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Twentieth–Century American Politics and Diplomacy
Papers of Alger Hiss
Part 2: Alger Hiss Papers from the Tamiment Library Collections
Primary Source Microfilm
An imprint of Thomson Gale
Papers of Alger Hiss
Part 2: Alger Hiss Papers from the Tamiment Library Collections
Filmed from the holdings of the
Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University
Primary Source Microfilm
An imprint of Thomson Gale
Primary Source Microfilm,
An Imprint of Thomson Gale
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Historical/Biographical Note by Michael Nash……………………………………………………. vii
Scope Content Note……………………………………………………………………………….. xii
Foreword by Tony Hiss………………………………………………………………………… xv
Introduction to the Collection…………………………………………………………………… xviii
Editorial Note…..…………………………………..…………………………………………… xxvi
Reel Index…..…………………………………………………………………………………... xxvii
Papers of Alger Hiss, Part 2: Alger Hiss Papers from the Tamiment Library Collections…….……. 1
The microfilmed materials include selections from four archival collections held by the Tamiment Library, New York University: The Hiss Family Papers were donated to the Tamiment Library by Tony Hiss in 2004. The William A. Reuben Papers were donated to the Tamiment Library by Mr. Reuben in 2002. The Agnese Nelms Haury Papers were donated to the Tamiment Library by Mrs. Haury in 2005. The John Lowenthal Papers were donated to the Tamiment Library by Mr. Lowenthal in 2003.
Permission to publish materials from these collections must be obtained in writing from:
The Reference Librarian
Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Archives
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012
Phone: (212) 998-2630 Fax: (212) 995-4225
HISTORICAL/ BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. When he was almost two and a half years old, his father committed suicide and his mother was left a widow with five children. Hiss’s father had been an executive for a wholesale dry-goods firm who had been overwhelmed by financial and personal difficulties, and the family had modest financial resources. Alger’s paternal aunt played a very important role in his early life after she moved in with the family shortly after her brother’s death. Along with Alger’s mother she created a conventional middle-class household for the five children that emphasized religion, education, music lessons and art. Alger was educated at Baltimore City College and Johns Hopkins University. He then went on to Harvard Law School where he became a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, who was at the time the most prominent member of the law school faculty. In the 1910s and 1920s Frankfurter, who was later to become a Supreme Court justice, was identified with progressive causes, including the campaign to free Sacco and Vanzetti. After Hiss graduated in 1929, Frankfurter recommended him to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who took him on as his secretary. While in Washington, Hiss married Priscilla Fansler Hobson, whom he had first met on a student trip to Europe in 1924.
In May 1933, soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had begun, Alger Hiss started his career in government service. He served first as an attorney for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the agency responsible for solving the farm crisis of overproduction that many economists believed was a major cause of the Great Depression. The AAA came under the portfolio of Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, who was one of the most reform-minded and charismatic members of Roosevelt’s cabinet. Jerome Frank, working under Wallace as the AAA’s general counsel, brought into the agency a group of young lawyers, including John Abt, Lee Pressman, and Nathan Witt, political and labor activists who were determined to reshape American economic policy along more egalitarian lines. After Hiss had worked at the AAA for a little more than a year, the Senate Committee to Investigate the Munitions Industry invited him to become chief counsel. This was a highly visible position – the so-called “Merchants of Death” hearings were beginning. Chaired by Russell Nye, a classic mid-western isolationist, the Munitions Committee was charged with investigating World War I profiteering by military contractors. These hearings captivated the nation as they painted the munitions makers, most notably the company E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, as the villains of World War I. The Nye Committee hearings took place at a time when America and much of the world was reacting against the carnage of the First World War and pacifism was becoming increasingly prevalent across the ideological spectrum. Alger Hiss appeared to be conflicted in this area as the hearings progressed. On the one hand, he clearly abhorred the wartime profiteering that the committee was uncovering and was appalled by the human cost of the First World War; on the other hand, he believed that Senator Nye’s increasing focus on isolationism tended to encourage “a passive attitude on our part towards Hitlerism.” 1 He, therefore, resigned from the committee in the fall of 1935. The Nye committee hearings made national headlines, which made Alger Hiss a public figure, and several of the increasingly influential armament manufacturers accused him of being partisan in his investigation.
After leaving the Nye Committee, Hiss went to work for the Justice Department, in the Solicitor General’s office, where he helped defend the New Deal against the rising tide of conservative opposition that was challenging the constitutionality of FDR’s reform agenda. In 1936, Hiss began working in the State Department (his younger brother, Donald, also a former Holmes secretary, joined him there in 1938). At State, Alger first became assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, and then, as World War II was breaking out, assistant to Stanley K. Hornbeck, an expert on Far Eastern Policy. Working with Hornbeck, his primary responsibility was to bolster China, then headed by the Chiang Kai-shek regime, in its struggle against Japanese domination and work with the American agencies that were providing economic aid. In this position he found himself performing a difficult balancing act, trying to bolster the increasingly corrupt Nationalist government while at the same time encouraging the resistance movement to the Japanese that was in large measure led by the Communist Chinese under Mao Tse-tung. In 1944, as World War II was winding down, Hiss became Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs, a position that put him at the center of the postwar planning process. In this capacity, he was named executive secretary of the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference that finalized plans for the organization of the United Nations.
In 1945, Hiss was appointed to the United States delegation to the wartime Yalta conference, where the “Big Three” leaders – Roosevelt, Stalin, and Winston Churchill –
met to coordinate strategy to defeat Nazi Germany, draw the map for postwar Europe, and plan for the United Nations. When Stalin requested a total of 16 General Assembly votes for the Soviet Republics, rather than a single vote for the USSR as a whole, Hiss joined the opposition and helped hammer out a compromise that gave the USSR only two additional representatives. Hiss went on to become the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on International Organization that was convened in San Francisco in April 1945. In 1947, Hiss left government service and became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in New York, where he continued to work on post-war planning and international organization.
Hiss’s name was thrust into the headlines in August 1948, when Time magazine special projects editor Whittaker Chambers, a self-confessed former underground Communist Party operative, charged him with being a secret Communist. Alger Hiss voluntarily appeared before the House-Committee on Un-American Activities to deny Chambers’ accusation. At first the majority of the Committee seemed to be reluctant to pursue the case, but freshman Congressman Richard M. Nixon, who was being covertly fed confidential FBI information by the Roman Catholic Church’s “Communist hunter,” Father John Francis Cronin, pressed the committee to investigate. Initially, Hiss denied that he had ever known anyone named Whittaker Chambers, but when asked to identify him from a photograph he said that his face “might look familiar” and requested to see him in person. At a subsequent hearing, Hiss identified him as “George Crosley,” a freelance writer to whom he had sublet an empty apartment in the mid-1930s. Hiss instituted a libel lawsuit against Chambers. In his defense, Chambers in November 1948 presented the so-called “Baltimore documents,” typed summaries and copies of a series of government records that he alleged Hiss had given him in the 1930s (after Priscilla Hiss had retyped them) to pass on to the Soviet Union. Chambers had previously denied that he and Hiss were involved in espionage, both when testifying before Congress and to a Grand Jury in October 1948. Chambers’ new testimony subjected him to the charge of perjury. But after both men testified before the Grand Jury in December 1948, only Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury, after denying Chambers’ espionage charges under oath. (He could not be charged with espionage directly, since the statute of limitations on that charge had run out.) Hiss went to trial twice. The first ended in a hung jury on July 7, 1949. The two trials revolved around both the “Baltimore documents” and the so-called “Pumpkin Papers,” microfilmed copies of government documents that Chambers claimed Hiss had given him for transmission to a Soviet spy network. (The film had briefly been hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on Chambers’ Maryland farm.) On January 21, 1950, Alger Hiss was convicted in a second perjury trial. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
The Hiss case continues to be problematic and controversial more than a half century after the second trial. The trial record, with its many ambiguities, has been used by the Left and the Right as a prism for contested and conflicting interpretations of the Cold War and the McCarthy Period. The one thing that both sides agree on is that the Hiss case was a major watershed for post-war America, one of the key events that turned the country away from New Deal reform and towards the worldwide crusade against Communism, with all its consequences for United States foreign and domestic policy, civil liberties and civil rights. Debate about the Hiss case continues, in part because all sides of the political spectrum have interpreted it in light of their ideologies and world views, since there has never been any definitive confirmation of Chambers’ allegations that Hiss gave him information to pass on to the Soviet Union. So far, neither the archives of the former Soviet Union, nor the so-called Venona dycrypts (the U.S. Army’s wartime Signals Intelligence Service program to examine Soviet diplomatic information) have produced any records – with the possible exception of one somewhat puzzling Venona document referring to a Soviet undercover agent named “ALES” that some scholars interpret as a codename for Alger Hiss – that unambiguously link Hiss to Soviet espionage.
Alger Hiss served 44 months at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and lost his license to practice law. In prison, he was assigned to work as a clerk in the storeroom, which required some physical labor and placed him under constant supervision. He often spent his spare time providing informal legal advice to fellow prisoners while they were working on appeals. Hiss was allowed to write three letters per week to designated correspondents that included his wife, Priscilla, his son, Tony, and his mother, Mary L. (Minnie) Hiss.
After Alger Hiss was released, on November 28, 1954, he had considerable difficulty finding a job. He found that college and secondary school administrators were afraid to offer him teaching positions. The New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf and the London publisher John Calder gave him a combined $10,000 advance for a book that he worked on for nearly three years. Hiss’s book, published in 1957 under the title In The Court of Public Opinion, made the case for his innocence as it sought to discredit Whittaker Chambers’ charges, which he had restated in a 1952 best-selling memoir, Witness. However, Hiss’s book received mixed reviews and had only modest sales. Most reviewers saw the book as a dry and legalistic case for the defense. These critics clearly reflected the politics of the Cold War period and the then near-consensus that Alger Hiss was guilty as charged.
Hiss spent much of the rest of his life asserting his innocence and seeking evidence that would vindicate him. He and Priscilla separated in 1959, difficulties in their marriage having been exacerbated by the trials and their aftermath. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Hiss began to receive invitations to lecture about foreign policy and the Cold War on college campuses. His first lecture was at Princeton University in the spring of 1956 on the “Meaning of Geneva.” Although there was considerable controversy surrounding this event and some prominent alumni demanded that the university cancel it, Princeton stood firm and defended Hiss’s right to speak on campus. Shortly after this event, Hiss began looking for employment. At first he interviewed for positions as a free-lance journalist, but he found that no publisher would hire him. Eventually he found a job working for a small women’s hair-comb manufacturer, Feathercombs, Inc., where he was put in charge of a corporate reorganization. However, when this did not work out as planned, he resigned. Nineteen hundred and fifty-nine was a particularly difficult year for Alger Hiss. The U.S. government passed a law denying him a pension and he lived largely off unemployment insurance. He finally found work as a salesman for a stationery company, Davison-Bluth, located on lower Fifth Avenue in New York City. He held this position until he retired in 1976.
As the political tide began to change in the 1960s and a new generation began to reexamine the Cold War period and the “red scare” from the perspective of the so-called New Left, Hiss’s invitations to speak on college campuses increased dramatically. During these years he began proudly to identify himself once again with the New Deal and the liberal wing of the “Old Left.” As the Vietnam War led many Americans to raise questions about the origins of the Cold War and its anti-Communist crusade, many began to reconsider the Hiss case. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to challenge the so-called “Hiss Act” that had denied Alger Hiss and other victims of the McCarthy Period government pensions. The United States Supreme Court declared this law to be unconstitutional in 1972. Three years later, the Massachusetts Bar Association restored Hiss’s license to practice law. Around this time Hiss began working with Agnese N. Lindley (now Haury), whom he had met when she was working in the Publications Division of the Carnegie Endowment. Mrs. Lindley was in the process of setting up a foundation to support environmental, archeological and other causes and she asked Alger to join the Board of Trustees. The two worked closely together for nearly a decade.
In 1978, several years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Hiss, on the basis of a successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, formally sought exoneration and attempted to reopen his case on the basis of new evidence he had received from FBI and other government files about FBI malfeasance, deceit and cover up. However, in 1983, after seven years of litigation, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. After Priscilla Hiss’s death in 1984, Hiss married Isabel Johnson. Hiss continued to search for new evidence in his case, working primarily with John Lowenthal, a former Rutgers University law professor and old friend. He also supported the investigations of journalist William A. Reuben, who spent 40 years writing an unpublished reanalysis of the case. Alger Hiss died in 1996, in New York City, still protesting his innocence.
The Alger Hiss case was a major watershed of the early Cold War period. It was certainly one of the key events that helped create the political climate for the “red scare.” Hiss’s public career embodied the reformist vision that linked Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic agenda to an internationalist foreign policy. He sat right behind the President at the Yalta conference and thus became an obvious target for those on the Republican Right who claimed that Yalta sold out Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. For many on the Left, Alger Hiss was a prominent example of the excesses of the McCarthy Period and a symbol of the Republican campaign to discredit the New Deal. It is unlikely, however, that historians or archivists will ever come up with a “smoking gun” that will convince everyone about Hiss’s innocence or guilt. We believe that this microfilm edition of the Alger Hiss papers presents new materials that will make it possible for scholars and students for the first time to view Alger Hiss’s life and career in their full and varied contexts (both political and personal) and thus gain a better understanding of the role that he played in the politics, culture and society of inter-war, World War II, and Cold War America.
Head of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
SCOPE CONTENT NOTE
The microfilm edition, Alger Hiss Papers from Tamiment Library Collections, is a compilation of material selected from four archival collections: the Hiss Family Papers, the John Lowenthal Papers, the Agnese Nelms Haury Papers and the William A. Reuben Papers. Each series reproduced has been filmed in its entirety. Material selected for filming consists of incoming and outgoing correspondence of Alger Hiss and members of the Hiss family, interview transcripts, legal documents, and memorabilia, as well as non-Hiss correspondence and research material which sheds light on Hiss’s life and later efforts to reopen and re-examine the Hiss Case. For access to portions of the collections that were not filmed, researchers should contact Tamiment Library staff.
Section I: Hiss Family Papers, Series I: Correspondence, 1913-2004, is comprised of incoming and outgoing correspondence of and between Hiss family members (Alger, Anna, Donald, Priscilla, Isabel and Tony Hiss, Timothy Hobson and relatives of Priscilla Fansler Hiss). The series also includes laser copies of correspondence sent by Hiss to relatives while he was in prison (originals are at Harvard University). Series II: Subject Files, 1892-2003, is comprised of materials pertaining to the Hiss Case, including government reports and newspaper clippings. Some writings of Tony Hiss are also included in this series. Series III: Crimea Conference Scrapbook, February 1945. This large volume includes mimeographed bulletins and other documents pertaining to the Conference, newspaper clippings, photographs, correspondence and a poem, addressed to Hiss and his colleagues, by Dean Acheson. In some cases, because of the layering of fragile documents, only the cover pages could be filmed.
Section II: John Lowenthal Papers, Series I: Alger Hiss Research Files, 1934-2004. John Lowenthal (1925-2003) was an attorney and filmmaker. While in law school Lowenthal had a brief stint as a volunteer assistant to the defense during Alger Hiss's two perjury trials in 1949 and 1950. In the 1970s, after the release of suppressed FBI documents about the case, Lowenthal, by then a Rutgers University law professor, published an analysis of what this new evidence revealed. Several years later, Lowenthal took a leave from Rutgers to make “The Trials of Alger Hiss,” a feature-length documentary about the case. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lowenthal, on Hiss's behalf, asked Russian General Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov, a biographer of Stalin and at the time military advisor to President Boris Yeltsin, to search Soviet files for any evidence that Alger Hiss had been either a communist or a Russian spy. In the mid-1990s, Lowenthal was one of the first legal scholars to challenge the assertion that the National Security Agency's then just-released “Venona” cables -- coded wartime messages sent home from the United States by Soviet operatives and then intercepted and decrypted -- supported the idea that Hiss had been a Russian spy. In 2003, Lowenthal successfully defended a Hiss-related libel action brought against him in London by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent and co-author (with Allen Weinstein) of The Haunted Wood. Vassiliev sued Lowenthal's publisher, claiming that Lowenthal had called him an "unreliable author whose identification of persons who worked for the KGB is in part wrong, in part based on out-of-context information, and in part mere guesswork." On June 13, 2003, the jury threw out the case.
This series consists primarily of materials gathered for Lowenthal’s film, “The Trials of Alger Hiss” (Los Angeles, California: Direct Cinema, Ltd., 1981). The collection includes transcripts of the interviews conducted for the film with Alger Hiss, Donald Hiss and his wife, Mike, Pat and Raymond Catlett, Ramos Feehan, Gussie Feinstein, Vincent Shaw, Margaret Halsey, Harold Rosenwald, a Mr. Doyle, Edward Murtagh, Malcolm Cowley, Isaac Don Levine, Nathan Witt, Ralph de Toledano, Robert Stripling, Congressman Herbert, Vincent Reno, Sam Krieger, Harold Shapero, Ordman Clubb, John Francis Cronin, and David Zalodowski, and a campaign speech on the Hiss Case by President Richard Nixon. The collection also includes correspondence between Lowenthal and the Hiss family—Alger, Anna, Donald, Isabel, Priscilla, and Tony – as well as Alger Hiss biographical information, interviews, notices of lectures and seminars, a typescript on the New Deal, letters of support and materials relating to Hiss’s reinstatement to the Massachusetts State Bar. Materials directly pertaining to the Hiss Case include, trial notes, samples from five Woodstock typewriters, and three original letters from Whittaker Chambers to Mark van Doren. Materials pertaining to Russian Archives, Soviet Intelligence and the Venona Documents include files on Georgi Abratov, Boris Bykov, Alexander Vassiliev, Vitali Pavlov and Dmitri Volkogonov.
Section III: Agnese Nelms Haury Papers, Series I. Alger Hiss Materials, 1948-2004.
Agnese Haury knew Alger Hiss from her time as staff member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They later worked together closely on the administration of a foundation Mrs. Haury established to support environmental, archaeological and other causes. Mrs. Haury supported Hiss’s efforts to reopen his case and establish his innocence of the 1948 charges.
This series contains correspondence, biographical information on Alger Hiss and materials pertaining to the Hiss Case, including files on Professor Bruce Craig’s HUAC research, the Defense Fund for Alger Hiss, Haury’s hand-written notes, the “Pumpkin Papers,” the Venona Papers and Dmitri Volkogonov, the Woodstock typewriter and the unsealing of Federal Grand Jury records. The correspondence is primarily from Haury to Alger and Tony Hiss; also included is some correspondence with John Lowenthal, William A. Reuben, Allen Weinstein, and Bruce Craig, and attorney Victor Rabinowitz’s FOIA request for Hiss-related government files. The series contains files on the Agnese M. Lindley Foundation, Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, Cold War International History Project, National Emergency Civil Liberties Foundation, The Nation Institute, National Security Archives and Public Citizen Litigation Group.
Section IV: William A. Reuben Papers, Series I. Alger Hiss Materials, 1948-1994.
William A. Reuben (1916-2004) was a graduate of Columbia University and a World War II combat veteran. After the war Reuben began his career as an investigative journalist. Reuben's first book on the Hiss trials, The Honorable Mr. Nixon, was published in 1956. Shortly after this, Reuben began his reexamination of the Hiss case evidence, a task that would occupy him for the rest of his life. In 1974, as part of this work, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI documents. The subsequent release of these documents, and the information they provided, enabled Alger Hiss to prepare a lawsuit to overturn his conviction based on a clear pattern of misconduct by the Bureau and the prosecutor, Thomas F. Murphy. Although Hiss’s petition did not prevail, the 40,000-plus documents released to Reuben offered an invaluable look at the politics and tactics of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI in the 1940s and 1950s. Reuben also wrote a 1983 monograph examining Judge Richard Owen's denial of Hiss's petition, Footnote on an Historic Case: In Re Alger Hiss (New York, N.Y.: Nation Institute, 1983).
This series consists primarily of materials gathered for Reuben’s unpublished manuscripts on the Hiss Case. Included is correspondence with Alger, Isabel and Tony Hiss, and correspondence regarding Whittaker Chambers. The collection also includes materials pertaining to the Hiss Case.
Growing up in the middle of the Hiss case and its headlines back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I always had a firsthand sense, even in my early grade-school years, that most of the people who were fascinated by my father, Alger Hiss, and the charges against him—including many who were sure that he had never been a spy for the Soviet Union—liked or hated him without being able to get to know more than a small piece of him. They saw, it seemed to me, no more than a single dimension of the man, a quick reconstruction, the Cliff notes of a life.
This was partly because only a thin and jagged slice of him, little more than a résumé wrapped around an indictment, really—“FORMER OFFICIAL ACCUSED OF STEALING SECRET PAPERS”—was being presented in the radio and newspaper accounts of the “trials of the century,” as they were then known. It was partly because, as the two successive trials unfolded in downtown New York, he was already becoming almost an abstraction to many people—a symbol in a larger struggle that was either the Red Menace or the Smearing of the New Deal, depending on which side you were on.
Both my father and mother, although they were vocal about my father’s innocence, were private people. They had been brought up by late-Victorian parents not to wear their hearts on their sleeves, as an old expression had it, which meant you only shared your feelings with people you knew well. My father, in particular, true to his 1920s law school training, always spoke in public in “official” language—formal, carefully phrased, lawyer-ish words that were very different from the relaxed and freewheeling way he talked to family and friends.
Growing up, and ever since, I’ve often wondered if there was something I could do to change this situation and bring people face-to-face with the many-dimensional, very human man I knew for the last two-thirds of his long life. I wrote a couple of books about my father over the years, trying to supplement the growing shelf of more narrowly focused “Hiss case” books, and of course you cram as much as possible into such a book, hoping that you’ve at least included all the essentials, the way you do when you’re packing for a trip. Only this time your destination is a future generation of readers who may or may not be able to recognize the tastes and the glimpses you’ve saved for them. Meanwhile, since 1983, the official Hiss defense files have been available to scholars at the Harvard Law School Library, whose special collections are meticulously safeguarded by David Warrington.
But most of my father’s private papers remained in private hands until about a year ago. I myself was only gradually and often quite accidentally coming to understand how sizable his public records are—and how scattered they have become. A whirlwind tour one morning through the National Archives in College Park, Maryland revealed a long shelf of records relating to Alger’s ten years at the State Department. A casual conversation with a fellow parent at my son’s nursery school turned up the fact that thousands of letters stemming from Alger’s months as Secretary General of the United Nations Organizing Conference, in San Francisco, in the spring of 1945, are held by the United Nations Archives and Records Center, in Long Island City, New York, across the East River from the U.N. headquarters building. In addition, materials from his time as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace can be found at the Columbia University Library.
It wasn’t until 2003, some fifty-five years after the Hiss case became front-page news, that an opportunity finally arose to put almost everything there is about Alger Hiss in front of people in one grand assemblage. The idea came up during a conversation with Dr. Michael Nash, director of the Tamiment Library at New York University, who was then in the process of creating a scholarly research archive of primary materials for NYU’s new Cold War Study Center. It was Mike Nash, with the binocular vision gained from his background as both a historian and an archivist, who realized that the only practical way to reunite all this material in any one reading room was to publish all of it in a single, uniform, comprehensive, and scholarly series of microfilm editions. From that insight--and with the indispensable enthusiasm and cooperation of Primary Source Microfilm, an imprint of Thomson Gale—grew the project now unscrolling in front of you.
Once microfilming was under consideration, and with encouragement from Dave Warrington, Mike Nash and I began gathering family documents and other privately held papers about my father’s life at the Tamiment Library, where they now constitute one of the anchors of the Cold War Study Center. These collections include letters, photographs, and scrapbooks I had inherited as well as letters and other papers being kept by Mrs. Agnese N. Haury, of Tucson, Arizona—a close family friend for more than a half-century. Mrs. Haury first met my father when she worked for him at the Carnegie Endowment in 1947. In addition, Tamiment holds large collections of letters, interviews, and other materials gathered over many years by two now-deceased friends and champions of my father’s: John Lowenthal, a lawyer and filmmaker, and William A. Reuben, a journalist and researcher.
This microfilmed volume of the Hiss Papers draws directly on the Hiss collections now at NYU. There is a great deal of original biographical detail here about Alger Hiss and his family--information that no one has had access to before, outside the family and a close circle of friends. Along with letters from my father dating back to 1913, the Hiss family papers found here contain many letters from friends and acquaintances that reflect their impressions of Alger and their own feelings about him through the years. To mention just a few more items, there are pre-New Deal memos Alger wrote as a young corporate lawyer in the early 1930s, when he was helping defend RCA against anti-trust charges; and there’s “The Crimea Scrapbook,” compiled by U.S. Navy personnel at the Yalta Conference as a keepsake of the day-to-day experiences of the delegates, with briefing papers, photographs, menus, letters, and a poem by Dean Acheson, addressed to Alger and his colleagues.
The other collections present a similarly wide array of original material. The Lowenthal collection, for example, contains the complete transcript of a lengthy and demanding on-camera interview that John Lowenthal conducted with Alger in the 1970s that takes him back through the events of the case and his life. Amazingly, it also has three letters that Whittaker Chambers, Alger’s accuser, wrote to Mark Van Doren, the eminent literary critic and poet, in 1926.
For me, personally, the real treasure in this volume is the 445 letters my father wrote home from prison between 1951 and 1954, and the 919 letters he received during those years from my mother; from me; from my brother, Tim Hobson; from his brother, Donie Hiss; and from a few other family members and friends. I spent forty-four months eagerly awaiting those letters for when I was a boy; I almost lived for them. My father was allowed to write three handwritten, two-page letters a week. Since he was incarcerated in central Pennsylvania--then a seven-hour journey from New York City—and only allowed a minimal amount of visiting time every month, it was through the letters that we were able to maintain contact from day to day and week to week. I remember the sharp pleasure of finding them again after my mother’s death in 1984—they were her most prized possession, and she had kept them for thirty years, neatly arranged in a plain cardboard carton at the top of her living room closet in Greenwich Village.
Re-reading the letters as a grown-up called back to my mind the excitement with which history professors at college had introduced the Paston Letters to our class on fifteenth-century and Tudor England, letters that a countryside family exchanged in the midst of the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses, the earliest known record of private correspondence that has survived through the centuries. These were not pressed flowers in a book—they were living testimony by the participants themselves, history firsthand, in the making, from the inside. I hope you will find the same unfaded quality in these mid-twentieth-century letters, which include moment-by-moment accounts of attempting to understand and adjust to prison life—a bleak foreign country that needed all his attention, and where unexpected kindnesses occasionally appeared. For my benefit, he always included children’s stories he invented to keep me amused; accounts of trying to teach a young fellow prisoner to read; and descriptions of watching the moon rise from his cell window—his way of erasing separation and distance, since it was something we could both do at the same time, wherever we were.
This collection does not paint a final picture of Alger Hiss, but what it does do, for the first time, is assemble a complete palette of colors, in all their shadings, so that historians of this and future generations can now draw from an entire range of materials to construct their own fully rounded portraits and assessments of Alger Hiss’s accomplishments and shortcomings.
A remarkable documentary record, I’m so pleased to be able to share it with you. It only remains to thank Mike Nash and the exceptional archivists at the Tamiment Library, Dr. Gail Malmgreen and Evan Daniel, for their careful preparation of the papers in this volume. Olga Virakhovskaya and her talented colleagues at Thomson Gale were also enormously helpful and thoughtful publishers throughout the entire project.
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