Alger Hiss was one of those individuals who came to symbolize such big things that it became impossible to really get at the truth about him. No-one serious now really doubts that he was a Soviet spy, and the collapse in support for his cause is even more remarkable given how many reputations were put on the line denying his guilt. Hiss was an agent for Soviet military intelligence, whose archives are yet to be opened, but the files unearthed in the Venona project referring to an agent called "ALES, LAWYER" fit Hiss too perfectly. Dossiers seen in Moscow even use his full name.
Hiss was born into a prominent Maryland family, and despite the fact his father committed suicide when he was two years old, he had a comfortable upbringing and was outwardly happy and confident - as he remained throughout his entire life. He attended Harvard Law School and went on to a Boston law practice, then he got seduced by the spirit of noblesse oblige abroad during the 1930s and became a government attorney.
The 1930s was the era of the New Deal, a radical restructuring of the relationship between American government and society. As America struggled to tackle the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration set about intervening in the economy in ways which hitherto had been considered off-limits for the federal government. This sparked a conservative backlash, and the closest thing to class war in American history. The changes wrought during the New Deal were so dramatic that liberals and conservatives were still fighting over them fifty years later, and Hiss's life became irretrievably caught up in these controversies.
Alger Hiss picked his side in this battle. Hiss started out as a lawyer working for the Department of Justice, and then worked for a Senate committee which was investigating the causes of American involvement in World War I - the committee was heavily critical of the defence industry, suggesting that its desire for profits was one of the causes of the war. Hiss also served a lawyer defending the New Deal's - and the United States' - first major law designed to regulate agriculture by limiting production and hence raising prices. The law was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, although it inspired (for better or worse) future rural regulation, in the European Union as well as the United States. To conservatives and agribusiness, the law was a symbol of federal over-reaching, and the role of Hiss would not be forgotten.
After 1936, Hiss went on to work in various diplomatic posts - not coincidentally, given that it seems he became a Soviet agent in 1935. He worked in the State Department, and then became executive director of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which drew up the initial plans for the United Nations. To American conservatives who worried about the power of the UN and accused it of softness towards Communism, it seemed only too obvious that it was a Communist agent who presided over its creation - if anything, this only made his guilt more obvious to them. Hiss then went on to attend the Yalta conference, where the U.S., UK and Soviet Union met to decide on the division of postwar Europe.
In 1948, the former Communist Whittaker Chambers denounced Hiss as a Soviet spy before the famous House Committee on Un-American Activities. It was impossible to prosecute Hiss for espionage because the alleged crimes had been committed too long ago to be prosecuted, but he was charged with perjury for lying to the grand jury. Thus, Hiss became subject to an ambiguity that allowed the controversy over his actions to continue: he was never convicted of espionage itself, but only for lying under oath. There was ample scope for people to pick their side, as it looked as if he lied to protect himself.
At this point Alger Hiss becomes less interesting for his actions, but for what he tells us about contemporary America. Where one stood on his guilt or innocence became an issue on what would later be called the "culture wars" - the endless battle between conservative and liberal in contemporary America. Myths sprung up everywhere.
On the left, he was seen as a sincere liberal who had worked during the New Deal era to get America through the Great Depression and to stand up against the forces of conservatism, who wanted to brand anyone on the left as a Communist and hound them from public life. The defence of Hiss became, for those on the left, largely synonymous with the defence of the New Deal and the left itself. That Richard Nixon got his start as a major national figure in public life by pursuing Hiss only sharpened this perception. Meanwhile, to those on the right, Hiss became a symbol of the willingness of liberals to sell their country out, of their fundamental un-American-ness. For the critics of the New Deal, it was almost too perfect to discover one of its ardent defenders had been in fact a Communist: it made criticizing the New Deal so much easier.
The Hiss case was hence much more of a cultural event in American domestic politics than it was anything else. It seems highly unlikely that Alger Hiss really altered the course of history by giving information to the Soviet Union, or that they regarded him as anything more than a - certainly well-placed - source of information. To conservatives, the supposed crimes of the left as a whole were much greater - selling out eastern Europe to Communist rule at Yalta, allowing the Chinese Communists to seize power in 1949, expanding the role of the government massively at home - but Alger Hiss, in a way, could be seen to have a role in them all. Both his detractors and his defenders suffered from a simplistic view, but it wasn't them who told secrets to the enemy - they were just dealing with the consequences.