Alger Hiss was a lawyer who rose to become a significant
public official in the United States through the 1930's and 1940s.
In 1948 a magazine editor, who confessed to being a
communist, accused Hiss of assisting in the transmittal of documents to the Russians.
Alger Hiss denied any involvement but was found guilty in
his second trial and sentenced to five years in prison.
Many did not believe Alger Hiss's pleas of innocence and
the case stimulated support for Senator McCarthy and the
hunt for communists in places of influence in American society.
It is now widely believed that Alger Hiss (probably
wrongfully accused) was the scapegoat for the loss of China to the Communists and the
Russian development of the atomic bomb.
Americans found it difficult to believe that either of
these events could have happened without duplicity and thus looked to subversion, spies,
lack of loyalty and moral degeneration as explanations for these world developments.
The Alger Hiss Perjury Trials: A Dramatic Perspective on
Legal Rhetoric, Ritter, Kurt W.
The two Alger Hiss perjury trials of 1949 provide an opportunity to compare two different
aspects of trial drama: courtroom drama and crime drama. Much recent scholarship on legal
rhetoric has acknowledged the dramatic quality of courtroom communication, which results
in part from the physical appearance of the courtroom and the style of language used. The
dual quality of trial drama stems not only from the contest between the plots of the
prosecution and the defense, but from the tension between the immediate courtroom scene
and the distant scene of the crime. In the first Alger Hiss perjury trial, the prosecution
focused on the testimony and truthfulness of Hiss's accuser, Whittaker Chambers, thus
stressing the courtroom drama rather than the crime drama; the defense then attempted to
discredit Chambers and portray Hiss as honorable. This trial resulted in a hung jury. In
the second trial, the prosecution focused attention on the crime scene, agency, and act,
rather than on the courtroom personalities of Hiss and Chambers. This shift in attention
worked to Hiss' disadvantage, as the jury found him guilty. The examination of these
trials suggests that an understanding of courtroom communication can be enhanced if
rhetorical critics occasionally employ a dramatic perspective. - eric.ed.gov
Alger Hiss biographical sketch prepared by Erica
Abstract: 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. 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.
In May of 1942, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interviewed Chambers about his
past involvement with the Communist party. 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
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
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
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
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.
Linder, Douglas. The Alger Hiss Trials: An Account. 2003. Famous Trials. 15 November 2005.
Rappaport, Doreen. Be the Judge, Be the Jury: The Alger Hiss Trial. New York:
Smith, John Chabot. Alger Hiss: The True Story. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
White, G. Edward. Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
For More Information:
Hiss, Tony. The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Ruddy, T. Michael. The Alger Hiss Espionage Case. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth,
Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Random House, 1997.