Donald Hiss, the son of a businessman, Charles Hiss, was born in Baltimore on 15th December, 1906. He had two sisters and two brothers: Anna (1893), Mary Anne (1895), Bosley (1900) and Alger (1904). Soon after he was born his father committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor.
Donald and Alger were not told about the real reasons his father had died. Alger Hiss later wrote in Recollections of a Life (1988): "My father had been an executive of a large wholesale dry-goods firm, a man overwhelmed by financial and family worries. Suicide was a blow that was shameful as well as tragic for any family in those years, and mine reacted to the shame by silence. I did not know that my father had taken his own life until I was about ten years old and I overheard the remark of a neighbor sitting on her front steps talking with another neighbor." (1)
Donald Hiss graduated from John Hopkins University and Harvard Law School. Donald became legal secretary to Oliver Wendell Holmes. (2) He was also a close friend of Felix Frankfurter and as Alger Hiss pointed out: "Donald Hiss maintained constant warm relations with Frankfurter and was the executor of his estate." (3) A supporter of the New Deal he became assistant to Frances Perkins at the Labor Department. (4)
Harold Ware, a consultant to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), established a "discussion group" that included Donald Hiss, Alger Hiss, Nathaniel Weyl, John Abt, Laurence Duggan, Harry Dexter White, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Charles Kramer, Julian Wadleigh, Hope Hale Davis, Henry H. Collins, Lee Pressman, Charles Kramer and Victor Perlo. Ware was working very close with Joszef Peter, the "head of the underground section of the American Communist Party." It was claimed that Peter's design for the group of government agencies, to "influence policy at several levels" as their careers progressed". Weyl later recalled that every member of the Ware Group was also a member of the CPUSA: "No outsider or fellow traveller was ever admitted... I found the secrecy uncomfortable and disquieting." (5)
Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the Ware Group: "The Washington apparatus to which I was attached led its own secret existence. But through me, and through others, it maintained direct and helpful connections with two underground apparatuses of the American Communist Party in Washington. One of these was the so-called Ware group, which takes its name from Harold Ware, the American Communist who was active in organizing it. In addition to the four members of this group (including himself) whom Lee Pressman has named under oath, there must have been some sixty or seventy others, though Pressman did not necessarily know them all; neither did I. All were dues-paying members of the Communist Party. Nearly all were employed in the United States Government, some in rather high positions, notably in the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, the National Labor Relations Board, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Railroad Retirement Board, the National Research Project - and others." (6)
Most of the group became Soviet spies. However, according to Chambers, Donald Hiss, unlike his brother, Alger Hiss, he claimed that he never passed secret information. Colonel Boris Bykov asked Alger to persuade his brother to provide secret government documents but he refused. Christina Shelton, the author of Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) argues that Alger did not want his younger brother to become a spy: "Apparently Alger wanted to protect his brother in some way, or perhaps he really thought he was not ready for the risky work of espionage. There was also some concern with Donald's wife, who was not a Communist, could cause a problem. In any event, Chambers said he never received any stolen classified material from Donald Hiss." (7)
Hiss married the former Catherine Jones and they had three children, Bosley, Cynthia, and Joanna. In 1938 he went to work in the State Department. During the Second World War he worked for Dean Acheson. In 1945, Donald resigned from the State Department for health reasons. However, it is possible that the reason he left was because he had been interviewed by the FBI because of the accusations made by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley.
A senior Soviet spy, Anatoly Gorsky, authored an internal document that listed 43 Soviet sources likely to be compromised by Bentley's defection. This included the names of Donald Hiss (code-name Junior), Alger Hiss (Leonard), Harry Dexter White (Richard), Joszef Peter (Storm) Henry H. Collins (105th), Julian Wadleigh (104th), Harold Glasser (Ruble), Noel Field (Ernst), Abraham George Silverman (Aileron) and Lee Pressman (Vig). (8)
On 3rd August, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He testified that he had been "a member of the Communist Party and a paid functionary of that party" but left after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. He explained how the Ware Group's "original purpose" was "not primarily espionage," but "the Communist infiltration of the American government." Chambers claimed his network of spies and secret communists included Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, Abraham George Silverman, John Abt, Lee Pressman, Charles Kramer, Nathan Witt, Henry H. Collins and Donald Hiss. Silverman, Kramer, Collins, Abt, Pressman and Witt all used the Fifth Amendment defence and refused to answer any questions put by the HUAC. (9)
However, Donald Hiss was willing deny that he was a secret member of the Communist Party of the United States. In a statement, which he read to the HUAC, on 13th August, he said "I flatly deny every statement made by Mr. Chambers with respect to me. I am not, and never have been, a member of the Communist Party or of any formal or informal organizations affiliated with, or fronting in any manner whatsoever for, the Communist Party. In fact, the only organizations and clubs to which I have belonged are the local Y.M.C.A., the Miles River Yacht Club of Maryland, the old Washington Racquet Club, the Harvard Law School Association, the American Society of International Law, and college fraternities and athletic clubs." He then went on to say that "I have no recollection of ever having met any person by the name of D. Whittaker Chambers, nor do I recognize his photograph which I have seen in the public press. I am not and never have been in sympathy with the principles of the Communist Party." (10)
However, this testimony was to cause Alger Hiss problems as three days later he admitted to the HUAC that he had known Whittaker Chambers. As Chambers pointed out: "Donald Hiss's forthrightness had a powerful impact on the public. But almost at once, that forthrightness was to prove a handicap to Alger Hiss. Donald Hiss had said flatly under oath that he had never known me under any name. Hence it followed that, though, from 1935 to 1938, the Hiss brothers had lived not far from one another in Washington, and saw each other frequently, Donald Hiss had never known a man by the name of George Crosley, and was unable to bear out his brother's testimony in any way at any time upon that interesting character, who, it must be inferred, had never even been mentioned between them. For it was as George Crosley that Alger Hiss, in his first big change of tactic, would cautiously, very cautiously, begin to recognize me three days later." (11)
Donald Hiss left his post in the government and joined the prestigious law firm of Covington, Burling, Rublee, Acheson, & Shorb in Washington, D.C., until his retirement in 1976. He also was a part-time professor of international law at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. (12)
Donald Hiss died on 18th May, 1989.
Donald was Minnie's third son and youngest child. Two years older than Donald, Alger was closest to this sibling and apparently had a great deal of influence over him. Donald Hiss followed a career track that closely paralleled Alger's: Johns Hopkins and Alpha Delta Phi, Harvard Law School, legal secretary to Oliver Wendell Holmes, government service in the New Deal, membership in the Ware Group, and a State Department position. However, Donald did not make law review at Harvard, as Alger had, and this "brooded on his mind all his life." Donald worked as an attorney at the Department of the Interior, then the Department of Labor. In 1938 he went to work in the State Department until the end of World War II, during which time he was an assistant to Dean Acheson. In 1945, Donald resigned from the State Department for health reasons, he said. He joined the prestigious law firm of Covington, Burling, Rublee, Acheson, & Shorb in Washington, D.C., until his retirement in 1976. He also was a part-time professor of international law at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Donald married the former Catherine Jones and they had three children, Bosley, Cynthia, and Joanna.
(1) Alger Hiss Recollections of a Life (1988) page 2
(2) Christina Shelton, Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) page 20
(3) Alger Hiss Recollections of a Life (1988) page 16
(4) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) 469
(5) Nathaniel Weyl, interview with US News & World Report (9th January, 1953)
(6) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 31
(7) Christina Shelton, Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) page 78
(8) Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (2010) page 29
(9) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) page 246
(10) Donald Hiss, statement read to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (13th August, 1948)
(11) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 576-577
(12) Christina Shelton, Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) page 78