Chambers / Hiss / The Trial of the Twentieth Century
It was December 2, 1948 and a Carroll County farmer led two visitors to the garden behind his house. He stopped when he got to a hollowed-out pumpkin. The farmer stooped down, reached inside the pumpkin and brought forth a small item wrapped in wax paper, handing it to one of the visitors.
The Carroll County farmer was a man named Whittaker Chambers (his main job was Senior Editor for Time magazine) and the visitors were from Washington, D.C. The House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) to be exact. The package in the pumpkin was microfilm and that film would ensure Carroll County’s part in what came to be known as “The Trial Of The Century.”
Chambers had been a dedicated Communist beginning in the 1920s and remained so until 1938. In his autobiography, he says the break began when he was feeding his infant daughter breakfast and noticed the perfection of her ears. The thought came to mind that only a higher being could create such perfection. The total break came in late 1938, and from that day forward Chambers kept a loaded revolver close at hand.
Had Chambers let things go as they were he might have lived out his days in relative obscurity. By 1948 he had a $30,000 a year job with Time and traveled home each weekend to assist his wife and children on their working farm on Bachman’s Valley Road. Since the Communists hadn’t sent anyone to kill him yet, they probably weren’t going to.
But Chambers, who by now had embraced Christianity and developed a conscience, knew he had to reveal what he knew about Communism in the U.S. He contacted the FBI and began to name names. The revelation of one of those names would bring much vituperation down on the head of Whittaker Chambers.
Alger Hiss was a fair haired boy to top all fair haired boys. Born in Baltimore and a law school graduate, he’d forged a brilliant career in government, was at FDR’s side at Yalta, and played a big part in the drafting of the United Nations Charter. That a nonentity like Chambers would accuse such a man of being a Communist was totally ridiculous. Why, Hiss had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes and was a best friend of two current justices. Everyone in Washington loved Alger Hiss!
Well – not everybody.
A young Congressman from California gave credence to Chambers and set about building a case – and that case would come to trial. Hiss couldn’t be tried for espionage due to the statue of limitations, but after his appearance before HUAC in which he denied ever knowing Whittaker Chambers, it was decided that he could be tried for perjury.
For Richard Nixon, what came to be known as the “Hiss Case” began on August 3, 1948 when David Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House on Unamerican Activities to testify about Communist infiltration into the Federal Government. At the time, Chambers was not the star witness he was to become. That dubious honor was held by a woman named Elizabeth Bentley, who was later known as the “Red Spy Queen.” Chambers’ initial role in the hearings was corroboration of Bentley’s testimony.
His appearance before the committee was not the first time he’d tried to alert functionaries of the government about the Communist threat. In 1939 Chambers had approached Adolph Berle Jr. Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence who took copious notes but when he tried to interest his superiors in Chambers’ information, he was essentially told to forget it, even by FDR. Apparently there was plenty of information aside from Chambers about the traitorous activities of not only Alger Hiss, but his brother Donald, and his wife Priscilla. In 1939, Ambassador to France, William C. Bullit reported to State Department official Stanley K. Hornbeck, that French premier, Edouard Daladier warned him about two brothers named Hiss who were Soviet agents inside the State Department. FDR brushed off this information as well as that from Journalist Walter Winchell and Labor Leader, David Dubinsky. It didn’t end there.
In 1945, a Russian defector named Igor Gouzenko told the FBI that the Soviets had an agent in Washington who was the assistant to then Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius. In November, 1945, J. Edgar Hoover decided that Hiss was a security risk and asked Attorney General, Tom Clark to install technical surveillance in Hiss’s Washington home, which lasted the final twelve months of Hiss’s time at State. Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes wanted to dismiss Hiss and on March 21, 1946 called Hiss into his office and told him to go to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and offer himself for a full investigation. Hiss answered all of the questions and denied ever being a Communist, thinking the issue was resolved. But the issue was not resolved and what kept Hiss under suspicion was his habitual procurement of classified documents which he was not authorized to see.
And yet, despite the evidence to the contrary and despite that fact that people of position believed Alger Hiss was a traitor to his country, there were many who thought otherwise. Harry Truman continually called the case a “red herring” and said it was about partisan politics. John Foster Dulles wanted Hiss out of the State Department and recommended him for President of the Carnegie Endowment and Secretary of State Dean Acheson told Hiss personally he should take the job. When Hiss accepted the Carnegie position, congratulations poured in from government and academia; though obviously the Endowment didn’t know Hiss had been eased out of the State Department. His old friend, Whittaker Chambers himself would contribute to the protection of the Hiss family and himself when he told the FBI that he had never “participated in a Soviet espionage ring or any branch of Soviet Intelligence.” In telling these lies, Chambers had learned too late that in accomplishing what he wanted – he needed to be truthful and stop protecting people (including himself) who didn’t deserve it. On August 3, 1948, HUAC began a search for the truth – no matter the cost.
In the beginning, Chambers was not an impressive witness, physically or mentally. His dress was, in a word, sloppy and he was not an imposing figure. He spoke in a monotone; often his voice too low to be heard, necessitating a caution from the HUAC members. But then Chambers began naming those he described as having infiltrated the American government. When he finished up with Alger Hiss, the hostile stares directed his way in the hearing room were most palpable.
Two days later it was Hiss’s turn as his friends waited for him to bury Whittaker Chambers.
Hiss played to a capacity crowd on August 5th, 1948 and his performance was as brilliant as Chambers was lackluster. The press section was loaded with newsmen, the vast majority rooting for Hiss whom they knew. No one knew Chambers.
Hiss went on the offensive right out of the box. “I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m here at my own request to deny unqualifiedly various statements made about me before this committee by one Whittaker Chambers the day before yesterday. I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party. I do not and never have adhered to the tenets of the Communist party. I am not and never have been a member of any Communist front organization.” Then Hiss rattled off a resume that anyone would find hard to duplicate. He dropped names that read like a who’s who of famous Americans, the final one being John Foster Dulles (who just happened to be a republican) who had recommended Hiss for the Carnegie Endowment. He hit homer after homer but the way Richard Nixon saw it--he may have come to bat one time too many. Rather than just deny Chambers’ Charges he denied ever hearing of Whittaker Chambers. “That name means absolutely nothing to me.” When showed a picture of Chambers he gave a cursory glance and displayed half a smile. “He’s not that unusual looking, I might even mistake him for the chairman of this committee.”
Hiss’s friends who’d come to watch Hiss make mincemeat of the proceedings broke into delighted laughter. Hiss responded to his supporters by turning his back on the committee and displaying a grateful nod and smile to his friends.
He was giving just the show they expected. In response to Chairman Mundt’s irritated look Hiss decided he’d gone too far. “I didn’t mean to be facetious but very seriously I would not want to take an oath that I’d never seen that man. Is he here today? Hiss looked right and left as if he was anxious to see this man who’d called him a Communist. “Not to my knowledge,” replied Mundt.
As far as Hiss and his supporters, he’d completely defeated the enemy. But in this case it wasn’t his supporters he had to impress.
When the day’s hearing ended one of the committee made it a point to go over to Hiss and shake his hand. He had to fight his way through a crowd of well wishers. Richard Nixon had to admit that Hiss had done well but perhaps he and Mundt along with Congressman Hebert of Louisiana were the only committee members who noticed that Hiss never said – I don’t know Whittaker Chambers.
It was a rather sad and even panicky post hearing meeting on August 5th. The prevailing attitude was to drop everything and turn the investigation over to the DOJ (Department of Justice) where most believed it would be buried. Only Richard Nixon objected because he hadn’t seen the proceedings as a disaster for Chambers. Granted, Hiss had been cute but he wasn’t that cute. Nixon’s strategy was to arrange a meeting between Hiss and Chambers. His feeling being that if Chambers was telling the truth, truth would tell. Supported by Chief Investigator, Robert Stripling, Nixon persuaded Mundt to appoint him head of a subcommittee to question Chambers privately in New York. The ball was now in Nixon’s court, supported by Stripling and HUAC staff members. The other politicians on the committee, gladly no doubt, assumed secondary roles.
New York City, August 7th, 1948 and a very nervous Whittaker Chambers was about to appear before HUAC. The proceedings began in closed session and the questions began by asking Chambers about his knowledge of Communists in the United States Government. Chambers began by describing the Ware group, which included Alger and Donald Hiss. In answer to a question about his current employment, he replied that he was an Editor of Time Magazine. Robert Stripling then asked, “And what was your employment before that?”
“I was a paid functionary of the Communist Party,” replied Chambers. A move was made to go to open session and Chambers became even more nervous.
During Chambers time behind the mike he had to continually be told to speak louder. He explained as to why he became a Communist. “I had become convinced that the civilization in which we lived, Western Civilization, had reached a crisis, of which the First World War was the military expression and that it was doomed to collapse. In the writings of Karl Marx I thought I had found the explanation of the historical and economical causes of the crisis. I joined the Communist party in 1924. In 1937 I repudiated Marx’s doctrine and Lenin’s tactics. Experience and the record had convinced me that Communism was totalitarianism; if it triumphed it would mean slavery. This is what Chambers tried to convince Hiss of when he spoke of the murder of millions under Stalin. Hiss had replied, “Yes, Stalin plays for keeps, doesn’t he.” The only thing that mattered to Hiss was the party line. Chambers continued his statement before the committee. “In leaving the Communist party, I know I’m leaving the winning side for the losing side but it’s better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.” Whittaker Chambers went to his grave believing he’d chosen the losing side.
Chambers had done an acceptable job, enough to scare those who were on the side of Alger Hiss. Those people knew it was time to get to work. Chambers would have to be destroyed. As Richard Nixon left the committee room a woman approached him. “Don’t you know that Whittaker Chambers is an incurable drunkard?” Things would get much worse.
But Richard Nixon was concentrating on only one question: Did Hiss know Chambers? The only way to find out was a relentless session in which Chambers would be bombarded with questions about his relationship with Hiss and his family. Only three HUAC members were present; Nixon, Congressman Hebert and Congressman McDowell of Pennsylvania. The other four seats were taken by HUAC investigators; Robert Stripling and three others, along with the committee stenographer.
During the questioning, Nixon was to find out what a man of great intellect Chambers was as he answered questions down to the most minute detail. He knew Alger and Priscilla Hiss like the back of his hand and not only that--he had great affection for them. He even knew their hobbies. One was ornithology (bird watching) and Chambers recounted an incident when Alger and Priscilla came home excited after seeing a Prothonotary Warbler. He even remembered and incident whereby Hiss had bought a new car and wanted to donate his old one to the party. Party leader J. Peters had to approve the transaction and after some indecision approved the transfer to another party member. “I would think that could be traced.” Said Chambers. Chambers was good, almost too good some wondered. How could anyone have that good of a memory? Nixon had to ask: “Would you be willing to submit to a lie detector on this testimony?”
“Yes, if necessary,” replied Chambers.
“You have that much confidence?” asked Nixon.
“I’m telling the truth,” replied Chambers.
Nixon asked Bert Andrews, ace reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, who along with James Reston of the New York Times, had recommended Hiss to John Foster Dulles for the Carnegie post, if he would read Chambers’ testimony and give his opinion. Andrews complied and after reading the testimony, and said: “I wouldn’t have believed it after hearing Hiss the other day but there’s no doubt about it: Chambers knew Hiss.” It was time to talk to Chambers again.
The more Nixon Talked to Chambers, the more he was convinced that he knew Alger Hiss. “He was talking about someone he knew, not someone he studied. Nixon was also impressed that Chambers had been willing to take a lie detector test, something Hiss would not do.
As the next executive session with Hiss approached on August 16th, Nixon was preparing a surprise calculated to get under his skin, especially since Hiss’s lawyer, William Marbury would be out of town.
At the executive session Hiss declared he’d never heard the name, Whittaker Chambers and also denied knowing anyone called “Carl” (Chambers party name). When showed two photos of Whittaker Chambers, Hiss said the photos were not completely unfamiliar and asked once again for an opportunity to confront Chambers. Nixon said this would soon be arranged. When Stripling told of Chambers sitting for hours and rattling off information about the Hiss family, Hiss seemed unnerved. “He either knows you or has made a study of your life in great detail,” Stripling said.
And so it went with both sides becoming testy. At one point Hiss brought up the name – George Crosley – and added that the man had very bad teeth. “But his name wasn’t Carl or Whittaker Chambers.” Hiss was seething. Congressman Hebert looked at Hiss, pointed his finger and yelled – and whichever one of you is lying is the greatest actor that America has ever produced!”
Hiss then went into detail about George Crosley whose wife was “strikingly dark and the couple had a little baby.” He also verified other details about himself as recounted by Chambers. Then, Nixon began laying his trap:
Nixon: “What hobbies do you have Mr. Hiss?”
Hiss: “Tennis and amateur ornithology.”
Nixon: “Is your wife interested in ornithology?”
Hiss: “I like to swim and I also like to sail. My wife is interested in ornithology as I am through my interest. Maybe I’m using too big a word to say an ornithologist because I’m pretty amateur but I’ve been interested in it since I was in Boston. I think anybody who knows me knows that.”
Once again, Hiss had verified what Chambers had said about the Hiss family.
This particular session lasted three and one half hours and it was decided that the committee would hear Hiss in executive session in New York followed by the long awaited confrontation between Hiss and Chambers in Washington on the 25th of August. But Nixon pulled another fast one on Hiss by moving up the confrontation date because he didn’t want Hiss to have time to prepare his answers. Hiss could not object because he’d been demanding a confrontation.
When Alger Hiss was invited to come to room 1400 of the Commodore he arrived in much less than a good mood. His mood got even darker when Nixon announced they had moved up the date of the confrontation with Chambers. When hit with that information Hiss announced that he wanted to make a statement. Congressman McDowell granted the request and Hiss too the committee to task for leaking the previous days testimony to the press. McDowell and Nixon denied the leaks and with this Nixon ordered Chambers brought in, who unbeknown to Hiss was waiting in another room.
Nixon asked both men to rise. “Mr. Hiss, the man standing before you is Mr. Whittaker Chambers. I ask you now if you’ve seen this man before?”
Hiss was caught unawares but his lawyer persona took over. “May I ask him to speak, will you ask him to say something.” Chambers gave his name at which point Hiss asked-“Are you George Crosley?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“You are Alger Hiss I believe.”
“I certainly am,” replied Hiss.
“That was my recollection,” said Chambers. Hiss said he still wasn’t sure, then began talking about the poor condition of Crosley’s teeth when he knew him. Chambers acknowledged that his teeth were in abysmal condition when he knew Hiss. Hiss said that Chambers was probably the man he knew though he denied any social relationship with Chambers. Robert Stripling chided Hiss for making such an issue over Chambers teeth when there were so many issues that tied him to Chambers (Crosley).
At this time Hiss became angry. He then launched into what amounted to an interrogation of Chambers who did not object, except to say he never used the name of Crosley. When Hiss asked Chambers why they would have such a close relationship when Hiss had already stated that “Crosley” meant nothing to him. Chambers quietly explained, “It’s very simple, you were a Communist and I was a Communist.”
At this point Nixon interrupted, demanding further clarification. Chambers repeated testimony he’d already given: “I came to Washington as a functionary of the Communist party. I was connected to the underground group of which Mr. Hiss was a member. Mr. Hiss and I became friends.” Hiss approached Chambers. “I challenge you to make those same statements out of the presence of this committee without there being privileged suit for libel. I challenge you to do so and I hope you will do it damn quick!”
This followed with an exchange between Hiss and some committee members who were afraid Hiss might get physical with Chambers. Hiss didn’t get physical but he did sue Chambers later for libel – a suit that went nowhere. If there was a winner during the session it was Richard Nixon who had proved that Hiss and Chambers knew each other.
By the time of the August 25th hearing, many of those who’d been in Hiss’s corner began to doubt him. True, Alger Hiss had position and a host of important personages in his corner, but truth will out. Chambers, in his book Witness, says this is when he went on trial as Hiss and his supporters decided the only strategy that would work would be the destruction of Whittaker Chambers. It was no time for pity because Hiss was showing no pity for him.
The hearing had barely started when Chambers became aware that the long knives were out in a way that only Communists could wield them. He was required to sit among the spectators and he could feel their hostility. When he stood to identify Hiss a wave of titters accompanied him as they compared the portly, poorly dressed man with the heavy jowls, with Alger Hiss, the handsome, urbane, representative of the upper class. Chambers said nothing but thought to himself, Good people, it is yourselves you are laughing at and belittling – because it is for you I stand here, not for myself.
Alger Hiss never went anywhere without counsel by his side; Chambers never had counsel by his side; yet there was plenty of talk about Chambers being a man of means and Hiss was fond of saying he was a man of limited means. This charade didn’t last long as it soon became obvious that money was pouring into the Hiss coffers. It’s also true that many of Hiss’s attorneys were personal friends who were probably working pro bono. One such man was Harold Rosenwald who apparently, or at least it was said was devoting all of his time to the Hiss Case. Though the word was out that Rosenwald’s job was to get information on Whittaker Chambers.
One of the mysteries the committee committee wanted to clear upconcerned the elusive George Crosley. Chambers said he never went by that name and the only two people to apply that name to anyone were Alger and Priscilla Hiss. When brother Donald was asked if he knew Crosley he declared he’d never heard of him. Apparently the name was an invention of Hiss so he would not have to admit he knew Whittaker Chambers or “Carl”, Chambers Communist name.
During the hearings, even though Chambers knew Hiss was lying, he knew he was too and if he told the truth, that both had committed espionage and both could be indicted. Chambers displayed an incredible sense of naivete when he actually thought that Hiss might be grateful to him for not revealing the more serious crime of espionage. This seems ridiculous on its face since it was obvious to all that Hiss had a great hatred for this man he insisted on calling “George Crosley.”
Of course, Chambers still had his ace in the hole and when the Hiss team began spreading unfounded rumors calculated to destroy him, Chambers realized there was not a smidgen left of what used to be a friendship. Chambers then knew he’d have to play his ace and perhaps lead to his own indictment. But when to play it – and what kind of reaction would Nixon and the rest of the committee have to this knowledge that Chambers had been holding out on them. But Chambers knew this – if he had to go to prison to get rid of this traitor who’d rather serve Stalin then the United States of America – that’s what he would do. And so, Hiss/Chambers was about to enter a new phase – of stolen documents, typewriters and one solitary pumpkin in a pumpkin patch in Carroll County, Maryland.
An example of how close that friendship was, was provided by Chambers toward the end of the August 25th hearing. Hiss had been on the stand for five hours, part of which was spent trying to prove that Chambers was mentally ill, though not succeeding. Chambers followed him with Nixon asking the questions and what followed was an interchange that brought a touching moment to proceedings that had been filled with anger for seven long hours.
Nixon: “You were very fond of Mr. Hiss?”
Chambers: “Indeed I was, perhaps my closest friend.”
Nixon: “Mr. Hiss was your closest friend?”
Chambers: “Mr. Hiss was certainly my closest friend I ever had in the Communist party.”
Nixon: “Is there any grudge you have against Mr. Hiss over anything he has done to you?”
Chambers: “The story has spread that in testifying against Mr. Hiss I am working out some old grudge or motive of revenge or hatred. I do not hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends, but we are caught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are fighting. I have testified against him with remorse and pity, but in a moment of history in which this nation now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise.”
The tide of public opinion had turned against Alger Hiss. Not that it made any difference to the Washington Post who called the confrontation “inconclusive”, saying that “turncoats” should never be believed over men of unsullied reputation.” But later, even the Post changed its tune. it was time for Hiss to “put up or shut about a situation he had created.”
The day before the Nixons departure for a long awaited vacation, Nixon saw a wire service news flash that said DOJ was ready to close down the Hiss investigation unless new evidence was found. Nixon called Stripling and suggested that they drive to Westminster (Chambers farm was just outside Westminster) and talk to Chambers. When they told Chambers about the wire service news flash, Chambers said that’s what he’d been afraid of which was why he’d held some bombshell evidence back. His attorney had photostatic copies and he’d turned the evidence over to William Marbury, Hiss’s attorney. He had to recant his lie that he had no other evidence. Even then he had doubts but when Marbury grilled his wife, Esther unmercifully until she broke into tears, he knew it was time to reveal what he had. But he had to go to Brooklyn, N.Y. to get it out of a dumbwaiter in an apartment owned by his nephew’s mother. The evidence contained sixty five pages of written material, some notes in Hiss’s handwriting and microfilm. he made copies of the written material, gave the original to Marbury, but kept the microfilm. The microfilm ended up in a hollowed out pumpkin – but not for weeks as reported but for one day only. The famous “pumpkin papers” were rolls of microfilm. The written documents had been stolen by Hiss, copied on his own Typewriter and then returned to their proper place at State. He then gave the copies to Chambers who was his handler for the Communist Party. But at this time Chambers knew he was going to break with the party and he never forwarded them to his Supervisor in the party. He’d kept them as insurance for ten years.
Still, the case nearly fell apart when the film that had been sent to Eastman Kodak for verification brought the Chambers team nearly to hysteria when Kodak said the film couldn’t have been produced until 1945. Nixon, seeing his political career going down the drain called Chambers and gave him a royal chewing out. All Chambers could say was, “God must be against me!” “You better have a better reason than that screamed Nixon!”
A few minutes later a call came from Eastman – there had been a mistake – the film was manufactured in the 1930’s, then discontinued during the war. Nixon and Stripling danced around the office like a couple of giddy kids. Then, Nixon paused in their revelry. “Poor Chambers, no one ever believes him.”
Harry Truman continued to call the case a “red herring” and higher ups in DOJ were desperate to indict Chambers instead of Hiss because they knew the evidence against Hiss would die. But underlings in the DOJ, disgusted with their supervisors, kept HUAC abreast of everything. The Washington Post got wind of what was happening and called the President “very shortsighted if this is administration policy.”
The opinion in the country was also swinging this way. With the exposure of all of Chambers hidden evidence, he was no longer the chief witness. Rather it was a Woodstock typewriter that Chambers said Priscilla Hiss typed the classified documents on, the ones Alger had stolen from the State Department. Both sides were turning Washington upside down until it was found by the FBI on December 13, 1948. On December 15, the day the Grand Jury’s time was to expire, an FBI expert typed exact copies of the incriminating documents on the old Woodstock machine and had them flown to New York as exhibits for the Grand Jury. A typewriter has characteristics just as fingerprints; everyone is different. When the prosecutor asked Hiss for an explanation, he produced ripples of laughter when he said,“Until the day I die I will wonder how Whittaker Chambers got into my house to use my typewriter.”
The Grand Jury voted to indict 19-0. Still, the Hiss team hung tough. It would take until May 31, 1949 before the case would come to trial. It ended with a hung jury, 8-4. The second trial began on November 17, 1949 and ended January 21, 1950. Hiss was convicted on two counts of perjury. On March 12, 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. Hiss would serve 44 months of a five year sentence in Lewisburg Penitentiary. He and Priscilla would remain married until he got out of prison; at which time they would separate. Priscilla wanted him to change his name and they would go somewhere where no one knew them, but Alger wanted to spend the rest of his life proving his innocence. To many he was trying to prove the unprovable. He died in 1996 at the age of 92.
Whittaker Chambers retired to his Carroll County farm where he wrote his autobiography, a best seller, Witness. The night of July 9, 1961, he lay down on a sofa in the spare room. During the night he suffered a heart attack and fell to the floor. Esther would find him there the next morning. He was 60 years old.
And what about staid old Carroll County. During that time most of us sided with Chambers; after all he was a farmer, like most of us. One of the more amusing things was the way some of us pronounced his name. As put by one Carroll County farmer, “That Whytaker Chalmbers sure put us on the map.”
Well, he did at least for a little while.