Whittaker Chambers

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Whittaker Chambers

In 1948 TIME magazine editor Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961) testified that in the 1930s he helped organize a Communist spy ring in the U.S. government. His accusations against State Department official Alger Hiss stunned the nation.

Jay Vivian Chambers was born April 1, 1901, in Philadelphia. He took his mother's family name Whittaker when he entered Columbia University in 1920. Young Chambers loved literature and had a gift for foreign languages, but severe family crises, his increasingly radical political opinions, and his lonely and brooding personality caused him to drop out of Columbia and to drift without purpose. In 1925 Chambers joined the Communist Party and attended open party meetings in New York City. By 1929 he was an editor of the party's official newspaper The Daily Worker, and in 1931 he was named editor of the New Masses, the party's literary journal.

In 1932 Communist Party officials ordered Chambers to leave his position and to join the party's underground branch. For the next six years Chambers was a courier in the party's spy network. Chambers carried messages and stolen documents from American Communists and gave them to his Soviet superiors for them to transmit to Moscow. In April 1938 Chambers defected from the Communist underground and went into hiding with his wife and two children. A year later he found work as a writer for TIME magazine. Chambers was a senior editor at TIME in 1948 when he disclosed his secret past to a shocked American public. In August 1948 Chambers told congressmen at hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that in the 1930s he had helped to organize a small group of Communist Party members to infiltrate the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Chambers's testimony centered on a young government lawyer named Alger Hiss. A Harvard Law School graduate and former secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hiss was a junior State Department official in the 1930s. But by 1945 Hiss had become a principal adviser to the secretary of state, and he played an important role in the organization of the United Nations. In 1948 Hiss was president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Chambers testified under oath that he knew Hiss as a fellow Communist between 1934 and 1938. He spoke in detail about Hiss's habits and household and claimed that he and his wife became close friends of the Hiss family. Appearing before HUAC Hiss denied that he had ever been a Communist. With reluctance he recalled knowing Chambers under a different name in 1934 and 1935. Hiss testified that he rented his Washington apartment to Chambers for several months in 1935 and that he gave Chambers his old car, but that their casual acquaintance soon ended. Faced with conflicting testimony, HUAC could not prove that Hiss was a Communist. But its investigation and rigorous questioning by freshman Congressman Richard Nixon demonstrated Chambers's intimate knowledge of Hiss's background and disclosed serious flaws in Hiss's account of his acquaintance with Chambers.

The case took a new turn four months later on December 3, 1948, when newspapers reported Chambers's disclosure of the "pumpkin papers." The day before Chambers had taken HUAC investigators to his Maryland farm and dramatically pulled several rolls of microfilm from a hollowed-out pumpkin lying in a field. Chambers said Hiss gave him the microfilm of confidential State and Navy Department documents in early 1938. They were included in the many packages of stolen documents that Chambers said he received regularly from Hiss and other members of the Washington spy ring from 1937 until his defection. For self-protection Chambers withheld some of these materials from his Soviet superiors when he quit the underground in April 1938. Besides the microfilm (hidden in the pumpkin for just one day), the materials included four pages of Hiss's handwritten notes and 64 pages of State Department cables retyped on what experts later identified as the Hiss family typewriter. The notes and cables covered military and diplomatic events in Asia and Europe 18 months before the start of World War II.

From 1938 to 1948 Chambers hid the documents at a relative's house. But he made several attempts to expose Communist infiltration of the federal government. Chambers named Hiss and others as Communists in a 1939 interview with Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle and in two interviews with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1942 and 1945. Government authorities, however, showed little interest in Chambers's stories. Americans became worried about Communism only after the U.S.-Soviet alliance collapsed at the end of World War II. With the onset of the Cold War Chambers's accusations against Hiss suddenly became politically important.

Chambers's revelations led to Hiss's conviction and imprisonment for perjury. The first trial of Alger Hiss produced a deadlocked jury. But on January 20, 1950, a second trial jury found Hiss guilty of lying to a grand jury when he denied giving Chambers State Department documents in February and March 1938. Defense attorneys at each trial contrasted Hiss's impeccable reputation with Chambers's admitted past treason. But they were hard pressed to explain how Chambers had possessed confidential State Department documents which the defense's own experts said were typed on the Hiss family's Woodstock model typewriter. Hiss defense efforts then and since have tried to proved that somehow the documents were typewriter forgeries.

The Hiss-Chambers conflict became a major symbol in the Cold War political debates of the 1950s. Hiss's defenders such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson had their judgment and patriotism called into question. Republican critics of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations such as Richard Nixon charged that Hiss's influence in the State Department was responsible for U.S. foreign policy failures. Many intellectuals used the case to confront their own illusions about radical politics and to question the trust they once placed in the Soviet Union.

Chambers took no pleasure in Hiss's conviction. For him the case represented the tragedy of modern history. Profoundly pessimistic about the ability of Americans to understand the dangers of Communism, he retired quietly to his farm. Chambers wrote a compelling autobiography, Witness (1952). He died July 9, 1961.

Further Reading

Besides Witness (1952) Chambers's reflections and letters have been posthumously published in Cold Friday (1964) and Odyssey of a Friend (1969) edited by William F. Buckley, Jr. The best of the many studies of the Hiss-Chambers case is Allen Weinstein's Perjury (1978), which offers the most thorough and well-reasoned account. Alger Hiss presents his defense in In the Court of Public Opinion (1957). Richard Nixon's recollections appear in Six Crises (1962). Earl Latham, The Communist Controversy in Washington (1966) is a useful overview.

Additional Sources

Chambers, Whittaker, Witness, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984, 1952.

Worth, E. J., Whittaker Chambers: the secret confession, London: Mazzard, 1993. □

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