Hiss Case

Alger Hiss at HUAC, August 1948

Alger Hiss at HUAC, August 1948

A landmark American criminal case, the two trials of Alger Hiss are generally considered among the most important legal proceedings in American history – and one of the most controversial spy stories of the Cold War. This early Cold War case set the stage for the McCarthy era, put liberal Democrats on the defensive to such an extent that the case continued to have an impact on American foreign policy for many decades to come, and marked the beginning of the modern conservative intellectual and political movement. It also catapulted to political stardom an obscure freshman Congressman from California named Richard Nixon.

In August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist and Time-Life editor, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Alger Hiss – a former New Deal lawyer and diplomat who had been one of the architects of the United Nations in 1945 and was currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – had been part of the Communist underground in the 1930s. Hiss denied the charges and sued Chambers for libel. Chambers responded by escalating the charges. On November 4, 1948, Chambers changed his story and claimed that Hiss had been not only a Communist but also a Soviet spy. To back up his allegations, on November 17, 1948 Chambers produced physical evidence – a collection of copies or summaries of U.S. government documents (later called the “Baltimore Documents“), which he claimed he had received from Alger Hiss for transmission to the Soviet Union. Two weeks later, Chambers dropped a public bombshell when he led HUAC investigators to his Maryland farm and, from a hollowed-out pumpkin, pulled out five rolls of 35mm film (later called the “Pumpkin Papers“). He claimed that the film contained photographs of documents implicating Hiss and others in an espionage conspiracy.

A federal grand jury investigated Chambers’s charges – and indicted Hiss for perjury when he denied them. The formal charge was that Hiss had lied when he told the grand jury that he had neither seen Chambers nor passed documents to him in the first months of 1938. 1 In the first perjury trial, which lasted from May 31 to July 8, 1949, the jury failed to reach a verdict, but Hiss was convicted on January 25, 1950, after a second trial. He was sentenced to a five-year prison term – and served almost four years (1951-1954) in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary on a charge which subsequent court rulings in other cases showed had been illegally obtained and was thus not a federal offense. 2 Paroled in 1954, Hiss maintained his innocence – and presented his case in a 1957 book, In the Court of Public Opinion. Earlier, Chambers presented his version of the case in his autobiography, Witness (1952).

The public debate over Hiss’s guilt or innocence and Chambers’s veracity, as well as over the conduct of the Hiss perjury trials, has continued for more than half a century. Chambers’s story, Hiss’s indictment, the so-called “evidence box” and the conduct of the perjury trials all contained enough inconsistencies and ambiguities to leave a shadow of doubt hanging over the case for decades. The Hiss Case has become the subject of many books and magazine articles and a few film documentaries – with two irreconcilable accounts of the Hiss-Chambers conflict emerging. The believers in Hiss’s innocence saw Chambers as a liar and the case as an attempt to discredit the New Deal and social reform. The believers in Hiss’s guilt emphasized the danger of the Communist threat to the United States. 3

Until the 1970s, the contents of the evidence box were mostly limited to Chambers’s story and the court evidence. However, during the 1970s, research possibilities significantly expanded with the release of the FBI Hiss records, as well as with scholarly use of the files of the Hiss defense attorneys. Both sets of records served as the basis for a 1978 book, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein, who was then a professor of history at Smith College. Weinstein’s account of Hiss’s guilt has been cited by many historians as the most important, thorough and convincing book on the Hiss-Chambers case. 4 Most American historians conceded to Weinstein the argument that Alger Hiss was part of an underground Communist cell in the 1930s and that he passed information to the Soviet Union, via Whittaker Chambers, from late 1936 until early 1938. However, the skeptics maintained that the case would remain open until the Russian archives disgorged incontrovertible proof that Hiss was or was not a knowing Soviet agent.

Indeed, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the first goals of American historians was to gain access to Moscow archives and settle the question. The earliest effort concentrated on finding corroboration of Chambers’s evidence in the records of the Comintern and the Communist parties of the USA and the USSR. Although not a single document with Hiss’s name or that of his accuser, Chambers, has ever been produced from these records by American scholars, miscellaneous records discovered in the 1990s were used as sources for several books, which in turn have been declared to corroborate Chambers’s veracity and prove Hiss’s guilt. 5

The second effort grew out of a 1992 Crown Publishing Group deal that provided the company with exclusive world rights to publish several books based on KGB foreign intelligence records. Since December 1991, these records have been in the custody of a KGB successor agency, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, commonly known as the SVR. 6 On the U.S. side of the story, the parties in the project were American author Allen Weinstein and a former KGB foreign intelligence officer and journalist named Alexander Vassiliev. Vassiliev was to research the records on site at the SVR press bureau. He was authorized to make notes and a few photocopies and to write draft chapters, which were then to go through the declassification process.  Weinstein was to rely on his Russian co-author’s notes – and judgment. Vassiliev’s handwritten notes and subsequent draft chapters would become the basis of their collaborative book, The Haunted Wood, published in 1999. 7 Although the book leaves the impression that Hiss was repeatedly mentioned in Soviet-era KGB documents, upon closer scrutiny we find that his name appears in only a few 1936 and 1938 reports cited from two circumstantially related files – both rather confusing and, in legal terms, amounting to hearsay. Most puzzling is the fact that Hiss’s name did not appear in any of the discussions cited in the book regarding the setbacks suffered by Soviet intelligence in the latter part of the 1940s.

Until the mid-1990s, American historians accepted Chambers’s assertions that Hiss’s associations with the Soviets were confined to the brief period from 1937 through early 1938. However, with the release in 1995-1996 by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) of the so-called “Venona documents” – Soviet World War II-period intelligence cables partially decrypted in the course of the Venona operation – students of the case claimed that Hiss may have continued his presumed espionage into the World War II years. This conclusion was reached on the basis of a single KGB decrypted cable, dated March 30, 1945, which discussed an agent of the KGB’s “military neighbors” with the cover name “Ales,” who attended the Yalta Conference and then went to Moscow on a brief visit, where he was “thanked” by a high Soviet official. The NSA released its English translation of the cable in 1996, with a footnote saying that Ales was “probably Alger Hiss.” 8

The Haunted Wood quoted from three more early 1945 documents which discussed “Ales” as a Soviet source at the U.S. Department of State, simply substituting Hiss’s name in brackets for “Ales.” As it turned out, Weinstein identified “Ales” as Hiss against his Russian co-author’s protests. “I never saw a document where Hiss would be called Ales or Ales may be called Hiss. I made a point of that to Allen,” Vassiliev said in a 2000 interview. 9

With the arrival of the early 2000s, the body of documentation on the Hiss case expanded significantly, this time on the American side, with the unsealing of two important archival collections: the records of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) 10 and the grand jury minutes from the Hiss case – the first grand jury transcripts ever released principally because of their historical importance. 11 Although almost 10 years have passed since the release of the Hiss case grand jury transcripts, this significant repository of undisclosed information about the case still has not been fully assessed by students of the case.

Since early 2005, the corpus of documentation on the Hiss case has expanded further, with the appearance of the notes on KGB documents that Alexander Vassiliev had made for Allen Weinstein. Vassiliev’s notes first came to light in 2002, during his libel suit against the late John Lowenthal, a lawyer, writer and long-time Hiss defender. In July 2001, Vassiliev brought a libel suit against Lowenthal’s London publisher, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., in connection with John Lowenthal’s article, “Venona and Alger Hiss,” 12 Early in 2002, and later in the course of pre-trial proceedings, Vassiliev entered some of his notes as trial evidence – to prove that he had seen the name “Alger Hiss” written in KGB intelligence files that he had researched. Later, copies of some of these notes would be discovered by John Lowenthal’s brother, David Lowenthal, among the papers of his late brother. Through David Lowenthal’s efforts, copies of Vassiliev’s notes were added to the corpus of documentation on the Alger Hiss case.

Furthermore, Vassiliev not only made notes and verbatim transcripts of documents but went on to prepare the rough draft of a book, based upon his understanding of the KGB documents he had read. Vassiliev’s draft chapters were to be translated into English for the use of his co-author, Allen Weinstein. Vassiliev’s book-length discussion of the files he had seen, along with his notes on the documents he had read, have limitations, but nonetheless provide a valuable glimpse into the Soviet record of Stalin-era espionage.

As we now know, Vassiliev contacted historian John Earl Haynes in 2005 – inspiring Haynes and his frequent co-author, Harvey Klehr, to rewrite the story of KGB espionage in America during the Stalin era. Their new book was published by Yale University Press in spring 2009. Entitled Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, the 704-page tome [14. By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Yale University Press, 2009.]] has been presented as the final word on the Hiss case. 13 However, for any serious historian, the controversy of more than half a century will not be settled until a definitive first-hand record is released from SVR or GRU archives.

Click here for a 2009 Chambers Primer

Click here for a glimpse into the documentation on Chambers’s underground years.

  1. In fact, Hiss was indicted for perjury based on answers that were elicited from him “solely for the purpose of charging that those answers were false and perjurious.” – Champion Magazine, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, May-June, 2008, p. 18. (http://www.nacdl.org/__852566CF0070A126.nsf/0/006CB2391D988158852574940067BE2E)
  2. Ibidem.
  3. The first book on the case was a first-hand account of the trial, Generation on Trial: USA v. Alger Hiss, by Alistair Cooke (1950). For pro-innocence accounts see, for example, The Strange Case of Alger Hiss, by William Allen Jowitt (1953), in which a former Attorney General of Great Britain concludes that, based on the evidence presented, Hiss would never had been convicted by the British courts; The Honorable Mr. Nixon and the Alger Hiss Case, by William A. Reuben (1956); The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss, by Fred J. Cook (1958); Friendship and Fratricide, by Meyer A. Zeligs (1967); Alger Hiss: The True Story, by John Chabot Smith (1976); Tissue of Lies, by Morton Levitt and Michael Levitt (1979); Footnote on an Historic Case, by William A. Reuben (1982); Two Foolish Men, by William Howard Moore (1987). For pro-guilt accounts, see, for instance, The Red Plot Against America, by Robert Stripling (1949); Seeds of Treason: The True Story of the Hiss-Chambers Tragedy, by Ralph de Toledano, with Victor Lasky (1950); A Tragedy of History: A Journalist’s Confidential Role in The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Bert Andrews, with Peter Andrews (1962).
  4. See, for instance, In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Encounter Books, 2003, p. 142.
  5. The earliest of these books was The Secret World of American Communism, by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, Yale University Press, 1995. See also Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, by Sam Tanenhaus, The Modern Library, New York, 1997. To corroborate Chambers’s stories, Tanenhaus quoted from a couple of KGB investigative files, in which Chambers’s name did not appear.
  6. The New York Times, June 24, 1992; Kommersant, July 6, 1992.
  7. The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, New York: Random House, 1999.
  8. Venona, KGB Washington to Moscow, N 1822. The tentative identification of “Ales” as Alger Hiss in Venona 1822 dates back to a May 15, 1950 FBI memorandum, which said: “It would appear likely, that this individual [Ales] is Alger Hiss in view of the fact that he was in the State Department and the information from Chambers indicated that his wife, Priscilla, was active in Soviet espionage and he also had a brother, Donald, in the State Department.” – Belmont to Ladd, May 15, 1950, FBI FOIA. Although the FBI identification of “Ales” as Hiss was never more than tentative, quite recently the NSA has removed the qualification “probably” from its index of cover names. – Index of KGB Covernames: Washington-Moscow Communications. http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/_files/venona/undated/kgb_wash_moscow.pdf
  9. Susan Butler’s interview with Alexander Vassiliev, May 21, 2000; London. Courtesy of Susan Butler.
  10. Unsealed in August 2001 and housed in the National Archives at the Center of Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. – with a four-foot stack of material that the committee generated relating to the Hiss-Chambers controversy.
  11. Released in October, 1999 – U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, “Grand Jury Testimony from the Alger Hiss Case” (Washington, DC: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 118, Records of United States Attorneys and Marshals).
  12. In Intelligence and National Security magazine, vol. 15, 2000, pp. 98-130] which had criticized Vassiliev’s and Weinstein’s use of KGB sources in The Haunted Wood. [[13. Alexander Vassiliev and Frank Cass & Co Ltd, High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division Claim No. HQ1X03222, Amended Particulars of Claim.
  13. The first chapter of the book is entitled, “Alger Hiss: Case Closed.”