In the anticommunist trials at the beginning of the cold war, Alger Hiss was accused of having infiltrated the government in the 1930s, and debate continues to this day about whether he was indeed part of a larger Communist conspiracy or whether there was a conspiracy to frame him.
On 3 August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about his firsthand knowledge of Communist cells that he said had infiltrated the federal government in Washington, D.C. Chambers described the cells as Marxist study groups that were not involved in espionage and he testified that he ceased to have contact with them after he left the Communist Party in 1937.
Chambers had already told his story to a number of government officials, going back to 1939, but only now in a year when the Republican Party had its first real chance to capture the White House since 1933 was it getting a public airing.
Republicans on the committee were eager to use their hearings to paint the Democrats, specifically the current administration of President Harry S. Truman and the former administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as “soft” on communism and heavily influenced by Moscow.
One of those Chambers named as a Communist was Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, who was then the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before he left the government in 1946, Hiss had served on President Roosevelt’s staff at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
Later that year, he served as secretary-general of the San Francisco Conference, where the United Nations was organized. He had joined the Carnegie Endowment to help further U.S. work at the UN, which had come under harsh attack by powerful right-wing groups across the country.
Two days after Chambers’s testimony, Hiss appeared before the HUAC. He denied any association with Communists and said that he had never met Chambers. He was such an impressive witness that several committee members wanted to drop the matter, but one member, first-term Congressman Richard M. Nixon, had been fed a number of secret reports charging that Hiss had been a Communist (all of which could be traced to a single source—Chambers), and he convinced the committee to continue the investigation.
On 7 August, Chambers met in secret session with the committee and testified to a great deal of information about Hiss’s private life. Much of this information was wrong—Chambers clearly was exaggerating his relationship with Hiss—yet it was also apparent from his testimony that he had known Hiss back in the 1930s, though not as Whittaker Chambers. During his 7 August testimony, Chambers revealed that Hiss only knew him as “Carl.”
Once Hiss realized who Chambers was, he testified on 16 August that he knew Chambers as a freelance writer named “George Crosley” who had come to him to get some information for a story. He said he had gotten to know Crosley for a while, but when Crosley failed to pay back several small loans, Hiss cut off their relationship.
In subsequent hearings, Chambers denied ever using the name Crosley, but months later, after Hiss located a publisher who also knew Chambers as Crosley, Chambers conceded that he probably had used the pseudonym.
Furious at what he saw as malicious slander, Hiss sued Chambers for libel. Chambers responded by escalating the charges. During pretrial depositions in Baltimore, Maryland, that November, Chambers offered into evidence four slips of paper in Hiss’s handwriting as well and a sheaf of typewritten pages (later called the Baltimore Documents) that he said were copies of State Department documents that had been typed by the Hisses at their home and then handed to Chambers 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 five rolls of 35mm film, which he said contained photographs of documents implicating Hiss and others in an espionage conspiracy.
These new charges were at odds with Chambers’s previous testimony, not only before the HUAC, but also before a grand jury, that he was not involved with espionage. Because the documents were dated into April 1938, they presented another problem: Chambers had insisted in nearly all his statements as far back as 1939 that he had left the party in 1938.
The public uproar over these so-called Pumpkin Papers increased pressure to indict Hiss, but that, too, presented roadblocks. Hiss could not be indicted on espionage charges because the statute of limitations protected him from being charged with a crime that had allegedly taken place more than ten years before. The solution was to ask Hiss before the grand jury whether he committed espionage. He denied it, and on 15 December 1948 he was charged with perjury.
But Chambers still presented a problem. He had admitted perjuring himself before the grand jury when he denied any firsthand knowledge of espionage. If he were to be indicted as well, a jury at Hiss’s trial might not believe the testimony of an admitted liar.
At the urging of Richard Nixon, who testified before the grand jury on 14 December, the jury decided against indicting Chambers. As for his previous testimony that he had left the party in 1937, Chambers simply amended his testimony, saying he was merely preparing to leave in 1937 and didn’t make his break after April 1938.
Hiss’s trial opened in May 1949 and ended in July with a hung jury, voting 8–4 for conviction. Hiss was retried that November and this time was convicted. He went to jail in March 1951 and served forty-four months in a maximum security penitentiary before his release in November 1954.
At his sentencing on 25 January 1951, Hiss told the judge, “I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed.” The campaign to prove that he had been framed began at that moment and Hiss directed his attorneys to search for any evidence that would prove his innocence.
After his appeals had been exhausted, he hired a new lawyer who filed a motion for a new trial in 1952. In the motion, Hiss for the first time presented evidence that his conviction was obtained from fraudulent evidence.
The questions it raised included the following:
- Was the Woodstock typewriter #230099 that was presented in evidence at the trial by the defense (claiming the Hisses gave it away long before the documents were allegedly typed) a clever fake planted on the defense by the FBI?
- Was forgery by typewriter possible and specifically, were the copies of State Department documents placed in evidence by the prosecution forged by Whittaker Chambers or a confederate?
- Did Whittaker Chambers leave the Communist Party long before the April 1938 dates of the last document and therefore could not have received those documents from Hiss?
The defense offered a great deal of evidence to support its brief. It stated that according to Woodstock company records, a typewriter with serial number #230099 would have been manufactured too late to have been the machine given to Hiss’s wife by her father when his company went out of business in 1932.
Another expert examined the type bars on the machine and found that they had been altered. The assumption was they had been altered so that typing from the machine would match the typing on the Baltimore documents.
Experts also looked at the documents themselves and concluded that contrary to Chambers’s testimony that Hiss’s wife Priscilla had typed them, they had been typed by several people. Another expert made a careful examination of the paper and the envelope that Chambers said they had been stored in for ten years and concluded that their condition precluded Chambers’s story from being true.
Chambers had testified that he ceased getting documents from Hiss after he left the Communist Party. He also said he had gotten work as a translator after he left the party. The brief used letters from the publishing company to show that Chambers had been assigned the translation in 1937.
In its response, the government ridiculed Hiss’s brief, saying forgery by typewriter was an impossibility. It also contradicted the defense’s typing experts, saying the information was irrelevant anyway to the charges against Hiss. As for the date when Chambers left the party, it said he was only preparing for a break when he got the translation work. The judge agreed with the prosecution, and Hiss’s motion was turned down.
Many years later, it was revealed that not only was forgery by typewriter possible, but that it had already been employed by the government. In 1940, the FBI had worked with Canadian agents to forge a typewritten letter to convince the president of Brazil that an Italian airline had connections with Nazi Germany.
The ruse worked, and the president cut off the airline’s landing rights in Brazil. Hiss appealed the motion’s denial, but his efforts were unsuccessful, and the case appeared to be dead until the mid-1970s when Hiss, working with new attorneys, successfully sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act and received some 45,000 investigative documents on the case from the FBI.
The documents confirmed some of the suspicions aired in Hiss’s 1952 motion and, worse, indicated that the government knew about or helped hide information that would have benefited Hiss at trial.
Among other things, the documents showed that:
- The FBI knew that a typewriter with the serial number #230099 was manufactured too late to have been the Hiss machine.
- Previous statements by Chambers that had been inconsistent with his testimony at both trials were concealed from the defense by the government. Among the statements was one revealing his homosexuality, which could have provided a motive for his charges.
- The FBI had gotten statements from other witnesses indicating that key portions of Chambers’s testimony were false.
- An investigator working for the defense turned out to be a mole for the FBI, who turned over a great deal of what he found for the defense to the prosecution.
Armed with this evidence, Hiss’s new attorneys went to court in 1978 filing a motion of coram nobis to overturn the verdict based on what they said was prosecutorial misconduct. Again, the government opposed the motion for, saying the information, even if true, would not have been enough to overturn the original verdict. The judge sided with the government and subsequent appeals again were unsuccessful. Legally, the Hiss case was dead.
But not quite. In 1992, Hiss wrote a letter to one of Russia’s preeminent historians, General Dimitry Volkogonov, requesting that he examine the files of the KGB for any evidence of Hiss’s guilt. Volkogonov did examine the files and announced that while Hiss clearly had contacts with the Soviets during the course of his official duties, they contained no evidence that Hiss had ever been a Soviet spy.
His statement was greeted harshly by U.S. conservatives. In response, Volkogonov admitted that he hadn’t looked through all the files, but he still said that if Hiss had been a spy, he would have seen some indication of it in the files he had examined, and he had seen none.
Then, in 1995, the National Security Agency (NSA) released several hundred telegrams between Moscow and its U.S. agents that it had decrypted during the cold war. Two of the telegrams discuss an agent code-named “Ales.” According to the NSA, Ales was Hiss.
Others disagreed, pointing out that the NSA was merely guessing and that there was no such proof that Ales was Hiss. This view received some support with the 1996 publication of a book in Russia called Operation Snow, by a former KGB official named Vitaly Pavlov. In the book, Pavlov, who joined the KGB in 1939, insisted that Hiss was never a Soviet spy.
By then, the information was too late for Hiss, who died four days after his ninety-second birthday on 15 November 1996, still proclaiming his innocence. As for Chambers, he died long before, under mysterious circumstances on 1 June 1961.
Like Hiss, he went to his grave insisting that his testimony was truthful. With more than a dozen books written on the case representing both sides, what actually happened between the two men back in the 1930s remains a topic of deep disagreement.