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Alger Hiss | American Patriot or Cold War Spy?

Nov 15, 2022
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23
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He was a Harvard-educated US government lawyer who helped defend the US constitution.

But in 1948, he was accused of being the worst thing possible…a Soviet spy.

In this episode, we explore the life of Alger Hiss and ask ourselves whether he was as innocent as he always claimed to be.

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[00:00:05] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Alger Hiss.

[00:00:28] He was an American, Harvard educated government lawyer who represented the United States on the international stage.

[00:00:36] A man directly involved in the creation of the United Nations, one who witnessed first hand the allied leaders drawing up the map of post-war Europe.

[00:00:46] But he was also a man who, after the war, would be accused of spying against the country he pledged to love, accused of being the worst thing he could possibly be….

[00:00:58] A communist.

[00:01:00] So, let’s get into it and talk about Alger Hiss, the man who reached the upper echelons of American politics, only to be accused of spying for the USSR.

[00:01:14] The marble columned hall was cramped and stuffy.

[00:01:18] The lights were glaring.

[00:01:21] Journalists in long coats and hats prowled the perimeter of the room, and hundreds of people were crammed in, the air thick with anticipation. 

[00:01:33] Over in the middle of the room, two men leaned forward, surrounded by lawyers, their desks stuffed full with microphones.

[00:01:43] “One of you is lying!” came the voice of Congressman Herbert.

[00:01:49] Mumbles and whispers echoed around the room.

[00:01:52] A man put a handkerchief to his forehead, sweat glistening in the light.

[00:01:59] His name was Alger Hiss, the American government official accused of being a communist spy.

[00:02:07] So, who was this man, and what path led him to that stuffy courtroom in 1948?

[00:02:16] Alger Hiss was born on the 11th of November, 1904, in Baltimore, in Maryland.

[00:02:23] Both of his parents came from wealthy and well-known Baltimore families. His great-great-grandfather had emigrated from Germany all the way back in 1729, changing the family name from "Hesse" to "Hiss" when he arrived, but that was pretty much the only non-American family link.

[00:02:45] Alger Hiss was about as American as it got.

[00:02:50] After doing well at high school, where he was a popular student, Hiss attended the prestigious John Hopkins University and then went on to be a star student at Harvard Law School.

[00:03:05] At Harvard he was taught by the future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and upon his graduation in 1929, Frankfurter recommended that Hiss become private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

[00:03:23] This was, of course, a huge honour for any law student and budding lawyer, and Holmes would have a profound influence on his young secretary.

[00:03:34] A year later, in 1930, Hiss joined a prestigious Boston law firm but the following year the family made another move, this time to New York, where his wife, Priscilla, wrote a book and Hiss found work at another law firm. 

[00:03:50] He stayed with this law firm until 1933, when he received a telegram from his old Harvard tutor Frankfurter, saying, rather dramatically, that the country needed him.

[00:04:04] This time Frankfurter suggested that Hiss join Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration as an attorney, as a lawyer.

[00:04:16] The New Deal was, as you may know, the 1930s mammoth expansion of government activity and expenditure. It was created in response to the Great Depression and many of its policy ideas, ambitious though they were, were unprecedented, nobody had done anything like this before.

[00:04:38] As a result, New Deal legislation was attacked by conservatives, and Hiss specialised in defending the constitutionality of the new reforms in court.

[00:04:51] In 1939, Hiss was made assistant to Stanley Hornbeck, the State Department’s Political Adviser for Far Eastern Affairs. 

[00:05:00] Then a few years later, in 1944, Hiss focused his efforts on preparing for peace as the Second World War ended.

[00:05:11] In what he probably imagined would be the defining moment of his life and career, he was made deputy director of the Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs and actually worked on proposals for the makeup of the United Nations. 

[00:05:27] Later that year, he was Secretary General of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which put together the U.N. Charter, and in 1945 he served at the Yalta Conference where the victorious allied leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin chopped up Europe and laid the foundations of the Cold War.

[00:05:47] Hiss was also the chief adviser to the United States delegation at the first ever meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1946. 

[00:05:55] He then became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a position he held until 1949.

[00:06:03] Now, if you haven’t followed all of these details, that’s OK. The point to underline is that, by his mid-forties, Hiss had established himself not only as a successful lawyer, but as a public American patriot.

[00:06:22] He’d studied at Harvard under future Supreme Court Justices; he’d defended the constitutionality of some of the most groundbreaking government reforms in American history; he’d helped found the U.N; served as a delegate to the U.N’s inaugural General Assembly; and witnessed history as the leaders of the allied powers drew up a new age from the ruins of Europe.

[00:06:48] So, how could someone with such a stellar CV end up being accused of spying for the country’s greatest enemy?

[00:06:58] Well, in 1939, a man called Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist who had become disillusioned with the party, confessed to the US government his former communist affiliation and activities - including the names of his associates.

[00:07:17] Understandably, at the time, in 1939, the Americans were more concerned about the pressing threat of Nazi Germany and less so the Soviets.

[00:07:28] But one of the men that Chambers claimed was a former Communist associate of his was Hiss, who, back then in the late 1930s, was a respected government lawyer building powerful connections on the Supreme Court.

[00:07:45] Initially, the accusation was ignored, and it wasn’t public knowledge, so Hiss retained his support among the upper echelons of government. 

[00:07:56] With the Americans so preoccupied by war in Europe, and focusing most of their efforts towards fighting the Germans and Japanese, Hiss continued to climb and, a few years later, was representing the U.S abroad.

[00:08:12] But when the war ended, the focus turned to the lurking threat, Communism.

[00:08:19] And it was here that the allegations about our friend Hiss’ past come back to haunt him.

[00:08:26] Specifically, on the 3rd of August, 1948, Chambers voluntarily gave evidence before the

 - known as HUAC.

[00:08:40] HUAC was a group of senators that investigated communist activity in the U.S and were fiercely anti-communist.

[00:08:49] One HUAC committee member who played a very public role in the hearings was a man by the name of Richard Nixon, a first-term Republican Congressman from California.

[00:09:01] Nixon would, of course, go on to The White House, and then be mired in controversy after the Watergate Scandal. 

[00:09:09] If you haven’t done so already, you can learn more about the Watergate scandal in episode 283.

[00:09:16] Anyway, back to the main story. Nixon’s role in the HUAC hearings put him in the public spotlight, thrust him into national prominence and proved his fierce anti-communist credentials

[00:09:31] At HUAC, Chambers claimed that during the 1930s he had worked as a courier for an underground Communist organisation in Washington D.C known as the Ware Group.

[00:09:43] And he named Alger Hiss as a man he had dealt with.

[00:09:49] Chambers claimed he first met Hiss in the summer of 1934 in a Washington restaurant.

[00:09:56] They were introduced, Chambers said, by a man referred to as J. Peters - someone Chambers claimed was the head of a Communist spy ring working in the United States. 

[00:10:09] Chambers even claimed that Hiss knew him by his communist party name, Carl.

[00:10:17] Chambers, who had become a determined anti-Communist after leaving the Communist Party in 1938, claimed that the organisation’s objective in the 1930s was to embed communists - or communist sympathisers - in the U.S government.

[00:10:36] One such man, he said, was Hiss.

[00:10:41] Hiss was called to HUAC the next day, on August the 4th, and when shown a picture of Chambers he claimed not to know him. 

[00:10:51] Testifying under oath, Hiss denied that he had ever been a Communist or that he had known or even met anyone called Whittaker Chambers.

[00:11:01] When they were finally face to face on August the 17th, however, Hiss recognised Chambers but swore he knew him as George Crosley, a writer Hiss had known in the 1930s.

[00:11:16] So, who was telling the truth?

[00:11:19] Well, in order to find out, the HUAC committee decided to put the men - and their versions of events - up against one another.

[00:11:30] With 500 people in the crowd, Hiss and Chambers had a dramatic courtroom battle and gave very different versions of their past encounters.

[00:11:41] Hiss claimed that Chambers, or Crosley, as he said he knew him, introduced himself when looking for information for an article he was writing.

[00:11:52] He even sublet an apartment to Chambers, Hiss swore, lent him money and gave him an old car.

[00:12:00] Chambers, on the other hand, said Hiss gifted the car to the Communist Party to help with their underground work.

[00:12:09] Hiss had been, Chambers claimed, his closest friend in the Communist party.

[00:12:15] He also revealed details of Hiss' private life that suggested he could have had a personal relationship with the government lawyer, a relationship much closer than you might have with a passing business acquaintance.

[00:12:30] He told the committee, for example, that Hiss and his wife were enthusiastic birdwatchers, and that Hiss had once bragged to him about seeing a particularly rare type of bird.

[00:12:44] Now, that might seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but this rare bird was actually used against Hiss.

[00:12:54] Donald Wheeler, a HUAC member, came up with a plan, a ruse, to casually ask Hiss about his hobbies during a pause in proceedings.

[00:13:05] When he was asked about this, Hiss confirmed that he had seen the bird and, in so doing, unknowingly corroborated Chambers' claim.

[00:13:16] This was leaked to the press, and seemed to HUAC and many members of the public to be the proof that they had been looking for.

[00:13:26] In response, Hiss demanded that Chambers make his claims outside the courtroom, where he wasn’t protected against accusations of slander.

[00:13:36] Then, a few days later, when giving a radio interview on August 30th, Chambers swore that ''Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now.'' 

[00:13:48] Because Chambers made the accusations publically, as a prominent lawyer, Hiss had few options other than to sue him for slander, the crime of making a false public statement about someone. 

[00:14:03] He did so, and demanded $75,000 in damages.

[00:14:08] But instead of putting the issue to bed, as Hiss might have hoped, at a deposition during the trial Chambers intensified his allegations.

[00:14:19] He directly accused Hiss of spying, and of giving him State Department documents to be sent to Moscow. 

[00:14:27] He brought notes in Hiss's handwriting and dozens of pages of State Department documents that were, he claimed, retyped by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla.

[00:14:39] Then, in perhaps the most famous episode of the trial, Chambers took Federal agents to his Maryland farm to reveal the so-called ‘pumpkin papers’, undeveloped rolls of film containing stolen State and Navy Department documents stuffed into a hollowed-out pumpkin.

[00:14:59] In total there were as many as 200 photographs of government documents.

[00:15:04] Hiss, of course, denied that he had stolen documents or given them to Chambers.

[00:15:10] With the grand jury gathering again in New York in December, Hiss was put on trial not for espionage, for spying, but for perjury, because the statute of limitations for espionage had expired.

[00:15:25] Essentially, the statute of limitations is when someone cannot be punished for a crime because a certain amount of time has elapsed, has passed.

[00:15:35] The indictment, this accusation, was that Hiss had perjured himself twice - by lying about giving documents to Chambers, and by lying about seeing him after January 1st, of 1937.

[00:15:50] At the first perjury trial in 1949, the result was a hung jury, a jury that cannot decide whether the accused is innocent or guilty.

[00:16:01] So, there was a retrial.

[00:16:04] Crucially, at the second trial, which began in November of 1949, a lady called Hede Massing, whose testimony was not heard in the first trial or at the HUAC hearings, confessed to being a Soviet agent and that Hiss had been Communist in 1935. 

[00:16:25] As a result, on January the 21st, 1950, Hiss, the former star government lawyer, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

[00:16:39] He would serve three years of his five-year sentence, before being released in 1954.

[00:16:46] He still maintained his innocence, but left prison jobless and banned from practising law.

[00:16:53] His government pension was initially denied, and Hiss and his wife Priscilla separated a few years later in 1959. 

[00:17:03] After a few years, Hiss began work selling stationery.

[00:17:08] It was quite the fall from grace for a man who had made and witnessed history on the international stage.

[00:17:15] But with time, the suspicions and scrutiny about Hiss' life began to wane.

[00:17:23] In 1967, when The New School for Social Research in New York asked Hiss to give lectures on the New Deal, it received just one angry telephone call. 

[00:17:35] And he clearly attracted quite a crowd, with five hundred people turning up for his first lecture.

[00:17:42] Hiss spent the following years filing appeals in court and trying to clear his name.

[00:17:48] He was desperate to recover his reputation.

[00:17:52] Although he was never convicted of espionage, of spying, the court of public opinion had all but decided.

[00:18:01] For many, Hiss was the name and face most associated with Soviet spying from the Cold War era.

[00:18:09] In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he even asked Russian officials to search the Soviet archives for information related to his case.

[00:18:22] A man called General Dmitri Volkogonov, a historian and the chairman of the Russian military intelligence archives, claimed that a search had found no evidence that Hiss had been involved in any Soviet spy ring.

[00:18:37] This was inconclusive, of course, as even if Hiss had been a Soviet spy it’s unlikely that the Russians would have admitted it, and Volkogonov’s search did not include Soviet military intelligence files, which might have held the answer.

[00:18:55] Over forty years later, the mystery was still unsolved.

[00:18:59] If Hiss had indeed been a Soviet spy, he was keeping his cards close to his chest, he wasn’t spilling the beans, he wasn’t going to reveal it.

[00:19:10] And he never would.

[00:19:12] On November the 15th, 1996, just days after his 92nd birthday, Hiss died, taking his secret, or at least “the truth”, to the grave with him.

[00:19:25] He had denied any accusations of espionage, and fought against his perjury conviction, until the very end.

[00:19:34] Now, the answer you’re probably waiting for, was he or wasn’t he?

[00:19:39] Historians have continued their trawling through Soviet records ever since Hiss died, but no definitive answer has ever been given to the question of Hiss’ guilt.

[00:19:51] Most experts seem to think that he probably was a spy, or was at the very least involved with people with communist sympathies in the 1930s. 

[00:20:02] The only real truth of the bizarre Alger Hiss case, besides that the truth will probably never be known, is that Hiss’ trial paved the way for the rabid anti-communist sentiment that dominated American society in the 1950s and 1960s.

[00:20:20] There may not have been the McCarthyite movement in the United States were it not for Hiss and his trial.

[00:20:27] That he was eventually convicted for perjury and not espionage was besides the point - in the mind of many Americans, Hiss was a Soviet spy and his trial played into their paranoid fantasies about Soviet infiltration.

[00:20:44] As the historian Allen Weinsten wrote in 1978, ''Alger Hiss' conviction gave McCarthy and his supporters the essential touch of credibility, making their charges of Communist involvement against other officials headline copy instead of back-page filler.”

[00:21:04] In other words, the legacy of Alger Hiss, whether or not he really was a spy, was to put America on high alert and contribute to a deep fear of socialists hiding within the ranks of the US government, a fear that, for some, persists even to this very day.

[00:21:26] OK then, that’s it for today’s episode on Alger Hiss, the high-flying Harvard man and government lawyer who was brought down to earth - and to prison - amid accusations of being a Soviet spy.

[00:21:40] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Hiss and his life before, or this was the first time you’d even heard his name, well I hope you learned something new.

[00:21:50] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:54] Do you think Hiss really was a Soviet spy?

[00:21:57] What about a communist sympathiser?

[00:22:00] Do you know of any other famous double agents - accused or otherwise - from the Cold War period?

[00:22:06] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:22:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:24] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

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[00:00:05] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Alger Hiss.

[00:00:28] He was an American, Harvard educated government lawyer who represented the United States on the international stage.

[00:00:36] A man directly involved in the creation of the United Nations, one who witnessed first hand the allied leaders drawing up the map of post-war Europe.

[00:00:46] But he was also a man who, after the war, would be accused of spying against the country he pledged to love, accused of being the worst thing he could possibly be….

[00:00:58] A communist.

[00:01:00] So, let’s get into it and talk about Alger Hiss, the man who reached the upper echelons of American politics, only to be accused of spying for the USSR.

[00:01:14] The marble columned hall was cramped and stuffy.

[00:01:18] The lights were glaring.

[00:01:21] Journalists in long coats and hats prowled the perimeter of the room, and hundreds of people were crammed in, the air thick with anticipation. 

[00:01:33] Over in the middle of the room, two men leaned forward, surrounded by lawyers, their desks stuffed full with microphones.

[00:01:43] “One of you is lying!” came the voice of Congressman Herbert.

[00:01:49] Mumbles and whispers echoed around the room.

[00:01:52] A man put a handkerchief to his forehead, sweat glistening in the light.

[00:01:59] His name was Alger Hiss, the American government official accused of being a communist spy.

[00:02:07] So, who was this man, and what path led him to that stuffy courtroom in 1948?

[00:02:16] Alger Hiss was born on the 11th of November, 1904, in Baltimore, in Maryland.

[00:02:23] Both of his parents came from wealthy and well-known Baltimore families. His great-great-grandfather had emigrated from Germany all the way back in 1729, changing the family name from "Hesse" to "Hiss" when he arrived, but that was pretty much the only non-American family link.

[00:02:45] Alger Hiss was about as American as it got.

[00:02:50] After doing well at high school, where he was a popular student, Hiss attended the prestigious John Hopkins University and then went on to be a star student at Harvard Law School.

[00:03:05] At Harvard he was taught by the future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and upon his graduation in 1929, Frankfurter recommended that Hiss become private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

[00:03:23] This was, of course, a huge honour for any law student and budding lawyer, and Holmes would have a profound influence on his young secretary.

[00:03:34] A year later, in 1930, Hiss joined a prestigious Boston law firm but the following year the family made another move, this time to New York, where his wife, Priscilla, wrote a book and Hiss found work at another law firm. 

[00:03:50] He stayed with this law firm until 1933, when he received a telegram from his old Harvard tutor Frankfurter, saying, rather dramatically, that the country needed him.

[00:04:04] This time Frankfurter suggested that Hiss join Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration as an attorney, as a lawyer.

[00:04:16] The New Deal was, as you may know, the 1930s mammoth expansion of government activity and expenditure. It was created in response to the Great Depression and many of its policy ideas, ambitious though they were, were unprecedented, nobody had done anything like this before.

[00:04:38] As a result, New Deal legislation was attacked by conservatives, and Hiss specialised in defending the constitutionality of the new reforms in court.

[00:04:51] In 1939, Hiss was made assistant to Stanley Hornbeck, the State Department’s Political Adviser for Far Eastern Affairs. 

[00:05:00] Then a few years later, in 1944, Hiss focused his efforts on preparing for peace as the Second World War ended.

[00:05:11] In what he probably imagined would be the defining moment of his life and career, he was made deputy director of the Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs and actually worked on proposals for the makeup of the United Nations. 

[00:05:27] Later that year, he was Secretary General of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which put together the U.N. Charter, and in 1945 he served at the Yalta Conference where the victorious allied leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin chopped up Europe and laid the foundations of the Cold War.

[00:05:47] Hiss was also the chief adviser to the United States delegation at the first ever meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1946. 

[00:05:55] He then became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a position he held until 1949.

[00:06:03] Now, if you haven’t followed all of these details, that’s OK. The point to underline is that, by his mid-forties, Hiss had established himself not only as a successful lawyer, but as a public American patriot.

[00:06:22] He’d studied at Harvard under future Supreme Court Justices; he’d defended the constitutionality of some of the most groundbreaking government reforms in American history; he’d helped found the U.N; served as a delegate to the U.N’s inaugural General Assembly; and witnessed history as the leaders of the allied powers drew up a new age from the ruins of Europe.

[00:06:48] So, how could someone with such a stellar CV end up being accused of spying for the country’s greatest enemy?

[00:06:58] Well, in 1939, a man called Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist who had become disillusioned with the party, confessed to the US government his former communist affiliation and activities - including the names of his associates.

[00:07:17] Understandably, at the time, in 1939, the Americans were more concerned about the pressing threat of Nazi Germany and less so the Soviets.

[00:07:28] But one of the men that Chambers claimed was a former Communist associate of his was Hiss, who, back then in the late 1930s, was a respected government lawyer building powerful connections on the Supreme Court.

[00:07:45] Initially, the accusation was ignored, and it wasn’t public knowledge, so Hiss retained his support among the upper echelons of government. 

[00:07:56] With the Americans so preoccupied by war in Europe, and focusing most of their efforts towards fighting the Germans and Japanese, Hiss continued to climb and, a few years later, was representing the U.S abroad.

[00:08:12] But when the war ended, the focus turned to the lurking threat, Communism.

[00:08:19] And it was here that the allegations about our friend Hiss’ past come back to haunt him.

[00:08:26] Specifically, on the 3rd of August, 1948, Chambers voluntarily gave evidence before the

 - known as HUAC.

[00:08:40] HUAC was a group of senators that investigated communist activity in the U.S and were fiercely anti-communist.

[00:08:49] One HUAC committee member who played a very public role in the hearings was a man by the name of Richard Nixon, a first-term Republican Congressman from California.

[00:09:01] Nixon would, of course, go on to The White House, and then be mired in controversy after the Watergate Scandal. 

[00:09:09] If you haven’t done so already, you can learn more about the Watergate scandal in episode 283.

[00:09:16] Anyway, back to the main story. Nixon’s role in the HUAC hearings put him in the public spotlight, thrust him into national prominence and proved his fierce anti-communist credentials

[00:09:31] At HUAC, Chambers claimed that during the 1930s he had worked as a courier for an underground Communist organisation in Washington D.C known as the Ware Group.

[00:09:43] And he named Alger Hiss as a man he had dealt with.

[00:09:49] Chambers claimed he first met Hiss in the summer of 1934 in a Washington restaurant.

[00:09:56] They were introduced, Chambers said, by a man referred to as J. Peters - someone Chambers claimed was the head of a Communist spy ring working in the United States. 

[00:10:09] Chambers even claimed that Hiss knew him by his communist party name, Carl.

[00:10:17] Chambers, who had become a determined anti-Communist after leaving the Communist Party in 1938, claimed that the organisation’s objective in the 1930s was to embed communists - or communist sympathisers - in the U.S government.

[00:10:36] One such man, he said, was Hiss.

[00:10:41] Hiss was called to HUAC the next day, on August the 4th, and when shown a picture of Chambers he claimed not to know him. 

[00:10:51] Testifying under oath, Hiss denied that he had ever been a Communist or that he had known or even met anyone called Whittaker Chambers.

[00:11:01] When they were finally face to face on August the 17th, however, Hiss recognised Chambers but swore he knew him as George Crosley, a writer Hiss had known in the 1930s.

[00:11:16] So, who was telling the truth?

[00:11:19] Well, in order to find out, the HUAC committee decided to put the men - and their versions of events - up against one another.

[00:11:30] With 500 people in the crowd, Hiss and Chambers had a dramatic courtroom battle and gave very different versions of their past encounters.

[00:11:41] Hiss claimed that Chambers, or Crosley, as he said he knew him, introduced himself when looking for information for an article he was writing.

[00:11:52] He even sublet an apartment to Chambers, Hiss swore, lent him money and gave him an old car.

[00:12:00] Chambers, on the other hand, said Hiss gifted the car to the Communist Party to help with their underground work.

[00:12:09] Hiss had been, Chambers claimed, his closest friend in the Communist party.

[00:12:15] He also revealed details of Hiss' private life that suggested he could have had a personal relationship with the government lawyer, a relationship much closer than you might have with a passing business acquaintance.

[00:12:30] He told the committee, for example, that Hiss and his wife were enthusiastic birdwatchers, and that Hiss had once bragged to him about seeing a particularly rare type of bird.

[00:12:44] Now, that might seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but this rare bird was actually used against Hiss.

[00:12:54] Donald Wheeler, a HUAC member, came up with a plan, a ruse, to casually ask Hiss about his hobbies during a pause in proceedings.

[00:13:05] When he was asked about this, Hiss confirmed that he had seen the bird and, in so doing, unknowingly corroborated Chambers' claim.

[00:13:16] This was leaked to the press, and seemed to HUAC and many members of the public to be the proof that they had been looking for.

[00:13:26] In response, Hiss demanded that Chambers make his claims outside the courtroom, where he wasn’t protected against accusations of slander.

[00:13:36] Then, a few days later, when giving a radio interview on August 30th, Chambers swore that ''Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now.'' 

[00:13:48] Because Chambers made the accusations publically, as a prominent lawyer, Hiss had few options other than to sue him for slander, the crime of making a false public statement about someone. 

[00:14:03] He did so, and demanded $75,000 in damages.

[00:14:08] But instead of putting the issue to bed, as Hiss might have hoped, at a deposition during the trial Chambers intensified his allegations.

[00:14:19] He directly accused Hiss of spying, and of giving him State Department documents to be sent to Moscow. 

[00:14:27] He brought notes in Hiss's handwriting and dozens of pages of State Department documents that were, he claimed, retyped by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla.

[00:14:39] Then, in perhaps the most famous episode of the trial, Chambers took Federal agents to his Maryland farm to reveal the so-called ‘pumpkin papers’, undeveloped rolls of film containing stolen State and Navy Department documents stuffed into a hollowed-out pumpkin.

[00:14:59] In total there were as many as 200 photographs of government documents.

[00:15:04] Hiss, of course, denied that he had stolen documents or given them to Chambers.

[00:15:10] With the grand jury gathering again in New York in December, Hiss was put on trial not for espionage, for spying, but for perjury, because the statute of limitations for espionage had expired.

[00:15:25] Essentially, the statute of limitations is when someone cannot be punished for a crime because a certain amount of time has elapsed, has passed.

[00:15:35] The indictment, this accusation, was that Hiss had perjured himself twice - by lying about giving documents to Chambers, and by lying about seeing him after January 1st, of 1937.

[00:15:50] At the first perjury trial in 1949, the result was a hung jury, a jury that cannot decide whether the accused is innocent or guilty.

[00:16:01] So, there was a retrial.

[00:16:04] Crucially, at the second trial, which began in November of 1949, a lady called Hede Massing, whose testimony was not heard in the first trial or at the HUAC hearings, confessed to being a Soviet agent and that Hiss had been Communist in 1935. 

[00:16:25] As a result, on January the 21st, 1950, Hiss, the former star government lawyer, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

[00:16:39] He would serve three years of his five-year sentence, before being released in 1954.

[00:16:46] He still maintained his innocence, but left prison jobless and banned from practising law.

[00:16:53] His government pension was initially denied, and Hiss and his wife Priscilla separated a few years later in 1959. 

[00:17:03] After a few years, Hiss began work selling stationery.

[00:17:08] It was quite the fall from grace for a man who had made and witnessed history on the international stage.

[00:17:15] But with time, the suspicions and scrutiny about Hiss' life began to wane.

[00:17:23] In 1967, when The New School for Social Research in New York asked Hiss to give lectures on the New Deal, it received just one angry telephone call. 

[00:17:35] And he clearly attracted quite a crowd, with five hundred people turning up for his first lecture.

[00:17:42] Hiss spent the following years filing appeals in court and trying to clear his name.

[00:17:48] He was desperate to recover his reputation.

[00:17:52] Although he was never convicted of espionage, of spying, the court of public opinion had all but decided.

[00:18:01] For many, Hiss was the name and face most associated with Soviet spying from the Cold War era.

[00:18:09] In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he even asked Russian officials to search the Soviet archives for information related to his case.

[00:18:22] A man called General Dmitri Volkogonov, a historian and the chairman of the Russian military intelligence archives, claimed that a search had found no evidence that Hiss had been involved in any Soviet spy ring.

[00:18:37] This was inconclusive, of course, as even if Hiss had been a Soviet spy it’s unlikely that the Russians would have admitted it, and Volkogonov’s search did not include Soviet military intelligence files, which might have held the answer.

[00:18:55] Over forty years later, the mystery was still unsolved.

[00:18:59] If Hiss had indeed been a Soviet spy, he was keeping his cards close to his chest, he wasn’t spilling the beans, he wasn’t going to reveal it.

[00:19:10] And he never would.

[00:19:12] On November the 15th, 1996, just days after his 92nd birthday, Hiss died, taking his secret, or at least “the truth”, to the grave with him.

[00:19:25] He had denied any accusations of espionage, and fought against his perjury conviction, until the very end.

[00:19:34] Now, the answer you’re probably waiting for, was he or wasn’t he?

[00:19:39] Historians have continued their trawling through Soviet records ever since Hiss died, but no definitive answer has ever been given to the question of Hiss’ guilt.

[00:19:51] Most experts seem to think that he probably was a spy, or was at the very least involved with people with communist sympathies in the 1930s. 

[00:20:02] The only real truth of the bizarre Alger Hiss case, besides that the truth will probably never be known, is that Hiss’ trial paved the way for the rabid anti-communist sentiment that dominated American society in the 1950s and 1960s.

[00:20:20] There may not have been the McCarthyite movement in the United States were it not for Hiss and his trial.

[00:20:27] That he was eventually convicted for perjury and not espionage was besides the point - in the mind of many Americans, Hiss was a Soviet spy and his trial played into their paranoid fantasies about Soviet infiltration.

[00:20:44] As the historian Allen Weinsten wrote in 1978, ''Alger Hiss' conviction gave McCarthy and his supporters the essential touch of credibility, making their charges of Communist involvement against other officials headline copy instead of back-page filler.”

[00:21:04] In other words, the legacy of Alger Hiss, whether or not he really was a spy, was to put America on high alert and contribute to a deep fear of socialists hiding within the ranks of the US government, a fear that, for some, persists even to this very day.

[00:21:26] OK then, that’s it for today’s episode on Alger Hiss, the high-flying Harvard man and government lawyer who was brought down to earth - and to prison - amid accusations of being a Soviet spy.

[00:21:40] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Hiss and his life before, or this was the first time you’d even heard his name, well I hope you learned something new.

[00:21:50] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:54] Do you think Hiss really was a Soviet spy?

[00:21:57] What about a communist sympathiser?

[00:22:00] Do you know of any other famous double agents - accused or otherwise - from the Cold War period?

[00:22:06] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:22:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:24] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:05] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Alger Hiss.

[00:00:28] He was an American, Harvard educated government lawyer who represented the United States on the international stage.

[00:00:36] A man directly involved in the creation of the United Nations, one who witnessed first hand the allied leaders drawing up the map of post-war Europe.

[00:00:46] But he was also a man who, after the war, would be accused of spying against the country he pledged to love, accused of being the worst thing he could possibly be….

[00:00:58] A communist.

[00:01:00] So, let’s get into it and talk about Alger Hiss, the man who reached the upper echelons of American politics, only to be accused of spying for the USSR.

[00:01:14] The marble columned hall was cramped and stuffy.

[00:01:18] The lights were glaring.

[00:01:21] Journalists in long coats and hats prowled the perimeter of the room, and hundreds of people were crammed in, the air thick with anticipation. 

[00:01:33] Over in the middle of the room, two men leaned forward, surrounded by lawyers, their desks stuffed full with microphones.

[00:01:43] “One of you is lying!” came the voice of Congressman Herbert.

[00:01:49] Mumbles and whispers echoed around the room.

[00:01:52] A man put a handkerchief to his forehead, sweat glistening in the light.

[00:01:59] His name was Alger Hiss, the American government official accused of being a communist spy.

[00:02:07] So, who was this man, and what path led him to that stuffy courtroom in 1948?

[00:02:16] Alger Hiss was born on the 11th of November, 1904, in Baltimore, in Maryland.

[00:02:23] Both of his parents came from wealthy and well-known Baltimore families. His great-great-grandfather had emigrated from Germany all the way back in 1729, changing the family name from "Hesse" to "Hiss" when he arrived, but that was pretty much the only non-American family link.

[00:02:45] Alger Hiss was about as American as it got.

[00:02:50] After doing well at high school, where he was a popular student, Hiss attended the prestigious John Hopkins University and then went on to be a star student at Harvard Law School.

[00:03:05] At Harvard he was taught by the future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and upon his graduation in 1929, Frankfurter recommended that Hiss become private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

[00:03:23] This was, of course, a huge honour for any law student and budding lawyer, and Holmes would have a profound influence on his young secretary.

[00:03:34] A year later, in 1930, Hiss joined a prestigious Boston law firm but the following year the family made another move, this time to New York, where his wife, Priscilla, wrote a book and Hiss found work at another law firm. 

[00:03:50] He stayed with this law firm until 1933, when he received a telegram from his old Harvard tutor Frankfurter, saying, rather dramatically, that the country needed him.

[00:04:04] This time Frankfurter suggested that Hiss join Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration as an attorney, as a lawyer.

[00:04:16] The New Deal was, as you may know, the 1930s mammoth expansion of government activity and expenditure. It was created in response to the Great Depression and many of its policy ideas, ambitious though they were, were unprecedented, nobody had done anything like this before.

[00:04:38] As a result, New Deal legislation was attacked by conservatives, and Hiss specialised in defending the constitutionality of the new reforms in court.

[00:04:51] In 1939, Hiss was made assistant to Stanley Hornbeck, the State Department’s Political Adviser for Far Eastern Affairs. 

[00:05:00] Then a few years later, in 1944, Hiss focused his efforts on preparing for peace as the Second World War ended.

[00:05:11] In what he probably imagined would be the defining moment of his life and career, he was made deputy director of the Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs and actually worked on proposals for the makeup of the United Nations. 

[00:05:27] Later that year, he was Secretary General of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which put together the U.N. Charter, and in 1945 he served at the Yalta Conference where the victorious allied leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin chopped up Europe and laid the foundations of the Cold War.

[00:05:47] Hiss was also the chief adviser to the United States delegation at the first ever meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1946. 

[00:05:55] He then became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a position he held until 1949.

[00:06:03] Now, if you haven’t followed all of these details, that’s OK. The point to underline is that, by his mid-forties, Hiss had established himself not only as a successful lawyer, but as a public American patriot.

[00:06:22] He’d studied at Harvard under future Supreme Court Justices; he’d defended the constitutionality of some of the most groundbreaking government reforms in American history; he’d helped found the U.N; served as a delegate to the U.N’s inaugural General Assembly; and witnessed history as the leaders of the allied powers drew up a new age from the ruins of Europe.

[00:06:48] So, how could someone with such a stellar CV end up being accused of spying for the country’s greatest enemy?

[00:06:58] Well, in 1939, a man called Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist who had become disillusioned with the party, confessed to the US government his former communist affiliation and activities - including the names of his associates.

[00:07:17] Understandably, at the time, in 1939, the Americans were more concerned about the pressing threat of Nazi Germany and less so the Soviets.

[00:07:28] But one of the men that Chambers claimed was a former Communist associate of his was Hiss, who, back then in the late 1930s, was a respected government lawyer building powerful connections on the Supreme Court.

[00:07:45] Initially, the accusation was ignored, and it wasn’t public knowledge, so Hiss retained his support among the upper echelons of government. 

[00:07:56] With the Americans so preoccupied by war in Europe, and focusing most of their efforts towards fighting the Germans and Japanese, Hiss continued to climb and, a few years later, was representing the U.S abroad.

[00:08:12] But when the war ended, the focus turned to the lurking threat, Communism.

[00:08:19] And it was here that the allegations about our friend Hiss’ past come back to haunt him.

[00:08:26] Specifically, on the 3rd of August, 1948, Chambers voluntarily gave evidence before the

 - known as HUAC.

[00:08:40] HUAC was a group of senators that investigated communist activity in the U.S and were fiercely anti-communist.

[00:08:49] One HUAC committee member who played a very public role in the hearings was a man by the name of Richard Nixon, a first-term Republican Congressman from California.

[00:09:01] Nixon would, of course, go on to The White House, and then be mired in controversy after the Watergate Scandal. 

[00:09:09] If you haven’t done so already, you can learn more about the Watergate scandal in episode 283.

[00:09:16] Anyway, back to the main story. Nixon’s role in the HUAC hearings put him in the public spotlight, thrust him into national prominence and proved his fierce anti-communist credentials

[00:09:31] At HUAC, Chambers claimed that during the 1930s he had worked as a courier for an underground Communist organisation in Washington D.C known as the Ware Group.

[00:09:43] And he named Alger Hiss as a man he had dealt with.

[00:09:49] Chambers claimed he first met Hiss in the summer of 1934 in a Washington restaurant.

[00:09:56] They were introduced, Chambers said, by a man referred to as J. Peters - someone Chambers claimed was the head of a Communist spy ring working in the United States. 

[00:10:09] Chambers even claimed that Hiss knew him by his communist party name, Carl.

[00:10:17] Chambers, who had become a determined anti-Communist after leaving the Communist Party in 1938, claimed that the organisation’s objective in the 1930s was to embed communists - or communist sympathisers - in the U.S government.

[00:10:36] One such man, he said, was Hiss.

[00:10:41] Hiss was called to HUAC the next day, on August the 4th, and when shown a picture of Chambers he claimed not to know him. 

[00:10:51] Testifying under oath, Hiss denied that he had ever been a Communist or that he had known or even met anyone called Whittaker Chambers.

[00:11:01] When they were finally face to face on August the 17th, however, Hiss recognised Chambers but swore he knew him as George Crosley, a writer Hiss had known in the 1930s.

[00:11:16] So, who was telling the truth?

[00:11:19] Well, in order to find out, the HUAC committee decided to put the men - and their versions of events - up against one another.

[00:11:30] With 500 people in the crowd, Hiss and Chambers had a dramatic courtroom battle and gave very different versions of their past encounters.

[00:11:41] Hiss claimed that Chambers, or Crosley, as he said he knew him, introduced himself when looking for information for an article he was writing.

[00:11:52] He even sublet an apartment to Chambers, Hiss swore, lent him money and gave him an old car.

[00:12:00] Chambers, on the other hand, said Hiss gifted the car to the Communist Party to help with their underground work.

[00:12:09] Hiss had been, Chambers claimed, his closest friend in the Communist party.

[00:12:15] He also revealed details of Hiss' private life that suggested he could have had a personal relationship with the government lawyer, a relationship much closer than you might have with a passing business acquaintance.

[00:12:30] He told the committee, for example, that Hiss and his wife were enthusiastic birdwatchers, and that Hiss had once bragged to him about seeing a particularly rare type of bird.

[00:12:44] Now, that might seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but this rare bird was actually used against Hiss.

[00:12:54] Donald Wheeler, a HUAC member, came up with a plan, a ruse, to casually ask Hiss about his hobbies during a pause in proceedings.

[00:13:05] When he was asked about this, Hiss confirmed that he had seen the bird and, in so doing, unknowingly corroborated Chambers' claim.

[00:13:16] This was leaked to the press, and seemed to HUAC and many members of the public to be the proof that they had been looking for.

[00:13:26] In response, Hiss demanded that Chambers make his claims outside the courtroom, where he wasn’t protected against accusations of slander.

[00:13:36] Then, a few days later, when giving a radio interview on August 30th, Chambers swore that ''Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now.'' 

[00:13:48] Because Chambers made the accusations publically, as a prominent lawyer, Hiss had few options other than to sue him for slander, the crime of making a false public statement about someone. 

[00:14:03] He did so, and demanded $75,000 in damages.

[00:14:08] But instead of putting the issue to bed, as Hiss might have hoped, at a deposition during the trial Chambers intensified his allegations.

[00:14:19] He directly accused Hiss of spying, and of giving him State Department documents to be sent to Moscow. 

[00:14:27] He brought notes in Hiss's handwriting and dozens of pages of State Department documents that were, he claimed, retyped by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla.

[00:14:39] Then, in perhaps the most famous episode of the trial, Chambers took Federal agents to his Maryland farm to reveal the so-called ‘pumpkin papers’, undeveloped rolls of film containing stolen State and Navy Department documents stuffed into a hollowed-out pumpkin.

[00:14:59] In total there were as many as 200 photographs of government documents.

[00:15:04] Hiss, of course, denied that he had stolen documents or given them to Chambers.

[00:15:10] With the grand jury gathering again in New York in December, Hiss was put on trial not for espionage, for spying, but for perjury, because the statute of limitations for espionage had expired.

[00:15:25] Essentially, the statute of limitations is when someone cannot be punished for a crime because a certain amount of time has elapsed, has passed.

[00:15:35] The indictment, this accusation, was that Hiss had perjured himself twice - by lying about giving documents to Chambers, and by lying about seeing him after January 1st, of 1937.

[00:15:50] At the first perjury trial in 1949, the result was a hung jury, a jury that cannot decide whether the accused is innocent or guilty.

[00:16:01] So, there was a retrial.

[00:16:04] Crucially, at the second trial, which began in November of 1949, a lady called Hede Massing, whose testimony was not heard in the first trial or at the HUAC hearings, confessed to being a Soviet agent and that Hiss had been Communist in 1935. 

[00:16:25] As a result, on January the 21st, 1950, Hiss, the former star government lawyer, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

[00:16:39] He would serve three years of his five-year sentence, before being released in 1954.

[00:16:46] He still maintained his innocence, but left prison jobless and banned from practising law.

[00:16:53] His government pension was initially denied, and Hiss and his wife Priscilla separated a few years later in 1959. 

[00:17:03] After a few years, Hiss began work selling stationery.

[00:17:08] It was quite the fall from grace for a man who had made and witnessed history on the international stage.

[00:17:15] But with time, the suspicions and scrutiny about Hiss' life began to wane.

[00:17:23] In 1967, when The New School for Social Research in New York asked Hiss to give lectures on the New Deal, it received just one angry telephone call. 

[00:17:35] And he clearly attracted quite a crowd, with five hundred people turning up for his first lecture.

[00:17:42] Hiss spent the following years filing appeals in court and trying to clear his name.

[00:17:48] He was desperate to recover his reputation.

[00:17:52] Although he was never convicted of espionage, of spying, the court of public opinion had all but decided.

[00:18:01] For many, Hiss was the name and face most associated with Soviet spying from the Cold War era.

[00:18:09] In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he even asked Russian officials to search the Soviet archives for information related to his case.

[00:18:22] A man called General Dmitri Volkogonov, a historian and the chairman of the Russian military intelligence archives, claimed that a search had found no evidence that Hiss had been involved in any Soviet spy ring.

[00:18:37] This was inconclusive, of course, as even if Hiss had been a Soviet spy it’s unlikely that the Russians would have admitted it, and Volkogonov’s search did not include Soviet military intelligence files, which might have held the answer.

[00:18:55] Over forty years later, the mystery was still unsolved.

[00:18:59] If Hiss had indeed been a Soviet spy, he was keeping his cards close to his chest, he wasn’t spilling the beans, he wasn’t going to reveal it.

[00:19:10] And he never would.

[00:19:12] On November the 15th, 1996, just days after his 92nd birthday, Hiss died, taking his secret, or at least “the truth”, to the grave with him.

[00:19:25] He had denied any accusations of espionage, and fought against his perjury conviction, until the very end.

[00:19:34] Now, the answer you’re probably waiting for, was he or wasn’t he?

[00:19:39] Historians have continued their trawling through Soviet records ever since Hiss died, but no definitive answer has ever been given to the question of Hiss’ guilt.

[00:19:51] Most experts seem to think that he probably was a spy, or was at the very least involved with people with communist sympathies in the 1930s. 

[00:20:02] The only real truth of the bizarre Alger Hiss case, besides that the truth will probably never be known, is that Hiss’ trial paved the way for the rabid anti-communist sentiment that dominated American society in the 1950s and 1960s.

[00:20:20] There may not have been the McCarthyite movement in the United States were it not for Hiss and his trial.

[00:20:27] That he was eventually convicted for perjury and not espionage was besides the point - in the mind of many Americans, Hiss was a Soviet spy and his trial played into their paranoid fantasies about Soviet infiltration.

[00:20:44] As the historian Allen Weinsten wrote in 1978, ''Alger Hiss' conviction gave McCarthy and his supporters the essential touch of credibility, making their charges of Communist involvement against other officials headline copy instead of back-page filler.”

[00:21:04] In other words, the legacy of Alger Hiss, whether or not he really was a spy, was to put America on high alert and contribute to a deep fear of socialists hiding within the ranks of the US government, a fear that, for some, persists even to this very day.

[00:21:26] OK then, that’s it for today’s episode on Alger Hiss, the high-flying Harvard man and government lawyer who was brought down to earth - and to prison - amid accusations of being a Soviet spy.

[00:21:40] I hope it was an interesting one, and whether you knew a lot about Hiss and his life before, or this was the first time you’d even heard his name, well I hope you learned something new.

[00:21:50] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:54] Do you think Hiss really was a Soviet spy?

[00:21:57] What about a communist sympathiser?

[00:22:00] Do you know of any other famous double agents - accused or otherwise - from the Cold War period?

[00:22:06] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:22:10] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:24] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]