Whittaker Chambers (April 1, 1901 – July 9, 1961), born Jay Vivian Chambers and also known as David Whittaker Chambers, was an American writer and editor. After his early years as a Communist Party USA member and Soviet spy, he renounced communism, became an outspoken opponent, and testified at Alger Hiss's perjury and espionage trial. He described both events in his book Witness, published in 1952.
Whittaker Chambers was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and spent his infancy in Brooklyn. His family moved to Lynbrook, Long Island, New York, in 1904, where he grew up and attended school. His parents were Jay Chambers and Laha (Whittaker). Chambers described his childhood as troubled because of his parents' separation and their need to care for their mentally ill grandmother. Chambers' brother committed suicide shortly after withdrawing from his first year of college. Chambers would cite his brother's troubled life and eventual suicide as one of many reasons that he was drawn to communism as a young man.
After graduating from South Side High School in neighboring Rockville Centre in 1919, Chambers worked at a variety of jobs before attending Williams College in 1920. He later enrolled as a day student at Columbia University. At Columbia his fellow students included Meyer Schapiro, Louis Zukofsky, Clifton Fadiman, John Gassner, Lionel Trilling (who later fictionalized him as a main character in his novel The Middle of the Journey), and Guy Endore. In the intellectual environment of Columbia he gained friends and respect. His professors and fellow students found him a talented writer and believed he might become a major poet or novelist.
Early in his sophomore year, Chambers wrote a play called A Play for Puppets for Columbia's literary magazine The Morningside, which he edited. The work was deemed blasphemous by many students and administrators, and the controversy spread to New York City newspapers. Later, the play would be used against Chambers during his testimony against Alger Hiss. Disheartened over the controversy, Chambers left Columbia in 1925. From Columbia, Chambers also knew Isaiah Oggins, who went into the Soviet underground a few years earlier; Chambers' wife, Esther Shemitz Chambers, knew Oggins' wife, Nerma Berman Oggins, from the Rand School of Social Science, the ILGWU, and The World Tomorrow.
In 1930 or 1931, Chambers married the young artist Esther Shemitz (1900–1986). Shemitz, who had studied at the Art Students League and integrated herself into New York City's intellectual circles, met Chambers at the 1926 textile strike at Passaic, New Jersey. They then underwent a stormy courtship that faced resistance from their comrades, with Chambers having climbed through her window at five o'clock in the morning to propose. Shemitz identified as "a pacifist rather than a revolutionary." In the 1920s, she worked for The World Tomorrow, a pacifist magazine.
The couple had two children, a son, John, and a daughter, Ellen, during the 1930s. Ellen had two sons, Steve and John. Communist leadership had demanded that the family abort the first pregnancy, but Chambers secretly refused. His decision marked a key point in his gradual disillusionment with communism. He regarded the birth of his first child as "the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life".
In a letter to J. Edgar Hoover, Chambers wrote that he had numerous homosexual liaisons during the 1930s, starting in 1933. He said that his frequent traveling gave him an opportunity for "cruising", especially in New York City and Washington, D.C. He insisted that he kept these activities secret from everyone, including his communist handlers and his comrades given their negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Chambers also had heterosexual affairs.
Chambers told the FBI that he gave up these practices in 1938 when he left the communist underground. He attributed this change of heart to his newfound Christianity. Chambers' admissions, given the strong social attitudes against homosexuals in 1949, led to a hostile response.
In 1924, Chambers read Vladimir Lenin's Soviets at Work and was deeply affected by it. He now saw the dysfunctional nature of his family, he would write, as "in miniature the whole crisis of the middle class"; a malaise from which Communism promised liberation. Chambers's biographer Sam Tanenhaus wrote that Lenin's authoritarianism was "precisely what attracts Chambers... He had at last found his church"; that is, he became a Marxist. In 1925, Chambers joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) (then known as the Workers Party of America). Chambers wrote and edited for Communist publications, including The Daily Worker newspaper and The New Masses magazine. Combining his literary talents with his devotion to Communism, Chambers wrote four short stories in 1931 about proletarian hardship and revolt, including Can You Make Out Their Voices?, considered by critics as one of the best pieces of fiction from the American Communist movement. Hallie Flanagan co-adapted and produced it as a play entitled Can You Hear Their Voices? (see Writings by Chambers, below), staged across America and in many other countries. Chambers also worked as a translator during this period; among his works was the English version of Felix Salten's 1923 novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods.
Chambers was recruited to join the "Communist underground" and began his career as a spy, working for a GRU apparatus headed by Alexander Ulanovsky (aka Ulrich). Later, his main controller in the underground was Josef Peters (whom CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder later replaced with Rudy Baker). Chambers claimed Peters introduced him to Harold Ware (although he later denied he had ever been introduced to Ware), and that he was head of a Communist underground cell in Washington that reportedly included:
Henry Collins, employed at the National Recovery Administration and later the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).
Lee Pressman, assistant general counsel of the AAA.
Alger Hiss, attorney for the AAA and the Nye Committee; he moved to the Department of State in 1936, where he became an increasingly prominent figure.
John Abt, chief of Litigation for the AAA from 1933 to 1935, assistant general counsel of the Works Progress Administration in 1935, chief counsel on Senator Robert La Follette, Jr.'s LaFollette Committee from 1936 to 1937 and special assistant to the United States Attorney General, 1937 and 1938.
Charles Kramer, employed at the Department of Labor National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Nathan Witt, employed at the AAA; later moved to the NLRB.
George Silverman, employed at the Railroad Retirement Board; later worked with the Federal Coordinator of Transport, the United States Tariff Commission and the Labor Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration.
Marion Bachrach, sister of John Abt; office manager to Representative John Bernard of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
John Herrmann, author; assistant to Harold Ware; employed at the AAA; courier and document photographer for the Ware group; introduced Chambers to Hiss.
Nathaniel Weyl, author; would later defect from Communism himself and give evidence against party members.
Donald Hiss, brother to Alger Hiss; employed at the Department of State.
Victor Perlo, chief of the Aviation Section of the War Production Board, later joined the Office of Price Administration Department of Commerce and the Division of Monetary Research at the Department of Treasury.
Apart from Marion Bachrach, these people were all members of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal administration. Chambers worked in Washington as an organizer among Communists in the city and as a courier between New York and Washington for stolen documents which were delivered to Boris Bykov, the GRU station chief.
Other covert sources
Using the codename "Karl" or "Carl", Chambers served during the mid-1930s as a courier between various covert sources and Soviet intelligence. In addition to the Ware group mentioned above, other sources that Chambers dealt with allegedly included:
Noel Field, employed at the Department of State.
Harold Glasser, Assistant Director, Division of Monetary Research, United States Department of the Treasury.
Ward Pigman, employed at the National Bureau of Standards; Labor and Public Welfare Committee.
Vincent Reno, a mathematician at the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Julian Wadleigh, economist with the Department of Agriculture and later the Trade Agreements section of the United States Department of State.
Harry Dexter White, Director of the Division of Monetary Research at the Secretary of the Treasury.
Chambers carried on his espionage activities from 1932 until 1937 or 1938 even while his faith in Communism was waning. He became increasingly disturbed by Joseph Stalin's Great Purge, which began in 1936. He was also fearful for his own life, having noted the murder in Switzerland of Ignatz Reiss, a high-ranking Soviet spy who had broken with Stalin, and the disappearance of Chambers' friend and fellow spy Juliet Poyntz in the United States. Poyntz had vanished in 1937, shortly after she had visited Moscow and returned disillusioned with the Communist cause due to the Stalinist Purges.
Chambers ignored several orders that he travel to Moscow, worried that he might be "purged." He also started concealing some of the documents he collected from his sources. He planned to use these, along with several rolls of microfilm photographs of documents, as a "life preserver" to prevent the Soviets from killing him and his family.
In 1938, Chambers broke with Communism and took his family into hiding, storing the "life preserver" at the home of his nephew and his parents. Initially he had no plans to give information on his espionage activities to the U.S. government. His espionage contacts were his friends, and he had no desire to inform on them.
The August 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact drove Chambers to take action against the Soviet Union. In September 1939, at the urging of anti-Communist, Russian-born journalist Isaac Don Levine, Chambers and Levine met with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. Levine had introduced Chambers to Walter Krivitsky, who was already informing American and British authorities about Soviet agents who held posts in both governments. Krivitsky told Chambers it was their duty to inform. Chambers agreed to reveal what he knew on the condition of immunity from prosecution. During the meeting, which took place at Berle's home, Woodley Mansion in Washington, Chambers named 18 current and former government employees as spies or Communist sympathizers. Many names mentioned held relatively minor posts or were already under suspicion. Some names, however, were more significant and surprising: Alger Hiss, his brother Donald Hiss, and Laurence Duggan—who were all respected, mid-level officials in the State Department—and Lauchlin Currie, a special assistant to Franklin Roosevelt. Another person named had worked on a top secret bombsight project at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Berle found Chambers' information tentative, unclear, and uncorroborated. He took the information to the White House, but the President dismissed it, to which Berle made little if any objection. Berle kept his notes, however (later, evidence during Hiss' perjury trials).
Berle notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of Chambers's information in March 1940. In February 1941, Krivitsky was found dead in his hotel room. While police ruled the death a suicide, it was widely speculated that Krivitsky had been killed by Soviet intelligence. Worried that the Soviets might try to kill Chambers too, Berle again told the FBI about his interview with Chambers. Nevertheless, the FBI took no immediate action, in line with the political orientation of the United States, which viewed the potential threat from the USSR as minor, when compared to that of Nazi Germany.
(The FBI did interview Chambers in May 1942 and June 1945, without further action. Only in November 1945, when Elizabeth Bentley defected and corroborated much of Chambers's story, did the FBI begin to take Chambers seriously).
By the time of the Berle meeting, Chambers had come out of hiding after a year and joined the staff of Time Magazine (April 1939). He landed a cover story within a month on James Joyce's latest book, Finnegans Wake. He started at the back of the magazine, reviewing books and film with James Agee and then Calvin Fixx. When Fixx died in October 1942, Wilder Hobson succeeded him as Chambers' assistant editor in Arts & Entertainment. Other writers working for Chambers in that section included: novelist Nigel Dennis, future New York Times Book Review editor Harvey Breit, and poets Howard Moss and Weldon Kees. During this time, a struggle arose between those, like Theodore H. White and Richard Lauterbach, who raised criticism of what they saw as the elitism, corruption and ineptitude of Chiang Kai-shek's regime in China and advocated greater cooperation with Mao's Red Army in the struggle against Japanese imperialism, and Chambers and others like Willi Schlamm who adhered to a staunchly pro-Chiang, anti-communist perspective (and who both later joined the founding editorial board of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review). Time founder Henry R. Luce, who grew up in China and was a personal friend of Chiang and his wife, came down squarely on the side of Chambers to the point that White complained that his stories were being censored, and even suppressed in their entirety, and left Time shortly after the war as a result. With Luce's blessing, Chambers received a promotion to senior editor in September 1943 and was made a member of Time's "Senior Group", which determined editorial policy, in December.
By early 1948, Chambers had become one of the best known writer-editors at Time. First had come his scathing commentary "The Ghosts on the Roof" (March 5, 1945) on the Yalta Conference (in which Hiss partook). Subsequent cover-story essays profiled Marian Anderson, Arnold J. Toynbee, Rebecca West and Reinhold Niebuhr. The cover story on Marian Anderson (December 30, 1946) proved so popular that the magazine broke its rule of non-attribution in response to readers' letters:
Most Time cover stories are written and edited by the regular staffs of the section in which they appear. Certain cover stories, that present special difficulties or call for a special literary skill, are written by Senior Editor Whittaker Chambers."
Chambers was at the height of his career when the Hiss case broke later that year.
During this period, Chambers and his family became Quakers, attending Pipe Creek Friends Meetinghouse near his Maryland farm.
The Hiss case
On August 3, 1948, Chambers was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Here he gave the names of individuals he said were part of the underground "Ware group" in the late 1930s, including Alger Hiss. He thus once again named Hiss as a member of the Communist Party, but did not yet make any accusations of espionage. In subsequent HUAC sessions, Hiss testified and initially denied that he knew anyone by the name of Chambers, but on seeing him in person (and after it became clear that Chambers knew details about Hiss's life), said that he had known Chambers under the name "George Crosley". Hiss denied that he had ever been a Communist, however. Since Chambers still presented no evidence, the committee had initially been inclined to take the word of Hiss on the matter. However, committee member Richard Nixon received secret information from the FBI which had led him to pursue the issue. When it issued its report, HUAC described Hiss's testimony as "vague and evasive".
The country quickly became divided over the Hiss–Chambers issue. President Harry S Truman, not pleased with the allegation that the man who had presided over the United Nations Charter Conference was a Communist, dismissed the case as a "red herring". In the atmosphere of increasing anti-communism that would later be termed McCarthyism, many conservatives viewed the Hiss case as emblematic of what they saw as Democrats' laxity towards the danger of communist infiltration and influence in the State Department. Many liberals, in turn, saw the Hiss case as part of the desperation of the Republican party to regain the office of president, having been out of power for 16 years. Truman also issued Executive Order 9835, which initiated a program of loyalty reviews for federal employees in 1947.
Hiss filed a $75,000 libel suit against Chambers on October 8, 1948. Under pressure from Hiss's lawyers, Chambers finally retrieved his envelope of evidence and presented it to the HUAC after they subpoenaed them. It contained four notes in Alger Hiss's handwriting, sixty-five typewritten copies of State Department documents and five strips of microfilm, some of which contained photographs of State Department documents. The press came to call these the "Pumpkin Papers" referring to the fact that Chambers had briefly hidden the microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin. These documents indicated that Hiss knew Chambers long after mid-1936, when Hiss said he had last seen "Crosley," and also that Hiss had engaged in espionage with Chambers. Chambers explained his delay in producing this evidence as an effort to spare an old friend from more trouble than necessary. Until October 1948, Chambers had repeatedly stated that Hiss had not engaged in espionage, even when Chambers testified under oath. Chambers was forced to testify at the Hiss trials that he had committed perjury several times, which reduced his credibility in the eyes of his critics.
The five rolls of 35 mm film known as the "pumpkin papers" were thought until late 1974 to be locked in HUAC files. Independent researcher Stephen W. Salant, an economist at the University of Michigan, sued the U.S. Justice Department in 1975 when his request for access to them under the Freedom of Information Act was denied. On July 31, 1975, as a result of this lawsuit and follow-on suits filed by Peter Irons and by Alger Hiss and William Reuben, the Justice Department released copies of the "pumpkin papers" that had been used to implicate Hiss. One roll of film turned out to be totally blank due to overexposure, two others are faintly legible copies of nonclassified Navy Department documents relating to such subjects as life rafts and fire extinguishers, and the remaining two are photographs of the State Department documents introduced by the prosecution at the two Hiss trials, relating to U.S./German relations in the late 1930s.
This story, however, as reported by the NY Times in the 1970s, contains only a partial truth. The blank roll had been mentioned by Chambers in his autobiography Witness. But in addition to innocuous farm reports, etc., the documents on the other pumpkin patch microfilms also included "confidential memos sent from overseas embassies to diplomatic staff in Washington, D.C."; worse, those memos had originally been transmitted in code, which, thanks to their (presumably) having both coded originals and the translations forwarded by Hiss, the Soviets now could easily understand.
Hiss could not be tried for espionage at this time, because the evidence indicated the offense had occurred more than ten years prior to that time, and the statute of limitations for espionage was five years. Instead, Hiss was indicted for two counts of perjury relating to testimony he had given before a federal grand jury the previous December. There he had denied giving any documents to Whittaker Chambers, and testified he had not seen Chambers after mid-1936.
Hiss was tried twice for perjury. The first trial, in June 1949, ended with the jury deadlocked eight to four for conviction. In addition to Chambers's testimony, a government expert testified that other papers typed on a typewriter belonging to the Hiss family matched the secret papers produced by Chambers. An impressive array of character witnesses appeared on behalf of Hiss: two U.S. Supreme Court justices, Felix Frankfurter and Stanley Reed, former Democratic presidential nominee John W. Davis and future Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. Chambers, on the other hand, was attacked by Hiss's attorneys as "an enemy of the Republic, a blasphemer of Christ, a disbeliever in God, with no respect for matrimony or motherhood". In the second trial, Hiss's defense produced a psychiatrist who characterized Chambers as a "psychopathic personality" and "a pathological liar".
The second trial ended in January 1950 with Hiss found guilty on both counts of perjury. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
After the Hiss case
Chambers had resigned from Time in December 1948. After the Hiss Case, he wrote a few articles for Fortune, Life, and Look magazines.
In 1952, Chambers's book Witness was published to widespread acclaim. The book was a combination of autobiography and a warning about the dangers of Communism. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called it "a powerful book". Ronald Reagan credited the book as the inspiration behind his conversion from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican. Witness was a bestseller for more than a year and helped pay off Chambers' legal debts, though bills lingered ("as Odysseus was beset by a ghost").
In 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr. started the magazine National Review, and Chambers worked there as senior editor, publishing articles there for a little over a year and a half (October 1957–June 1959). The most widely cited article to date is a scathing review, "Big Sister is Watching You", of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
In 1959, after resigning from National Review, Chambers and his wife visited Europe, the highlight of which was a meeting with Arthur Koestler and Margarete Buber-Neumann at Koestler's home in Austria. That fall, he recommenced studies at Western Maryland College (new McDaniel College) in Westminster, Maryland.
Chambers died of a heart attack on July 9, 1961, at his 300-acre (1.2 km2) farm in Westminster, Maryland. He had suffered from angina since the age of 38 and had had several heart attacks previously.
Cold Friday, his second memoir, was published posthumously in 1964 with the help of Duncan Norton-Taylor. The book prophetically predicted that the fall of Communism would start in the satellite states surrounding the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. A collection of his correspondence with William F. Buckley, Jr., Odyssey of a Friend, was published in 1968; a collection of his journalism—including several of his Time and National Review writings, was published in 1989 as Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers.
Chambers's book Witness is on the reading lists of the Heritage Foundation, The Weekly Standard, The Leadership Institute, and the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He is regularly cited by conservative writers such as Heritage's president Edwin Feulner.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his contribution to "the century's epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism". In 1988, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel granted national landmark status to the Pipe Creek Farm. In 2001, members of the George W. Bush Administration held a private ceremony to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Chambers's birth. Speakers included William F. Buckley, Jr.
In 2007, John Chambers revealed that a library containing his father's papers should open in 2008 on the Chambers farm in Maryland. He indicated that the facility will be available to all scholars and that a separate library, rather than one within an established university, is needed to guarantee open access.
On 6 January 2010, the Medfield farmhouse at Pipe Creek Farm, in which Whittaker Chambers wrote Witness, was severely damaged by a fire that began in an electrical panel at the front entrance of the home.
In 2011, author Elena Maria Vidal interviewed David Chambers about his grandfather's legacy. Versions of the interview were published in the National Observer and The American Conservative.