Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1904, his father committed suicide when he was three years old.
Attended the prestigious Johns Hopkins University from which he graduated in 1926. Moved on to Harvard University Law School and after graduation in 1929 served as a law clerk for the esteemed United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and then practiced law in New York and Massachusetts. In 1929 married Priscilla Fansler Hobson. Moved to Washington, D.C. in 1933 where he worked for the Roosevelt administration in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration until 1935. Next moved to the Department of Justice until 1936 and then to the State Department in 1936. Served as Secretary to the Nye Commission on Munitions as well as Assistant General Counsel to the Solicitor General of the United States.
At the State Department, was a very important figure, traveling with President Franklin Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference where Roosevelt met to discuss allied strategies for World War II. Served as a top aide to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
Served as the Secretary General for the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in which the United Nations was established. In 1946 was named President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and served in that capacity until 1948.
In 1948, Whitaker Chambers, the Senior Editor for Time Magazine and a former member of the Communist Party went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and testified that Hiss was a Communist and had passed classified State Department documents to Soviet agents.
Hiss denied the charges and offered to testify before the committee. In his testimony, he vehemently denied that he a Communist and stated that he had never even met Whitaker Chambers. Chambers responded by supplying detailed recollections of Hiss and his family with an uncanny accuracy. Hiss corroborated many of these recollections and explained that he may have known Chambers years earlier under a different name and in a different appearance. The highly regarded Hiss was now being viewed with some suspicion.
Chambers made an appearance on the American political television show “Meet the Press.” When asked about Hiss, Chambers repeated the statement he had made before the committee. Hiss immediately sued Chambers for slander. Chambers continued to provide evidence against Hiss, by providing photographs of documents that appeared to be re-typed copies of State Department documents which also included some notes in Hiss’ handwriting.
Chambers further produced undeveloped film which he had hidden in a hollowed out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. The film contained photographs of more classified State Department documents which were referred to thereafter as the “Pumpkin Papers.” The Justice Department was also working with information provided by a Soviet defector named Igor Gouzenko in 1945. Gouzenko had claimed that an assistant to the Secretary of State was a Soviet spy. The FBI had narrowed its search down to Hiss but did not have enough evidence to confront Hiss. The FBI also was able to find the typewriter that was alleged to have been used to retype the classified documents.
Hiss was indicted for committing perjury. The trial ended in a hung jury but the second trial in on January 21, 1950 with Hiss being found guilty of perjury (note, Hiss was never found guilty of espionage).
He was sentenced to five years in prison and after his subsequent appeal and request for a new trial were denied he spent four and a half years in the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
The case became a cause celebre, debated across political lines with conservatives believing that Hiss was indeed guilty while liberals felt he was set up with circumstantial and shoddy evidence. Hiss maintained his innocence and spent the rest of his life trying to prove it. In 1996, however, the Venona messages were released, one of which described an assistant to the Secretary of State in 1945 who attended the Yalta Conference but was actually a Soviet spy. Sources at the National Security Agency have stated that this could refer only to Hiss. Hiss died in 1996.