Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Hiss, Alger (1904–1996)

American midlevel State Department official and alleged Cold War spy. Born on 11 November 1904 in Baltimore, Maryland, Alger Hiss was educated at Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities. He joined the U.S. State Department in 1936. Among several important assignments, he was private secretary to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, secretary to the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (1944), and among the U.S. delegation to the 1945 Yalta Conference. Hiss also served as secretary-general of the United Nations' (UN) organizing conference in San Francisco (1945–1946). In February 1947, with support from John Foster Dulles, Hiss became head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In August 1948 Whittaker Chambers, a self-confessed ex-communist, accused Hiss of having been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and of having betrayed State Department secrets to the Soviets. Hiss strenuously denied the charges under oath. He was subsequently indicted by a grand jury for perjury, as the statute of limitations for treason had expired, and was bound over for trial, which resulted in a hung jury in July 1949. Then, in a highly publicized retrial in January 1950, Hiss was found guilty and served forty-four months in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. He continued to assert his innocence and so too did a large and influential body of supporters, which precipitated one of the most intense and enigmatic debates of the entire Cold War.

Archival revelations in the 1990s, including those from Russian sources, vindicated neither Hiss nor his defenders. Historical evidence now seems to suggest that Hiss was indeed guilty of treason. The strange case of Alger Hiss was a defining episode not only in the Cold War but also in modern American politics. It rallied conservatives, gave birth to the excesses of McCarthyism, and spotlighted Hiss's nemesis, the little-known California Congressman Richard M. Nixon, who would later go on to become a U.S. senator, vice president, and president. Hiss died on 15 November 1996 in New York City.

Phillip Deery


Further Reading
Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Knopf, 1978.; White, G. Edward. Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
 

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