THE TRAGEDY OF ALGER HISS
Donald H.J. Hermann
A paper delivered to
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
The question of Alger Hiss’ loyalty to
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
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
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
In July 1934, Hiss was loaned by
the AAA to a Senate Committee, chaired by Senator Gerald Nye, from
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
[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
When the Communist International
represented the only world force effectively resisting Nazi Germany, I had
offered my services to the Soviet underground in
As a result of growing
dissatisfaction with Stalin’s rule in the
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
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
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
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
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
At 10:30 in the evening of
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Most of the witnesses and
evidence presented at the first trial were re-introduced at the second trial
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
With the fall of the Soviet Union
and the opening of Soviet records, Hiss shifted his efforts at vindication to
obtaining evidence from the
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
In July 1995, the
Access of American researchers
to KGB files and other Soviet government records have further established that
Alger Hiss served as an agent of the
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?
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
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
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
(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