Morris van de Camp
The Quaker Who Exposed Communism in the US, Part 2
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
Chambers planned his escape carefully and made his move in 1938. He hid some documents, including some papers and films that Hiss had intended to give to the Soviets, in a dumbwaiter in his cousin’s house. He planned to use them as a bargaining chip in case the Communists tried to do away with him. He then went with his family to Florida to hide. He found a rental house there, and although it was just beyond his means, they stayed there anyway, and he successfully evaded discovery. Whittaker’s situation was not unlike that of other married men: To provide for his family, a father sometimes takes on projects that seem beyond his reach, but somehow he muddles through in the end.
After some time in hiding, Chambers realized that laying low was riskier than living normally, as no one would even have noticed if he and his family had disappeared one day. Chambers then returned to Maryland, taking a job working for Time magazine, where his writing talents secured the senior editor’s position. The Communists in the woodwork did try to get Chambers fired, but the management refused their demands. Chambers then purchased a farm; it was heavily mortgaged, so every bit of his income was needed to keep it afloat, but he did pay it off eventually.
While working at Time, Chambers became increasingly anti-Communist and shaped the magazine’s coverage of the Soviet Union. His views could be summarized as follows (p. 430):
- The Soviet Union was not a “great ally”; it was a cold and calculating enemy making use of the Second World War to prepare for the Third.
- The Soviet Union was not a democracy; it was a monstrous dictatorship.
- The Communist International had been dissolved in name only; it still de facto operated.
- The Soviet Union was not a thin-skinned, underprivileged waif that had to be wheedled into the family of free nations, as many saw it, but a toughly realistic world power whose primary purpose was the conquest of the free world.
- The Communists’ first step in that conquest was to gain control over Central Europe and China.
- The Chinese Communists were not “agrarian liberals,” but was modelled after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
During his years at Time, he penned a critique of the Yalta Conference entitled “Ghosts on the Roof” which has become a classic of journalism.
The first accusation
Chambers never published any accusations in Time against Hiss or any other Communist. In September 1939, Isaac Levine, an anti-Communist Zionist Jew who was appalled by the Stalinist purges, secured an audience for Chambers with Adolf Berle, who was Assistant Secretary of State. Chambers told Berle that there were Communist agents working at the highest levels of government and named names. Berle then discussed the matter with President Roosevelt, but the latter rejected Chambers’ claims, and Berle didn’t raise the matter again.
Roosevelt probably didn’t go searching for Communist spies in his government for several reasons, the main one being that he didn’t believe the reports due to a lack of evidence. There were also likely spies in the Soviet Union reporting to Washington, and exposing spies in the US might have threatened threaten their activities. Finally, he probably didn’t wish to upset the coalition within his own party, where Communist sympathizers worked alongside traditional Democrats.
The FBI interviewed Chambers after the meeting, but nothing came of it. The reports were filed away and forgotten — for a time.
The HUAC and the Hiss-Chambers affair
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established in 1938 with the help of a Jewish Congressman named Samuel Dickstein, who was himself a Soviet spy. The Committee’s original aim was to search for Nazis and “far-Right” Americans, although its focus changed as the Soviet threat became more obvious. In 1946, the Republicans won the House for the first time in many years. One of them was a freshman Congressman from California named Richard Nixon — who, like both Hiss and Chambers, was a Quaker.
The Republicans won the House in 1946 because of problems stemming from military demobilization following the Second World War. After a time, however, these problems evaporated, and House Republicans shifted strategy, hanging their reelection chances in 1948 on removing Communists from the US government. There had been longstanding suspicions that many of the New Dealers were Communists, and Hiss was at the top of the list.
Chambers was not the only one to accuse Hiss of espionage, and following Roosevelt’s death, the FBI began monitoring Hiss’ activities. Hiss was increasingly excluded from State Department activities despite his considerable accomplishments, and he finally left government service in 1946. The HUAC got wind of the accusations against Hiss from a Catholic priest and subpoenaed Chambers to testify against him.
The book that is considered the definitive work on the Hiss-Chambers hearings is Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978) by Allen Weinstein. There is also series of useful videos on YouTube that were made by John Barresford. Barresford discusses the legal strengths and weaknesses of the two men’s cases, as well as story’s twists and turns in great detail.
Chambers only got word of the subpoena when a reporter asked him about it, but he did then testify. His testimony was personally damning for him, as he admitted under oath that he had been a Communist spy, and accused Hiss of the same. Hiss then voluntarily testified to clear his name. He initially seemed believable, but his answers were evasive. For example, when shown a picture of Chambers, Hiss answered that “the name means nothing to me.” Hiss’ haughty attitude also angered Nixon. But Chambers had no proof of the espionage.
Nixon then formed a sub-committee and continued to probe. He decided the best way to proceed was to prove that Chambers and Hiss had known each other. During later hearings, Chambers proved that he knew the layout of Hiss’ house in great detail, among other things. Hiss, for his part, started to look bad as he kept changing his story. He was forced to admit that he had known Chambers, but he claimed they had not really been friends.
In August 1948 Chambers went on Meet the Press, which was then a radio program. He repeated his assertion that Hiss was a Communist and a Soviet spy. Hiss couldn’t sue Chambers for libel during the HUAC hearings, but he could for this — although Time covered Chamber’s legal bills.
Chambers then finally recovered the stolen documents he’d hidden in 1938. At a deposition related to the libel suit, he showed the documents to Hiss’ lawyer. The lawsuit was finished, and Hiss and his lawyer turned the papers over to the Justice Department, which in turn asked the judge supervising the case for a gag order. The judge agreed; the Democratic Party was arranging a cover-up.
The HUAC’s lead investigator, Robert Stripling, noticed that there were two different stories about the Hiss-Chambers affair in two newspapers. He was then contacted by one of Chambers’ lawyers who hinted that Chambers had proof that Hiss was a spy. Stripling then realized there was an ongoing cover-up.
In November 1948, Chambers revealed to Nixon and Stripling that he had five rolls of camera film of documents that were not covered by the gag order. Chambers had hidden photos of the documents in a pumpkin on his farm, and Nixon’s staffers recovered them. The photos proved that Chambers was telling the truth. Nixon was then able to pressure the Justice Department. Hiss went on trial for perjury in New York; the first ended in a mistrial, and the second in conviction. Hiss couldn’t be tried for treason, however, because two witnesses are required, and he couldn’t be tried for espionage because the statute of limitations had run out.
Hiss was a member of both the WASP establishment as well as the foreign policy elite, and his friends rallied to his side. Many went to their graves convinced of Hiss’ innocence. Chambers found that upper-class, old stock Americans were the most hostile towards him, as they tended to identify with Hiss. They resented the idea that they could be manipulated by Communist agents. After the Cold War, however, documents in the Soviet archives were revealed that pointed to Hiss having been an intelligence asset code-named ALES.
It is difficult to determine what damage Hiss did to national security. The information that was in the so-called “Pumpkin Papers” were not particularly important. And as previously mentioned, it is unlikely that Hiss did much at Yalta other than boost Stalin’s confidence. Other Soviet spy rings enabled them to develop nuclear weapons, so whatever Hiss’ actions were, the wider ecosystem of Soviet espionage in which he operated did indeed cause tremendous harm.
Hiss’ conviction was a tremendous blow to the WASP political elite. There was a public outcry after his treachery was exposed. Although Hiss and Chambers had been working with Jews all along, the WASP establishment’s reputation was tarnished for many years afterwards. “Ethnics,” i.e. Jews, in fact became patriots. There is a direct line between the Hiss-Chambers affair and Israeli assets in senior US government positions today.
The hearings destroyed the lives of both Hiss and Chambers. Chambers was forced to resign from Time because of his earlier espionage. Additionally, he admitted that he’d committed perjury on numerous occasions, even though a grand jury declined to indict him for it. Hiss spent three years in prison and remained a pariah to most of the country afterwards.
Witness and its blind spots
Witness is frontier literature, although it is not meant to be. Frontier literature involves a hero of one race interacting with those of another. The semi-legendary stories about Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and other pioneers of the Old West living among Indians are examples of this. There is often a sexual aspect to these stories as well: General Custer, or his brother, was alleged to have fathered a child with a Cheyanne woman. Such stories serve the purpose of showing the boundaries and interactions between two groups living alongside each other.
This is certainly the case in Witness. Chambers was an old-stock American who got involved in what amounts to a foreign religion, but he returned to the tribal god of his kith and kin. And like Sampson in the Bible, Chambers destroyed himself to defeat his enemies as an act of redemption. He likewise worked with Jews and even married one — albeit she became a Quaker.
Witness also shows how old-stock Americans and Jews parted ways over Communism. Those of American Midlands heritage were initially attracted to the movement, but were also among the first to leave it, appalled by the cruelty of the Soviet system. For example, when Chambers writes about the injustice of Juliet Poyntz’s murder, he specifically calls her a “Midwestern American” (p. 12) — a deliberate choice of words that emphasizes their shared regional and ethnic heritage. Jews were also becoming disillusioned with Stalinism at this time, but usually in order to become followers of Leon Trotsky, a fellow Jew. It would not be until after 1967’s Six-Day War, when the Soviets came down on the side of the Arabs against Israel, that a mass defection of Jews from Communism occurred. (Although then the former Trotskyites became neoconservatives.)
Chambers points out the fact that some Communist Jews were hostile toward religious Jews. This was partially true, and was seized upon by conservatives during the Cold War. It worked at the time, but it ignored the far greater problem of Jewish overrepresentation in the American establishment. Chambers also says nothing about racial issues, even though the Communist-backed “civil rights” movement was increasing in fervor at the time and would lead to burning cities by 1964.
Chambers likewise makes the mistake of calling Communism a form of fascism. Both ideologies are indeed forms of totalitarianism, but their particulars are wildly different, with very different outcomes when applied in the real world. Large-scale murders by Communists occurred before the Second World War, and continued both during the war and thereafter. National Socialist killings didn’t occur on a large scale until after the war began, and some of the stories are certainly exaggerated war propaganda. Today’s antifa burn cities in the name of Communism, not fascism. Chambers’ ideological confusion is nonetheless commonplace among cowardly conservatives today.
Chambers ends Witness in 1949, on his farm, looking at the stars. He was deeply frustrated that many of his fellow Quakers remained sympathetic to Hiss and felt he had been treated unjustly. Having been dismissed from Time, he ended up writing for the National Review at a time when the magazine included the giants of anti-Communism, including James Burnham. He passed away of a heart attack in 1961, at the age of 60.
Chambers got himself into many tragic situations, but he sought a greater truth in all of them. It is certain that his moral crusade against Communism helped to create a framework that ensured Communism would ultimately be defeated. All white advocates should seek to emulate his efforts.
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All quotes are taken from Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Washington, DC: Regenery History, 2014). Further information came from Sam Tanhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997).
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