September 2019 – The President’s Lecture – Professor Tony Badger – Alger Hiss: Friend and/or Spy?

This month’s lecture was given by the President of the Historical Association, Professor Tony Badger.

The talk began with a biography of Alger Hiss who was born in 1904 into a genteel family in Baltimore. He was educated at John Hopkins University and Havard Law School, where he was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, the future US Supreme Court Justice. He then served for a year as Clerk to the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. before joining a leading Wall Street Law Firm. In 1933 he worked in Washington for the Nye Commission investigating profiteering by munitions firms during World War One. He was also a member of the Agriculture Adjustment Administration. Afterwards, Hiss moved to the State Department to plan the post World War Two settlement and he organised the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. He was the main State official at the Yalta Conference where, somewhat suspiciously, Stalin had been well prepared regarding the American position. In 1945 Hiss organised the San Francisco Conference which established the United Nations. The Soviets would have been happy to see him installed as the First Secretary General but he was not appointed.

In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor of Time Magazine and former communist party member denounced Alger Hiss as a communist in a hearing before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American activities. Hiss denied the allegation but it was pursued by a young Richard Nixon. Chambers then accused Hiss of being a spy and produced some evidence to that effect. Hiss was charged by the Grand Jury on two counts of perjury but not for espionage as the period of limitations had expired. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment.

Hiss always denied the allegations and challenged the findings and there is some evidence that the FBI fabricated evidence regarding the Woodstock typewriter which Hiss’s wife had allegedly used to type incriminating documents. However, information received in later years from Russia and Eastern Europe casts doubt on his protestations. Professor Badger, who had known Hiss for 25
years, felt on balance that he was probably guilty of espionage. Hiss spent the rest of his life protesting his innocence and in 1970 his State Department pension was restored and he returned to the Bar. He died in 1996 leaving a question mark over his guilt.

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