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Guide to the Alger Hiss Family Papers TAM 314

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Evan Daniel. Edited by Evan Friss according to local applications (2007) and by Maggie Schreiner for compliance with DACS and Tamiment Required Elements for Archival Description and to reflect the incorporation of nonprint materials, Jan 2014.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 15, 2018
Finding aid is written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical/Biographical Note

Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. When he was almost two and a half years old, his father committed suicide and his mother was left a widow with five children. Hiss's father had been an executive for a wholesale dry-goods firm who had been overwhelmed by financial and personal difficulties, and the family had modest financial resources. Alger's paternal aunt played a very important role in his early life after she moved in with the family shortly after her brother's death. Along with Alger's mother she created a conventional middle-class household for the five children that emphasized religion, education, music lessons and art. Alger was educated at Baltimore City College and Johns Hopkins University. He then went on to Harvard Law School where he became a protege of Felix Frankfurter, who was at the time the most prominent member of the law school faculty. In the 1910s and 1920s Frankfurter, who was later to become a Supreme Court justice, was identified with progressive causes, including the campaign to free Sacco and Vanzetti. After Hiss graduated in 1929, Frankfurter recommended him to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who took him on as his secretary. While in Washington, Hiss married Priscilla Fansler Hobson, whom he had first met on a student trip to Europe in 1924.

In May 1933, soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal had begun, Alger Hiss started his career in government service. He served first as an attorney for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the agency responsible for solving the farm crisis of overproduction that many economists believed was a major cause of the Great Depression. The AAA came under the portfolio of Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, who was one of the most reform-minded and charismatic members of Roosevelt's cabinet. Jerome Frank, working under Wallace as the AAA's general counsel, brought into the agency a group of young lawyers, including John Abt, Lee Pressman, and Nathan Witt, political and labor activists who were determined to reshape American economic policy along more egalitarian lines. After Hiss had worked at the AAA for a little more than a year, the Senate Committee to Investigate the Munitions Industry invited him to become chief counsel. This was a highly visible position - the so-called "Merchants of Death" hearings were beginning. Chaired by Russell Nye, a classic mid-western isolationist, the Munitions Committee was charged with investigating World War I profiteering by military contractors. These hearings captivated the nation as they painted the munitions makers, most notably the company E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, as the villains of World War I. The Nye Committee hearings took place at a time when America and much of the world was reacting against the carnage of the First World War and pacifism was becoming increasingly prevalent across the ideological spectrum. Alger Hiss appeared to be conflicted in this area as the hearings progressed. On the one hand, he clearly abhorred the wartime profiteering that the committee was uncovering and was appalled by the human cost of the First World War; on the other hand, he believed that Senator Nye's increasing focus on isolationism tended to encourage "a passive attitude on our part towards Hitlerism." He, therefore, resigned from the committee in the fall of 1935. The Nye committee hearings made national headlines, which made Alger Hiss a public figure, and several of the increasingly influential armament manufacturers accused him of being partisan in his investigation.

After leaving the Nye Committee, Hiss went to work for the Justice Department, in the Solicitor General's office, where he helped defend the New Deal against the rising tide of conservative opposition that was challenging the constitutionality of FDR's reform agenda. In 1936, Hiss began working in the State Department (his younger brother, Donald, also a former Holmes secretary, joined him there in 1938). At State, Alger first became assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, and then, as World War II was breaking out, assistant to Stanley K. Hornbeck, an expert on Far Eastern Policy. Working with Hornbeck, his primary responsibility was to bolster China, then headed by the Chiang Kai-shek regime, in its struggle against Japanese domination and work with the American agencies that were providing economic aid. In this position he found himself performing a difficult balancing act, trying to bolster the increasingly corrupt Nationalist government while at the same time encouraging the resistance movement to the Japanese that was in large measure led by the Communist Chinese under Mao Tse-tung. In 1944, as World War II was winding down, Hiss became Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of Special Political Affairs, a position that put him at the center of the postwar planning process. In this capacity, he was named executive secretary of the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference that finalized plans for the organization of the United Nations.

In 1945, Hiss was appointed to the United States delegation to the wartime Yalta conference, where the "Big Three" leaders - Roosevelt, Stalin, and Winston Churchill - met to coordinate strategy to defeat Nazi Germany, draw the map for postwar Europe, and plan for the United Nations. When Stalin requested a total of 16 General Assembly votes for the Soviet Republics, rather than a single vote for the USSR as a whole, Hiss joined the opposition and helped hammer out a compromise that gave the USSR only two additional representatives. Hiss went on to become the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on International Organization that was convened in San Francisco in April 1945. In 1947, Hiss left government service and became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in New York, where he continued to work on post-war planning and international organization.

Hiss's name was thrust into the headlines in August 1948, when Time magazine special projects editor Whittaker Chambers, a self-confessed former underground Communist Party operative, charged him with being a secret Communist. Alger Hiss voluntarily appeared before the House-Committee on Un-American Activities to deny Chambers' accusation. At first the majority of the Committee seemed to be reluctant to pursue the case, but freshman Congressman Richard M. Nixon, who was being covertly fed confidential FBI information by the Roman Catholic Church's "Communist hunter," Father John Francis Cronin, pressed the committee to investigate. Initially, Hiss denied that he had ever known anyone named Whittaker Chambers, but when asked to identify him from a photograph he said that his face "might look familiar" and requested to see him in person. At a subsequent hearing, Hiss identified him as "George Crosley," a freelance writer to whom he had sublet an empty apartment in the mid-1930s. Hiss instituted a libel lawsuit against Chambers. In his defense, Chambers in November 1948 presented the so-called "Baltimore documents," typed summaries and copies of a series of government records that he alleged Hiss had given him in the 1930s (after Priscilla Hiss had retyped them) to pass on to the Soviet Union. Chambers had previously denied that he and Hiss were involved in espionage, both when testifying before Congress and to a Grand Jury in October 1948. Chambers' new testimony subjected him to the charge of perjury. But after both men testified before the Grand Jury in December 1948, only Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury, after denying Chambers' espionage charges under oath. (He could not be charged with espionage directly, since the statute of limitations on that charge had run out.) Hiss went to trial twice. The first ended in a hung jury on July 7, 1949. The two trials revolved around both the "Baltimore documents" and the so-called "Pumpkin Papers," microfilmed copies of government documents that Chambers claimed Hiss had given him for transmission to a Soviet spy network. (The film had briefly been hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on Chambers' Maryland farm.) On January 21, 1950, Alger Hiss was convicted in a second perjury trial. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

The Hiss case continues to be problematic and controversial more than a half century after the second trial. The trial record, with its many ambiguities, has been used by the Left and the Right as a prism for contested and conflicting interpretations of the Cold War and the McCarthy Period. The one thing that both sides agree on is that the Hiss case was a major watershed for post-war America, one of the key events that turned the country away from New Deal reform and towards the worldwide crusade against Communism, with all its consequences for United States foreign and domestic policy, civil liberties and civil rights. Debate about the Hiss case continues, in part because all sides of the political spectrum have interpreted it in light of their ideologies and world views, since there has never been any definitive confirmation of Chambers' allegations that Hiss gave him information to pass on to the Soviet Union. So far, neither the archives of the former Soviet Union, nor the so-called Venona dycrypts (the U.S. Army's wartime Signals Intelligence Service program to examine Soviet diplomatic information) have produced any records - with the possible exception of one somewhat puzzling Venona document referring to a Soviet undercover agent named "ALES" that some scholars interpret as a codename for Alger Hiss - that unambiguously link Hiss to Soviet espionage.

Alger Hiss served 44 months at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and lost his license to practice law. In prison, he was assigned to work as a clerk in the storeroom, which required some physical labor and placed him under constant supervision. He often spent his spare time providing informal legal advice to fellow prisoners while they were working on appeals. Hiss was allowed to write three letters per week to designated correspondents that included his wife, Priscilla, his son, Tony, and his mother, Mary L. (Minnie) Hiss.

After Alger Hiss was released, on November 28, 1954, he had considerable difficulty finding a job. He found that college and secondary school administrators were afraid to offer him teaching positions. The New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf and the London publisher John Calder gave him a combined $10,000 advance for a book that he worked on for nearly three years. Hiss's book, published in 1957 under the title In The Court of Public Opinion, made the case for his innocence as it sought to discredit Whittaker Chambers' charges, which he had restated in a 1952 best-selling memoir, Witness. However, Hiss's book received mixed reviews and had only modest sales. Most reviewers saw the book as a dry and legalistic case for the defense. These critics clearly reflected the politics of the Cold War period and the then near-consensus that Alger Hiss was guilty as charged.

Hiss spent much of the rest of his life asserting his innocence and seeking evidence that would vindicate him. He and Priscilla separated in 1959, difficulties in their marriage having been exacerbated by the trials and their aftermath. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Hiss began to receive invitations to lecture about foreign policy and the Cold War on college campuses. His first lecture was at Princeton University in the spring of 1956 on the "Meaning of Geneva." Although there was considerable controversy surrounding this event and some prominent alumni demanded that the university cancel it, Princeton stood firm and defended Hiss's right to speak on campus. Shortly after this event, Hiss began looking for employment. At first he interviewed for positions as a free-lance journalist, but he found that no publisher would hire him. Eventually he found a job working for a small women's hair-comb manufacturer, Feathercombs, Inc., where he was put in charge of a corporate reorganization. However, when this did not work out as planned, he resigned. Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine was a particularly difficult year for Alger Hiss. The U.S. government passed a law denying him a pension and he lived largely off unemployment insurance. He finally found work as a salesman for a stationery company, Davison-Bluth, located on lower Fifth Avenue in New York City. He held this position until he retired in 1976.

As the political tide began to change in the 1960s and a new generation began to reexamine the Cold War period and the "red scare" from the perspective of the so-called New Left, Hiss's invitations to speak on college campuses increased dramatically. During these years he began proudly to identify himself once again with the New Deal and the liberal wing of the "Old Left." As the Vietnam War led many Americans to raise questions about the origins of the Cold War and its anti-Communist crusade, many began to reconsider the Hiss case. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to challenge the so-called "Hiss Act" that had denied Alger Hiss and other victims of the McCarthy Period government pensions. The United States Supreme Court declared this law to be unconstitutional in 1972. Three years later, the Massachusetts Bar Association restored Hiss's license to practice law. Around this time Hiss began working with Agnese N. Lindley (now Haury), whom he had met when she was working in the Publications Division of the Carnegie Endowment. Mrs. Lindley was in the process of setting up a foundation to support environmental, archeological and other causes and she asked Alger to join the Board of Trustees. The two worked closely together for nearly a decade.

In 1978, several years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Hiss, on the basis of a successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, formally sought exoneration and attempted to reopen his case on the basis of new evidence he had received from FBI and other government files about FBI malfeasance, deceit and cover up. However, in 1983, after seven years of litigation, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. After Priscilla Hiss's death in 1984, Hiss married Isabel Johnson. Hiss continued to search for new evidence in his case, working primarily with John Lowenthal, a former Rutgers University law professor and old friend. He also supported the investigations of journalist William A. Reuben, who spent 40 years writing an unpublished reanalysis of the case. Alger Hiss died in 1996, in New York City, still protesting his innocence.

The Alger Hiss case was a major watershed of the early Cold War period. It was certainly one of the key events that helped create the political climate for the "red scare." Hiss's public career embodied the reformist vision that linked Franklin Roosevelt's domestic agenda to an internationalist foreign policy. He sat right behind the President at the Yalta conference and thus became an obvious target for those on the Republican Right who claimed that Yalta sold out Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. For many on the Left, Alger Hiss was a prominent example of the excesses of the McCarthy Period and a symbol of the Republican campaign to discredit the New Deal. It is unlikely, however, that historians or archivists will ever come up with a "smoking gun" that will convince everyone about Hiss's innocence or guilt. We believe that this microfilm edition of the Alger Hiss papers presents new materials that will make it possible for scholars and students for the first time to view Alger Hiss's life and career in their full and varied contexts (both political and personal) and thus gain a better understanding of the role that he played in the politics, culture and society of inter-war, World War II, and Cold War America.