Alger Hiss

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Hiss was a U.S. diplomat accused of being a Communist spy and became the defendant in two notorious trials that heightened the public’s fear of communist infiltration in the government.

Early Life

Alger Hiss was born on November 11, 1904, in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Mary and Charles Alger Hiss. Raised in an upper-middle-class atmosphere, Hiss possessed an eagerness for knowledge and excelled at his studies. He enjoyed being read to by an aunt who lived in the Hiss household after Charles died when Alger was just two years old. As a youth, Hiss attended Baltimore public schools; after graduating from high school at Baltimore City College in 1921, he attended Powder Point Academy in Massachusetts. Hiss glided through college and law school with honors and scholarships, graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1926 and Harvard Law School in 1929. He was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter (a future U.S. Supreme Court justice) and later clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

After practicing law in Boston, Massachusetts, and New York City from 1930 to 1933, Hiss began his career in Washington, D.C. He held several New Deal posts in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the major New Deal agency concerned with farming. In July, 1934, Hiss shifted from the AAA to a new post on the legal staff of the Nye Committee, which was investigating the arms manufacturers of World War I. Hiss then worked briefly for the Department of Justice before transferring to the Department of State on September 1, 1936, where he served in various capacities, including assistant to the adviser on political relations, assistant to the director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs, and deputy director for the Office of Special Political Affairs.

Hiss’s hard work and dedication enabled him to rise quickly through the ranks of the State Department. He was appointed executive secretary to the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944, at which the blueprint of the United Nations Charter was approved. The following year, Hiss accompanied President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference as a member of the U.S. delegation. He then participated in the founding of the United Nations as the temporary secretary general of the United Nation’s organizing conference in San Francisco, California, in April, 1945. After returning from the meeting and delivering a copy of the U.N. Charter directly to President Harry S. Truman, who praised his work, Hiss settled into his new responsibilities as director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. Hiss continued to impress his superiors and, as a result, attended the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London, England, as a principal adviser for the U.S. delegation in January, 1946. One year later, at the age of forty-two, Hiss left the State Department to become the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After joining the Roosevelt administration, Hiss had experienced swift and remarkable career advancements. He seemed headed for a great future, yet his many accomplishments occurred at a time when the United States was engaged in an ideological struggle between the forces of capitalism and the forces of communism. The Cold War extended beyond foreign policy and reached into the spirits of the United States and the Soviet Union. As tensions heightened, Communist infiltration in the government became a serious concern. Many soon began to doubt Hiss’s allegiance to the United States, suspecting him of Communist sympathies. While Hiss’s public career had been that of a brilliant bureaucrat and model New Dealer, his notoriety derived from the accusations leveled against him in the late 1940’s. The events that transpired would change his life forever.

Life’s Work

In the summer of 1948, the country was electrified to learn that Hiss, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had been identified as a member of an underground Communist Party cell in Washington, D.C., during the 1930’s. The fascinating drama began on August 3 when a former Communist named Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor of Time magazine, appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and accused Hiss of having been a Communist spy while working for the State Department in 1937 and 1938. The charge was shocking. The tall, handsome, and elegantly dressed Hiss seemed to be the model U.S. citizen. Hiss demanded the right to refute the charges; forty-eight hours later, in a masterful performance in front of an audience of supporters, he seemingly put the accusations to rest by insisting that he had never met Chambers and did not even recognize a picture of him. Hiss received a standing ovation from Congress as he ended his testimony. There was one Congressman,...

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