Oct. 12, 1999
Grand Jury Records from Historic Alger Hiss Espionage Case Reveal New Details About Nixon’s Role in Investigation
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fifty-year-old grand jury records relating to the historic Alger Hiss espionage case contain new revelations about the extraordinary role that then-Congressman Richard M. Nixon played in the indictment of Hiss on perjury charges. The release promises to add fresh fuel to the controversy that has swirled for decades around this Cold War case, which was a triggering event for the communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era.
The Public Citizen Litigation Group won release of 4,250 pages of the Hiss grand jury records in a case filed in 1998, marking the first time that grand jury records have been released to the public on the principle basis of their historical importance. The records, containing testimony from more than 80 witnesses, were released to Public Citizen last week and have been reviewed by four prominent Cold War historians, who interpreted their contents at a news conference Tuesday.
Alger Hiss, accused of being involved in a Soviet underground “apparatus” while serving in the State Department during the 1930s, was indicted on two counts of perjury in 1948. He was convicted and served four years in prison. But questions have persisted about Hiss’ guilt, possible grand jury improprieties and political interference with the legal process by Nixon.
“The allegations against Hiss convinced many Americans that the threat of Soviet subversion was real and helped catapult the career of a then-obscure, junior congressman from California — Richard Nixon,” said David Vladeck, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, who filed the lawsuit leading to release of the records.
The records, which were locked away for 50 years until last week, make clear that Nixon’s testimony was a dramatic and defining moment in the grand jury investigation. For example, Nixon, who was participating in a separate investigation of alleged espionage as part of his role on the House Un-American Activities Committee, was subpoenaed by the grand jury and brought the infamous “Pumpkin Papers” with him to New York but initially refused to relinquish them.
“His clever, nuanced and at times spellbinding speech before the grand jurors was brilliant,” said historian Bruce Craig. “Undoubtedly, it will be remembered as the most important and successful speech of his career prior to his famed ‘Checkers’ speech.
“With this release of documents, finally, the American people can read his words, which played such a key role in setting into motion the excesses of the McCarthy era,” Craig said.
The transcripts also reveal that Whittaker Chambers, Hiss’ main accuser, misidentified a witness as a key figure code-named “Felix” — a photographer of the State Department papers that were later hidden inside a pumpkin — and then Chambers abruptly reversed his identification.
“Clearly there is a great deal of material here that, had it been known, would have been a great help to the defense,” said Tony Hiss, the son of Alger and Priscilla Hiss. “There are points that raise new questions about Whittaker Chambers’ veracity and the intervention by Congressman Nixon, who seems clearly to have presented misleading information to the grand jury. As this material is digested over the coming months and years, there will be a great deal here to energize the next generation of scholars.”
Hiss added that his family is “tremendously pleased” about the release of the documents. “I know my dad would have been extraordinarily proud to have served as a test case that is extending the reach of the Constitution and establishing the principle that there are cases of such historic importance that the public has a need to know that outweighs the traditional importance of grand jury secrecy.”
The four historians who reviewed the documents came away with varying interpretations but none believed the documents ultimately prove or disprove the guilt of Hiss, who continued to profess his innocence until his death in 1996.
The records provide rich new details about the Hiss case and an intriguing glimpse into the machinations of Cold War grand juries and investigators who targeted communists. They also provide fresh evidence of the fracture between the Justice Department and congressional investigators.
“The released grand jury records raise a series of disturbing questions about the fairness and integrity of the grand jury process, including notably the ‘laundering’ of FBI wiretap information; about the covert relationship between the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and about the FBI’s counter-intelligence failures,” said Athan G. Theoharis, author and history professor at Marquette University.
The lengthy investigation of Hiss was one of the Cold War’s defining moments, said Anna Kasten Nelson, author and history professor at American University.
“The story is well known,” Nelson said. “These transcripts provide the necessary context of the wider investigation and enrich the story by providing new details. These grand jury documents, for example, bear striking resemblance to the irresponsible hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. On these official, legal transcripts are also prosecutors who rarely differentiate between real Soviet spies, communists, fellow travelers and the New Deal liberals who knew them.”
Sam Tanenhaus, author of a prize-winning biography of Chambers, said, “The Hiss case has been enveloped in mystery now for half a century because, in large part, of the inaccessibility of documents. These documents open up maybe the last remaining door to the case: Exactly what went on in the grand jury — how did we get from congressional testimony to an indictment of Alger Hiss?”
Public Citizen is a non-profit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader. Public Citizen has worked extensively to open government records and to preserve historically significant records. In April 1996, after more than 15 years of litigation, work by Public Citizen Litigation Group culminated in an agreement to release thousands of hours of White House audio tapes that revealed important new insights into the Nixon presidency.