Donald H.J. Hermann



















A paper delivered to



November 14, 2005

Chicago, Illinois



“Deception and Betrayal:  The Tragedy of Alger Hiss”

Donald H.J. Hermann


            In August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist and an editor at Time magazine, accused Alger Hiss, a former State Department official and president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, of having been a member of the Communist party.  Subsequently, Chambers accused Hiss of serving as a spy for the Soviet Union.  Hiss swore that he had never been a spy.  Hiss admitted to knowing Chambers, but only briefly under another name, and said  he had not seen Chambers since July 1936.  In December 1948, a federal grand jury indicted Hiss for perjury – for lying about being a spy and lying about his relationship with Chambers.  The statute of limitations for espionage of ten years, protected Hiss against the charge of having passed secret material from State Department files to Chambers, of having placed in the hands of agents of the Soviet Union documents which enabled the Soviet Union to break important secret codes used by the United States.  A first trial for perjury resulted in a hung jury; but at a second trial, Hiss was convicted and on March 29, 1951, Alger Hiss went to prison.

The question of Alger Hiss’ loyalty to the United States was raised nine years before the full extent of his spying was exposed.  On September 3, 1939, two days after the establishment of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Whittaker Chambers went to see A.A. Berle, Jr., the Assistant Secretary of State, to report on the nature of Communist penetration within the government.  Berle made notes of the conversation, listing the names of people, who according to Chambers were communists.  About Hiss, the notes said:  “Member of the Underground Com(munist) – Active Baltimore boys – Wife – Priscilla Hiss –  Socialist – Early Days of the New Deal.”  Berle concluded, however, that Hiss posed no “immediate danger” to the country and did not pursue the matter.

It was not until March 1945, that Raymond Murphy, a security officer for the State Department, interviewed Chambers.  Murphy’s memorandum of the interview reads in part:


It seems that in 1934, with the establishment of the Agricultural Administration and the introduction of much reform legislation in Washington, the Communist party decided its influence could be felt more strongly by enlisting the active support of underground workers not openly identified with the party and never previously affiliated with the party, but whose background and training would make them possible prospects as affiliates under the guise of advancing reform legislation.  The Hungarian, party name J. Peters, was selected by the Central Committee to supervise the work from New York.  His Washington representative and contact man was the informant [Chambers] and he personally met and discussed many times various problems with the persons listed below except those specifically named as coming under another person’s jurisdiction.  The persons listed below are said to have disclosed much confidential matter and to have arranged among themselves a program committing this government to a policy in keeping with the desires of the Communist party.


The opportunity presented itself for the formation of an underground group with the appointment to a leading position in the Agriculture Administration in 1934 of one Harold Ware.  Ware had worked for years in agricultural collectivization projects in Russia.  He was a son of Ella Reeves Bloor, veteran American Communists, by one of her numerous marriages.  On being assigned to this agency, Ware found a group of very promising, ambitious young men with advanced social and political ideas.  Among them were Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, Henry Collins, and Charles Kramer.  They all joined the Communist party and became leaders of cells.  No cell had over ten members.  This was the nucleus of the Communist underground organization in Washington.  The purpose was for each member to advance as high as possible in the government to shape legislation favorable to the program of the Communist party.  The top leaders of the underground were:  (1) Harold Ware; (2) Lee Pressman; and (3) Alger Hiss.


From 1933 until 1945, Alger Hiss was an agent for Soviet military intelligence.  Hiss had developed an early interest in collectivist political ideologies and formed friendships with acknowledged Communists while living in New York.  In the spring of 1933, Hiss, his wife Priscilla and her son from a previous marriage, Timothy Hobson, moved to Washington where Hiss took a position at the Agriculture Adjustment Administration upon the recommendation of Felix Frankfurter, who had earlier recommended Hiss for a clerkship with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes during the 1929 Supreme Court Term.  By 1934, Hiss was paying dues to the Communist Party and funneling information from the AAA to the Communist Party’s headquarters in New York.

In July 1934, Hiss was loaned by the AAA to a Senate Committee, chaired by Senator Gerald Nye, from North Dakota, which was investigating the role of American armaments manufacturers in influencing American foreign policy.  The appointment of Hiss to the Nye Committee was arranged by Lee Pressman, a fellow Harvard Law School graduate, an employee of the AAA, and a member of Harold Ware’s communist group.  The resident coordinator of Soviet agents in the United States, Joszef Peter, felt that placement of Hiss on the staff of the Nye Committee would give Hiss access to U.S. military intelligence documents which would be of interest to the Soviet military.

Whittaker Chambers served as the principal courier of copies of documents that Hiss was providing to the Soviet military.  Chambers photographed or received copies of a number of documents provided to him by Hiss between 1935 and early 1938.  The initial body of material provided by Hiss was obtained from the officers of the Nye Committee which had access to State Department files and then obtained directly from the State Department where Hiss worked from 1936 until his resignation in 1947.

In the monograph The Sword and the Secret Shield:  The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, the authors provide an insight into the Soviet espionage systems operating within the United States government from the early 1930s:

[I]n the mid 1930s the main Soviet espionage networks in the United States were run by the Fourth Department (Soviet Military Intelligence or GRU) and not the NKVD [the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs incorporating state security].  Fourth Department agents included a series of young, idealistic, high-flyers within the federal government, among them:  Alger Hiss and Julian Wadleigh, both of whom entered the State Department in 1936; Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department; and George Silverman, a government statistician who  probably recruited White.  Like the Cambridge Five [Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean and Kim Philpy], the Washington moles saw themselves as secret warriors in the struggle against fascism.  Wadleigh wrote later:

When the Communist International represented the only world force effectively resisting Nazi Germany, I had offered my services to the Soviet underground in Washington as one small contribution to help stem the fascist tide.


As a result of growing dissatisfaction with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, Chambers severed his relationship with the Communist party in 1935, and ceased serving as a courier for Soviet intelligence.  Chambers went into hiding, keeping a selection of copies of purloined documents for possible self-protection in case he was pursued by his former Communist associates.  Chamber was aware of the Stalinist purges and feared Soviet intelligence officials might track him down and try to force him back into service or otherwise harm him.  After the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, Chamber became a strong anti-Communist. 

Hiss was investigated in 1941 under the Hatch Act, which prohibited partisan activity by government employees; however, investigators found no inappropriate activities.  Hiss advanced in the State Department attending the Yalta Conference as an advisor and served as the Secretary General at the 1945 San Francisco Conference founding the United Nations.  At the State Department, Hiss was appointed Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs.  During this period, Ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, had several conversations with Stanley K. Hornbeck, who was the Advisor on Political Relations at the State Department and then Hiss’ superior; in these conversations Bullitt referred to Hiss as a communist or fellow traveler.  Hornbeck dismissed the comments and took no action to determine their validity.  Rumors about Hiss being a communist circulated in late 1945 when Igor Gouzenko, a former Soviet code clerk disclosed that five different espionage rings were operating in the United States and Canada.  Hiss assured the Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, that the rumors about Hiss’ communist affiliations were false, and Hiss survived two F.B.I. investigations in 1945 and again in 1947.  In December 1946, Hiss accepted the post of president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In July 1948, the House Un-American Activities Committees, following its hearings on politically subversive propaganda in film and theatre, began hearings about communists in the federal government.  Karl Mundt, from South Dakota, served as acting chairman.  The Committee included among its members Richard Nixon who was elected to Congress from California in 1946.  Elizabeth Bentley, a self-confessed former Communist spy, testified that several government officials gave her secret documents for transfer to Soviet agents; one of these officials, Harry Dexter White was a former Assistant Secretary of State and director of the International Monetary Fund.  President Truman declared that Bentley’s accusations were false, nothing more than a “red herring,” and that the Republican dominated House was using the hearings as an attempt to undermine the Administration.

On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared as a witness before HUAC and testified that Alger Hiss was one of many communists who had worked in the federal government.  But, he said, none of these men had been spies.  Chambers testified that in 1939, two years after he had left the Communist party, he had told Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle, Jr. that there were communists in the U.S. government, including Alger Hiss who was serving in the State Department.  Upon hearing the news that before a Congressional committee Chambers had accused Hiss of being a commitment, Hiss telegraphed the staff of HUAC asking to appear before the committee in order to testify under oath that he did not know Chambers and to deny the allegations made by Chambers.

On August 5, Hiss testified that “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.  To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two FBI men asked me if I knew him.  So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him.”  Hiss told the committee that the accusations were total lies and that his government service should speak for itself.  Karl Mundt, the acting chairman of HUAC, confronted Hiss with Chambers’ testimony that when Chambers decided to break with the Communist party, Chambers tried to convince Hiss to do the same, but that Hiss refused to disassociate himself from the Communists.  Hiss denied any such incident, and said any person named Chambers was unknown to him.  However, Hiss went on to say that he would like to see in person this man named Chambers who had made these false accusations.

The press reported that Hiss was calm and relaxed as he spoke and the reporters concluded that the charges were absurd.  Most HUAC members wanted to drop the investigation of Hiss and the others who had been accused.  However, Congressman Richard Nixon and HUAC’s chief investigator, Robert Stripling, pressured the Committee to continue the hearings.

Nixon subsequently wrote about his role in pursuing Hiss and transforming the inquiry from a determination of whether Hiss was a communist to an inquiry of whether Hiss lied about knowing Chambers.  In his book Six Crises, Nixon wrote about the atmosphere at HUAC after Chambers’ and Hiss’ initial testimony:

When the Committee reconvened in executive session later that afternoon, it was in a virtual state of shock.  Several members berated the staff for not checking Chambers’ veracity before putting him on the stand.

One Republication lamented, “We’ve been had.  We’re ruined.”  Ed Hébert, a Louisiana Democrat, suggested that the only way the Committee could get “off the hook” would be to turn the whole file over to the Department of Justice and hold no more hearings in the case.  “Let’s wash our hands of the whole mess,” he said.  That appeared to be the majority view, and if Hébert had put his suggestion in the form of a motion, it would have carried overwhelmingly.  I was the only member of the Committee who expressed a contrary view, and Bob Stripling backed me up strongly and effectively.

I argued, first, that turning the case over to the Department of Justice, far from rescuing the Committee’s reputation, would probably destroy it for good.  It would be a public confession that we were incompetent and even reckless in our procedures.  We would never be able to begin another investigation without having someone say, “Why do you amateurs insist on getting these cases?  Why don’t you leave the job where it belongs – to the experts in the Department of Justice?  Beyond that, I insisted that we had a responsibility not to drop the case but rather now that we had opened up the whole question, to see it through.  I reminded the Committee members that Chambers had testified that on four different occasions he had told his story to representatives of government agencies and that no action had ever been taken to check the credibility of his charges.  Judging from that record, we could only assume that if we turned the investigation over to the Department of Justice, the case would be dropped.  And the truth would never be determined.

I pointed out my suspicions that while Hiss had seemed to be a completely forthright and truthful witness, he had been careful never to state categorically that he did not know Whittaker Chambers.  He had always qualified his answer by saying that he did not  know a man “by the name of Whittaker Chambers.”  I argued that while it would be virtually impossible to prove that Hiss was or was not a Communist – for that would simply be his word against Chambers’ – we should be able to establish by corroborative testimony whether or not the two men knew each other.  If Hiss were lying about not knowing Chambers, then he might also be lying about whether or not he was a Communist.  And if that were the case, the charges were so serious – in view of the virtually important and sensitive positions Hiss had held – that we had an obligation running to the very security of the nation to dig out the truth.

Nixon was successful in having the HUAC investigation continue and was appointed chair of a sub-committee to question Chambers in executive session in New York on August 7.  At that session, Chambers described intimate details of the Hiss households in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. from ten years earlier.  Chambers said that Hiss was called “Hilly” by his wife and that Hiss called his wife Priscilla by the name “Dilly” and “Priss.”  Chambers testified that Hiss knew him by the name “Carl.”  Chambers testified about the couples’ eating habits, pets, hobbies, mannerisms, relatives, vacation trips and furniture.  Chambers also testified that Hiss was an amateur ornithologist or birdwatcher and was proud of having spotted a member of a rare species, a prothonotary warbler.

On August 16, Nixon recalled Hiss and showed him photographs of Chambers.  Hiss testified the photograph appeared to be of a man who looked like a person Hiss knew as George Crosley, a writer who had interviewed Hiss when he served as legal counsel to the Nye Committee.  Hiss also testified that in June 1935 he rented an apartment to Crosley and his family which Hiss was vacating because he had purchased a new home.  However, Hiss said he could not say whether Crosley and Chambers were the same person.

The following day, August 17, Richard Nixon and John McDowell, a Pennsylvania Congressman, functioning as subcommittee, brought Chambers and Hiss together.  When Hiss was asked if he had ever seen Chambers, he hesitated.  He said he couldn’t be sure.  Chambers looked different from the man he remembered knowing as Crosley from thirteen years before.  Crosley was heavier, had thicker hair, and bad teeth.  Hiss asked Chambers to open his mouth wide to see if he had the bad teeth Hiss recalled. Chambers said his dental condition had been treated.  Hiss then asked Chambers to read from a newspaper.  After hearing Chambers read, Hiss stated:  “The voice sounded a little less resonant than the voice I remember as George Crosley’s.  The teeth looked improved.  I am not prepared without further checking to take an absolute oath that he must be George Crosley.”

Chambers denied ever having used the name George Crosley.  Chambers testified that Hiss was the man “who was a member of the Communist Party” at whose house Chambers and his wife and child had stayed.

On August 25, during televised hearings Hiss interrupted Chambers, walking toward him declaring:  “I challenge you to make these same statements outside of this room.  And I hope you will do it damned quickly.”  Hiss challenged Chambers to make his accusations outside the Congressional hearings where Chambers’ statements were not protected by legal privilege.  Hiss suggested he would sue Chambers for libel by the publication of false and malicious statements that were damaging to Hiss’ reputation.

Chambers was interviewed on August 27, on the radio program “Meet the Press” where he was asked whether Hiss was ever a communist.  Chambers answered “Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be one now.”  When Chambers was asked if Hiss had ever spied for the Soviets, he said, “No.”  Hiss then filed a $75,000 libel suit.

During a pre-trial hearing, Hiss’ attorney, William Marbury, asked Chambers if he could produce any proof of his accusations against Hiss.  Chambers subsequently, on November 18, 1948, handed over to Marbury an envelope that he had secreted in his nephew’s home in Brooklyn.  The envelope contained forty-three copies of State Department reports and four memoranda in Hiss’ handwriting.  [Chambers retained five rolls of microfilm which had also been in the envelope.]  Chambers claimed Hiss had given him the documents in 1937.  According to Chambers, Hiss had taken secret documents from his government office to his home to facilitate his wife’s making typed copies.  The originals were returned to State Department files by Hiss and the copies were turned over to a Soviet agent by Chambers.

When Chambers was asked why he had repeatedly denied that Hiss was a spy for the Soviets, Chambers stated he had not wanted to inflict unnecessary injury on Alger Hiss or his wife; he explained:  “The Hisses had been my closest friends in the party.  But now I see that Hiss is determined to destroy me and my wife if possible.”  In his book Witness, Chambers addressed his reasons for limiting his original accusations against to Hiss to that of membership in the Communist party and only when the libel action was initiated did he expand his charges against Hiss to include espionage:

[U]ntil that time I had testified only to Alger Hiss’s Communism.  I had done so because I wished to shield him.  I could not shield him completely, but I had hoped to shield him from the most shattering consequences of his acts as a Communist.  I had tried to shield him because, in my own break under Communism, I had been given strength and a time in which to reshape my life.  I did not wish to deprive Hiss and others of the same possibility that had been granted me.  But now I must testify that Alger Hiss had also committed espionage.  In response to William Marbury’s request, I had brought evidence of that.


Hiss expressed shock at Chambers’ new charges and directed his attorney to turn the papers over to the Justice Department.

HUAC staff members cabled Congressman Nixon who was on a Caribbean cruise that a “bombshell had exploded.”  Nixon directed HUAC investigators to meet with Chambers at his Maryland farm while Nixon himself flew back to Washington.

At 10:30 in the evening of December 2, 1948, Chambers led Robert Stripling and another HUAC investigator to a pumpkin patch on his farm.  Chambers opened a hollowed-out pumpkin and pulled out five rolls of microfilm that had earlier been hidden in Brooklyn.  Three undeveloped rolls in aluminum containers proved too light-struck to show anything but two rolls of developed film in protective bags contained State Department documents with the initials of Alger Hiss on them.  Chambers said he had hidden the microfilm in the pumpkin because he was unsure who would be implicated by their disclosure and wanted to withhold the microfilm from Hiss’ attorneys to possibly protect other individuals who had disassociated themselves from the Communist party.

The next morning, the newspapers reported on the discovery of the “Pumpkin Papers” as the microfilm were called.  Nixon called a press conference when he held up a roll of microfilm and disclosed:  “It is no longer one man’s word against another’s.  Our hearing would prove to the American people once and for all that when you have a Communist, you have an espionage agent.”  Nixon called for Hiss’ indictment.

A New York grand jury, by a one person majority, indicted Alger Hiss on two counts of perjury, lying under oath.  One count was for denying that he had turned State Department documents over to Chambers; the second for saying that he had not seen Chambers since January 1, 1937.  The grand jury found that Hiss had delivered government documents to Chambers in February and March 1938.

On May 31, 1949, the trial opened with the prosecutor Thomas F. Murphy telling the jury:  “If you don’t believe Mr. Chambers’ story, we have no case under the federal perjury rule.”  Chambers repeated the testimony he gave before HUAC and the grand jury.  Chambers’ credibility was attacked on cross-examination by Lloyd Paul Stryker, Hiss’ defense counsel.  Chambers admitted to committing perjury in 1937 by taking a false oath of loyalty to the United States when he obtained a position with the Works Progress Administration, and in 1948 by testifying on oath that he knew of no espionage against the United States government.  Chambers admitted to using several aliases, lying to a dean at Columbia University when he was a student, stealing books from several libraries, and living with women, including a prostitute to whom he was not married.

The prosecution presented evidence for three weeks.  State Department witnesses identified the typewritten papers Chambers had turned over as copies of cables from American diplomats stationed abroad.  Expert witnesses testified that the copies of four memoranda were in Hiss’ handwriting.  A typewriter expert from the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified that all but one of the documents Chambers had produced was typed on the same typewriter as a number of personal letters of the Hisses that had been obtained by the government.

The typewriter became a contentious piece of evidence as in later years Hiss would claim there were two typewriters leading to forgery by typewriter.  During the trial, the Hisses testified that when they moved in 1937, before the documents were allegedly typed up in January and April 1938, they had given the Woodstock typewriter to their maid’s sons.  One of the sons, Perry Catlett, testified that he had received the typewriter in December 1936, when he took the typewriter to a repair shop on K Street in Washington, D.C., and that the repair shop owner had told him that the typewriter was not worth repairing.  The prosecution, however, offered evidence that the K Street typewriter repair shop had not opened until September 1938.

The F.B.I. was not able to find the typewriter, which had been built by the Woodstock Company in 1929.  The defense, believing that finding the typewriter would establish Hiss’ innocence, tracked down the Woodstock typewriter.  In court, the prosecutors were able to demonstrate that the typewriter was in working order.  Subsequent to the trial, Hiss developed the theory that the government had fabricated a typewriter with type face similar to the one he had owned, and then successfully planted the typewriter where Hiss’ attorneys would find it.

Among the nineteen character witnesses offered by the defense were Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court Felix Frankfurter and Stanley Reed.  At least one of the four jurors who held out for Hiss’ innocence at his first trial said that in his view the character testimony given by the two associate justices was the most persuasive evidence in favor of the accused.  On direct examination, Hiss denied Chambers’ charges and testified that he was not and never been a member of the Communist party nor had he engaged in espionage.

The final witness for the defense called by Lloyd Paul Stryker was Dr. Carl Binger, a psychiatrist and member of the faculty of the Cornell University Medical College.  Stryker wanted to ask Binger:  “Have you an opinion within the bounds of reasonable certainty as to the medical condition of Whittaker Chambers?”  Presiding Judge Samuel Kaufman ruled that such testimony would be unduly prejudicial to the prosecution.

In his closing argument the prosecutor Thomas Murphy now argued that the outcome of the trial must rest not primarily on Chambers’ charges, but on the documents and the typewriter.  Defense counsel Stryker concluded his closing argument by saying:  “The case comes down to this – who is telling the truth?”

After six weeks of hearing evidence, the jurors met for fourteen hours and forty-five minutes without reaching a verdict.  The judge dismissed the jury and declared a mistrial by which the trial was terminated and declared void.  A new trial was set for late 1949.

The accusations against Alger Hiss had dominated newspaper headlines form the time of Chambers’ initial charges against Hiss in August 1948.  During Hiss’ first trial in New York City, ten officials of the American Communist party were placed on trial in the same courthouse for criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States.  Picket lines had formed before the courthouse during much of Hiss’ first trial.

At the onset of the second trial, anti-Soviet and anti- Communist fueling was even stronger.  Newspapers reported that Communists were close to gaining control of the government in China.  In September 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, and many Americans were dismayed by America’s loss of its position as the sole nuclear power.  HUAC’s investigation of Soviet espionage had continued.

Most of the witnesses and evidence presented at the first trial were re-introduced at the second trial beginning on November 17, 1949.  While the first trial concentrated on the accusations and veracity of Chambers; the second trial focused on the documents produced by Chambers and the Woodstock typewriter.  The prosecution introduced a new witness, Hede Massing, a former Soviet agent, who testified that she met Hiss at a Communist meeting where she argued with Hiss on whether a State Department employee, Noel Field, should be recruited by Hiss as a spy for Soviet military intelligence or by Massing for the NKVD.

Henry W. Goddard, the federal judge presiding at the second trial was more liberal in admitting evidence then had been Judge Kaufman at the first trial.  Claude B. Cross replaced Stryker as Hiss’ principal defense attorney.  Thomas Murphy continued to lead the defense.

Instead of relying on prominent witnesses testifying to Hiss’ good character, the defense attacked Chambers’ credibility.  Judge Goddard permitted the defense to present Dr. Binger as an expert witness who testified that “Mr. Chambers is suffering from a condition known as a psychopathic personality” which was manifested by “chronic, persistent, and repetitive lying and a tendency to make false accusations.”

Dr. Binger’s testimony was based on his courtroom observations of Chambers.  Dr. Binger testified that one symptom of Chamber’s mental disorder was that he fixed his eyes on the ceiling when testifying.  The prosecution pointed out that Binger had looked at the ceiling fifty-nine times in twenty minutes.  Binger cited Chambers’ equivocation in his testimony as evidence of his ineluctability.  The prosecution pointed out that Chambers’ equivocations in 550 pages of testimony was considerably fewer than the 158 times Hiss had equivocated.

On January 21, 1950, the jury of eight women and four men unanimously found Hiss guilty on both perjury charges.  Hiss was sentenced to five years imprisonment for each of the counts, with the sentence to run concurrently.  In a pre-sentence statement to the court, Hiss denied any guilt and predicted in the future “I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed.”

Hiss remained free on bond for more than a year while he pursued an appeal of his conviction.  The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.  On March 22, 1951, Hiss went to prison.  A year later, Judge Goddard denied Hiss’ motion for new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence.  The principal piece of “newly discovered evidence” was that the typewriter that had been located and produced by the defense in belief that it was the original Hiss typewriter, in fact, was a carefully constructed substitute, which had been fabricated for the purpose of falsely incriminating Alger Hiss.  This was the forgery by typewriter theory that Hiss would assert the rest of his life.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion for a new trial, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.

Hiss’ sentence of five years or sixty months was automatically reduced to 44 months under the applicable good behavior statute.  As a result, Hiss was released from prison on November 27, 1954.  After being released from prison, Hiss published a defense of his innocence, In the Court of Public Opinion in 1957 consisting of a detailed account of the legal arguments for his innocence which had been presented at his trial, appeals, and motion for a new trial with special emphasis on the theory of forgery by typewriter.

For forty-two years, from the time of his release from prison in 1954 until his death in 1996, Hiss maintained his innocence of being a Soviet spy and denied ever being a member of the communist party.  Hiss enlisted friends, family members and those sympathetic to his claims to work to establish his innocence.  The arguments for Hiss’ innocence turned not on new evidence but allegations of Whittaker Chambers’ psychologically impaired personality, the ambition and deviousness of Richard Nixon, allegations of conspiracy among government investigators and authorities, and the hostility of his accusers and detractors to the progressive character of the New Deal.  For the most part, Hiss was able to create uncertainty about the justice of his conviction; and for some people, Hiss’ continual insistence on his innocence was evidence that he in fact was innocent.

Philip Nobile concluded an article in Harper’s in April 1976 entitled “The State of the Art of Alger Hiss” with the following observation:

“My argument, perhaps naïve and sentimental, turns on psychology.  I cannot conceive of a sane person perpetuating a quarter-century of deceit, jeopardizing the welfare of his friends in a doomed attempt to revise what that person knows to be the truth.

And Hiss is not crazy.  Instead, he is serene.  If this inner harmony is simply a routine repeated by a deranged player since 1948, then Hiss had deluded me and a large audience of fools

But Hiss did use his friends and family to perpetuate his deception and lying about his espionage and communist association.  Most significantly Hiss encouraged his son, Tony Hiss, to assist in the defense of Alger Hiss’ by writing a sympathetic account of a son’s conversations with his father.  In his book Laughing Last:  Alger Hiss by Tony Hiss, the following account of Hiss’ conversation depreciating the significance of the “Pumpkin Papers” is provided by his son:

“When the Pumpkin Papers came out, my first reaction was, this is just another goddamned explosion, I’ll have to cope with and contend with.  Nothing ever happened that year, it seemed without the press boiling after me.  I had no idea what was really on those Pumpkin Papers until my lawyer, Ed McLean, my old friend from law school, got hold of them, and then I could see right away that they were phonies – phonies in the sense that they didn’t come from my office or from me, except for three cables that anyone could have taken.  Nixon waved the films at the press without letting the press read them, and then he came up to New York and waved them again at the grand jury and the indictment was really based on those microfilms.  During the trials, they proved to be so irrelevant, so unconnected to me, Murphy really dropped them and concentrated on the typewriter stuff, trying to prove that Chambers’ papers had been typed on one of the old typewriters I’d once owned, that the characters on them were identical with those on old letters and memos of Prissy’s [Priscilla’s] that certainly have been typed on that machine.  Of course, Murphy during the trial was willing to say officially that there was no way of telling, even if they had been typed on the same machine, who the typist had been.  And I was doubly outraged by the sonofagun when in his summation at the end of the second trial he invited the jury to look for similar typing errors in Chambers’ documents and the old letters Prissy had typed.

Despite the folksy tone of indignation, this account of Hiss provides no evidence of his innocence, but is merely one of many examples of Hiss’ bald assertion of his innocence.  This passage gives the false impression that the Pumpkin Papers were the only material evidence that Hiss had engaged in espionage while in fact there were the forty-three copies of State Department reports and four memoranda in Hiss’ own handwriting that Chambers had turned over to Hiss’ lawyers.

            Despite Hiss’ effort to denigrate the significance of the documents of the films, the actual record suggested that these documents provided a sound basis for Hiss’ conviction.  Rather than being a diversion as suggested by Hiss, evidence about the typewriter was directly related to the issue of whether Hiss was the source of the documents in Chambers’ possession.  The Pumpkin Papers consisted of photographs on two rolls of developed microfilm containing a total of 58 frames which recorded eight documents.  Five were memoranda about negotiations about trade arguments with Germany, and three were incoming cables.  Almost all show on their face that they were received in Francis Sayre’s office where Hiss worked and Hiss’ initials appear on the cables.  The earlier stash of documents include four memoranda summarizing State Department cables, each in Hiss’ own handwriting.  Two of the handwritten documents are on “Office of the Assistant Secretary of State” letterhead with the printed legend torn off.  The forty-three typewritten papers were copies or summaries of Sate Department documents.  Chambers testified that they had been typed by Priscilla and that Alger Hiss had given them to Chambers for transmittal to Soviet agents.  The Hisses denied this.  And hence, the question at the center of the case became:  Were these papers typed on the Hiss typewriter.

            Alger Hiss’ campaign to convince the public of his innocence involved continuing challenges for others to investigate his past with the stated expectation that he would be exonerated.  Much like his challenge to Chambers to state his accusations outside the protection of the immunity provided by a Congressional hearing, Hiss’ challenges seemed to be marked either by delusion or megalomania given the likelihood that such investigations would uncover additional evidence of his guilt.  One form of Hiss’ gamble that examinations of his past would benefit his campaign to convince the public of his innocence was his cooperation with two biographers whose books were published in the 1970s.  Hiss willingly cooperated with those writers whom he believed were sympathetic to his campaign for vindication.  Hiss was rewarded by the publication of  the first of these two works, John Cabot Smith’s, Alger Hiss:  The True Story, published in 1976.  Smith concluded:  “[T]he main issue is clear enough:  whatever Chambers did and whatever Nixon and the FBI knew about at the time, Hiss had nothing to do with it; he wasn’t a Communist and he didn’t give Chambers any of the incriminating documents.”

Hiss was not, however, as successful with the second biographer, Allen Weinstein, then a professor of history at Smith College, who published Perjury – The Hiss-Chambers Case in 1978.  Weinstein began his research with the belief that Hiss had been unjustly convicted but concluded, after five years of research, that Hiss was guilty.  What changed Weinstein’s mind and added significantly to the evidence supporting Hiss’ guilt was the researchers’ access through the Freedom of Information Act to formerly classified records of the FBI, CIA, State Department and Justice Department.  Weinstein concluded his book with his assertion of Hiss’ guilt; according to Weinstein:  “Hiss may find it possible to consolidate his recent gains in the court of public opinion, thanks to Nixon’s disgrace and to a new generation unfamiliar with the facts.  But the body of available evidence proves that he did in fact perjure himself when describing his secret dealings with Chambers, so that the jurors in the second trial made no mistake in finding Alger Hiss was guilty as charged.”

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of Soviet records, Hiss shifted his efforts at vindication to obtaining evidence from the Soviet Union.  The brazen character of this tactic is clear when it is realized that damaging proof might emerge.  But again Hiss was successful in the early stages of this phase of his campaign for vindication.  In late 1992, Hiss sent several requests to a number of Russian officials for information in Soviet archives.  As a result of these requests, General Dmitri Volkogonov, a deputy in the Russian Parliament, arranged for a search of KGB files and concluded there was “[n]ot a single document . . . that substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence sources of the Soviet Union.”  This finding led Hiss to hold a press conference on October 29, 1992 where Hiss declared:  “I was sure somehow I would be vindicated.”  However, challenges raised to the Russian’s findings led General Vokagonov to publish a letter on November 24, 1992 in the Nezarismaya Gazeta (Independent Gazette) where he admitted he had only worked for two days in KGB archives and that what he saw gave no basis for claims of a full clarification of Hiss status.  Others pointed out that the Russian investigation involved KGB files, and it had never been charged that Hiss worked for the KGB as a paid agent, rather it was alleged that he worked as a volunteer agent for Soviet military intelligence.

Subsequent release of documents from the Russian archives including files of the Comintern, which directed Communist parties outside the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party of the Untied States establish that Hiss was a member of the Communist Party and engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union.  The records substantiate much of Chambers’ testimony about his activities as well as the relationship of Hiss with the Soviet espionage apparatus.

In July 1995, the CIA, the FBI and NSA, the National Security agency released documents called the Venona papers which were decryptions of Soviet telegrams and cables during a period from 1942 to 1946. The evidence obtained from the decoded Venona cables revealed that the Soviets had recruited spies in virtually every major American agency of military or diplomatic importance.  The deciphered cables identified 349 citizens, immigrants, and permanent residents of the United States who had a covert relationship with Soviet intelligence agencies.  One of the persons identified in the Venona decryptions as serving as a spy for the Soviet Union was Alger Hiss. 

Access of American researchers to KGB files and other Soviet government records have further established that Alger Hiss served as an agent of the Soviet Union.  The question that arises in face of this evidence is why did Alger Hiss challenge researchers to examine Soviet government records.  And of course, the more basic question arises as to why Alger Hiss continued to campaign for his vindication when he knew that his denials of communist party membership and of service as a Soviet spy were lies.  Thomas Powers, in an essay in the New York Review of Books in May 2000 stated the issue well:

What continues to astonish and bewilder me more is why Hiss lied for fifty years about his service in a cause so important to him that he was willing to betray his country for it.  The faith itself is no problem to explain:  hundreds of people shared it enough to do the same thing, and thousands more shared it who were never put to the test by a demand for secrets.  But why did Hiss persist in the lie personally?  Why did he allow his friends and family to go on carrying the awful burden of that lie?

            It is perhaps easiest to identify motivation for Hiss’ lying at the time of Chambers’ initial charges.  There is the understandable effort by Hiss to avoid disgrace with conviction on criminal charges of espionage and perjury.  Perhaps there was a sense of righteousness on the part of Hiss who saw his conduct as service in a noble cause so that there was no contradiction between his secret activities in support of communism and against fascism.  In Hiss’ own mind, it is likely that he saw himself working for his country’s and the world’s ultimate good.  In his own mind he may not have been a traitor but rather in loyal worker in the service of communism for the ultimate welfare of society.  From this perspective, for Hiss to have confessed would involve not only admitting culpability but also that communism was not true and the Soviet Union not noble.  In a sense Hiss’ lying may be seen as part of his commitment to the ideals he associated with the Soviet Union and with communism.

            After conviction and imprisonment, it is more difficult to identify a conventional explanation for Hiss’ continued lying.  Some spies such as Kim Philpy proudly acknowledged their work for the Soviet Union.  Other spies who were charged or convicted simply fell from sight.  No other Soviet spy attempted to develop such an extensive campaign to establish his innocence or to enlist others as did Alger Hiss.  Hiss, however, continued to engage in a campaign to establish his innocence that seems to involve the risky and foolhardy behavior of challenging others to investigate his past.  For some of his defenders, Hiss’ apparently reckless behavior was itself proof of his innocence since only an innocent person would so strongly and provocatively assert he was innocent.

            There are, however, several plausible explanations of why Alger Hiss continued to live the lifetime lie of his claim to innocence.  It is possible that he was self-delusional, that he had convinced himself that whatever he did was for a noble cause, that his prosecution was motivated by malevolence and that his lying was justified to the extent that he actively came to believe that actually he was innocent.

            A related explanation is that by lying and repeating the lie, Hiss had come to believe the lie.  Aristotle asserted that a bad character is the product of repeated bad acts.  Hiss could have come to believe the lie of his innocence from the repeated retelling the lie about his innocence.

            There, however, may have been a more complex psychological explanation involving Hiss’ creation of the persona of the victimized liberal civil servant.  That persona was based on Hiss’ claim of innocence.  For Hiss to admit that he was a communist, a spy and a perjurer would have been to destroy that noble persona that Hiss presented to family, friends and the public.  To continue to lie and engage in a campaign for vindication was in the service of maintaining that persona.

            Finally, there are aspects of Alger Hiss’ lifetime of denial of the accusations brought against him and his campaign for vindication that have elements of psychopathology.  The characteristics of psychopathic personality were described by Hervey Cleckley in the Mask of Sanity as follows:

(1)               Superficial charm and good “intelligence”

(2)               Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational “thinking”

(3)               Absence of “nervousness” or psychoneurotic manifestations

(4)               Unreliability

(5)               Untruthfulness and insincerity

(6)               Lack of remorse or same

(7)               Inadequately motivated or antisocial behavior

(8)               Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience

(9)               Pathologize egocentricity and incapacity to love

(10)           General poverty in major affective reactions

(11)           Specific loss of insight

(12)           Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations

(13)           Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without

(14)           Suicide rarely carried out

(15)           Sex life impersonal, trivial and poorly integrated


I am not necessarily asserting that Alger Hiss was a psychopath.  Nor am I proposing to a quick psychological profile or a psychoanalytic analysis of Hiss even though a practicing psychoanalyst.  Mayer Zeligs did attempt to apply psychoanalytic analysis in his book Friendship and Fratricide:  An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss.  What I do want to suggest is that there are psychopathological aspects to Hiss’ behavior.  In the film The Trials of Alger Hiss made in 1980, Hiss appeared relaxed, good humored, and confident in his claims he was innocent and victimized by others for partisan reasons.  Hiss’ use of his own son in his campaign for vindication is evidence of his ability to use another person for his own purposes without regard to any effect on the other person.  Superficial charm, untruthfulness and insincerity, lack of remorse or insincerity, pathologic egocentricity are all characteristics manifested by Hiss which clearly are characteristics of psychopathological personality, or perhaps in this case a pathological liar.

It is impossible to claim that any one of these explanations is definitive.  Moreover, it is likely that Hiss’ commitment to lying about his communist and espionage activities may be overdetermined in that several of the reasons for lying may have worked simultaneously to produce Hiss’ behavior.

For the first quarter century after Alger Hiss’ conviction the question that the public considered was whether Chambers or Hiss had told the truth.  The question was whether Alger Hiss lied about being a communist and a Soviet spy.  It is now clear that Hiss was a communist and a spy and lied about it. The second quarter century after Hiss’ conviction has been preoccupied with not whether Hiss lied but why he lied.  The issue of whether Hiss lied seems settled not only by the evidence presented at his trial, but by the evidence attained from the archives of both the United States and the Soviet Union.  The issue of why Hiss lied, continued to lie, and implicated others in his program of deception and betrayal is and will remain to some extent a mystery.  In a 1986 interview with David Remnich for the Washington Post magazine. Hiss declared there would be no deathbed confession because he had no secrets.  We know that in fact Hiss did have secrets with which he lived for sixty years after they were exposed partially by Whittaker Chambers revelations and accusations.  Hiss never deviated from his claims of innocence and we can now only speculate why.