August 3, 1948 – Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers accuses State Department official Alger Hiss of being a communist and a spy for the Soviet Union. Hiss would strongly deny the accusation, but would later be convicted of perjury. The House of Representatives hearings during which Chambers made his accusation were chaired by Rep. Richard Nixon, who would become a nationally known figure due to his pursuit of Hiss -- and eventually reach the presidency because of it.
Belief in Hiss' guilt or innocence became a touchstone for American political intellectuals for 40 years.
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Alger Hiss was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in November 1904, and his distinguished descendants on both sides of the family went back to the pre-colonial era. When Hiss was two, his father lost most of his money in a bad business deal, and then committed suicide by slitting his throat with a razor. The family hid the suicide from Alger, who learned of it only when he was 10 years old. Despite the genteel poverty in which his family lived and the social opprobrium heaped on him because of his father's death, Hiss was a very good student and very outgoing. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University in 1926, and rceived his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1929. At Harvard, he was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter (the future Supreme Court justice), and after graduated clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Hiss married Priscilla Hobson, a school teacher with a three-year-old son (Timothy), in December 1929. They had a second son, Tony, in 1941. Hiss then worked for law firms in Boston and New York City.
While in New York City, Hiss's politics became much more radical. The Great Depression was under way, and and Hiss was deeply attuned to the plight of the poor. Harvard had exposed Hiss to liberal politics, and Frankfurter was a major advocate for labor unions. In New York, he and his wife both began to study political economy, and his anti-capitalist views began to harden. Hiss reconnected with his Harvard Law classmate, Lee Pressman -- and the two began intense discussions about the inherent failures of capitalism, the role of the state, and the appeals of socialism and communism.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as President in March 1933. Hiss got a job at the Justice Department in early 1933, and moved the family to the capital. He worked as an attorney defending the New Deal in court before joining a Senate committee investigating war profiteering in World War I. In the late fall of 1933, Hiss joined the staff of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), a new agency in the Department of Agriculture. The AAA was trying to set higher prices for wheat, corn, milk, cheese, beef, chicken, pork, and other agricultural goods. It did so through a combination of farm payments (paying farmers not to grow, so that gluts would disappear and prices would rise), marketing agreements (to better market products and increase sales), price agreements (so farmers would stop undercutting one another), and more. Hiss helped draft price agreements.
The Communist Party in the United States not only believed that America was head for a great revolution like Russia had undergone, but that the revolution should be encouraged by its members. Subsequently, it encouraged (sometimes ordered) its members to obtain jobs in the government, hiding their Communist political views. The mission was three-fold: First, subtly influence policy so that it reflected a more socialist, even communist, direction. Second, recruit new members. Third, obtain documents that would help the Soviet Union. While the first two goals were no different from those of Republicans or Democrats, the last constituted espionage and was illegal.
Harold Ware was the son of a noted American Communist who had spent part of the 1920s running a collective farm in the Soviet Union. Shortly after Roosevelt's inauguration, he got a job in the AAA organizing Southern farmers into marketing organizations. Ware spent a good deal of his time talking them into support communism as well. Ware's friend was Alexander Stevens, aka Joszef Peter, aka J. Peters. His real name was Sándor Goldberger, and he was a Hungarian Jewish Communist who had helped co-found the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918 and briefly served as a town official during a Communist regime in 1919. In 1924, he illegally entered the United States and joined the American Communist Party, helping to organize Hungarian immigrants.
In the spring of 1933, Ware formed a group of like-minded communists and far-left socialists in the Department of Agriculture to read about and discuss communism. Peters (that's the name Goldberger used most) was not a government employee but was second-in-command of the group. Recruited into the study group were Alger Hiss, Lee Pressman, Donald Hiss (Alger's younger brother, and an employee of the AAA), John Abt (chief of litigation at the AAA), Marion Bachrach (sister of John Abt), Henry Collins (a childhood friend of Hiss's and a National Recovery Administration attorney), John Herrmann (a noted novelist), Charles Kramer (an economist with the AAA), Victor Perlo (a statistical analyst and economist at the National Recovery Administration), Abe Silverman (an attorney with the Railroad Retirement Board), Nathaniel Weyl (an economist at the AAA), and Nathan Witt (a staff attorney with the AAA).
Shortly after forming the study group, Ware informed its members that their goal wasn't just study: It was espionage.
Many members of the "Ware Group" knew who the others were, but most did not. Most of the members of the "Ware Group" were either already or soon became members of the Communist Party, but others never joined. If Alger Hiss joined the party, he did so about 1935. Ware realized that several members of the group were ambitious, bright, and very well-respected. He decided that some of them should be separated from the Ware Group, and seek employment in agencies other than the AAA. Several did so, joining the Justice Deparment, National Labor Relations Board, Treasury Department, and staff of Congress.
On August 14, 1935, Ware died in an automobile accident, and J. Peters took over the study group. About this time, Whittaker Chambers, a freelance writer and Communist Party member, joined the group.
Hiss left the AAA in 1936 and went to work in the State Department. He rose to assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State and then special assistant to the Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs. From 1939 to 1944, Hiss was an assistant to the Special Adviser to on Far Eastern Affairs. In 1944, he was named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, which developed planning for post-war international organizations, and was Executive Secretary of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (which drew up plans for the United Nations). He attended the Yalta Conference with President Roosevelt in February 1945, was temporary secretary-general of the United Nations Charter Conference in April 1945, and then was Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs in the State Department.
Leaving the government in 1946, Hiss was named president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Jay Vivian Chambers was born in April 1901 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was raised on Long Island. His father was a cruel and closeted bisexual and his mother a neurotic. They separated in 1908, and he began calling himself David Whittaker Chambers (Whittaker was his mother's maiden name). Shortly after his father abandoned the family, his mentally-ill paternal grandmother came to live with Whittaker and his mother. By the time he graduated from high school, he was using the named David Adams. His older brother, Richard, went off to college and then dropped out. He committed suicide at the age of 23 in 1926, after putting his head in a gas oven.
Chambers attended Williams College in 1920, then transferred to Columbia University, where he began using the name Whittaker Chambers. He left Columbia in 1921, and returned in 1923. Chambers left Columbia again in 1924, never having graduated, but during his time there his politics moved radically leftward. In 1925, he joined the Communist Party. Chambers became a writer for The Daily Worker, although practically none of his pieces carried a byline. Most of the time, Chambers worked as an office gofer, and every afternoon he rode the subway into the far ends of the Bronx and Brooklyn to pick up unsold copies of the newspaper and lug them back to headquarters. Most of his income was generated not by Party activities but by translating German and French books into English. (Among his first translations? Bambi.) Chambers began living with a woman named Gertrude Hutchinson in June 1927. Chambers and his close friend, Frank "Bub" Bang, shared her sexual favors. This "Communist marriage" ended in early 1929. By then, Chambers was seeing Ida Dailes, another Communist Party member. She aborted his child in 1930, and he dumped her a short time later.
In February 1930, the Communist Party ejected Chambers for ideological impurity. In April 1931, Chambers married the pacifist artist Esther Shemitz, and the couple had a daughter, Ellen in 1933 and a son, John, in 1937. In March 1932, Chambers applied to be reinstated in the Communist Party. The party higher-ups agreed, but told him that his commitment to the Party needed proof. He was instucted to go "underground" for the Communist Party, publicly becoming a political conservative while continuing his radical politics.
Chambers moved his family to Baltimore in August 1934. In May 1935, he moved them to Washington, D.C., and –- using the pseudonym "George Crosley" -– sublet an apartment from Alger Hiss. Hiss had been living on 28th Street NW, but had moved into a nicer area. The sublet agreement was a handshake deal, and lasted only two months before Chambers moved to New York City in July. By his account, Chambers joined the "Ware Group" in 1935. If Chambers is to be believed, he acted as the group's conduit for $165 a month, accepting stolen documents from Ware (and then Peters) and then traveling all over the United States to hand them over to a wide range of Soviet agents -– who then sent them on to the USSR. During this time, Chambers had numerous homosexual affairs with men he met while cruising in D.C. and other cities. In August and October 1935, the Chambers family lived in Pennsylvania, then moved to Baltimore again for six months beginning in October 1935. After a few months on Long Island, the family lived in Pennsylvania until April 1937. They moved to Baltimore, and then stayed there.
According to Chambers, he and Hiss developed a strong political friendship in 1936 and 1937, dining out often, taking trips together, and more. Chambers also claims that Hiss passed him numerous stolen documents on paper and on film.
In April 1938, Chambers either resigned from or was ejected by the Communist Party. He claims he tried to get Hiss to resign, too, but Hiss refused. Chambers took a job as a writer for Time magazine in April 1939, then run by arch-conservative Henry Luce. In time, he was promoted to senior editor.
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Chambers was apparently deeply alarmed by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939, and decided to betray Hiss. He told Adolf Berle, Assistant Secretary of State for Security Matters, on September 2 that Hiss had belonged to an underground communist cell at the Department of Agriculture in 1935. Berle did not act on the accusation, finding it too fantastic to believe. In 1942, the FBI questioned Chambers about his involvement with the Communist Party. Chambers admitted to being a former member, but denied engaging in any espionage. Although Chambers identified Hiss as a fellow Communist in this interview, the FBI never followed up on the claim. The FBI interviewed Chambers again in the spring of 1945, and again Chambers fingered named Hiss. But this time, the FBI would act. That's because in September 1945, a Soviet defector in Canada said an assistant to the U.S. Secretary of State was a Soviet agent. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, assumed this agent was Alger Hiss. Then in December, the FBI captured an American spying for the Soviet Union, and this individual also named Hiss as a spy.
With so many independent sources naming Hiss as a Communist agent, the FBI had to act. It put taps on Hiss's phone, began reading his mail, and began tailing him and his wife. The investigation lasted two years, but turned up nothing. Hiss was interviewed by Hoover regarding his possible Communist Party membership in March 1946, but Hiss denied everything. That same month, the FBI intercepted a secret Soviet cable which stated that a high-level State Department official was a spy. But the information in the cable wasn't that clear about who the spy might be.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was established by law in 1945 to investigate threats of subversion or espionage by any and all groups. In fact, it focused almost exclusively on communists (never the KKK, right-wing groups, or lynch mobs). Rep. J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey was its chairman beginning in 1947, but he did little with it. It was the Republican vice-chairman, Rep. Richard M. Nixon of California, who was most active in moving the committee's investigations forward.
Following up on FBI hints about Hiss, Nixon pressed the FBI to investigate him again. In June 1947, Hiss admitted to FBI agents that he knew various Communists, but he categorically denied being a member of the Party or knowing Whittaker Chambers.
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Whittaker Chambers, by now a convert to Christianity and a hard-core conservative, was angry that no action had been taken against Hiss. In the summer of 1948, he wrote to Reps. Thomas and Nixon and told them what he knew about Hiss. Nixon believed everything Chambers said. Nixon then met with Hoover, who gave Nixon access to the FBI's secret files on alleged Communists. Nixon now learned of the FBI's repeated investigations of Hiss.
Nixon successfuly won Thomas's approval to have Chambers appear before HUAC. On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers gave dramatic testimony in which he claimed to have once been involved in a an underground organization of the Communist Party. Chambers implied that the group formed to infiltrate the government, not spy on it. But espionage (then punishable by death) became the group's new goal...
Hiss was outraged by the accusation. Just hours after Chambers's testimony, Hiss sent a telegram to Rep. Thomas protesting his innocence. Thomas agreed to allow Hiss to testify and deny the charges. Appearing before HUAC on August 5, Hiss denied he had ever been a member of the Communist Party and reiterated that he had never met Chambers. President Truman roundly defended Hiss, and Rep. Thomas now became unwilling to continue the investigation. But Father John Francis Cronin, a rabidly anti-communist Catholic priest who had infiltrated groups during World War II to root out Communists, had been given access to the secret FBI files on Hiss by Hoover. Lying through his teeth, Cronin now told Nixon that the FBI knew Hiss was a prominent Communist spy. Indeed, the agency had known for years and done nothing about it.
With this "evidence", Nixon convinced Thomas to establish a subcommittee to determine the truth. Nixon himself led the new body. In order to prove Hiss a liar about knowing Chambers, Nixon arranged to have Chambers intercept Hiss in an elevator at a local hotel. Even though Chambers had put on a large amount of weight, it was clear to all present that Alger Hiss recognized Whittaker Chambers. In his next HUAC session, Hiss admitted knowing Chambers under the name "George Crosley". Chambers denied ever using the name "George Crosley", and accused Hiss of lying to cover up his previous lie. Chambers said that Hiss knew him by real name, and had allowed him to sublet the 28th Street apartment rent-free because both men were Communist Party members.
Because Chambers made his statement in a Congressional hearing, he could not be sued for defamation. Hiss challenged Chambers to repeat his accusation in public. Chambers did so, and Hiss immediately sued him for libel.
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Chambers retaliated by claiming on a radio program that Alger Hiss was not merely a Communist -- but a Communist spy. To back up his claim, Chambers took HUAC staff and reporters to his nephew's house on November 17, 1948. From a dumbwaiter shaft, Chambers produced 65 pages of retyped State Department documents (the last of which was dated April 1, 1938) plus four pages of notes in Hiss's handwriting. These documents, he said, came from Hiss. Chambers said the "Baltimore documents" (as they came to be called) had been typed on a Woodstock brand typewriter which the Hisses owned. Experts confirmed the handwriting was Hiss's. Furthermore, the handwritten notes were about events and policies which were far outside Hiss's duties. It looked as if Hiss had illegally obtained access to the documents, then written notes about them. But questions arose about the date on the documents. Chambers had long claimed that he left the Communist Part in 1937. So Chambers changed his story, and said that he had quit the Communist Party in March 1938. (He would change the date again to April 1938.)
As the libel trial lasted, Chambers made another dramatic revelation. On December 2, Chambers led HUAC investigators to a pumpkin patch on his farm on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. There, from inside a hollowed-out pumpkin, he produced five rolls of 35 mm film that he said came from Hiss. Some of the film was undeveloped. Some of the film contained images of publicly available documents of a trivial nature (like what color to paint fire extinguishers). Two images were of classified State Department documents. The film became known as the "Pumpkin Papers".
Whittaker Chambers was found not-guilty of libel.
Now a grand jury charged Hiss with two counts of perjury, one for lying under oath to Congress and another for lying under oath during the libel trial. (The statute of limitations on espionage had run out, so Hiss could not be charged with espionage.)
Now, at the time, people believed that typewriters had a typeface signature like a fingerprint: Unique and unduplicatable. That's because each machine was slightly different. One machine might raise the letter "L" slightly; another might have a barely-broken number "4", and another might put the "S" and "H" too close together.
Hiss's legal team argued that the typewritten documents had not been typed on Hiss's typewriter. But a problem arose: Hiss had given the typerwriter away years ago. Hiss's legal team now employed private investigator Horace W. Schmahl to try to find the old typewriter. Unbeknownst to Hiss, the FBI had managed to create typewriters in the 1930s which perfectly duplicated one another. During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS; the forerunner to the CIA) often manufactured duplicate typewriters to mislead the Axis Powers, creating false Nazi or Italian documents to create chaos, or manufacturing American "documents" as part of a disinformation campaign. Schmahl had worked for the OSS during the war, and knew that duplicate typewriters could be manufactured. But he said nothing to Hiss's legal defense team.
Schmahl then said he had located Hiss's old machine. Unfortunately, the machine Schmahl found matched the typeface on the "Baltimore documents" perfectly.
Hiss's defense team was stunned.
They were stunned again when Schmahl defected to the prosecution.
Hiss's lawyers now adopted a new strategy. The typewriter Schmahl found had a serial number which indicated it had been manufactured after the "Baltimore papers" had been typed.
This strategy persuaded at least some members of the jury that Hiss was innocent, and the jury deadlocked on July 7, 1949.
A second trial now occurred, before a new judge. The prosecution now asked the judge to allow testimony from confessed Soviet spy Hede Massing, an Austrian citizen. Massing's testimoney had been excluded at the first trial, but the new judge permitted it. Massing told the jury that she had seen Hiss and Chambers together at a party in 1935, a statement that seemed to corroborated Chambers's story about knowing Hiss. Massing also claimed that she had personally seen Hiss try to recruit Noel Field, another Soviet spy, to switch from Massing's spy ring to Hiss's spy ring. Although Massing was a convicted spy and facing deportation if she did not cooperate with the defense, her testimony was convincing: Alger Hiss was found guilty of perjury on January 21, 1950.
Even though Chambers admitted on the witness stand that he had previously committed perjury before Congress and a civil court, he was never prosecuted. Even though Chambers's testimony clearly accused Priscilla Hiss and others of espionage and Communist activity, none were ever investigated or indicted.
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Alger Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison. He was disbarred, and served three years and eight months of his sentence. After his release, Hiss worked as a stationery salesman. He separated from Priscilla in 1959, although they remained married until her death in 1984. He met Isabel Johnson in 1960, and they began living together. They married in 1985, shortly after Priscilla's death. Both Timothy Hobson and Tony Hiss, his stepson and son, maintained their father's innocence.
In 1974, historians sued to have the "Pumpkin Papers" released under the Freedom of Information Act. Although Whittaker Chambers had claimed the documents contained top-secret State Department cables, just two images contained classified materials. Both had been released publicly at Hiss's trial in 1949, which indicated that they weren't sensitive at all. Based on this evidence, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court readmitted Hiss to the state bar. Hiss was the first lawyer ever readmitted to the Massachusetts bar after a major criminal conviction.
Alger Hiss died in New York City on November 15, 1996, from emphysema. Since 1949, Hiss had maintained that someone had faked the "Hiss typewriter" and planted it so that it could be found by Schmahl. Hiss never accused Schmahl of doing so, but a number of other authors have done so. No court ever agreed with Hiss. At least one historian has concluded that Nixon asked the FBI to fabricate the "Hiss typewriter" to implicate Hiss -- something the rabidly anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover was more than willing to do.
Whittaker Chambers resigned from Time in December 1948. In 1952, he published a book about his time as a Communist, titled Witness. It became a bestseller, and was widely acclaimed on the left and the right. When William F. Buckley, Jr. started the conservative biweekly magazine National Review in 1955, Chambers was appointed one of its senior editors. He left the magazine in 1959, traveled in Europe, and died of a heart attack on July 9, 1961, at his farm in Maryland.
Publicity about the Alger Hiss case, portions of which were televised live, thrust Richard M. Nixon into the public spotlight, helping him win a U.S. Senate seat in 1950 and giving him the anti-communist credentials that would propel him into the Vice Presidency in 1952 and the Presidency in 1968.
Two weeks after the Hiss perjury verdict, Senator Joseph McCarthy made a famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, claiming that he had a secret list of more than 200 known Communists working in the federal government. This propelled McCarthy into the national spotlight, and ignited a decade-long "Red Scare" and the era of McCarthyism.
Ronald Reagan later said that reading Witness converted him from New Deal liberalism to hard-right conservatism.