The Hiss Case (1940s)

America in the Mid-1940s: The Pre-Cold War Backstory of the Hiss Case

Roosevelt at White House Desk

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“Most Americans,” the Cold War historian Kai Bird wrote back at the beginning of the 21st century, “have no memory of the designs Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dealers had for postwar American foreign policy” – since “the duration and intensity of the Cold War make it difficult to remember what might have been the common-sensical path not taken at the end of World War II.”

Alger Hiss, director of the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs, which drew up many of the plans for the United Nations, who in 1945 was also Secretary General of the United Nations organizing conference, was one of the New Dealers intimately involved in creating this “path not taken.” As spelled out by Bird, this was a strategy for taking the New Deal and its accomplishments on the road: “Human rights, self-determination and an end to European colonization in the developing world, nuclear disarmament, international law, the World Court, the United Nations – these were all ideas of the progressive left. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were initially conceived as vehicles for internationalizing the New Deal.”

Hiss, United Nations Conference, 1945

Alger Hiss (r) at the United Nations organizing conference in San Francisco, spring 1945

It was to have been the way to make FDR’s “Four Freedoms” a permanent part of humanity’s inheritance – “an attainable world in which there would be not only freedom of speech and worship but also freedom from want and fear.” (“A Foreign Policy for the Common Citizen,” The Nation, May 8, 2000.)

With Roosevelt’s death, in April 1945, policies of fear were re-introduced. Near the end of his life, Alger Hiss recalled a 1946 conversation with Dean Acheson, who became Secretary of State under President Harry S Truman, Roosevelt’s successor. The Cold War with the Russians was then just emerging, and Acheson wanted to warn Capitol Hill about the dangers ahead: “If you don’t scare Congress, Alger, they’ll go fishing.” “But, Dean,” Hiss had replied, “if you do scare them, they’ll go crazy.”

Two years later, when Hiss himself became an object of fear: accused before a congressional committee (first of communist sympathies and later of espionage for the Soviet Union), his case became one of the defining – and still highly controversial – episodes of the Cold War, the bitter, decades-long global conflict and rivalry Roosevelt had sought to avoid.

America in the Late 1940s: The Hiss Case and the Cold War

Victor Rabinowitz, who served as Alger Hiss’s attorney during the 1970s, offered this summary of the Cold War context of the Hiss case. It was originally written as part of the 1978 coram nobis brief Rabinowitz submitted to the federal courts, petitioning them to reopen the Hiss case based on newly uncovered evidence that had been released to Hiss by the FBI.

Alger Hiss testifies before HUAC, 1948

Alger Hiss testifies before HUAC on August 5, 1948.

The trial of Alger Hiss was one of the great state trials in the recent history of the United States. It had its genesis in the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the summer and fall of 1948, but those hearings themselves were part of the larger picture of the Cold War. The House Committee hearings took place against the backdrop of the closely contested 1948 presidential election between President Truman and Governor Thomas E. Dewey, which itself was set against an increase in political tensions both nationally and internationally.

In March 1946, Sir Winston Churchill had delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri. The Soviet blockade of Germany followed shortly after, and the Berlin airlift began in response. In February 1948, the Soviet Union had occupied Czechoslovakia, and events in Greece had raised fears that armed conflict between the Western powers and the Soviet Union might break out in that area of the world.

Tensions also increased internally. President Truman had instituted a “Loyalty Program” for all federal employees as early as March 1947; Congressmen Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon had combined to sponsor a bill outlawing the Communist Party; and labor unions were wracked with charges of “Red” leadership, resulting in the wholesale expulsion of many militant leaders.

Alger Hiss, Harry S Truman, 1945

Alger Hiss (seated, next to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.), at the United Nations Conference, June 1945. At the rostrum is President Truman.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) played its own role in the political conflicts that were developing. In the summer of 1948, Elizabeth Bentley had submitted to the Committee her tale of communist conspirators in the country. J. Parnell Thomas, then chairman of the Committee, said years later that the chairman of the Republican National Committee “was urging me in the Dewey campaign to set up the spy hearings … in order to put the heat on Truman” (The New York Times, Feb. 8, 1954).

It was in this setting that, on August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers testified at a HUAC hearing that Alger Hiss had been a member of an “underground” group of the Communist Party during his government employment from 1934 to 1937. At the time Chambers made his charges, Hiss was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, after more than a dozen years of distinguished service in the government. His employment in the State Department, his role as a member of President Roosevelt’s team at the Yalta Conference in 1945, and then as Secretary General of the United Nations organizing conference later that year, made him a prominent target for the anti-Truman forces. His conviction quickly became a political issue and, for some, a political necessity.


This section of the website deals with the accusations and evidence in the case as they emerged between 1948 and 1950 (including evaluations of the Hiss case typewriter, the “Baltimore Documents,” and the “Pumpkin Papers”) and assesses the credibility of Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss’s accuser.