The Hiss-Chambers Case
by Allen Weinstein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Knopf: New York, 1978
674 pages

revised edition —
Random House: New York, 1997
622 pages

July 2011

A pivotal Communist-spy trial

In this large and detailed history, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Allen Weinstein recounts thoroughly the 1949 trials of Alger Hiss for lying about passing government documents to his Communist agent-handler, Whittaker Chambers. When Chambers left the Communist Party, he had kept some key documents furnished or copied by Hiss. The statute of limitations for espionage, for directly prosecuting these pre-World War II activities, had run out, so the case became one of perjury.

Unlike some others accused of spying, Hiss did not stand on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; rather he denied everything: including having been a member of the Communist Party and, initially, ever having heard of Whittaker Chambers. The first court trial was deadlocked (see Weinstein's account for why), but the second jury voted to convict. The anti-Communist zeal of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its freshman Congressman, Richard Nixon, was vindicated.

Allen Weinstein's Perjury covers the pre-war espionage circles, the characters of Hiss and Chambers, Chambers' defection, the two trials, and the consequences. This often extends to near-novelistic detail, especially for the trials. Both the reporting and analysis seem to me to be even-handed and objective. I have no intention of trying to summarize or re-argue here the Hiss-Chambers case and its long aftermath. Please do note that at least in public perception, the case still is a live issue — which testifies to its historical importance at the beginning of the American-Soviet Cold War, and gives us cause to reflect about why its shadow still lies across our understanding of Soviet Communism, of the Cold War, and of the appeal of, functioning, and damage from Communism in the United States.

Employment and character

Alger Hiss was the most significant government figure yet brought to trial for Communist activities. Both his accusers and defenders were keenly aware of the high stakes at issue. Hiss had an impressive resume; most recently, in 1944-1945:

Hiss detailed his work in preparing a security system for the Dumbarton Oaks Conference ("I was in charge of it"), his help in making arrangements for President Roosevelt's schedule at Yalta ("I was privy to and participated in a very small way"), and his greater role in organizing the U.N. San Francisco conference, easily his finest achievement as a government official.
"Deadlock: The First Trial"
The Hiss-Chambers Case

Hiss' legal defense team fought on all possible fronts. His fine reputation was widely attested:

A bevy of character witnesses attested to Alger Hiss's reputation for "integrity, loyalty and veracity," either by taking the stand or filing depositions. They included two Supreme Court Justices, several other jurists, an admiral, a former Solicitor General, a onetime Democratic presidential nominee and a future one, and a handful of State Department officials.
"Deadlock: The First Trial"
The Hiss-Chambers Case

An amazing breadth of endorsement, in part unprecedented in a court trial. Weinstein of course provides all the names, as well as how they knew Hiss. Despite the defense team's ad hominem boosting of Hiss and assault on Chambers, the documents plus Chambers' testimony were sufficiently compelling for conviction.


Allen Weinstein's concluding chapters are of fascinating long-view analysis. He considers "Alger Hiss as Myth and Symbol" in the emerging Cold War iconography, and then how "The Case Revived" as a result of by-then President Richard Nixon's entanglement and then fall in the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974.

In a 1997 revised edition of Perjury, Weinstein brings the case further up to date, including data from the wartime Venona decryptions as well as Soviet information that became available after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. A still more recent history devotes its first chapter to the Hiss case:

Alexander Vassiliev's notebooks quote KGB reports and cables from the mid-1930s to 1950 that document KGB knowledge of and contacts with Alger Hiss and unequivocally identify Hiss as a long-term espionage source for the KGB's sister agency, GRU, Soviet military intelligence. Hiss is identified by his real name as well as by cover names, "Jurist," "Ales," and "Leonard." The material fully corroborates the testimony and accounts of Whittaker Chambers, Hede Massing, Noel Field, and others, while offering new details about Hiss's relationship with Soviet intelligence.
John Earl Haynes,
Harvey Klehr,
& Alexander Vassiliev
"Alger Hiss: Case Closed"
The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America  (2009)


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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