Though Alger Hiss, a U.S. State Department official, was accused of spying for
the Soviet Union and imprisoned, he was never convicted of espionage per
se. Throughout his life, Hiss denied any involvement in espionage, and many
historians have for years remained polarized on the question of Hiss's spying;
some believe that declassified documents prove he did spy for the Soviets, and
some still see these allegations as groundless.
Alger Hiss was born in Baltimore and attended Johns Hopkins University and
Harvard Law School. One of the most brilliant law students in his class at
Harvard, Hiss was picked after graduation to serve as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes. He went on to work in the Roosevelt
In the late 1930s Hiss was a key State Department official during the formative
years of the United Nations. He eventually served as Secretary General at the
1945 San Francisco meeting at which the U.N. was founded. In 1939, however,
Whitaker Chambers, a former member of the U.S. Communist Party, told Assistant
Secretary of State Adolf Berle that Hiss was a communist. Berle, under whom
Hiss worked, scoffed at the charge. Soon, however, similar information came
from French intelligence sources. Also, Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet defector,
charged that an individual in the State Department was a Soviet spy, and the
FBI secretly began targeting Hiss as the suspect.
Hiss left the State Department to become, in 1947, the president of the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Within a year of Hiss's departure
from the State Department, Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine,
told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Hiss had been a fellow
communist in the 1930s and had given him State Department documents that he
passed to a Soviet official. Chambers's revelation followed the testimony of
Elizabeth Bentley, an admitted Soviet agent, who told the committee that she
had passed documents from a nameless, high-ranking government official to the
Denying the charges, Hiss sued Chambers for libel. To counter Hiss's charges,
Chambers produced handwritten memos and typewritten summaries of State
Department documents. A Woodstock typewriter was introduced into evidence.
Experts testified that Hiss had typed both the summaries and personal
correspondence on the typewriter. Hiss and experts on his side argued that the
typewriter had been tampered with in order to produce the desired evidentiary
Chambers had held back from producing several strips of 35mm film and three
undeveloped rolls. The existence of this additional evidence ultimately reached
the Un-American Activities Committee, which prompted then U.S. Representative
Richard Nixon to issue a subpoena for the materials. Under subpoena, Chambers
guided congressional investigators to a pumpkin patch on his farm in Maryland.
Hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin was what later became known as the "pumpkin
papers"—several prints of State Department documents from the 1930s.
The pumpkin papers were introduced against Hiss in a perjury trial, at which he
was accused of lying about having passed State Department papers to Chambers.
Hiss was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, though he vehemently
denied the charges for the duration of his life.
In 1996, shortly after Hiss's death, a collection of Venona decrypts was
declassified. One of the messages, dated March 30, 1945, refers to an American
with the code name Ales. According to the message, Ales was a Soviet agent
working in the State Department, who accompanied President Roosevelt to the
1945 Yalta Conference and then flew to Moscow, both of which Hiss did. The
message goes on to indicate that Ales met with Andrei Vyshinsky, the Commissar
for Foreign Affairs, and was commended for his aid to the Soviets. Analysts at
the National Security Agency have gone on record asserting that Ales could only
have been Alger Hiss.