Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961)

2012-02-09 09:46:50

Whittaker Chambers, born Jay Vivian Chambers in Brooklyn, New York, in 1901, was a central figure in one of the most sensational of the post-1945 Red Scare investigations conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Educated at Columbia University in the 1920s and active in college literary and intellectual activities, Chambers became enamored with bolshevism, joining the U.S. Communist Party in 1925. An active member in Communist literary circles, he was recruited for the Communist underground in 1932 where he functioned as a courier, smuggling U.S. government documents to the Soviets. He became disillusioned with communism, however, and broke with the party in the late 1930s.

During his subsequent tenure as an editor for Time, Chambers became a more strident anticommunist. He was called before HUAC in 1948 during the Committee’s very public investigation into the problem of communists in government. In his testimony, he identified former Communist colleagues, including a bright, well-respected diplomat and civil servant named Alger Hiss, who had traveled at high levels of the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The hearings became a well-publicized standoff between Chambers and Hiss, because Hiss emphatically maintained he had never been a member of the Communist Party. Ultimately, Chambers expanded his allegations to include an accusation that Hiss had also been involved in espionage for the Soviets. Amidst a series of charges and countercharges, as well as a wellpublicized face-to-face confrontation with Hiss, Chambers summoned the Committee to his Maryland farm where he very dramatically extracted reels of microfilm from a hollowed out pumpkin, claiming these were classified documents reproduced on Hiss’s personal typewriter. Although Hiss continued to maintain his innocence, a subsequent FBI investigation of the documents seemed to validate Chambers’s charges. Hiss was ultimately convicted of perjury in 1951. The hearings, however, the first ever televised, contributed greatly to the public fear of the danger of domestic communism and its ability to penetrate American institutions.

Hiss continued to assert his innocence even until his death in 1996. Chambers’s allegations, however, have received support in recent years as disclosures in the VENONA transcripts of messages sent by Soviet agents in the United States to Moscow during the early 1940s seem to identify Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy.


References and Further Reading

  • Haynes, John Earl, and Harvey Klehr. VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999
  • Swan, Patrick A., ed. Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003
  • Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers. New York: Random House, 1997
  • Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Knopf, 1978

See also Hiss, Alger; House Un-American Activities Committee