Alger Hiss, the most celebrated symbol of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold, came out of prison yesterday.
Greyer and a little weightier at 50 years of age, he stood for a moment at the gates of the Federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and waved back at the barred windows. It was nine in the morning and the mist was still puffing along the Pennsylvania valleys. But the sun was out and so was a bristling mob of seventy-odd newsmen and press and newsreel photographers. They converged on the car of his two lawyers as he walked briskly towards it on the arm of his wife, with his thirteen-year-old son bobbing along behind. Hiss had expected this reception and welcomed it. He had no notes. He put on a confident smile and began, where he left off at his sentencing in January, 1950, to declare again his innocence. He said:
“This is not a press conference, though it looks very much like one. I am very glad to use this chance, the first I have had in nearly four years, to reassert my complete innocence of the charges that were brought against me by Whittaker Chambers and to answer the inventions that have been circulated about me. I have only one other thing I would like to say at this time. That is that I plan to renew my efforts to dispel the deception that has been foisted upon the American people. I shall renew those efforts with more enthusiasm because I am confident that the success not only will vindicate my name and relieve my family of harassment, but will assist in the allaying of the hysteria and fear of these days.”
He nodded and smiled and greeted a newspaper veteran of his trials. Then the family and the lawyers got in the car and drove east to New York, where they arrived in the late afternoon. Another bivouac of newsmen and photographers was waiting outside the modest house on East Eighth Street where the Hisses have a small apartment. He had nothing to add to his morning statement, which was already in print under flaring headlines in the afternoon papers. He paused only long enough to grin again, with his head up and say: “This is my Thanksgiving.”
Then the door closed on him and he was back again in the place from which, on a stewing August morning of 1948, he went to Washington to deny his accuser and any knowledge of his story, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
At his first trial for perjury in 1949 the jury would not agree that eleven years before he had been guilty of turning over secret State Department documents to his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, then an active worker in the Communist underground. In the second trial he was found guilty, not of the act (which the Statute of Limitations put beyond the reach of prosecution), but of denying it to a grand jury in December, 1948. Good behaviour has saved Hiss sixteen months of his five-year sentence but until the full sentence is technically served he must report periodically to a probation officer in New York. He cannot leave New York without permission. He has been debarred as a lawyer from both the Federal and state courts. He may never vote, work for the Government, serve on a jury or receive a passport for travel abroad. To all intents he is otherwise a free man.
The conviction of Hiss galvanised the country into a bitter realisation of the native, and even well-bred, American types who might be dedicated to betrayal from within. It toughened the security watch in every Government department. It gave an obscure senator from Wisconsin the brilliant impulse to use vigilance as a political weapon merely. It sharpened the dozing suspicions of the Department of Justice, so that in the next four years, more than a hundred of the Communist party leaders in the United States had come to trial or gone to gaol, under the revived Smith Act of 1948, for advocating the overthrow of the American Government. It compelled the Truman Administration to rake the Executive branch for security risks, fire 560 persons, and allow nearly another seven thousand to resign. It added derogatory notes to the security files of 1,743 employees and applicants in the Eisenhower regime. It provoked the McCarran Act and eight new anti-subversive laws. It gave to future historians the right to call the period of Hiss’s imprisonment the Age of Hiss.
[This is an edited extract. Click here to read the full version of this article]