Alger Hiss died 15 years ago today at the age of 92. The question of whether Hiss spied for the Soviet Union is beyond the purview of Dead Presidents Daily -- for that, readers can look to the long shelf of books on the subject, sprawling web sites, countless articles, documentaries and other materials.
There is no dispute that the case allowed a previously obscure California Congressman, Richard Nixon, to make a name for himself by nailing Hiss -- if not for espionage, at least in the court of public opinion in the late 1940s. (Hiss ultimately went to prison for lying to Congress, not spying.)
As American Experience put it: "Hiss denied that he had ever met Chambers [a Communist who accused Hiss of being a spy]. Nixon, however, suspected otherwise. He dissuaded other members [of the House Committee on Un-American Activities] from dropping the case. Then, by questioning Chambers about Hiss's personal life, he determined that the two men must have met before.
"On August 17, 1948, Nixon brought Hiss to the witness stand. Under a stinging cross-examination, Hiss admitted that he had known Chambers, albeit under the name George Crosely. Hiss continued to deny being a spy. In November, Chambers suddenly produced copies of State Department documents typed on Hiss' typewriter. Hiss was indicted for perjury and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. Nixon, who shared the media limelight with Chambers, became an instant celebrity..."