When Time Magazine was at its heyday and the dominant ‘last word’ in American media, over a ten-year period, Whittaker Chambers was its greatest writer and editor. He was a founding editor of National Review along with William F. Buckley. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously from President Ronald Reagan in 1984. His memoir, Witness, is an American classic.
But all that was a vastly different world from his earlier life as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the 1920s and spy for Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) in the 1930s.
We recognize Chambers today for the nation’s focus given to his damning testimony in the Alger Hiss congressional investigations and spy trials from 1948-50 and a trove of documents called the Pumpkin Papers.
Alger Hiss came from wealth and was a member of the privileged class, attended Harvard Law School and was upwardly mobile in the State Department reaching high-ranking positions with access to extremely sensitive information. He was an organizer of the Yalta Conference between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. He helped create the United Nations and in 1949, was President of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In Congress in 1948, based on FBI information, a number of Americans were being investigated for spying for the Soviet Union dating back to the early 1930s and during WW II, particularly in the United States Department of State. These were astonishing accusations at the time. When an American spy for the Soviets, Elizabeth Bentley, defected and accused Alger Hiss and a substantial group of U.S. government officials in the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt of spying for the Soviet Union, Hiss vehemently denied the charges. Handsome and sophisticated, Hiss was for a lifetime, well-connected, well-respected and well-spoken. He made an extremely credible witness before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Plus, most public figures involved in media, entertainment and academe came to his defense.
Whittaker Chambers, by then a successful editor at Time, reluctantly and fearing retribution by the GRU, was subpoenaed before HUAC to testify. He accused Hiss of secretly being a communist and passing secret documents to him for transfer to Soviet Intelligence. He testified that he and Hiss had been together on several occasions. Hiss denied it. Chambers was a product of humble beginnings, divorced parents, a brother who committed suicide at 22 and was accused of having psychological problems. All this was prequel to his adoption – “something to live for and something to die for” – of the communist cause. His appearance, dress, voice and demeaner, no less his stinging message, were considered less than attractive. The comparison to the impression that Hiss made was stark and Chambers was demeaned and derided by Hiss’ supporters.
Then came the trial in 1949. During the pre-trial discovery period, Chambers eventually released large quantities of microfilm he had kept hidden as insurance against any GRU reprisal, including murder. Eliminating defectors was not uncommon in GRU practice then… and exists unfortunately to this day.
A then little-known Member of Congress and member of HUAC, one Richard Nixon, had gained access to the content of Chambers’ secret documents, and adamantly pursued the case before the Grand Jury. Nixon at first refused to give the actual evidence to the Grand Jury but later relented. Two HUAC investigators went to Chambers’ farm in Westminster, Maryland, and from there, guided by Chambers, to his garden. There in a capped and hollowed out orange gourd (not a pumpkin!) were the famous “Pumpkin Papers.” Contained in the gourd were hundreds of documents on microfilm including four hand-written pages by Hiss, implicating him as spying for the Soviet Union.
Hiss was tried and convicted of perjury as the statute of limitations on espionage by then had run out. He was sentenced to two five-year terms and ended up serving three and a half years total in federal prison.
Many on the political Left refused to believe that Alger Hiss was guilty and to this day there are some who still support him. However, the Venona Papers released by the U.S. National Security Agency in 1995 which contained intelligence intercepts from the Soviet Union during Hiss’ time as a Soviet spy showed conclusively that Hiss was indeed a Soviet spy. The U.S. government at the highest levels knew all along that Hiss was a spy but in order to keep the Venona Project a secret and to keep gathering intelligence from the Soviet Union during nuclear standoff and the Cold War, it could not divulge publicly what it knew.
Alger Hiss died at the ripe old age of 92, Whittaker Chambers at the relatively young age of 61. Many believe that stress from his life as a spy, and later the pervasive and abusive criticism he endured, weakened his heart and led to his early death.
The Hiss case is seminal in the history of the Cold War and its impact on America because it led to the taking sides politically on the Left and on the Right, a surge in anti-communism on the Right and the reaction to anti-communism on the Left. At the epicenter of the saga is Whittaker Chambers.
To me, this is really the story of Whittaker Chambers, whose brilliance as a thinker and as a writer alone did more to unearth and define the destructive nature of communism than any other American of his time. His memoir, Witness, a best-seller published in 1952, is one of the most enlightening works of non-fiction one can read. It reflects a personal American journey through a dysfunctional family background and depressed economic times when communism and Soviet espionage, were ascendant, making the book both an educational experience and page-turning thriller. In Witness, as a former Soviet spy who became disillusioned with communism’s murder and lies, Chambers intellectually and spiritually defined its tyranny and economic incompetence to Americans in a way that previously, only those who experienced it personally could understand. It gave vital insights into the terrible and insidious practices of communism to millions of Americans.
Don Ritter, Sc.D., served in the United States House of Representatives for the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. As founder of the Afghanistan-American Foundation, he was senior advisor to the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) and the Afghan International Chamber of Commerce (AICC). Congressman Ritter currently serves as president and CEO of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce. He holds a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering from Lehigh University and a M.S. and Sc. D. (Doctorate) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, M.I.T, in Physical Metallurgy and Materials Science. For more information about the work of Congressman Don Ritter, visit http://www.donritter.org/
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