Alger Hiss was a Harvard-educated lawyer who had worked at the highest levels for the US State Department. In 1948 he became the focus of an anti-Communist investigation under the direction of the Committee on Un-American Activities set up by the US House of Representatives. Hiss was originally suspected of having passed secret information to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Since the statute of limitations prevented the charge of espionage, he was charged with perjury for having denied on oath that he had passed secret documents to Whittaker Chambers, a self-confessed Communist Party courier. Hiss maintained his innocence. In his first trial there was a hung jury, but in the second he was found guilty. At both trials high government officials testified on his behalf. The defence challenged Chambers's sanity and alleged that the FBI had tampered with evidence to obtain a conviction. Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released in 1954 and returned to private life as a lawyer, and in 1975 he was readmitted to the Massachusetts Bar.
The trials epitomized some of the anxieties of the McCarthy era. At the time, much of the evidence remained unproven, though since then most commentators have agreed that he did commit perjury, and that he did pass on documents to the Soviet Union. The trial also established the reputation of Richard Nixon, who pursued Hiss with great energy, and who made much of Hiss's position as part of a privileged Ivy League-educated elite.
Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).