Debevoise & Plimpton Records on Alger Hiss
Language of Materials
The Debevoise & Plimpton Records on Alger Hiss (dated 1938-1980) contain files from the legal firm's representation of Alger Hiss in his 1949 perjury trials and his 1979 coram nobis petition to overturn his conviction. Alger Hiss was a State Department official, who in 1948 was accused by ex-communist Whittaker Chambers of transmitting government secrets to the Soviet Union. The collection consists of materials from Hiss's 1949 trials and includes attorney correspondence, interviews with character witnesses, trial transcripts, notes, copies of evidence, and legal documents filed during the trials. Materials related to the coram nobis petition include drafts, attorney notes, and research on related trials.
Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was a State Department official who served in the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was involved in the establishment of the United Nations. In 1948 Hiss was named as a communist by Whittaker Chambers in a hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Hiss was called before HUAC to testify and later filed a defamation lawsuit against Chambers. During the trial Chambers produced evidence that Hiss and his wife Priscilla had been involved in espionage, and had transmitted government documents to Chambers in 1938. In December 1948, Hiss testified before a grand jury in the Southern District of New York that neither he nor his wife had given government documents to Chambers and that he had not spoken to Chambers since 1937. Following his statements, the grand jury indicted Hiss on charges of perjury in United States vs. Alger Hiss. Alger Hiss was represented by the New York City-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. His first perjury trial began in May 1949 and ended in a mistrial. The second trial began in November 1949 and ended in a conviction. Hiss served three years in federal prison. After his release in 1953, Hiss maintained his innocence and continually fought to overturn his conviction. In 1975 Hiss, with William Ruben, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to gain access to FBI documents related to the trials. Documents they obtained through the FOIA lawsuit formed the basis of a petition for a writ of coram nobis that Hiss and his attorneys at Debevoise & Plimpton filed in 1978. The petition sought to overturn Hiss's conviction claiming that the FBI documents withheld evidence from the defense, but it was rejected in 1982.
This collection has been divided into two series by legal case, Series I: Coram Nobis 99900-000 and Series II: Hiss Personal 2395. Series II: Hiss Personal 2395 has been further divided into sub-series based on document type and topic. Files in each sub-series are grouped topically to reflect original groupings established by the creators. Correspondence in sub-series II.B and bound trial transcripts in sub-series II.E are arranged chronologically. The series and sub-series arrangement of the records is as follows:
Series I: Coram Nobis 99900-000, Series II: Hiss Personal 2395, Sub-series II.A: Trial Documents and Notes, Sub-series II.B: Correspondence, Sub-series II.C: Interviews, Sub-series II.D: Government Documents, and Sub-series II.E: Trial Transcripts.
Scope and Contents
The Debevoise & Plimpton Records on Alger Hiss (dated 1938-1980) contain materials from the Debevoise & Plimpton legal firm's representation of Alger Hiss in his 1949 perjury trials and his 1978 petition for a writ of coram nobis. Records related to Hiss's 1949 trials include documents such as memoranda, motions, briefs, and testimony, which are accompanied by attorney notes and analysis. They also include attorney correspondence (dated 1948-1979), character witness interviews, copies of government documents, and newspaper clippings. Documents related to his 1979 coram nobis petition comprise drafts of the petition, notes and files of attorney Robert von Mehren, scholarly articles, and research files. The collection documents not only Hiss's trials and the strategies employed in his defense, but also anti-communist sentiment and anxiety about political dissent during the Cold War.
Conditions Governing Access
Materials are open without restrictions.
Conditions Governing Use
Copyright (or related rights to publicity and privacy) for materials in this collection, created by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, was not transferred to New York University. Permission to use materials must be secured from the copyright holder.
Identification of item, date; Debevoise & Plimpton Records on Alger Hiss; TAM 674; box number; folder number; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Donated by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and Tony Hiss in 2014. The accession number associated with this collection is 2015.044.
Duplicate copies of bound trial transcripts have been removed from the collection.
About this Guide
The collection was arranged into series based on the original order of the records as maintained by Debevoise & Plimpton staff. Materials in this collection were originally housed in large legal accordion files identifying case number, topic, and/or document type. Materials have been removed from files but have been maintained in the groupings established by the creators. Many of the original folder titles have been retained, while others have been updated by the archivist for uniformity. Duplicate copies of bound trial transcripts were removed from the collection.