"No criminal case had a more far-reaching effects on modern American politics than the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers spy case. 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." - Douglas Linder
Following is a brief timeline of the convoluted story.
June 1929 - Alger Hiss graduates from Harvard Law. After working at a private law firm, he eventually becomes counsel to the Nye Committee of the US Senate, which is investigating profiteering in the defense industry.
December 1934 - Hiss meets and befriends freelance writer "George Crosley", helps him with some magazine articles, and lends him some money. Hiss eventually realizes that Crosley will likely never pay him back, refuses another loan, and ends the friendship.
September 1939 - Whittaker Chambers identifies Hiss as being targeted for recruitment by the Communist Party. Chambers claims to have been a Communist but left the party in 1937.
August 1944 - Alger Hiss organizes the Dumbarton Oaks Conference which lays the groundwork for the United Nations. The following year Hiss becomes Secretary General of the San Francisco Conference, which drafts the United Nations Charter.
November 1945 - Rev. John Cronin, an anti-Communist priest, circulates a report on Communists in government. The report names Hiss. A copy is given to then-Congressman Richard M. Nixon.
June 1947 - FBI agents question Hiss, who denies being a Communist and says he does not know a Whittaker Chambers.
August 1948 - Chambers testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Hiss was a member of a Communist group. Hiss identifies Whittaker Chambers as the man he knew as "George Crosley." Both men testify in a public event. It is the first Congressional hearing ever televised.
November 1948 - Whittaker Chambers claims to have 65 pages of documents that incriminate Hiss. The papers are turned over to the Justice Department. Chambers also has two rolls of film, but Nixon urges him to give them to the HUAC instead of the Justice Department. Chambers hides the film in a hollowed out pumpkin on his farm.
December 1948 - Richard Nixon and members of the HUAC visit Chambers' farm and retrieve the film from the pumpkin. HUAC sends the film to Eastman Kodak Company to determine the date of manufacture. Initial test results indicate that the film was manufactured in 1945 which would indicate that Chambers was a liar. Subsequently, however, Kodak reports the initial report was wrong, and that the film was made in 1938, consistent with Chambers's story. Hiss is indicted for perjury. He is not charged with espionage since the statute of limitations has run out. Although the documents were found elsewhere, they become popularly known as "The Pumpkin Papers" because of Chambers' hiding place for the film.
July 1949 - Alger Hiss' first trial is deadlocked. At his second trial the following year, Hiss is convicted of two counts of perjury and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
January 1953 - Richard M. Nixon becomes Vice President of the United States.
November 1954 - Alger Hiss is released from federal prison.
March 1966 - The Freedom of Information Act is passed. Alger Hiss requests documents that pertain to his case and eventually receives 40,000 pages of files from the FBI, Justice Department, State Department and CIA.
January 1968 - Richard M. Nixon becomes 37th President of the United States. He will resign 6 years later to avoid impeachment because of his actions in the Watergate scandal.
October 1999 - Grand jury testimony from the Hiss case is unsealed by federal judge Peter K. Leasure. The testimony indicates Chambers' unreliability as a witness, and misleading testimony by Richard M. Nixon. This ruling established for the first time the principle that some cases are of such overwhelming historic importance that the public's right to know is stronger than the need for grand jury secrecy.
Was Alger Hiss a spy, or not? Opinions vary, and I don't know. He maintained his innocence for the rest of his life, but some believe that he may have been a Soviet agent and enjoyed duping his defenders. Others, including President Ronald Reagan believed Whittaker Chambers' version of the story. On March 26, 1984, Chambers (who died in 1961) posthumously received from President Reagan the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.