Alger Hiss was a lawyer who rose
to become a significant public official in the United States through the 1930's and 1940s.
In 1948 a magazine editor, who confessed to being a communist, accused Alger Hiss of
assisting in the transmittal of documents to the Russians. Alger Hiss denied any
involvement but was found guilty in his second trial and sentenced to five years in
Many did not believe Alger
Hiss's pleas of innocence and the case stimulated support for Senator McCarthy. McCarthyism and the hunt for communists in places of influence
in American society.
It is now widely believed that
Alger Hiss (probably wrongfully accused) was the scapegoat for the loss of China to the
Communists and the Russian development of the atomic bomb.
Americans found it difficult to
believe that either of these events could have happened without duplicity and thus looked
to subversion, spies, lack of loyalty and moral degeneration as explanations for these
The Alger Hiss Perjury
Trials: A Dramatic Perspective on Legal Rhetoric, Ritter, Kurt W.
The two Alger Hiss perjury trials of 1949 provide an opportunity to compare two different
aspects of trial drama: courtroom drama and crime drama. Much recent scholarship on legal
rhetoric has acknowledged the dramatic quality of courtroom communication, which results
in part from the physical appearance of the courtroom and the style of language used.
The dual quality of trial drama
stems not only from the contest between the plots of the prosecution and the defense, but
from the tension between the immediate courtroom scene and the distant scene of the crime.
In the first Alger Hiss perjury trial, the prosecution focused on the testimony and
truthfulness of Hiss's accuser, Whittaker Chambers, thus stressing the courtroom drama
rather than the crime drama; the defense then attempted to discredit Chambers and portray
Hiss as honorable.
Alger Hiss biographical sketch
prepared by Erica Walbert.
Abstract: Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Alger Hiss attended Johns Hopkins University and
Harvard Law School. Afterwards, from 1930 to 1933, Alger Hiss practiced law in Boston and
New York. Furthermore, Alger Hiss was granted important jobs in the federal government
from 1934 until 1947. During the Cold War against Russia, in August of 1948, Whittaker
Chambers, an ex-Communist, testified in front of the House Un-American Activities
Committee (HUAC) that Alger Hiss was a member of the Communist party and a spy.
Consequently, Alger Hiss was indicted for perjury; the first trial resulted in a hung
jury. However, the second trial convicted Alger Hiss on two counts of perjury, resulting
in five years of prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Many today still question the
innocence or guilt of Alger Hiss's supposed association with the Communist Party in
Alger Hiss was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 11, 1904. Academically, Alger Hiss
attended Baltimore City College High School, then Johns Hopkins University. In 1929, he
earned his law degree from Harvard Law School. Alger Hiss later served as a clerk to
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. for one year.
In 1933, Alger Hiss took a job on the legal staff of the Agricultural Adjustment
Administration. At this time, according to Linder, Alger Hiss supposedly joined Ware's
underground cell, which is a type of Marxist study group. In August or September of 1934,
Alger Hiss supposedly met Whittaker Chambers, who was born in Philadelphia. According to
Smith, Chambers became a member of the Communist Party in 1925, while a student at
Columbia University, as an organizer among the Communists located in the city. When Alger
Hiss met Chambers, he, according to Chambers, began paying Chambers Communist party
Chambers identified Alger Hiss, along with others, as Communists. However, the FBI did not
immediately follow up on Chambers' tips. Later on, Alger Hiss joined the State
Department's Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. Hiss's job concentrated
on postwar development for worldwide organization. Because of this responsibility, Alger
Hiss went to Yalta with President Roosevelt where he began drafting plans that would soon
become the United Nations.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover met with Alger Hiss to discuss his possible involvement with
the Communist party; however, Alger Hiss denied that any association existed. Alger Hiss
also denied any association with Chambers; according to Linder, in his signed statement to
the FBI, Alger Hiss stated that he was not acquainted with an individual by the name
of Whittaker Chambers.
On August 3, 1948, Chambers accused Alger Hiss of having been a Communist spy. On August
5, 1948, Hiss was given the chance to testify; according to Rappaport, Alger Hiss claimed,
I am not and never have been a member of the Communist party. To the best of my
knowledge, none of my friends is a Communist.
On December 2, 1948, Chambers brought two HUAC investigators to a pumpkin patch on his
farm. There, he had five undeveloped rolls hidden in a pumpkin; two of these rolls of film
contained photographs of State Department documents, some with Alger Hiss's initials on
them. Chambers then testified that Alger Hiss was a Communist that gave him government
documents from 1934 to 1938. As a result, Alger Hiss was indicted for perjury by a general
grand jury for lying under oath. After 6 weeks of evidence, the jury could not reach a
unanimous decision; eight jurors favored conviction, while four jurors favored
On November 17, 1949, Alger Hiss's second trial began. The jury found Alger Hiss guilty on
two counts of perjury on January 21, 1950; Alger Hiss was then sentenced to five years in
prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Alger Hiss went to prison on March 11, 1951 and was
freed on November 26, 1954. Then, Alger Hiss wrote a book entitled In the Court of Public
Opinion, where he analyzed why the evidence at his trial was inadequate to find him guilty
of perjury. Also, Alger Hiss wrote a book entitled Recollections of a Life, which was
published in 1988, discussing the emotional side of experiencing two extensive and
Alger Hiss did file a petition in hopes of overturning his 1950 conviction. However, it
was rejected by District Judge Richard Owen. Alger Hiss articulated his innocence for over
40 years. According to Rappaport, in 1992, Dmitri Volkogonov, a historian and Soviet
military counselor, claimed that an observant analysis of a huge amount of
documents had led him to make a firm conclusion that Alger Hiss was not ever
or anywhere recruited as an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.
Also, Volkogonov believed that Chambers never had any kind of secret or spy
Furthermore, G. Edward White, author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars, investigated why
Alger Hiss continued in his lying and how he coped with tricking so many Americans for so
long. White's father-in-law, John F. David, was Hiss's first counsel and actually assisted
Alger Hiss at both trials. Davis, throughout both trials, was still convinced that Alger
Hiss had no motive to spy for the Soviets and lie about it. White writes that Hiss's
recklessness was connected to his idealism, to his fanatical devotion to his goals
and to his distinctive mix of ingenuousness and deceptiveness. When those characteristics
are combined with Hiss's instinctive altruism, the high priority he placed on loyalty, his
single-mindedness and self-control, and his strong faith in his own competence, the
portrait of a person ideally suited for the life of a secret agent emerges.
On the other hand, despite Hiss's possible personality traits trapping him as an easily
found culpable Russian spy, in 1996, intercepted documents of Soviet intelligence
communications revealed that an agent called ALES, which was the same name
given to Alger Hiss, had been involved in the Communist underground since 1935. Also, in
these documents, it was stated that ALES had gone from Yalta to Moscow, which Alger Hiss
did in 1945.
On November 15, 1996 Alger Hiss died in New York City at the age of ninety-two. Many today
still question the innocence or guilt of Alger Hiss's supposed association with the
Communist Party in Russia.
Linder, Douglas. The Alger Hiss Trials: An Account. 2003. Famous Trials. 15 November 2005.
Rappaport, Doreen. Be the Judge, Be the Jury: The Alger Hiss Trial. New York:
Smith, John Chabot. Alger Hiss: The True Story. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
White, G. Edward. Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
For More Information:
Hiss, Tony. The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Ruddy, T. Michael. The Alger Hiss Espionage Case. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth,
Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Random House, 1997.