US Democrat Department of State official and diplomat imprisoned in 1950 for perjury when he denied dealings with former Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers. The Hiss case contributed to the climate of fear and suspicion that led to communist witch hunts of the 1950s (see McCarthyism). Doubts have since been raised about the justice of his conviction.
Hiss, a liberal Democrat with a record for integrity and service to the US government, was accused by Chambers, an editor for Time magazine, of giving him secret government documents between 1926 and 1937. Chambers made the accusation before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, of which future president Richard Nixon was a prominent member. He produced microfilms of government documents allegedly received from Hiss and hidden in a pumpkin on his farm in Maryland; these became known as the ‘Pumpkin Papers’. Hiss denied all accusations but resigned his position as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
When Chambers made his accusation in public, Hiss sued him for slander. In the subsequent trials, 1949–50, Hiss was convicted on two counts of perjury (under the statute of limitations he could not be charged for the original crime of spying): for lying when he said he that had not given any documents to Chambers and that he did not have contact with Chambers after 1936. He served more than three years of a five-year prison sentence and was released in 1954, still maintaining his innocence. The debate about his innocence continued for decades.
The official Soviet commission on KGB archives reported in 1992 that Hiss had never been a spy, but this evidence was not accepted as reliable by the USA.
Hiss was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1926 and Harvard Law School in 1929. He was secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes 1929–30, and practised law in Boston and New York 1930–33. Hiss entered the Department of State in 1936. In 1945 he was one of President Franklin D Roosevelt's advisers at the 1945 Yalta Conference and served as temporary secretary general of the United Nations founding conference.
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