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Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 - November 15, 1996) was a U.S. lawyer and government official accused of espionage by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1948.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was educated at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, graduating in 1929. He served for a year as secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes before joining a Boston law firm. He entered the government in 1933, working as an attorney with the New Deal program, then for the Nye Committee[?] and the Justice Department where he worked on the formation of the United Nations. He attended the Yalta conference in 1945 and was named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs. In 1946 he resigned to take up the post of president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace[?].

In 1948 he appeared before HUAC after journalist Whittaker Chambers had identified him as being a communist and involved in espionage. There were misgivings on the committee at first about attacking Hiss, but congressman Richard Nixon pressed the committee to act. Both Hiss and Chambers met before the committee in August of 1948. Hiss initially denied any knowledge of Chambers, saying quite specifically "the name means nothing to me". After confessing that his face "might look familiar", he confronted Chambers before the HUAC, and identified him as a "George Crosley" who he claimed was his tenant some years previously.

Some time later, after Chambers publically reiterated his charge that Hiss was working for the Soviets on radio program "Meet the Press", Hiss instituted a libel action against Chambers. Hiss lost the suit and was convicted of perjury, in the face of new evidence from Chambers. Chambers revealed a series of government documents that he claimed had been passed to him by Hiss in the 1930s, after the date that Hiss claimed to have ceased all contact with Chambers, AKA "Crosley". Nixon described the microfilm as evidence of the "most serious series of treasonable activities... in the history of America."

Hiss was charged with two counts of perjury; the grand jury could not indict him for espionage, as the three-year statute of limitations had run out. Hiss went to trial twice. The first trial started on May 31, 1949 but ended in a hung jury on July 7, 1949. He was convicted the second time in a trial lasting from November 17, 1949 to January 21, 1950. The verdict was upheld at the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Hiss was sentenced to five years and served 44 months before being released in November, 1954.

Hiss was disbarred and became a salesman. He continued to furiously protest his innocence, filing a petition of coram nobis. He was readmitted to the bar in 1975. Whether he was in fact a spy for the Soviets remains controversial. Hiss felt he was finally vindicated when in 1992 Russian General Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov claimed that a search of Russian archives revealed nothing. In 1996, however, so-called "Venona" documents were released by the United States governemnt. These documents mention a Russian spy in the US delegation at Yalta, code-named Ales, who may have been Alger Hiss.

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