Alger Hiss - Early Life and Career

Early Life and Career

Hiss was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Mary Lavinia (née Hughes), who came from an old Maryland family, and Charles Alger Hiss, an executive in a wholesale dry goods company. When Alger was two years old, his father committed suicide and his mother was obliged to rely on her inheritance and assistance from family members to raise her five children. They lived in a Baltimore neighborhood described by biographer G. Edward White as one of "shabby gentility". Though his childhood was shadowed by early loss, Hiss became a high performing and popular student. (The family experienced two further tragedies when he was in his twenties: his elder brother Bosley died of Bright's disease and his sister Mary Ann committed suicide.) Hiss attended Baltimore City College (high school) and Johns Hopkins University, where he was voted "most popular student" by his classmates and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. In 1929, he received his law degree from Harvard Law School, where he was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. During his time at Harvard, the famous murder trial of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti transpired, which ended in their conviction and execution. Like Frankfurter, who wrote a book about the case, and many prominent liberals of the day, Hiss maintained that Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted unjustly.

In 1929, Hiss married Priscilla Fansler Hobson, a Bryn Mawr graduate and grade school teacher. Priscilla, previously married to Thayer Hobson, had a three-year-old son, Timothy. Hiss and Priscilla had known each other before her marriage to Hobson. Hiss served for a year as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., before joining Choate, Hall & Stewart, a Boston law firm.

During the era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, Hiss became a government attorney. In 1933, he served briefly at the Justice Department and then became a temporary assistant on the Senate's Nye Committee, investigating cost overruns and alleged profiteering by military contractors during World War I. During this period, Hiss was also a member of the liberal legal team headed by Jerome Frank that defended the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) against challenges to its legitimacy. Because of intense opposition from agribusiness in Arkansas, Frank and his left-wing assistants, who included future labor lawyer Lee Pressman, were fired in 1935 in what came to be known as "the purge of liberals". Hiss was not fired, but allegations that during this period he was connected with radicals on the Agriculture Department's legal team were to be the source of future misfortune.

In 1936, Alger Hiss and his younger brother Donald Hiss began working under Cordell Hull in the State Department. Alger was an assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre (son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson) and then special assistant to the director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs. In 1944, Hiss was named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, a policy-making entity devoted to planning for post-war international organizations, Hiss served as executive secretary of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which drew up plans for the future United Nations. In November 1944, Hull, who had led the United Nations project, retired as secretary of state due to poor health and was succeeded by Undersecretary of State Edward Stettinius.

In February 1945, as a member of the U.S. delegation headed by Stettinius, Hiss attended the Yalta Conference, where the Big Three, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill, met to coordinate strategy to defeat Adolf Hitler and consolidate their alliance to forestall any possibility, now that the Soviets had entered German territory, that any of them might make a separate peace with the Nazi regime. Negotiations addressed the postwar division of Europe and configuration of its borders; reparations and de-Nazification; and the still unfinished plans, carried over from Dumbarton Oaks, for the United Nations. Hiss, whose work at Yalta was limited to the United Nations, drafted a memorandum arguing against Stalin's proposal (made at Dumbarton Oaks) to give one vote to each of the 16 Soviet republics in the U.N. General Assembly. Fearing isolation, Stalin hoped thus to counterbalance the votes of the many countries of the British Empire, whom he anticipated would vote with Britain, and those of Latin America, who could be expected to vote in lockstep with the United States. In the final compromise offered by Roosevelt and Stettinius and accepted by Stalin, the Soviets obtained three votes: one each for the Soviet Union itself, the Ukrainian SSR, and the Byelorussian SSR.

Hiss was secretary-general of the San Francisco United Nations Conference on International Organization (the United Nations Charter Conference), which began on April 25, 1945, and then became the full director of the OSPA. In 1946, he left government service to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he served until May 5, 1949, when he was forced to step down.

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