05 February, 2009
Alger Hiss was a U.S. State Department official involved in the establishment of the United Nations. He was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1948 and convicted of perjury in connection with this charge in 1950.
On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist Party member, testified under subpoena before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that Hiss had secretly been a Communist while in federal service, despite the fact that Chambers had previously testified under oath that Hiss had never been a Communist. Called before HUAC, Hiss categorically denied the charge. When Chambers repeated his claim in a radio interview, Hiss filed a defamation lawsuit against him.
During the pretrial discovery process, Chambers produced new evidence indicating that he and Hiss had been involved in espionage, which each had 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 he was never charged. Although Hiss's indictment stemmed from the alleged espionage, he could not be tried for that crime because the statute of limitations had expired.
After a mistrial due to a hung jury, Hiss was tried a second time. In January 1950, he was found guilty on both counts of perjury and received two concurrent five-year sentences, of which he eventually served 44 months.
Hiss was born in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, to Mary Lavinia Hughes and Charles Alger Hiss. His early life was repeatedly marred by tragedy. His father committed suicide when Alger was two years old, his elder brother Bosley died of Bright's disease when Alger was twenty-two, and he lost his sister Mary Ann to suicide when he was twenty-five. His father had been a middle class wholesale grocer, and after his death, Mary Hiss relied largely on family members for financial support in raising her five children. The Hiss family lived in a Baltimore neighborhood that was described as one of "shabby gentility."
Hiss was educated at Baltimore City College (high school) and Johns Hopkins University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was voted "most popular student" by his classmates. In 1929, he received his law degree from Harvard Law School, where he was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. Before joining a Boston law firm, he served for a year as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. That same year, Hiss married Priscilla Fansler Hobson (1903–1987), a Bryn Mawr graduate who would later work as a grade school English teacher. Priscilla, previously married to Thayer Hobson, had a three-month-old son, Timothy.
In 1933, Hiss entered government service, working in several areas as an attorney in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, starting with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Hiss worked for the Nye Committee, which investigated and documented wartime profiteering by military contractors during World War I, and served briefly in the Justice Department.
Both Alger Hiss and his younger brother, Donald Hiss, began working in the United States Department of State in 1936. Alger served as assistant to Francis B. Sayre, a son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson, and later became special assistant to the Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs and in 1944 became a special assistant to the Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs (OSPA), a policy-making office that concentrated on postwar planning for international organization. He later became the director of OSPA, and, as such, he was executive secretary at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which finalized plans for the organization that would become the United Nations.
In 1945, Hiss was a member of the U.S. delegation to the wartime Yalta Conference, where the 'Big Three' (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill) met to coordinate strategy to defeat Hitler, draw the map of postwar Europe and continue with plans to set up the United Nations. Hiss's role at Yalta was limited to work on the United Nations. Hiss led the opposition to Stalin's proposal for 16 Soviet votes in the UN General Assembly. In the final compromise, the Big Three decided to give Stalin three votes in the General Assembly: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (then known as Byelorussia, or White Russia).
Hiss served as the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on International Organization (the United Nations Charter Conference) in San Francisco in 1945. He later became the full Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. Hiss left government service in 1946 and became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he served until May 5, 1949.
In 1988 Hiss wrote an autobiography, Recollections of a Life. Hiss maintained his innocence and fought his perjury conviction until his death at age 92 on November 15, 1996 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City of emphysema.