Throughout much of the twentieth century, starting even before World War II and intensifying in the Cold War years, the United States found itself engaged in an ideological struggle. The dual threats of fascism and communism (both springing from a belief that the state, not the individual, best determines the social compact) threatened to destroy the very foundation of the American way of life. It was not, however, just Germans and Russians who embraced these ideologies. They appealed to some Americans as well. Among those who bought into communist beliefs was a high-level official in the U.S. State Department. He was convinced communism was the answer to the world’s problems and was willing to do anything to advance his cause. His name was Alger Hiss. This is the story of how he sold out his country in the name of ideology.
Alger Hiss’ affiliation with communism began long before he became a spy for a foreign power. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland in November 1904 and grew up the son of middle-class parents. He often complained of being poor throughout his childhood, and when he got older he began to associate with those at the other end of the social spectrum, the wealthy and intelligent. He desired to be just like them, so he attended Johns Hopkins University. While there he adopted anti-business and pro-union views, due in part to his socialist economics professor Broadus Mitchell. He graduated in 1926 and enrolled in Harvard Law School. There he came under the influence of Felix Frankfurter, a future Supreme Court justice, and developed a friendship with Lee Pressman, a future member of America’s Communist Party. Thanks to both men, he found a home in Harvard’s small, liberal community. His political philosophy remained strong while he clerked for renowned Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He went on to practice law in Boston and in New York City. Over time, he fortified his socialist convictions and heartily welcomed the big government programs of the New Deal.
As the U.S. sank deeper into the Depression, Alger Hiss came to believe capitalism was the real culprit for the nation’s ills. He told his wife Priscilla it was “discouraging to think that perhaps the panic of 1877 gave as vivid a lesson of capitalism as has today’s Depression and that such a warning was ignored.” He was adamant that capitalism had failed to protect America from harm and that a new system was needed. That new system was socialism. He supported the American Socialist Party and worked in the International Juridical Association (IJA) to create a new relationship between the national government and those minority groups suffering hardships. Like other liberals, he maintained the country could only be saved by radical measures, namely replacing the current free market system with bureaucratic fiats. He saw just the place to institute these “reforms” at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, which was designed to defend the “public interest.”
During his time in the AAA, Hiss began to openly assert his conviction that communism provided much-needed answers for America. He was convinced capitalism was unable to provide justice and equality. On the other hand, communism had the ability to create a society that respected trade unions and elevated the workers. Hiss and his fellows argued this ideology could potentially save the world from collapsing and ensure peace and collaboration among the nations. In essence, communism would produce a utopian society. In the dark days of the 1930s it was a dream easily sold to disillusioned Americans. Many people, including Hiss, saw the New Deal as a precursor to this ideal. There were many similarities between the two, so it was only natural Hiss steadfastly supported each policy Roosevelt proposed, including one to pack the Supreme Court with judges favorable to New Deal legislation. From these socialist beliefs it was an easy leap to embracing the soviet model emerging in Russia. The desire to bind the U.S. with the Soviet Union encouraged Hiss and other American communists to overlook the atrocities perpetrated by Joseph Stalin. To them, it was a necessary evil. So too was any action that would transform a capitalist country into a communist one. It was this belief that first encouraged Hiss to reach out to agents of the Soviet Union.
By 1934 Alger Hiss was a devoted communist and was searching for ways to import the revolution to America. He was not content to see America sliding gradually towards socialism. He needed to be more proactive. Fortunately, at least from his perspective, he had a way into America’s communist network. His old Harvard classmate, Lee Pressman, was a dues-paying member of the Communist Party. Pressman, it is thought, introduced Hiss to J. Peters, head of America’s Communist Party, who called Hiss “an exceptional Communist.” Peters knew Hiss would be a valuable asset, so he put Hiss in touch with Harold Ware, leader of a secret Communist organization that penetrated U.S. government offices on behalf of the Soviet military’s intelligence division, the GRU. Ware too realized Hiss could use his position to access sensitive information and placed him under the supervision of Whittaker Chambers. Hiss proved their trust was not misplaced when he became part of Senator Gerald Nye’s committee investigating U.S. arms manufacturing. Evidence later indicated Hiss stole documents, made copies of them and passed them up the chain of Soviet intelligence. His superiors were pleased, but they knew that simply stealing secrets was not enough.
As useful as Hiss was in gaining access to sensitive information, his Soviet masters realized it was even more critical to manipulate U.S. foreign policy. It was only through this method the Soviet Union could hope to draw the U.S. into its sphere of influence. In order to accomplish this, it was imperative Soviet agents hold key positions in the various departments. In 1936 Alger Hiss was assigned to the U.S. State Department. For the next three years he was an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and charged with gathering intelligence on a possible war with Germany and Japan. At the end of each day he packed the documents in his briefcase and took them home to show to Chambers who passed them on to his GRU contact, Colonel Boris Bykov. After World War II erupted, Hiss was transferred to the Far East Department where he closely monitored the struggle between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists. He knew the Chinese Nationalists had the support of the American government, but he recognized the Communists were becoming a dominant force in the northern part of the country. He tried to get both sides to work together, but it seemed the Communists were more interested in seizing control of the country for themselves. Despite his apparent efforts to achieve conciliation, there was suspicion he attempted to “influence our Chinese policy and bring about the condemnation of [Nationalist leader] Chiang Kai-shek.” There were beginning to be reports that he was aiding the communist cause, but at the moment there were more pressing concerns. For now, America had to work with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany and mold the postwar world, so it was decided to put those suspicions on hold and utilize Hiss’ talents to achieve that end.
In 1944 Hiss was transferred to the Office of Special Political Affairs (OSPA) and aided in developing postwar plans for a world where the U.S. and Soviet Union would work together. The most integral part of this plan was the creation of the United Nations. He was the executive secretary at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference that outlined the makeup of the organization and later served as the secretary-general at the San Francisco Conference that completed the charter. After agreeing to be part of the organization, the Soviets let it be known they would support his selection as permanent secretary-general of the organization. He kept in close contact with his Soviet bosses during these deliberations without attracting undue attention from those in the State Department. He so impressed Franklin Roosevelt with his dedication that he was chosen to accompany the president as a chief assistant to the Yalta Conference in early 1945. He had a front-row seat as well as a key role in the discussions regarding Poland’s future and the division of Germany into military occupation zones. Historians now agree that Roosevelt, in poor health, yielded far too much to Stalin. For his part, Hiss hoped America’s willingness to accept Soviet demands at Yalta meant the dawn of a new day in international cooperation. Little did he know though that he would soon be called to answer for his acts of betrayal.
With the end of World War II and rising fears of the Soviet Union’s spreading tentacles, those in leadership positions began to focus on internal threats. Hiss was clearly on their radar. Despite being an active Soviet agent for years, Hiss maintained that he had never actually been a communist. Secretary of State James Byrnes and John Foster Dulles, future Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower, questioned him about his political philosophy, and each time he denied any connection to the Communist Party. While he remained faithful, at least privately, to his communist principles, he felt no such allegiance to his “comrades” in the cause. When summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to answer charges brought by his old friend and “handler,” Whittaker Chambers, Hiss not only denied spying for the Soviets but also denied knowing Chambers. He then carried through with a libel suit against Chambers when charges kept appearing in the public forum. As proceedings began in late 1948, Chambers disclosed the classified documents Hiss had previously stolen. The betrayal was now undeniable, but President Harry Truman and the Justice Department took no further action. The grand jury, however, did. Unable to convict him of espionage due to a three-year statute of limitations, Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury: lying about turning over documents to Chambers and lying about meeting with Chambers when the transfer took place. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison. Until his death in November 1996, he spent the rest of his life claiming to be a victim of the hysteria that gripped America during the Cold War. It was an image that was largely disproven when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and files containing the names of espionage agents were opened.
Alger Hiss’ ideological beliefs led him to commit the greatest crime any person can ever commit. The evidence clearly shows that he worked with foreign agents while in government service, and he passed along information to America’s enemy. In an ideal world, he should have been tried and convicted of treason. Unfortunately, many people were deceived by the polished image he outwardly projected. They believed he was incapable of wrongdoing. It deceived so many that there are still some today who claim he was unjustly persecuted. Many of these no doubt share his ideology. As Americans, we believe that people have the freedom to hold the beliefs and ideologies that they will. There are even mechanisms in place to change things we disagree with. There is a line that cannot be crossed however. No matter our ideology, our allegiance must finally be to our constitution and our country.