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Associated Press
Alger Hiss testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Aug. 25, 1948.

On This Day: Alger Hiss Convicted of Perjury

January 21, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 21, 1950, a federal jury in New York City convicted former State Department official and alleged communist spy Alger Hiss of perjury.

Hiss Accused of Espionage, Convicted of Perjury

Alger Hiss, former State Department official and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had been accused of being a communist by Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers, himself a former communist.

Chambers first made the accusation on Aug. 3, 1948, before the House Un-American Activities Committee, claiming that Hiss had provided him with State Department documents when they were both part of the communist underground. Hiss denied the charges before HUAC, where he received hostile treatment from then-unknown Calif. Rep. Richard Nixon.

Hiss later sued Chambers for libel; while preparing for the libel lawsuit, Chambers told his lawyers that Hiss was not just a communist, but also a spy for the Soviet Union. As proof, he handed over a collection of typewritten copies of confidential government documents that Hiss had given him 10 years before. Later, he led authorities to his Maryland farm, where inside a pumpkin he had hidden strips of microfilm containing State Department documents that Hiss allegedly gave him.

The “pumpkin papers” raised the profile of the case, which divided the nation. “On the left was liberal New Dealism, represented by Hiss; on the right were conservative, anti-Roosevelt and Truman forces personified by Chambers,” writes James T. Gay in American History magazine.

Hiss could not be charged with espionage because the statute of limitations had expired, so a federal grand jury charged him with perjury for lying to HUAC about his communist links. Prosecutors tracked down Hiss’ old typewriter and matched the typeface of the copied government documents to Hiss’ model of typewriter.

Hiss was put on trial by the Justice Department on May 31, 1949, and it ended in a hung jury. A second trial began on Nov. 17, 1949; when it ended two months later, Hiss was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

“Reactions ranged from complete agreement with the verdict to the feeling that justice, in some extraordinary way, must have miscarried,” wrote Time. “Old friends, former colleagues in the Administration, former associates in the field of foreign affairs, finding Hiss's guilt so hard to believe, refused to believe, or tried to explain how it might have come about, or simply said: ‘I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss.’”

Background: “The Second Red Scare”

Following World War II, as the Soviet Union installed communist governments in Eastern Europe, many feared that communism could spread into the United States. HUAC began to focus on the infiltration of communism in government and society.

The Hiss case served to stoke the fears of communism and give anti-communist movements influence. Not long after Hiss was convicted, Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 members of the State Department who had communist ties. Soon, McCarthy was the most powerful man in Washington, ending the careers of government officials and Hollywood writers with a simple accusation of communist sympathies.

“Alger Hiss’s conviction gave McCarthy and his supporters the essential touch of credibility, making their charges of Communist involvement against other officials headline copy instead of back-page filler,” says historian Allen Weinstein.

Key Player: Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss was a well educated, upper-class lawyer who joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration in 1933. He joined the State Department in 1936 and later served as an adviser for Roosevelt when he met with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945. He left the government in 1946 to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he advocated for the formation of the United Nations.

After his conviction in 1950, Hiss served 44 months in prison. Upon his release, he began an over 40-year quest to clear his name. He wrote a book, “In the Court of Public Opinion,” in which he refuted the government’s prosecution point by point. He won the right to have his government pension restored and was readmitted to the Massachusetts bar, but his appeal to have the case reopened was denied.

Hiss died on Nov. 16, 1996, at the age of 92. His legacy remains nearly as divisive as it was in 1950. “It was a kind of morality play that severed society along ideological and emotional lines,” wrote The New York Times in his obituary. “At Mr. Hiss's death, nearly 50 years after he was first publicly accused, followers of the case remained bitterly split over whether he was guilty, innocent or something in between.”

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