A reflection on “Witness” and the Sam Tanenhaus biography “Whittaker Chambers.”
Whittaker Chambers woke America from its stupor.
He shed light on the communist menace during a hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in August 1948. Chambers, a former member of the Communist underground, identified Alger Hiss as a communist. He also claimed that communists had infiltrated the U.S. government and were engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union. These revelations created an uproar. They also started the trial of the century.
Hiss was a member of the establishment. He made his mark during Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Hiss began as a lawyer in the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, spent time in the Justice Department, and then worked for the State Department. He rose through the ranks during World War II and became the assistant secretary of state. In 1945, he served as an advisor to FDR at the Yalta Conference, which laid the groundwork for reconstructing post-war Europe. He helped launch the United Nations, serving as secretary-general of that organization’s charter conference. After the war, he left government service to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Hiss asked if HUAC would allow him to respond to Chambers’ allegations. He appeared before the committee two days later and denied the charge. Hiss claimed he had never been a member of the Communist Party nor had he participated in espionage against the U.S. government.
But Hiss wasn’t through. After appearing before Congress, he came out and spoke with the press. He dared his accuser to make a public allegation. When Chambers repeated the charge on a Meet the Press appearance, Hiss sued Chambers for libel.
Overnight, the country divided into two camps: those who believed Alger Hiss and those who supported Whittaker Chambers.
The professional, elite class sided with Alger Hiss. They knew him from his days at Harvard or through his work in government. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter was a character witness on his behalf. State Secretary Dean Acheson was a friend. President Truman claimed the Hiss Case was a red herring championed by Republicans for political purposes during the election year.
Few stood up for Chambers.
In fact, many people thought he was unbalanced. Several of his colleagues at Time magazine, where he served as a senior editor, thought he was unhinged. They opposed his strident anti-communism and deplored the direction he took the magazine’s foreign news when he oversaw that department during the 1940s. They saw him as a Red Baiter who inserted his opinion into the news coverage.
These critics pointed to his influential piece, “Ghosts on the Roof” as an indication of his dogmatic views. Chambers wrote a “political fairy tale” in which he imagined an interaction between Czar Nicholas II and Joseph Stalin. The czar, who abdicated shortly before the 1917 Russian Revolution, applauded the Soviet dictator’s action and vision. This fictional Nicholas compared Stalin to Peter the Great and claimed that he (Stalin) had made Russia powerful once again.
Time reporters went nuts after the article was published. They bashed Chambers’ editorial bias. John Hershey, a Time correspondent, reflected this opinion when he said that Chambers had an apocalyptic world view and his article was riddled with “unjustified implications” that might launch a third world war.
Critics thought Chambers’ used the Hiss Case to further his anti-communist crusade. They argued that his testimony was a figment of his imagination, similar to “Ghosts on the Roof.” They just could not believe that Hiss was a member of the communist conspiracy.
Americans didn’t want to believe the charges either. They couldn’t fathom the communist infiltration that Chambers described. Could a former assistant secretary of state really be a communist?
This environment created a perfect storm. Instead of public attention focusing on Alger Hiss, the trial turned into a battle over the truth of Whittaker Chambers’ testimony. This drama continued to build as the trial dragged on.
The Hiss case was one of the first Washington spectacles that played out on television. Americans saw the two men appear before HUAC. Television showed the differences between the two men.
Hiss looked like a man of honor. He was tall, good looking, and wore elegant clothing. He appeared polished and seemed to be a man in control. Colleagues spoke highly of his work. A life spent working towards the greater good made him the good guy.
Chambers, on the other hand, looked guilty as hell. He was short, fat, and paid no attention to his appearance. His testimony revealed a communist past and several years spent undermining the U.S. government. His journalistic record showed he had an axe to grind, and had used his platform to wage war against communism.
The Hiss legal team used these public perceptions to make the case about Whittaker Chambers. They wanted to destroy his character and believed, by running his name through the mud, they could discredit his testimony.
The trial revealed much of Chambers’ past. His troubled upbringing became a focus. Psychiatrists tried to portray him as a lunatic. His father was a bi-sexual who had abandoned his family. His brother committed suicide. As a young man, Chambers had a homosexual encounter. The Hiss team claimed that he had spent considerable time under psychiatric care. These charges painted the portrait of a disturbed individual.
Chambers denied this last charge. But, he also recognized what was going on. He understood he had a cross to bear. He felt alone and at war with a mighty foe.
But Chambers refused to quit. He kept fighting day after day. The on-going court battle forced him to resign from Time. Though his settlement with the employer gave him enough money to get by, Chambers was also without the distraction of work. The trial became his life. He knew nothing else.
As the case continued, Chambers provided evidence known as the pumpkin papers (microfilm documentation) that convinced the jury that Chambers’ had told the truth. A jury convicted Hiss of perjury and sent him to prison in January 1950.
Chambers’ victory was a triumph of the will. In seemed like the biblical account of Job. Chambers suffered greatly. His reputation was in tatters. He had lost his job. Most men would wonder: is this all worth it?
This thought dominated Chambers’ thinking during the trial. Several years later as he sat down to write his autobiography Witness, he asked himself: “should a man destroy himself and accept damnation in order to fight for his beliefs?
Chambers believed he should. He wrote that a witness had a mission to speak out for his beliefs and must accept all the consequences that came from performing this duty. His witness required him to speak out against the communist threat.
Communism was a menace to Americans because it threatened to change the world. This ideology sought to displace man from God. In fact, it promised that man could become god-like.
Chambers saw communism as the incarnation of evil. It threatened to enslave men. Alger Hiss, and devoted Communists like him, wanted to impose this tyrannical vision on the United States. This was anathema to Chambers, who said he would rather die a free man than live under communism. His witness required him to act. In doing so, he sacrificed his livelihood and reputation so others could learn about the horrors that came with this twisted ideology.
His tribulations were not in vain. Winning the Hiss Case sparked the anti-communist crusade. This also helped the United States roll back Soviet aggression. It also gave others an example of the courage and determination needed for freedom to triumph over despotism.