Disgrace Under Pressure: Alger Hiss at Princeton

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.

19 Comments on "Disgrace Under Pressure: Alger Hiss at Princeton"

  1. Christian | May 14, 2009 at 12:41 pm |

    Received the following email:

    I suggest you look at the (ever-dapper) Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Secrecy Commission report. Decoded Soviet transmissions established that Hiss was guilty.

  2. Ignatz Zablowsky | May 14, 2009 at 3:10 pm |

    Much more of interest here: http://www.conservapedia.com/Alger_Hiss

  3. I would recommend the movie “The Good Shepherd” starring Matt Damon. This is total ivy style clothing and stars Damon as one of the first CIA agents of all time. He investigates these spies in the movie. It is about the creation of the CIA and contains Skull and Bones, Yale…and other ivy material

  4. Such a great post. Thank you for the reminder, the refinements of history get rusty at times.

  5. “awash in a sea of chinos”

    Great observation and great phrase. Doesn’t get much more “uniform” than that.

  6. If I am note mistaken, those first two pictures were taken in a room in Campbell Hall, Mathey College, overlooking the quad.

  7. Interesting that in the penultimate picture, the crowd is segregated based on the color of their trousers.

  8. Richard E. Press | March 12, 2019 at 12:45 pm |

    Excellent article. For the record, Alger Hiss, post-prison was a stationery salesman & dedicated 44th Street J. Press regular along with his son Tony, a writer on The New Yorker. To quote a comment made about my father, Paul Press, “If Hitler were a J. Press customer you would have liked him.” Sorry Kids, I knew Alger Hiss for many years, and yup, I liked him.

  9. Even after 60+ years, people seem reluctant to proclaim Hiss’s guilt, which is now incontrovertible. While I don’t disagree that he was a very nice man, he did attempt to sell us out to the Soviets. As Stalin is supposedly have said about him: “Ah, the most useful of useful idiots.” But a very well-dressed idiot.

  10. Vern Trotter | March 12, 2019 at 6:18 pm |

    Before Michael Bloomberg, Alger Hiss was the most famous graduate of Johns Hopkins. Well dressed, handsome, Harvard Law and law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of course he was well liked. Sitting at the table while employed in the very highest echelon of the State Department, at the conferences behind President Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, he was likely the top Soviet spy during World War 2 and during the early Cold War. He was also a vestryman at St. George’s Episcopal Church here in New York. He served as Secretary General during the formation of the United Nations. How could one not like him?

    Thanks to the Venona Program archival files, the cooperation of Boris Yeltsin, and Whittaker Chambers, a former handler of Hiss in the Communist Party and Senior Editor of Time magazine, the guilt of Hiss is now certain! Further info can be found in “Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason,” by Christina Shelton.

  11. Old School Tie | March 12, 2019 at 7:59 pm |

    The first two photographs are fantastic because they give the impression they have just been taken today, as if 1957 had been recreated and photographed this morning.

  12. Michael Bloomberg went to Tufts, not Johns Hopkins.

  13. Vern Trotter | March 12, 2019 at 9:07 pm |

    I know Michael personally. He has a BS from Johns Hopkins and an MBA from Harvard. He has given Hopkins around Two Billion dollars to date. The Bloomberg School of Public Health is in Baltimore and part of Johns Hopkins.

    Do not make any wagers. You will lose. He hails from Medford, MA. where Tufts is located. Possibly that is why you are confused.

  14. Charles Hammersmith | March 13, 2019 at 7:02 am |

    Considering who’s sharing secrets with the Russians today…

  15. MacMcConnell | March 13, 2019 at 11:25 am |

    That would be China.

  16. Charles Hammersmith | March 13, 2019 at 11:46 am |


    I was thinking of DC,not China.

  17. whiskeydent | March 13, 2019 at 11:52 am |

    @Charles Hammersmith

    Well, at least the current leak doesn’t wear Ivy. So we’ve got that going for us.

  18. MacMcConnell | March 14, 2019 at 11:24 am |

    Charles Hammersmith

    DC? Oh, that would be a private server. 😉

  19. MacMcConnell | March 14, 2019 at 11:25 am |


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