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Alger Hiss

Political Scandal Figure

Born: 11 November 1904
Died: 15 November 1996
Birthplace: Baltimore, Maryland
Best known as: The State Department official accused of being a Soviet spy in 1948
Alger Hiss was a central figure in a post-World War II scandal that became emblematic of political differences within the United States during the Cold War. A graduate of John Hopkins University (1926) and Harvard Law School (1929), Hiss clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was in the State Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a key administrator in the founding days of the United Nations. He was accused in 1948 of having earlier been a Soviet agent, a charge made by former acquaintance Whittaker Chambers, a journalist and repentant former communist who named Hiss during testimony before Congress's House Committee on Un-American Activities (usually abbreviated HUAC). Hiss denied it and sued for libel. When all was said and done the evidence was against Hiss -- dramatic details included microfilm hidden in a pumpkin and the concept of forgery by typewriter. The statute of limitations on espionage had expired, but Alger Hiss was tried for perjury in 1949 and, after two trials, convicted in 1950. The next month Senator Joseph McCarthy famously announced a list of communists within the State Department, launching an era of hysteria over the threat of Soviet spies in the U.S. Hiss served 44 months in prison, while his chief antagonist in the House of Representatives, Richard Nixon, became vice president. For decades the American left saw Hiss as an innocent victim of anti-communist hysteria and the political ambitions of Nixon, while the American right saw Hiss as proof that educated liberals were closet communists. Hiss maintained his innocence up to his death in 1996. Documents released in the '90s by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union indicated otherwise, although a true "smoking gun" was hard to pin down. The consensus has shifted to accepting that Hiss was a spy for the Soviet Union, but there are still just enough ambiguities in the case, and a surfeit of invested political ideologues, to keep the argument alive.

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