Whittaker Chambers was one of the most important and controversial witnesses used by prosecutors in their postwar campaign to root out Communists and leftists suspected of infiltrating President Roosevelt’s New Deal government in the 1930s and 1940s.
Chambers’s single most significant act was to testify at length against his former friend, prominent State Department official Alger Hiss. He also appeared frequently before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to corroborate the accusations of fellow anticommunist witnesses such as Elizabeth Bentley, Benjamin Gitlow, Louis Budenz, and Hede Massing.
From Communist to Anticommunist
Chambers was born in Brooklyn in 1901. Chambers’s parents (a commercial artist and cartoonist) did not enjoy a happy marriage. Not long after his father’s early death (and his brother’s suicide), Chambers ran away to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a laborer on the railways.
A gifted but erratic student, he would eventually enter Columbia University and study under the celebrated English instructor Mark Van Doren, but it was his experience during the earlier period, and his reading of Marx and Lenin, that brought Chambers into contact with several key members of the Communist Party (CPUSA), including future general secretary William Foster, James Cannon, and Joseph Freeman.
Looking back on his decision to join the party in 1925 from the perspective of his compelling 1953 autobiography, Witness, Chambers claimed that he had found in Marxism a “practical program, a vision, and a faith” with which to answer the “crises of history” unfolding around him. Throughout the “red decade” (late 1920s–1930s), Chambers enjoyed swift progress up the ranks first of the open party and then the underground Soviet espionage apparatus that coordinated and directed its actions.
In 1935, he was appointed to the prestigious position of chief editor of the CPUSA’s Daily Worker. Ironically, it was from this privileged perspective that Chambers began to discern the corruption of Communist ideals that would finally lead to his apostasy from the movement in 1937–1938.
In common with contemporaries and fellow McCarthyites like Gitlow, Bentley, and Austrian expatriate Arthur Koestler, Chambers’s faith in the Left was destroyed as a result of the Stalinist purges in the USSR, the Nazi–Soviet pact, and the resulting internecine warfare among members of the U.S. Left.
Although the exact date of his disengagement from the movement remains uncertain, it is clear that, from the late 1930s, Chambers had begun secreting microfilms and documents that he would eventually use to expose the treachery of former Communist comrades embedded within various branches of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.
Throughout the 1940s, Chambers, as a former highly placed member of the Communist underground, was increasingly called on by the FBI to corroborate the charges of other defectors. As a result of this process, he came to believe that Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal program (and its successor, Truman’s “Fair Deal”) had been thoroughly compromised by the penetration of Communist ideas and personnel.
Like other proponents of McCarthyism such as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, future president Richard Nixon, Senator Patrick McCarran, and McCarthy himself, Chambers viewed the New Deal as little more than a covert socialist revolution led by an elite of leftist intellectuals masquerading as liberals.
Together with the written and verbal pronouncements of these and other figures, Chambers’s testimony, in Witness and before numerous grand juries and congressional committees, and his many articles for magazines like Time, were instrumental in identifying the formative influence of Communist thought on the drift of pre-war public policy and the threat of Communist conspiracy in the cold war public consciousness.
The Hiss-Chambers Trials
Chambers’s single most crucial act, however, was to detail Alger Hiss’s activities on behalf of the Soviet intelligence apparatus during his appointment in the State Department and his participation at the pivotal superpower conference in Yalta at the end of World War II. From his first appearance before HUAC in August 1948 when Hiss was accused of membership in the CPUSA, Chambers maintained the pressure on his former friend.
From 1948–1950, he doggedly continued the campaign in spite of Hiss’s denial that he had ever known his accuser, and the charges of slander Hiss brought against him. Indeed, it was in his pretrial deposition during the latter case that Chambers unexpectedly broadened his allegations, accusing Hiss of stealing State Department documents and passing them to him for transmission to Moscow.
It was these documents, stored by Chambers among the produce at his Maryland farm, which became popularly known as the “Pumpkin Papers.” Although this first trial ended in a hung jury, a conviction was finally secured when professional ex-communist witness Hede Massing appeared at the retrial the following year to corroborate Chambers’s claim. Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison.
Coinciding with the 1949 trial of the CPUSA leadership by HUAC, the Hiss–Chambers case captivated the public imagination and occupied far more column inches than any other in the years before the Rosenberg scandal (1952–1954).
This was undoubtedly due in part to the impressive and apparently unimpeachable record of the accused and the entire network of officials whom he seemed to represent—in the words of one contemporary commentator, the case effectively put the New Deal generation on trial. No less important was the fact that several of the key hearings were televised nationwide, something unprecedented in the 1950s.
For the most part, Chambers appeared temperamentally ill-suited to such widespread exposure, as his retreat to a solitary life on the remote Maryland farm proved. Nevertheless, after the furor died down, he continued to work as an editor and staff writer for Time and Life magazines and the National Review; examples of his provocative, always opinionated reflections on cold war politics were recently anthologized in Ghosts on the Roof (1996).
Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961, having renewed his pledge to the Quaker faith of his childhood. As Witness makes clear, it was this return of the spiritual dimension to his life that offered a sustaining counterweight to the trauma of his apostasy from the Communist movement.
Continuing Controversy over Chambers’s Legacy
By the time of his death Chambers’s life and its legacy were already the subject of bitter debate. For the cold war conservative constituency, many of whom, like Philip Rahv and Leslie Fiedler, shared their hero’s leftist past, Chambers represented the acceptable, literate face of uncompromising anticommunism, without any of McCarthy’s demagoguery. (It is worth noting that Chambers privately condemned McCarthy’s bullying courtroom tactics.)
Richard Nixon, another powerful conservative supporter and key prosecutor in the Hiss trials, would later admit that his close involvement in the development of Chambers’s case helped secure the broad base of support for his presidential campaigns against John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Indeed, the very principles of the so-called New Right that began to surface during the 1950s were premised on the same rejection of the reformist social agenda advocated by the liberal establishment under Roosevelt and Truman that had actuated Chambers’s assault on Hiss.
Another beneficiary of this growing tide of right-wing sentiment was Californian Republican Ronald Reagan, who, as president, awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 1984, citing him as a bastion of “virtue and freedom” against the “brooding terrors of [the] age.” Both Reagan and Nixon, as well as National Review founder William Buckley, were all at one time members of the so-called Pumpkin Papers Irregulars, a group formed with the sole aim of maintaining Chambers’s esteemed reputation in conservative political and cultural circles.
No less significant in this regard was Allen Weinstein’s much-lauded (and recently republished) study of the case, Perjury (1978; 1997), in which, after a judicious inquiry into all available sources, and starting from his strong belief in Hiss’s innocence, the author concluded that the vast majority of Chambers’s accusations were true. The support of these prominent figures seemed justified when, in the late 1990s, Soviet archives were opened and many files from the Venona Project were declassified.
Suddenly, there was an abundance of evidence apparently proving that Chambers had been correct both in his assertion that Hiss was a Soviet agent and that a Communist conspiracy had successfully penetrated many departments of the Roosevelt administration and continued unimpeded during Truman’s presidency.
In the face of this torrent of hostility and accusation, Hiss continued to maintain his innocence. In this, he had many powerful supporters among liberals and former government officials who were not prepared to see the very real political and social gains made during the Roosevelt era tainted and compromised by the accusation of Communist infiltration.
In fact, the backlash against Chambers had already begun during the trials when Hiss and various sections of the media joined forces to portray Chambers as a psychopath and habitual liar. Whatever the truth of this diagnosis, for someone like future Kennedy special advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or a liberal commentator like Granville Hicks, Chambers’s rigid view of the irreconcilable conflict between left and right was far too absolute, leaving at the center a dangerous breeding ground for intolerance and extremism.
For those further to the left, including the CPUSA and the Socialist Workers’ Party, the growing convergence of interests among figures like Chambers, Nixon, and McCarthy began to resemble a neoconservative conspiracy whose aim was to discredit the New Deal establishment and those who came under the banner of its Popular Front during the 1930s. In their view, Hiss, like the Rosenbergs a few years later, came to represent a scapegoat used to legitimize the ascendancy of the New Right.
The validity of this argument seemed finally to have been borne out when Soviet intelligence archivist General Dmitri Volkogonov claimed in 1992 that he had found no evidence in the KGB’s cold war files to prove Chambers’s allegations against Hiss. However, more revelations from the archives and the Venona files have further complicated the issue and once again tipped the balance in favor of Chambers’s account.
In recent years, The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based right-wing think tank, celebrated the centenary of Chambers’s birth with a glowing tribute to a “man of courage and faith,” while the conservative-inclined Regnery Publishing house has continued its long-term project to bring his huge body of political and cultural journalism to a wider public.
What this proves is that Chambers’s contested legacy continues toof the significance of the threat of Communist subversion and conspiracy during the cold war. reflect the shifts of public and political estimation