On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, 47, a senior editor of Time magazine, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communist cells that he said had infiltrated the federal government. Chambers had already told his story to a number of government officials, going back to 1939, but only now in a year when the GOP had its first real chance to capture the White House since 1933 was it getting a public airing.
One of those Chambers named as a Communist was Alger Hiss, 44, a former State Department official, who was then the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss had served on President Roosevelt's staff at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Later that year, he served as Secretary-General of the San Francisco Conference, where the United Nations was organized. He had joined the Carnegie Endowment to help further America's work at the UN, which had come under harsh attack by powerful right-wing groups who opposed the US sharing power on the world stage.
After Chambers repeated his charges on a radio show, Hiss sued him for libel. Chambers responded by escalating the charges. During pre-trial depositions in Baltimore, Maryland, that November, Chambers offered into evidence four slips of paper in Hiss's handwriting as well as a sheaf of typewritten pages (later called the Baltimore Documents) that he said were copies of State Department documents that had been typed by the Hisses at their home and then handed to Chambers for transmission to the Soviet Union. Two weeks later, Chambers dropped a public bombshell when he led HUAC investigators to his Maryland farm, and from a hollowed-out pumpkin pulled five rolls of 35mm film, which he said contained photographs of documents implicating Hiss and others in an espionage conspiracy.
Hiss would eventually go to jail literally for denying Chambers's charges. He died four days after his 92nd birthday on November 15, 1996, still proclaiming his innocence. As for Chambers, he died long before that under mysterious circumstances on June 1, 1961. Like Hiss, he too went to his grave insisting that his testimony was truthful. The Hiss affair was the watershed case of the McCarthy period. More than fifty years later, it still inspires charges that Democrats are soft on Communism. With more than a dozen books written on the case representing both sides, what actually happened between the two men back in the 1930s remains a topic of deep disagreement. Experts do agree on one thing, though: One of the two men was a helluva liar.
In This Pack
Anyone Can Do It
An editorial discusses how in apparent disregard for Constitutional protections, the House Un-American Activities Committee is making use of ex-Communist informers to further its political goals. One such informer is Whittaker Chambers, who testified against former State Department official Alger Hiss (August 14, 1948).
The Nation suggests that headlines over the confrontation between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers don't necessarily mean that HUAC's hearings aren't anything but election- year partisan politics (September 4, 1948).
The Case of Alger Hiss
Thomas Sancton | The author reports on the dramatic confrontation between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss before HUAC on August 25 while delving into the divergent backgrounds of the two adversaries (September 4, 1948).
The Nation ties the latest developments in the Hiss case (Chambers's charge that Hiss was not only a member of the Communist Party but also a spy) to the question over whether the life of HUAC will be extended (December 18, 1948).
Hiss and Chambers: A Tangled Web
Thomas Sancton | The author discusses the implications of the dramatic allegations of Whittaker Chambers that an espionage operation had penetrated the New Deal (December 18, 1948).
The Trial of Alger Hiss
Robert Bendiner | Sitting in at the perjury trial of Alger Hiss, the author discusses the testimony of the prosecution's star witness, Whittaker Chambers (June 11, 1949).
The Trial of Alger Hiss -- II
Robert Bendiner | In the second part of his eyewitness report from the perjury trial of Alger Hiss, the author weighs the prosecution's evidence against the defendant (June 25, 1949).
"A Most Unusual Case"
Robert Bendiner | The trial of Alger Hiss ends with a hung jury. Bendiner discusses why this happened and what it means for Hiss (July 16, 1949).
The Yalta Controversy
Keith Hutchison | Anti-Roosevelt conservatives say that the ex-President -- with the help of Alger Hiss -- subverted American interests at Yalta. A new book answers those charges (November 12, 1949).