The Trials of Alger Hiss: A Commentary
10 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2007
Date Written: 2007
No criminal case had a more far-reaching effects on modern American politics than the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers spy case which held Americans spellbound in the middle of the twentieth-century. The case catapulted an obscure California congressman named Richard Nixon to national fame, set the stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious Communist-hunting, and marked the beginning of a conservative intellectual and political movement that would one day put Ronald Reagan in the White House.
Even without its important influence on American political debate, the trials of Alger Hiss for perjury have the makings of a great drama. They featured two men who could hardly be more different, sharing only impressive intelligence. Alger Hiss was a tall, handsome Harvard-trained lawyer with an impeccable pedigree. Whittaker Chambers was a short, stocky, and rumpled Columbia drop-out and confessed former Communist from a poor and troubled Philadelphia family. Time and time again the two men would tell congressional committees, trial juries, and a reading public flatly contradictory stories about Hiss's allegiances during the period from 1933 to 1938. Hiss, according to Chambers, was a dedicated Communist engaged in espionage, even while working at the highest levels of the United States government. Hiss told a very different story, claiming unflinching loyalty and denying even membership in the Communist Party. One man was lying, one was telling the truth.
In the summer of 1948, Chambers's story rang true to one very important young man: Congressman Richard Nixon, a member of the House un-American Activities Committee, then an often-ridiculed political backwater.
Keywords: Famous Trials, Trial, Hiss, Alger Hiss, Chambers, Whittaker Chambers, Nixon, Richard Nixon, HUAC, House Un-American Activities Committee, Communist, Communism, McCarthy, McCarthyism, Joe McCarthy, Joseph McCarthy
JEL Classification: K10, K40, K41, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation