The Ongoing Campaign of Alger Hiss: The Sins of the Father

By Richer, Matthew | Modern Age, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Ongoing Campaign of Alger Hiss: The Sins of the Father


Richer, Matthew, Modern Age


ON NOVEMBER 27, 1954, Alger Hiss was released from the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pensylvania, after serving forty-four months of a five-year-prison sentence for perjury. On that day, surrounded by friends, family, and the press, Hiss defiantly announced his campaign to "vindicate" himself, a campaign that continues to this very day, despite Hiss's death in 1996 at the age of 92. (1)

"What is vindication for him?" Whittaker Chambers wrote William F. Buckley, Jr., the very day after Hiss's release from prison.

  It is the moment when one of the most respectable old ladies
  (gentlemen) in Hartford (Conn.) says to another of the most
  respectable old ladies (gentlemen): "Really, I don't see how Alger
  Hiss could brazen it out that way unless he really were innocent."
  Multiply Hartford by every other American community. For the
  C[ommunist] P[arty], that is victory.... And all that Alger has to do
  for this victory is to persist in his denials. (2)

More than fifty years after Hiss was effectively convicted of treason, Chambers's observation has proven remarkably prescient; concerning not only the strategy of the Hiss campaign, but also its persistence. "The Hiss campaign," wrote Chambers, "is a permanent war." (3) Perhaps the most interesting thing about this war is how little it has changed during the last half century; for not only has the Hiss campaign been permanent, so has the strategy.

When the House Un-American Activities Committee (H.U.A.C.) first questioned Alger Hiss in 1948, his initial strategy was to proclaim innocence by association. Hiss cited his impressive academic and diplomatic resume, which included close work with many respected Americans such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes--none of which was germane to the accusations against him. Still, the strategy proved effective with much of the press and the public, at least in the beginning.

Congressional investigators, however, remained skeptical due to longtime rumors of Hiss's Communist ties. More importantly, it soon became obvious that Whittaker Chambers had known Alger Hiss very well, given his detailed knowledge of Hiss's home and personal life. So Hiss then changed tactics and alleged to have briefly sublet an apartment to Chambers during the 1930s, and further alleged that Chambers had then claimed to be a "free-lance journalist" named "George Crosley." This alibi also proved shaky for many reasons, the most obvious being that no one other than Mrs. Hiss could corroborate it. Still, in the absence of more tangible proof, Alger Hiss would have probably avoided criminal charges.

Unfortunately for Hiss, he has always been his own worst enemy. He had very publicly challenged Chambers to repeat his testimony outside of committee, where witnesses enjoy congressional immunity. After Chambers repeated his charge on "Meet the Press" that Alger Hiss "was a Communist and may be now," Hiss had little choice but to sue for libel. But it was only during the libel suit that Chambers produced evidence of espionage--purloined State Department documents--that led to federal perjury charges against Hiss. (4)

It is important to note that during both perjury trials (the first trial ended in a hungjury) the Hiss defense conceded the authenticity of most of the prosecution's evidence, including microfilmed copies of original State Department documents, those hand-copied by Alger Hiss, and those copied on his Woodstock typewriter. Given the formidable evidence against Hiss, the defense resorted to a smear job. "Surely we intend to smear Chambers in any event," wrote attorney Harold Rosenwald in a defense memo. "I have no objection to such smearing and hope that it will be very thoroughly and effectively done." (5) Indeed it was. But what is unusual about the smear of Whittaker Chambers is that it was--and remains--exclusively psychological. …

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