Alger Hiss - Perjury Trials and Conviction

Perjury Trials and Conviction

The grand jury charged Hiss with two counts of perjury—it did not indict him for espionage since the statute of limitations had run out. Chambers was never charged with a crime. Hiss went to trial twice. The first trial started on May 31, 1949, and ended in a hung jury on July 7. Chambers admitted on the witness stand that he had previously committed perjury several times while he was under oath, including deliberately falsifying key dates in his story. Hiss's character witnesses at his first trial included such notables as future Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis. President Truman famously called the trial "a red herring" The second trial, under a new judge, lasted from November 17, 1949, to January 21, 1950.

At both trials, a key to the prosecution case was testimony from expert witnesses stating that identifying characteristics of the typed Baltimore documents matched samples typed on a typewriter owned by the Hisses at the time of his alleged espionage work with Chambers. The prosecution also presented as evidence the typewriter itself. Given away years earlier, it had been located by defense investigators.

In the second trial, Hede Massing, an Austrian-born confessed Soviet spy who was being threatened with deportation, and whom the first judge had not permitted to testify, provided some slight corroboration of Chambers's story. She recounted meeting Hiss at a party in 1935. Massing also described how Hiss had tried to recruit Noel Field, another Soviet spy at State, to switch from Massing's ring to his own.

This time the jury found Hiss guilty by an eight-to-four vote on both perjury counts. "That, according to one of Hiss’s friends and lawyers, Helen Buttenweiser, was the only time that she had ever seen Alger shocked – stunned by the fact that eight of his fellow citizens did not believe him." According to Anthony Summers, "Hiss spoke only two sentences in court after he had been found guilty. The first was to thank the judge. The second was to assert that one day in the future it would be disclosed how forgery by typewriter had been committed."

On January 25, 1950, Hiss was sentenced to five years' imprisonment.

At a subsequent press conference, Secretary of State Dean Acheson reacted emotionally, affirming, "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss”. Acheson quoted Jesus in the Bible: “I was a Stranger and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me, I was in prison and ye came unto me." Acheson's remarks enraged Nixon, who accused him of blasphemy." The verdict was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (case citation 185 F.2d 822), and the Supreme Court of the United States denied a writ of certiorari (340 U.S. 948).

The case heightened public concern about Soviet espionage penetration of the U.S. government in the 1930s and 1940s. As a well-educated and highly connected government official from an old American family, Alger Hiss did not fit the profile of a typical spy. Publicity surrounding the case thrust Richard M. Nixon into the public spotlight, helping him move from the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate in 1950, and to the vice presidency of the United States in 1952. Senator Joseph McCarthy made his famous Wheeling, West Virginia, speech two weeks after the Hiss verdict, launching his career as the nation's most visible anti-communist.

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