Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Lewisburg, Union County
A prominent figure in government, Alger Hiss served three years in the 1950s at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for perjury related to charges that he was a Communist.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Alger Hiss attended Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School. Afterwards, from 1930 to 1933, Hiss practiced law in Boston and New York. Furthermore, Hiss was granted important jobs in the federal government from 1934 until 1947. During the Cold War against Russia, in August of 1948, Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist, testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Hiss was a member of the Communist party and a spy. Consequently, Hiss was indicted for perjury; the first trial resulted in a hung jury. However, the second trial convicted Hiss on two counts of perjury, resulting in five years of prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Many today still question the innocence or guilt of Alger Hiss's supposed association with the Communist Party in Russia.
Alger Hiss was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 11, 1904. Academically, Hiss attended Baltimore City College High School, then Johns Hopkins University; then, in 1929, he earned his law degree from Harvard Law School. Hiss later served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. for one year.
In 1933, Hiss took a job on the legal staff of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. At this time, according to Linder, Hiss supposedly joined Ware's underground cell, which is a type of Marxist study group. In August or September of 1934, Hiss supposedly met Whittaker Chambers, who was born in Philadelphia. According to Smith, Chambers became a member of the Communist Party in 1925, while a student at Columbia University, as an organizer among the Communists located in the city. When Hiss met Chambers, he, according to Chambers, began paying Chambers Communist party dues.
However, in December of 1938, Chambers decided to leave the Communist Party and supposedly attempted to persuade Hiss to leave the party as well, but, according to Chambers, his attempts failed. Later, in May of 1942, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interviewed Chambers about his past involvement with the Communist party. Within this interview, Chambers identified Hiss, along with others, as Communists. However, the FBI did not immediately follow up on Chambers' tips. Later on, Hiss joined the State Department's Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. Hiss's job concentrated on postwar development for worldwide organization. Because of this responsibility, Hiss went to Yalta with President Roosevelt where he began drafting plans that would soon become the United Nations.
The United States had fought as allies with the Soviet Union (Russia) in World War II. After the war had ended in 1945, however, Russia and the United States were engaged in a “cold war,” a war without guns. Americans feared Communism, the political system in the Soviet Union. While this fear was launching in many Americans, the FBI interviewed Chambers for a second time about his past with the Communist party. As a result of more leads and information, the FBI began to tap Hiss's phones to watch him directly. After a few months, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover met with Hiss to discuss his possible involvement with the Communist party; however, Hiss denied that any association existed. Hiss also denied any association with Chambers; according to Linder, in his signed statement to the FBI, Hiss stated that he was “not acquainted with an individual by the name of Whittaker Chambers.”
In August of 1948, Chambers testified before an executive session of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC was a congressional committee that held hearings on politically “subversive” people, especially those in the media, according to author Rappaport. Here, on August 3, 1948, Chambers accused Alger Hiss of having been a Communist spy. On August 5, 1948, Hiss was given the chance to testify; according to Rappaport, Hiss claimed, “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. I said then I did not know him. So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him.”
On December 2, 1948, Chambers brought two HUAC investigators to a pumpkin patch on his farm. There, he had five undeveloped rolls hidden in a pumpkin; two of these rolls of film contained photographs of State Department documents, some with Alger Hiss's initials on them. Chambers then testified that Hiss was a Communist that gave him government documents from 1934 to 1938. As a result, Hiss was indicted for perjury by a general grand jury for lying under oath. After 6 weeks of evidence, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision; eight jurors favored conviction, while four jurors favored acquittal.
On November 17, 1949, Hiss's second trial began. The jury found Hiss guilty on two counts of perjury on January 21, 1950; Hiss was then sentenced to five years in prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Hiss went to prison on March 11, 1951 and was freed on November 26, 1954. Then, Hiss wrote a book entitled In the Court of Public Opinion, where he analyzed why the evidence at his trial was inadequate to find him guilty of perjury. Also, Hiss wrote a book entitled Recollections of a Life, which was published in 1988, discussing the emotional side of experiencing two extensive and distressing trials.
Hiss did file a petition in hopes of overturning his 1950 conviction. However, it was rejected by District Judge Richard Owen. Hiss articulated his innocence for over 40 years. According to Rappaport, in 1992, Dmitri Volkogonov, a historian and Soviet military counselor, claimed that an observant analysis of a “huge amount of documents” had led him to “make a firm conclusion that Alger Hiss was not ever or anywhere recruited as an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.” Also, Volkogonov believed that Chambers never had “any kind of secret or spy information.”
Furthermore, G. Edward White, author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars, investigated why Hiss continued in his lying and how he coped with tricking so many Americans for so long. White's father-in-law, John F. David, was Hiss's first counsel and actually assisted Hiss at both trials. Davis, throughout both trials, was still convinced that Hiss had no motive to spy for the Soviets and lie about it. White writes that Hiss's “recklessness was connected to his idealism, to his fanatical devotion to his goals and to his distinctive mix of ingenuousness and deceptiveness. When those characteristics are combined with Hiss's instinctive altruism, the high priority he placed on loyalty, his single-mindedness and self-control, and his strong faith in his own competence, the portrait of a person ideally suited for the life of a secret agent emerges.“
On the other hand, despite Hiss's possible personality traits trapping him as an easily found culpable Russian spy, in 1996, intercepted documents of Soviet intelligence communications revealed that an agent called “ALES,” which was the same name given to Hiss, had been involved in the Communist underground since 1935. Also, in these documents, it was stated that ALES had gone from Yalta to Moscow, which Hiss did in 1945.
On November 15, 1996 Alger Hiss died in New York City at the age of ninety-two. Many today still question the innocence or guilt of Alger Hiss's supposed association with the Communist Party in Russia.
In the Court of Public Opinion. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1957.
Recollections of a Life. New York: Seaver Books, 1988.