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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Alger Hiss- Was He or Wasn’t He a Soviet Spy?

By Tom Morrow

In 1948, Alger Hiss was an American government official accused of being a Soviet spy. In 1950, he was convicted of perjury in connection with this charge. Before he was tried and convicted, he had been involved in the establishment of the United Nations both as a U.S. State Department official and as a U.N. official.

On Aug. 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor at Time Magazine and an admitted former U.S. Communist Party member, testified under subpoena before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Hiss had secretly been a Communist while in federal service. Called before HUAC, Hiss categorically denied the charge. During the era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Hiss had become a government attorney. In 1933, he served briefly at the Justice Department.

Chambers produced new evidence indicating he and Hiss had been involved in espionage, which both men had previously denied under oath to HUAC. A federal grand jury indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury; Chambers admitted to the same offense but, as a cooperating government witness, was never charged.

In January 1950, Hiss was found guilty on two counts of perjury and received two concurrent five-year sentences, of which he eventually served three and a half years. Hiss was not charged with being a Communist spy because of the statute of limitations, but continued to maintain his innocence until his death in 1996.

In 1944, Hiss was named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, a policy-making entity devoted to planning for post-war international organizations, ultimately the establishment of the United Nations.

Near the end of World War II, in February 1945, as a member of a U.S. delegation, Hiss attended the Yalta Conference, where the Big Three — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill, met.

During his 1948 trial, Hiss was accused of espionage by Chambers. It was treason, traditionally punishable by death. The cleverest member of HUAC, California Congressman Richard Nixon had been studying the FBI’s files for five months, courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover. Nixon launched his political career in hot pursuit of Hiss and the alleged secret Communists of the New Deal.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Hiss petitioned for a search of the for the former Soviet intelligence archives, requesting the release of any files on his case.

Russian archivists responded and in late 1992 reported back they had found no evidence Hiss ever engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union nor that he was a member of the Communist Party. Historian Ronald Radosh reported that while researching Soviet papers in Moscow he had encountered two GRU (a military intelligence unit) files referring to Alger Hiss as “our agent.”

In 2009, Haynes, Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev published Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. The book is based on KGB documents reportedly hand-copied by a former KGB agent during the 1990s. The authors attempted to show definitively that Alger Hiss had, indeed, been a Soviet spy and argue that KGB documents prove not only that Hiss was the elusive code name ALES, but that he also went by the codenames “Jurist” and “Leonard” while working for the GRU. In 1992, records were found in Hungarian Interior Ministry archives in which self-confessed Soviet spy Noel Field named Alger Hiss as a fellow agent. Later, Field would deny Hiss had ever been a spy.

To his dying day, Hiss insisted he was innocent of being a spy. So, was he or wasn’t he? Hiss died Nov. 15, 1996, at the age of 92, and took the ultimate truth with him to the grave.

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