Law and Famous Trials

Alger Hiss

Why was Alger Hiss tried?

U.S. public official Alger Hiss (1904–1996) was tried for perjury during 1949 and 1950. His first trial ended in a hung jury, and the second trial concluded with a guilty verdict and a sentence of five years in prison. Hiss served four years and eight months before he was released and returned to private life. To this day many believe Hiss was framed by Republican politicians who charged President Harry Truman’s (1884–1972) administration with employing Communists who acted as secret agents for the Soviet Union. The politically charged case was packed with intrigue, including the testimony of a Time magazine senior editor who was later revealed to be a perjurer and who used at least seven different aliases in a 14-year period; microfilm evidence stored in a hol-lowed-out pumpkin in the middle of a farm field; and an old typewriter, which later evidence and testimony revealed was probably a fake.

The case against Hiss was made amidst the Investigation of Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives. It was 1948 and the Cold War was on; distrust was running high. And when a man named Whittaker Chambers (an editor at Time) appeared before the House committee and claimed that Hiss had been a courier who had transported confidential government documents to the Soviets, Hiss, then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, became the subject of investigation. He was indicted and stood trial. In spite of his distinguished career as a public servant (he had served in the State Department for 11 years); a parade of character witnesses who testified of his integrity, loyalty, and veracity; and his own vehement denial of the charges, the prosecution managed to bring enough evidence against him to convince a second jury that Hiss lied when he said the charges that he was a secret agent were “a complete fabrication.” (The jury in Hiss’s first trial deadlocked following more than 14 hours of deliberation.)

Even after his conviction, Hiss’s lawyers worked tirelessly to appeal the case; all attempts were denied. In 1957 Hiss published his own account of the case, In the Court of Public Opinion, in which he reasserted his innocence. Then in 1973, during the Watergate hearings, former White House counsel John Dean’s (1938-) explosive testimony included the statement that he heard President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) say, “The typewriters are always the key … We built one in the Hiss case.” In 1988 Hiss published again; the book was titled Recollections of a Life. Four years later, at the age of 87, Hiss appealed to the Russian government to examine their intelligence archives to see what they revealed about him; the response came back that there was “not a single document” substantiating the allegations that Hiss had collaborated with the Soviet Union’s intelligence service. That same year, 1992, Hiss’s son, Tony, wrote an article for the New Yorker magazine; it was titled “My Father’s Honor.”


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