Alger Hiss spoke of his innocence in spy case during 1974 Hopkins talk

Hiss visit came at height of the Watergate controversy that ensnared his accuser, Richard M. Nixon

June 11, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

I was in the audience that gathered on a warm May evening in 1974 on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University to listen to a lecture by Alger Hiss, the Baltimore-born diplomat turned spy who had spent 31/2 years in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., after being convicted of perjury in 1950.

Here standing before us, dressed in a three-piece suit and carrying an unlit pipe, was one of the most important living Cold War figures, whose guilt or innocence could still divide Baltimore dinner parties nearly three decades after the celebrated case drifted off front pages and into history.

If anyone in the audience that night expected any bombshells from Hiss, they were disappointed. There were no revelations, just a return to the highlights of the case that had been floating around for years in debates and books.

It was, in many ways, a triumphal return to the Homewood campus, which Hiss had last visited in 1947 when he was granted an honorary degree for distinguished government service, and it came at the height of the Watergate controversy, which would drive his chief accuser, President Richard M. Nixon, from office in three months.

The audience of more than 1,000 was an interesting mix of those who had lived through those turbulent years of the Red Scare, which made a name for an aggressive and ambitious Nixon, students for whom the Cold War figure was nothing more than an American historical oddity, and the simply curious.

Hiss, the son of a department store executive who had committed suicide, was raised in Bolton Hill. He had been a Boy Scout in his younger days and was a 1922 graduate of City College.

It was at Hopkins, where he had earned his degree in 1926, that he developed a reputation as a skilled debater and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

After Hopkins, it was on to Harvard Law School, Class of 1929, and a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Hiss came to Washington in the early days of the New Deal, served as a congressional committee staffer, joined the solicitor general's office in 1935, and finally the State Department in 1936, where he would make his mark as a rising young star.

Hiss had traveled with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Crimea Conference in Yalta in 1945, and the next year was named secretary-general of the fledgling United Nations Conference on International Organization.

In 1948, in a closed-door session of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Whitaker Chambers, who had been a Time magazine editor and a Hiss friend, told committee members that Hiss, Hiss' wife, Priscilla, and his brother, Donald, had been members of a communist cell operating in Washington during the 1930s.

Chambers, who freely admitted being a communist operative in the 1930s, told the committee that Hiss had passed to him stolen State Department documents.

On Aug. 4, 1948, Hiss appeared before the committee in the packed House and uttered the immortal words: "I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party."

He also denied that he knew Chambers and filed a defamation suit against Chambers in federal court in Baltimore.

The circle began closing around Hiss when Chambers summoned investigators to his farm near Westminster on Dec. 2, 1948, and showed them hollowed-out pumpkins where he had hidden the State Department documents he claimed Hiss had given him.

Two weeks later, a grand jury was convened in New York. Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury and lying about his relationship with Chambers.

The first trial ended in 1949 with a hung jury, while the second convicted Hiss in 1950. The case provided the ammunition for the wave of McCarthyism that soon swept the nation.

A few weeks after Hiss was sentenced, Joseph McCarthy, a freshman Republican senator from Wisconsin, rose to say that he had a list of names of more than 200 communists in the State Department.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld Hiss' conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Conflicted over Hiss' guilt or innocence, his Baltimore attorney, William P. Marbury, told The Baltimore Sun years later, "When people ask me what I think, I say I don't know what I think."

I recall the Shriver Hall audience warmly greeting Hiss as he walked across the stage.

In his 45-minute talk, Hiss commented on the release of a 1973 transcript of a White House conversation between Nixon and his counsel, John W. Dean III, when the president referenced the Hiss case.

It proved, Hiss told his audience, that the ambitious Nixon wished to gain as much political traction as possible from a case that was stalled and about to die from lack of evidence.

"Then we worked that thing," Nixon told Dean. "We then got the evidence, we got the typewriter, we got the pumpkin papers. The FBI did not cooperate. The Justice Department did not cooperate."

Speaking of Hiss years later, Nixon said, "If the American people knew the real nature of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil."

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