixon was selected as Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President, an experience that would lead him to the Presidency in 1968. Most significantly however, the Hiss case served to enthuse the previously dormant conservative wing of the Republican Party. Many Republicans would continue to use Hiss and his eastern establishment credentials as a means of attacking the New Deal coalition, Ivy League intellectuals and Washington insiders. To this day individuals such as Sarah Palin, members of the ultra-conservative John Birch society, and many of those who identify with the Tea Party movement continue to appropriate the anti-Washington and anti-liberal rhetoric that emerged as a result of the Hiss trial.