In 1954, after serving 44 months of a 10-year sentence, convicted perjurer and alleged Communist spy Alger Hiss set out to exonerate himself.
Accusations against Hiss first surfaced in 1948, when Whittaker Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that Hiss had acted as a courier for an underground Communist network operating in Washington while working as director of the Office of Special Political Affairs for the State Department.
When Chambers reiterated his accusations publicly, Hiss sued him for slander. Chambers then accused Hiss of the more serious crime of espionage, alleging that he stole State Department documents with the intent to pass them on to Soviet agents.
Hiss’ first trial ended with a hung jury. Because the statute of limitations governing espionage had expired, the jury was unable to indict him for spying, and instead he was indicted on two counts of perjury. He was found guilty of both counts in his second trial in January, 1950.
In 1956, penniless, disbarred from practicing law, and publicly disgraced in the court of public opinion, Hiss accepted a speaking invitation from an undergraduate debating club at Princeton. The event was unsanctioned by the university administration, and the public appearance by Hiss roused a storm of public protest.
The guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss remained a central debate in intellectual and political circles for the next 25 years. Those who believed in his guilt held him as an example of the real and systemic threat of domestic communism. Those who upheld his innocence considered him a scapegoat used to legitimize the right-wing mania of the McCarthy Era.
Hiss’ appearance at Princeton drew pensive yet well dressed undergraduates (click images for hi-res versions). The young man above demonstrates the nonchalance of grubby Jack Purcells worn with a jacket and tie. And note the saddle shoes in the top image, a distinctly 1950s element of the look that faded much faster than interest in the Hiss trial.
As Hiss arrived in a storm of controversy, he must have surely felt awash in a sea of chinos. — ZACHARY DELUCA
Hiss is pictured above leaving jail in 1954.