Alger Hiss: Biography & Trial

Instructor: David White
In this lesson, you will be introduced to 20th century American political figure Alger Hiss. You'll also learn about the House Un-American Activities Committee trial that exposed his involvement with the Soviet Union.

Who Was Alger Hiss?

Throughout the 20th century, a number of events changed the way Americans thought about their national identity, culture, and political system. Among these events was the Cold War hysteria of the 1940s and 50s, which fueled the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As a congressional investigation committee, HUAC was responsible for rooting out Soviet spies in the United States; a process that unfolded in a series of dramatic and ethically questionable congressional hearings.

The HUAC hearings included a number of important and influential Americans who were suspected of having ties to communist groups. Among the most significant of these was the State Department head, Alger Hiss.

Alger Hiss was born in 1907 to a prominent Baltimore, MD, family whose roots could be traced back to the colonial era. Despite an early childhood that included significant tragedies, including his father's suicide, Hiss was surrounded by family in a middle class neighborhood and had a relatively normal upbringing. Upon graduating from high school, he attended John's Hopkins University, then successfully completed a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1929.

Alger Hiss, 1922
Hiss 1922

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Hiss married an old friend named Priscilla Hobson in 1929; she had a young son from a previous marriage. Having just graduated from Harvard, the three remained in Boston for a short time, where Hiss worked as a Supreme Court Clerk for one year before relocating his family to New York City in 1931.

Governmental Career

Alger Hiss worked as a lawyer for a private law firm in New York, until he received an offer to serve as the attorney for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), which was a federal program established through the New Deal to help farmers who had been hurt by the depression. While working with the AAA, Hiss spent much of his time defending the many programs created through the New Deal, which were constantly under attack from conservatives.

In 1936, Hiss began working for the State Department, first as assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State (1936-1939), and then as special assistant to the Director of the Office of Far East Affairs. Through these positions, Hiss gained valuable experience in foreign affairs, and began to make a name for himself in politics.

Hiss' early experience in the State Department led to an offer to lead the Office of Special Political Affairs beginning in 1944. As Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, Hiss was instrumental in planning the post-WWII organization that would eventually become the United Nations (U.N.), and working with European allies on a plan for Europe's political future in the years after the war. Based on his work in forming the U.N., in 1945 the Soviet ambassador recommended that Hiss be appointed Secretary General to the U.N., a position that he held until the following year when he left to serve in the private sector.

HUAC Trial

While being questioned by the HUAC in 1948, Senior Editor at Time Magazine and Communist Party member Whittaker Chambers testified that he and Alger Hiss had both been members of a communist group in the 1930s known as the Ware Group. According to Chambers, the primary goal of the Ware Group was to infiltrate the U.S. government, which did at times include spying and reporting information back to the Soviets. This particular statement is critically important in the context of the trial because, while being a communist in the U.S. government wasn't a crime, spying and sharing information with the enemy was.

Whittaker Chambers, 1948
Chambers 1948

Testifying before a grand jury in the summer of 1948, Alger Hiss denied having any affiliation with Communist Party members, and refuted any claims that he had acted as a spy for the Soviets. Unfortunately, however, the FBI and HUAC member Richard Nixon had spent the previous two years investigating Hiss, and had compiled considerable evidence, referred to as the Baltimore Documents, which proved that Hiss had provided the Soviets with confidential State Department information.

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