photo detail of Whittaker Chambers at TIME Magazine in the 1940s, by Alfred Eisenstadt

U.S. News & World Report
July 18, 2009

Mr. Kingsbury,

The Hiss Case was a bit more complicated than you say, and the results more conclusive.

During 1948, both Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers lied under oath, but the nature of their lies and how they unraveled helped determined the course of justice.

On August 3, 1948, Chambers testified under subpoena before HUAC about two Soviet underground networks he had run in Washington during the 1930s. Among its members he named Alger Hiss. Immediately, Hiss demanded to attend a HUAC hearing. On August 5, Hiss denied allegations that he was a member of the network or that he had ever known a man named Whittaker Chambers. (Of course, spies operate under assumed names.) Hiss continued this denial until his death in 1996.

During many weeks of further hearings, Chambers denied that espionage had formed part of the activities of his network--then admitted it. In recanting, he explained that his earlier denial came from his aim to expose (thus disable) the network but to avoid punishment for its members. Of Alger Hiss, he said during hearings "We were close friends" (which he detailed during hearings and in his 1952 autobiography, Witness).

On August 27, 1948, during a radio interview on Meet the Press, a reporter asked Chambers whether Hiss had been a communist: Chambers said yes. Four weeks later, Hiss filed slander suits against Chambers in civil courts. In October 1948, as part of those civil proceedings in Baltimore, Chambers revealed scores of typewritten and even handwritten pages (including the handwriting of Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White). These were the "Baltimore Documents." Hiss had his lawyers submit those papers to the U.S. Department of Justice, clearly hoping that Justice (as part of the FDR administration in which Hiss had served) would indict Chambers.

In December 1948, HUAC's Richard Nixon subpoenaed Chambers for any further evidence. This turned up microfilm, misnamed by the press the "Pumpkin Papers." Nixon paraded their finding before the public to pressure Justice to consider Hiss, too, for indictment. Weighing the recant of Chambers (which furthered investigation) against the unbending denials of Hiss (which led investigators nowhere but indicated otherwise), Justice made its decision: it indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury. Justice prosecuted the case successfully. A jury found Hiss guilty based on Chambers' testimony and the evidence of the Baltimore Documents.

The "Pumpkin Papers" (microfilm) played no significant role in the judicial proceedings.

As disclaimer, Whittaker Chambers was my grandfather.

Power Line
September 24, 2008

During Power Line's interview on September 21, 2008, The Lost Spy author [b]Andrew Meier[/b] made an inaccurate assertion:
[quote][Whittaker] Chambers always said that he had been sent to Europe, and it's a big debate among sort of scholars of the Hiss Case. It's never been proven that he did go overseas.
Allow me to attempt to set the matter straight to the best of my knowledge.

Whittaker Chambers (my grandfather) claimed quite the opposite, that he had never gone overseas for the Soviets: others claimed he did.

The issue came up over postcards he had had sent to art historian (and lifelong friend) Meyer Schapiro and artist (and New Masses colleague) Jacob Burck -- as a joke -- as if he too had gone to Moscow as so many Americans were, publicly, in the 1930s. People very close to them had gone: Langston Hughes, with whom my grandfather -- and Jacob Burck -- had planned a "Suitcase Theater," had traveled to the Soviet Union the year before, in 1932 (and coincidentally toured the USSR with Arthur Koestler).

Allen Weinstein (Perjury, pp. 113-114) and Sam Tanenhaus (Whittaker Chambers, pp. 88) among others take these postcards seriously. Weinstein takes them so seriously that he attempts to expand upon my grandfather's supposed but in fact spurious visit to Moscow as part of otherwise unsubstantiated training he received there. More judiciously, Tanenhaus merely mentions the postcards and the supposed visit without elaboration.

In my own review of The Lost Spy, I noted that Meier did not elaborate on several intersections between Cy Oggins and Whittaker Chambers (some of which point at my family's doorstep). In fact, the review of The Lost Spy "Doppelgänger" because of the lost chance in comparing protagonist Cy and my grandfather -- one who went abroad to spy, the other who stayed home.

However, my grandfather did visit Europe ten years earlier than the 1933 date of those postcards -- with Meyer Schapiro, as college students. It was during this 1923 visit, he wrote later, that "I saw for the first time the crisis of history and its dimensions," especially in Germany (Witness [1952], pp. 193-194). Within a short time he read a pamphlet by Lenin and was heading down the path to Communism. He did not return to Europe until a second and final time in the late 1950s, the highlight of which trip was meeting Arthur Koestler face-to-face. (He had reviewed Darkness at Noon in TIME, and Koestler had written much about the Hiss Case.)

Despite the weightiness of much of his writings, Whittaker Chambers was fond of jokes and often quite humorous. Many who knew him personally have noted this, such as Bill Buckley ("Witness and Friends").

Quite a number of pieces by Whittaker Chambers are humorous. In Witness, the reason he cites for getting a job at TIME is because he opened a review of a war book with the phrase, "One bomby day in June..." Another lies in a chapter called "The Price Is Right" (pp. 287-288) in his posthumous book Cold Friday (1964).

Currently, my personal favorite is his TIME review of Arthur Schlesinger's book The Age of Jackson, which begins:
Once upon a time, when the Yewnited States was just a little shaver among nations, but already very spoiled along the literate Eastern fringes, there lived younder [sic] in Tennessee a lovable old man with a tongue like a rat-tailed file and a face so hard they called him Old Hickory.
This was not the usual fare from TIME back then (nor has it been since).

My grandfather wrote his electrifying TIME article "The Ghosts on the Roof," a tongue-in-cheek "fairy tale" laced with gallows humor, to poke fun at continued American alliance with Uncle Joe Stalin:
"Yes, yes, oh yes," said the Tsar eagerly, elbowing his wife's ghost out of the way.

"What statesmanship! What vision! What power! We have known nothing like it since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic states in the 18th Century. Stalin has made Russia great again!"
In light of the rise of Vladimir Putin in parallel with the Bush 43 presidency (during which President George W. Bush famously stated, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy..."), my grandfather's essay remains most current and relative today.

My father has told me about these joke postcards several times. For me, those postcards represent a humorous side to a man almost always portrayed in other lights. For my father, however, who grew up directly in the shadow of the Hiss Case, these postcards have always represented classic examples of mistakes and misunderstandings involved in the Case. While he always laughs when recounting the postcards, his laughter is edged and grim -- gallows humor, indeed.

Sincerely - David Chambers

Editor & Publisher
August 30, 2007

By mentioning Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley, Jr., in the same breath, Mark Fitzgerald's excellent commentary reminded me of a family episode involving academic censorship.

In 1922, Columbia University expelled my grandfather, Whittaker Chambers, then incoming editor of its literary magazine Morningside, for writing a short play entitled "A Play for Puppets" which satirized Christianity. Chambers describes this event in Witness. In his biography, Sam Tanenhaus details this episode and cites it as a direct influence on Chambers' road to Communism. Interestingly, Chambers used a pseudonym as a byline when publishing the piece.

I believe Whittaker Chambers would have supported Tufts' president completely. On the one hand, he would have supported the right of publications to withhold bylines. On the other, witless parodies or mock advertisements aimed at African-Americans or Muslims would never have made Morningside under his editorship. He might have exercised Free Speech by taking a moment to critique such parodies and mock advertisements--but only a moment. Such has been the action of Tuft's president: to publish the university's own comment. While allowing free speech, Tufts has demonstrated how to treat and react to such worthless publishings--with "intellectual rigor and discernment," as Mr. Fitzgerald mentioned. Following Tanenhaus' interpretation of events nearly a century ago, had Columbia's president acted with the same discernment as Tufts', my grandfather might well have remained within New York's literary community and not, as an outcast, become a communist.

(Ironically, after a career as Communist spy, TIME senior editor, and government witness, Chambers managed to exercise Free Speech on any number of occasions. He critiqued Rand's When Atlas Shrugged in Buckley's National Review--with his own byline. He then chose to resign from NR's staff.)

David Chambers
(grandchild of Whittaker Chambers)
Reston, VA



Tufts Off the Record (Tufts OTR)
September 5, 2007

The Wall Street Journal
March 20, 2007

Your article "Trial's Lesson: Just Take the Fifth" (Politics & Economics, March 7) may have stretched matters comparing the perjury cases of Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Alger Hiss. Following its logic, the statute of limitations always protected Mr. Hiss, so his only legal risk in testifying was perjury.

Mr. Hiss, however, may have feared that invoking the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination would seem an indirect admission of guilt. He was, after all, head of the Carnegie Endowment at that time. He may have feared inviting suspicion or risking further investigation of other alleged Communists in government. We know only one thing: Mr. Hiss leapt at the chance to testify early on. His strategy backfired because his story didn't hold from the start, leaving time for damaging evidence to emerge, most famously the Pumpkin Papers. In contrast, Libby & Co. had no statute of limitations covering the Plame affair, so anyone accused would be in legal danger, whether pleading the Fifth or not.

After the Hiss case, the nation descended into McCarthyism before snapping back. What has happened in the Libby case? So far, attacking Joe Wilson by exposing his wife has succeeded in diverting the public away from the issue of just cause for war in Iraq. Mr. Libby's verdict has neither cleared up the Plame affair nor our cause for war.

While you debated whether perjury was too risky without having facts made clear, the Libby case may have proven something else: Perjury may steer risk away from others by not making facts clear. Short of Pumpkin Papers a la Plame, we may never know more.

David Chambers
Reston, Va.

(Mr. Chambers is a grandson of Whittaker Chambers, who accused Alger Hiss of Communist espionage.)

[Response: "The Great Pumpkin Rises from the Patch"]

The Washington Times
February 23, 2007

I met Ralph de Toledano only last year.

I had come back to Washington, after many years and was reading his book Notes from the Underground when I found this passage:
Oct. 18, 1960
Dear Ralph,
The Montero is marvelous. [I had sent him a recording of Germaine Montero reading Garcia-Lorca's "Lament on the Death of a Bullfighter," his greatest poem.] I scarcely expected at my time of life to have the kind of experience that occurs at my son's age: something new and wonderful, since what the young woman is saying in the tone (more than any words) is what has always been there. I thank you for bringing this young creto-iberienne to our house...
Suddenly, I had to meet him.

However, after the death of my grandfather, Whittaker Chambers, our families had not kept in touch. Fortunately, Ralph was not hard to find and was delighted when I called. He suggested we meet at his old stomping grounds at the National Press Club. At the appointed time and date, we met upstairs on the fourteenth floor, in the members' bar.

Ralph was a tall man, nearly 90. He had survived intestinal cancer, though not without scars. While a bit unsteady, he was still bright-eyed and was warmly welcoming as we sat down. Lunch was on him, of course: It was his treat to his old friend's grandson.

It was hard to know where to start talking. Conversation was hampered partly by the deafness of age. Part of it was due to the memory of Whittaker Chambers that played across his face faster than he could utter words. He started to tell stories several times but quickly broke off in mid-sentence, all the time smiling. I knew he missed my grandfather, and the memories were happy.

Then Ralph asked me whether I had read Notes from the Underground.

I had come because I had read the book, I said -- and to thank him.

He looked surprised.

I told him about the letter I had read.That record of Germaine Montero's he had given Grampa, her recital of Garcia-Lorca's "Lament" that Grampa had enjoyed so much? It had come down to me. I had listened to it many times, but I had not known until those letters that it had come from him.

Thanks to that record, I told him, I had been sure to read Federico Garcia-Lorca, had read about the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Neruda's memoirs and poetry, Abel Paz's account of Durruti's Column, Orwell's Homage [to Catalonia]. Through that record, I had come to know of many of the leaders and intellectuals involved in that prelude to World War II. Because of that record, I had listened to my mother's copy of Germaine Montero singing Brecht's Mother Courage, as well as my grandfather's copy of Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill. Ralph loved music, and his face beamed.

Again, I thanked Ralph for his gift. He quoted something in Spanish I could not follow, but it did not matter. Looking at his face, I realized that in thanking him, I had given him something back in return. By learning of this lasting affect on our family, Ralph had touched his old friend again.

Just a few weeks ago, I happened to pass by the National Press Club again to see Ralph. He was not there. He had been in the hospital, reported Jack, the barman. Jack did not expect him to come to the Press Club anytime soon, but I could call Ralph at home. Meanwhile Jack would pass on my regards if he talked to Ralph. Then he asked my name and instantly remembered my sole visit more than a year ago: you are the grandson of Whittaker Chambers that Ralph met here. That's right, I said -- what a thing memory is.

One matter I had not told Ralph that showed how deeply his gift had touched me was that I had read from Lorca's "Lament" at the funeral of my maternal grandfather. With the news of Ralph's death, I read it again:
Tardara mucho tiempo en nacer, si es que nace,
un andaluz tan claro, tan rico de aventura.
Yo canto su elegancia con palabras que gimen
y recuerdo una brisa triste por los olivos.

It will be a long time, if ever, before there is born
an Andalusian so true, so full of adventure.
I sing of his elegance with words that groan
and I remember a sad breeze through the olive trees.
David Chambers
Reston, VA

(also available on: Goliath, Yahoo! Groups, Highbeam)

Comments, ideas, questions? Email: info [at] whittakerchambers [dot] org
Please support this site by making your purchases at WhittakerChambers.org Store at Amazon.com