Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Republican Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948 (l to r): Representative Richard B. Vail of Illinois, Chairman John Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, Representative John McDowell of Pennsylvania, Robert Stripling (chief counsel), and Representative Richard M. Nixon of California.
On this date, former State Department official Alger Hiss, and Whittaker Chambers, a former communist spy and magazine editor, faced each other in a public hearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). The Cannon Caucus Room
, located in the Cannon House Office Building
, became center stage for the media spectacle involving the House’s most infamous committee. Chambers had accused Hiss of being an undercover agent for the Kremlin. Hiss vehemently denied the charges. Referring to the disputed statements between the two men, Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas
of New Jersey began the proceedings, informing both witnesses that, “certainly one of you will be tried for perjury.” After more than six hours of testimony, the day of questioning ended inconclusively. In an open letter dated August 24, 1948, Hiss claimed that the committee needed to end its “verdict-first-and-testimony later tactics.” After the hearings, many Republicans asserted that the investigation demonstrated that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were soft on communism; Democrats claimed it was a “smear” campaign. Committee investigators subsequently turned up additional evidence against Hiss, and a federal grand jury indicted him on two counts of perjury. In 1950, a trial jury convicted Hiss and he was sentenced to five years in prison. Hiss maintained his innocence, a claim that stirred controversy among historians for decades afterward. In the 1990s, relying on Soviet archives and records from the Venona project - a secret U.S. program that decrypted Soviet intelligence messages - some scholars argued that Hiss had indeed been a spy on the Kremlin’s payroll.