How We Got Here: The Passion of Whittaker Chambers

Part two in a series on McCarthyism and the Red Scare; part one here.

Ironically, the House Committee on Un-American Activities owed its existence to a congressman who spent years on the Soviet payroll. Samuel Dickstein, known to the NKVD as “Crook” and his countrymen as a bloviating, bribe-taking busybody, established a temporary committee (nominally headed by John McCormack of Massachusetts) in 1934 to investigate fascism in the United States. Dickstein’s committee heard Smedley Butler’s accusations of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt, and exposed homegrown fascists like the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund. Vowing to hunt the “Nazi rats, spies and agents” menacing the country, he assured colleagues that if necessarily, he would expand his investigation to include “everybody” in America.

But in April 1937, when Dickstein asked the House to make the McCormack-Dickstein Committee permanent, his colleagues overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. Congress possessed little stomach for hunting fascists, especially at the behest of a Jewish liberal; the ACLU and other progressives didn’t relish a campaign targeting nebulously defined subversives. Representative Lindsay C. Warren of North Carolina further warned that “investigations of this nature…are generally for the self-glorification and advertisement of those who conduct them and who have an itch and flair for publicity.”

Dies Dickstein
Witch hunters: Martin Dies (left) and Samuel Dickstein

In May 1938, however, the House impaneled a new committee headed by Martin Dies. A conservative Texas Democrat, Dies initially continued Dickstein’s battle against fascists, as Hitler’s aggression in Europe stoked fears of domestic Nazism. But Dies found the prospect of combating Communism, and leftists generally, far more exciting. Decrying the “idealists, dreamers, politicians, professional do-gooders and just plain job-hunters” in FDR’s government, he launched investigations into Popular Front coalitions of progressives, intellectuals, educators, labor unions and government officials. Jerry Voorhis, the Committee’s token liberal, accused Dies of exhibiting “a completely totalitarian state of mind,” rarely sorting legitimate threats from honest dissenters.

The Dies Committee often provided fireworks: one interrogation of Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund climaxed with Joe Starnes of Alabama leaping from his seat to slug the Nazi leader (shocked police restrained him with difficulty). Sometimes they were witty: when a critic asked J.B. Matthews, the committee’s chief investigator, whether Communists controlled ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy, Matthews deadpanned that Stalin had so many puppets already “they do not need the wooden one.” Occasionally they even found real communists, particularly in labor unions, which weren’t shy about aligning with the Far Left during the Popular Front.

But the Dies Committee often proved ignorant, insulting and reckless. Starnes once insisted to a baffled Earl Browder that the American Revolution was won without bloodshed; on another occasion, he asked representatives of the Federal Theatre Project whether Christopher Marlowe and Euripides were Communists. After Pearl Harbor, J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) complained that the War Department coddled interned Japanese-Americans: “Are we to release this fat-waisted Jap while our boys on Guadalcanal are barely receiving enough food with which to keep alive?” Dies, meanwhile, asserted that Roosevelt’s cabinet “range in political insanity from socialist to Communist” and publicly branded Eleanor Roosevelt a Soviet asset.

John Rankin
John Rankin, Jew-baiting loon

Worst of all, John Rankin of Mississippi increasingly dominated hearings with his near-pathological antisemitism. Jews “have been run out of practically every country in Europe in the years gone by,” the Dixiecrat raged, “and if they keep stirring race trouble in this country and trying to force their communistic program on the Christian people of America, there is no telling what will happen to them here.” Rankin called reporter Walter Winchell a “slime-mongering kike,” harped on the birth names of Hollywood Jews and mocked a Jewish women’s delegation as “a wilderness of noses.”

Dies and his Committee fell into disrepute in 1944. The aforementioned Walter Winchell branded the Dies Committee “the sorriest stumblebums in the nation” and repeatedly attacked them in his column and radio show. “Let’s get together and tell some more lies about each other,” Winchell offered to Dies, who responded “I’d have to go some to get even.” Dies also broke completely with Roosevelt, joining conservative Democrats called the Texas Regulars in a futile effort to deny FDR a fourth term. Disowned by the Democratic Party and ridiculed by reporters, Dies opted not to run for reelection. Only Rankin’s lobbying prevented HUAC from following its chair into oblivion.

By 1948, the Committee’s stature hadn’t improved. If anything, J. Parnell Thomas, now chair after the Republican midterm victory in 1946, pushed HUAC further right. Hearings on communism in the film industry resulted in the indictment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt. When Karl Mundt advocated that HUAC investigate the Ku Klux Klan, Rankin, F. Edward Hebert (Louisiana) and Thomas S. Wood (Georgia) refused; after all, the Klan was “an old American institution.” Mundt was hardly a moderate himself; the South Dakotan co-authored a Communist registration bill with California freshman Richard Nixon. Nixon had recently unseated Jerry Voorhis, who’d long since disowned HUAC as “a political instrument of definite conservative bias.”

Thomas Stripling
J. Parnell Thomas (right) with chief investigator Robert Stripling

What happened next was Harry Truman’s fault. Facing a tough reelection against Thomas Dewey in the fall, Truman railed against the “Do-Nothing” Republican Congress who stonewalled his domestic agenda without, he alleged, contributing any legislation themselves (untrue, though the Mundt-Nixon Act and the Taft-Hartley crackdown on unions certainly weren’t to Truman’s liking). Truman threw down a brazen gauntlet, convening an emergency summer session to put Congress on the spot. Hot, ornery and bored in the sweltering DC summer, the Congressmen filled time with interminable committee hearings that seemingly proved the President’s point.

HUAC, however, called Truman’s bluff by summoning witnesses who bolstered their charges of Communist conspiracy. The first, of course, was the “Red Spy Queen” Elizabeth Bentley, whose revelations of Soviet spy rings in Washington triggered further testimony. As exciting as Bentley’s charges were, however, they were difficult to prove, with her targets utilizing the Fifth Amendment and her own testimony often unreliable. That is, until the Committee unearthed an even more explosive witnesses.

Karl Mundt

On August 3, 1948 HUAC (absent Thomas, nursing a bleeding ulcer) convened in the Ways and Means Committee Room for a surprise witness. Bystanders, reporters and congressmen filled the room, which soon became unbearably hot. In shuffled the witness, Whittaker Chambers: a portly, rumpled-looking man in a wrinkled suit, sweaty and exhausted (he’d managed only a few hours of sleep), his voice an indistinct murmur, his face looking haunted as Karl Mundt swore him in. Few onlookers, aside from the reporters, would have recognized Chambers as an editor for Time-Life. More importantly, he was an ex-Communist.

Reading a prepared statement “in a rather detached way, as if he had an unpleasant chore to do,” as Richard Nixon recalled, Chambers dropped a bombshell. “Almost exactly nine years ago…I went to Washington and reported to the authorities what I knew about the infiltration of the United States Government by Communists,” he declared. “For years, international Communism…had been in a state of undeclared war with this Republic. With the Hitler-Stalin pact that war reached a new stage. I regarded my action in going to the Government as a simple act of war, like the shooting of an armed enemy in combat.”

Chambers summarized his career as a Communist. A gifted but aimless student at Columbia, he befriended Professor Mark Van Doren, who waxed rhapsodic about the USSR (“All the walls are falling down!”). Chambers spent 1923 in Europe, then read Lenin’s Soviets at Work, which impressed him with its forceful picture of Utopia. In 1925 Chambers formally joined the Communist Party, writing for the Daily Worker, collecting dues from members and creating fake passports for the mysterious J. Peters (a Hungarian operative named Sándor Goldberger). More importantly, in 1932 his comrades convinced him to join the Communist underground, adopting several pseudonyms for his clandestine work.

Whittaker Chambers

Over the next six years, Chambers contacted a coterie of Communists dubbed the Ware Group. These were no ordinary fellow travelers, he insisted, but high-placed officials in the Roosevelt Administration, capable of influencing American policy. He named names, among them Nathan Witt, the secretary of the Labor Relations Board; Lee Pressman, counsel to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration; Victor Perlo of Treasury’s Division of Monetary Research; and, most portentously, “Alger Hiss, who as a member of the State Department, later organized the conferences at Dumberton Oaks, San Francisco” – where the United Nations charter was negotiated – “and the United States side of the Yalta Conference.”

It was a masterful performance. Despite his bland delivery, Chambers imbued his words with apocalyptic melodrama. He defected over the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which convinced him at last that Communism was “spiritual night to the human mind and soul.” He described a tearful parting with Hiss after Chambers failed to convince him to abandon Communism. He went into hiding with his wife and daughter, “sleeping by day and watching through the night with gun or revolver within easy reach”; he embraced Christianity to fill the void of Marxism. “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side,” he concluded, but added it was “better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”

Here, at last, was a witness who justified HUAC’s years of blustering about Communist subversion. And worst of all, Chambers disclosed, he approached Adolf Berle of the State Department in 1939 with a warning about Hiss’s activities. Berle passed the information along to Roosevelt, who laughed him off; no action was taken. (He ignored that the FBI didn’t consider Chambers credible either, changing their minds only years later.) The latter added a crucial dimension to Elizabeth Bentley’s earlier testimony. The former alerted Americans to Soviet espionage; Chambers suggested that Democrats were well-aware of it, but either unable, or unwilling to confront it.

Adolf A. Berle

Reporter Frank McNaughton assured Chambers he “behaved with dignity and nobility”; John Rankin lamented “that every patriotic American could not be here to hear [Chambers’] testimony.” Chambers slipped from the courtroom and returned to his farm in rural Maryland, exhausted and spent from his performance, unsure what lay ahead. It had been the culmination of a decade’s private agony, and a tortured lifetime balancing achievement with tragedy, truth with deception.

Chambers’ background proved even more traumatic than his testimony implied. He suffered an abusive, closeted gay father who abandoned the family; a neurotic mother who slept with an ax to ward off intruders; an insane grandmother who wandered through her house rambling to herself and attacking her family with scissors; a beloved brother who committed suicide. These experiences inspired lifelong bouts of melancholy and despair, to which literature and politics offered Chambers expression, if not escape. An eclectic author, he wrote poems, plays, short stories, translated German literature into English, penned political commentary and film reviews, all before Henry Luce made him Time‘s contributing editor.

Chambers was also bisexual in a deeply intolerant age. His affairs with other men, alluded to in snatches of homoerotic poetry (“As your sap drains out of me in excess/Like the sap from the stems of a tree that they lop”), provided another source of guilt to an already overburdened conscience. Guilt which his marriage to Esther Shemitz, a former cartoonist for the Communist underground, never fully assuaged. Nor could Chambers bring himself, in his debut performance, to admit his biggest secret of all. That he and Hiss hadn’t merely moved in suspicious circles, but engaged in espionage themselves.

Hiss pipe
Alger Hiss

Within hours, Alger Hiss telegraphed Robert Stripling, HUAC’s chief investigator. “I do not know Mr. Chambers and insofar as I am aware have never laid eyes on him,” he insisted. “There is no basis for the statements made about me to your committee.” So far, so predictable. Then Hiss dropped a bombshell of his own. “I shall be in Washington on Thursday [August 5] and hope that will be a convenient time from the committee’s point of view for me to appear.”

In appearance and attitude, Hiss proved Chambers’ polar opposite. Tall, thin, well-dressed and boyishly handsome, he bore the grace expected from an educated Establishment liberal. He again denied Chambers’ charges and asserted that neither he nor his brother Donald (a former Labor Department official) had ever met Chambers. He turned Stripling’s background questions into a review of his resume. He had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes; served as counsel to Senator Gerald Nye’s investigation into war profiteering; spent time under Henry Wallace in the Department of Agriculture and worked for Roosevelt’s Solicitor General, future Supreme Court Justice Stanley Forman Reed.

Finally, in 1936, Hiss arrived at the State Department. He’d been instrumental in the establishment of the United Nations and advised Roosevelt at Yalta (with what must have seemed justifiable pride, he exaggerated his role in those negotiations). After leaving the government, Hiss became head of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, where he worked with John Foster Dulles, serving as Thomas Dewey’s foreign policy adviser. Against these achievements, Chambers’ accusations about Hiss seemed absurd.

Hiss testifies

Hiss was proud, preening, even arrogant in his presentation. He certainly impressed the Committee, deflating some accusations with indignation and others with humor. When Karl Mundt showed him a photograph of Chambers, Hiss responded that “he looks like a lot of people. I might even mistake him for the Chairman of the Committee.” At the end, however, he let his mask slip, telling John McDowell (R-PA) that “I am not happy that I didn’t have the chance to meet with the committee privately before there was such a great public press display of…completely unfounded charges against me.”

Dumbfounded, McDowell apologized for the committee’s interrogation; John Rankin leaped from his chair and shook Hiss’s hand. Robert Stripling admitted that Hiss “absolutely took over that hearing” and effectively cleared his name. A crestfallen Karl Mundt moaned to his colleagues that “We’re ruined!” Eddie Hebert suggested abandoning the investigation and allow the Justice Department to proceed, or drop it as they saw fit. Only one member, it seemed, felt differently.

Richard Nixon deeply resented Hiss’s arrogance. “He looked down his nose at the Committee,” he recalled. “We were obviously, in his mind…bumbling know-nothings.” Worse, from Nixon’s perspective, in responding to questions Hiss “was rather insolent to me. From that time my suspicion concerning him continue to grow.” Nixon became particularly incensed during an exchange which played to his own, deep-seated insecurities: when Hiss named his alma maters as Johns Hopkins and Harvard, he asked the Congressman, “I believe your college is Whittier?”

Nixon Stripling Thomas
Richard Nixon with Robert Stripling and J. Parnell Thomas

Behind the scenes, Nixon contacted Father John Cronin, a Catholic priest and anticommunist leader who put Nixon in touch with J. Edgar Hoover. Through Cronin, Hoover presented Nixon with FBI files about Hiss and Chambers. An alliance between America’s premiere Red-hunters was thus formed; with justification, Hoover bragged that he made Nixon’s career. (Several decades later, President Nixon showed his gratitude by repeatedly trying to fire Hoover and strip away his responsibilities, until Hoover’s death in May 1972 – just before the Watergate burglary.)

Democrats and their allies rallied around Hiss. Most news outlets branded Hiss a victim and Chambers a liar; President Truman was quoted dismissing the charges as a “red herring” (actually, they were the words of Communist lawyer John Abt) and declaring that HUAC must cease “slandering a lot of people that don’t deserve it.” Alistair Cooke, the famed British journalist, called Hiss “a subject for Henry James: a product of New World courtesy, with a gentle certitude of behavior, a ready warmth, a brighter and naiver grace than the more trenchant, fatigued, confident or worldlier English prototypes.” Against this paragon of Civilized Man, how could Chambers, that haunted specter from the Underground, possibly compare?

Naturally, conservatives viewed things differently. The very traits liberals found uncouth about Chambers – his apocalyptic rhetoric, pious Christianity, tortured repentance and even his rumpled appearance – struck a chord with Americans already suspicious of the New Deal’s lasting impact. And Hiss, in his indignation that someone even questioned his integrity, instinctively repulsed them. To Nixon’s audience, Hiss embodied every obnoxious know-it-all who dominated classrooms and board meetings, every well-heeled swell who never faced consequences for their misdeeds. The case thus gained a totemic significance that not only transcended its actual importance, but reduced both men into politicized caricatures.

Hiss Truman
Hiss with Harry Truman

Admittedly, Hiss never reached the gothic horror-show of Chambers’ life or Nixon’s Whittier childhood; nonetheless, his existence was troubled. His father, a Baltimore businessman, committed suicide while facing bankruptcy; his mother proved distant and difficult. His brother Bosley died of Bright’s disease when Hiss was in his twenties, and struggled to support his family through his early legal career. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial drew him to the Left, as did his marriage to Priscilla Hobson, a progressive teacher and book editor. Priscilla harbored her own demons, namely a failed marriage that ended after an abortion. Despite having a son, Tony, Priscilla and Alger suffered a rocky marriage that resulted in decades of estrangement.

Reviewing Hiss’s formative years, biographer G. Edward White concludes that he had “a superficially fulfilling but deeply scarring early life…He was directed toward elite social and professional worlds, but his immediate family lacked the financial resources to participate in the world of wealthy members of the upper class. He appeared to be the personification of a cultured, affluent upbringing but he knew that he was not quite that. He also knew, however, that he was intellectually gifted, handsome and capable of charming, and even manipulating others.” And by the time he entered government service Hiss was, if not a communist, then certainly sympathetic to radical beliefs.

Priscilla and Alger Hiss

On August 7th, Nixon, Stripling and a team of HUAC investigators visited Chambers in New York, pressing him for corroborating details. Chambers obliged. Not only had he befriended Hiss and his wife, he now claimed, Chambers shared an apartment for a time. He’d used a pseudonym, Carl, and his command of German initially convinced Hiss that he wasn’t an American. Chambers also told the investigators about Hiss’s family, details from Hiss’s childhood (as a child, he sold spring water to a Baltimore merchant), related anecdotes about borrowed cars, Bukhara rugs and the family cocker spaniel. Chambers claimed that he and Hiss shared a passion for bird watching, and that Hiss once bragged of seeing a prothonotary warbler along the banks of the Potomac.

Chambers impressed the investigators; the wealth of details could, with further testimony, be corroborated by Hiss or other witnesses and in turn shore up Chambers’ testimony. His offer to take a polygraph seemed superfluous. Nixon, exuberant, shared a transcript of Chambers’ testimony with Bert Andrews of the New York Herald Tribune. After reading it, Andrews assured Nixon that “I am positive Chambers and Hiss did know each other. No one could invent all the little items that Chambers has told.”

On August 16th, the Committee invited Hiss to a closed door session. Hiss testily verified Chambers’ details about his family life, from the nicknames for his wife (“Prossy”) and stepson (“Timmy”) to the Bukhara rugs (a gift, Chambers had claimed, from their Soviet masters) and admitted that he’d lodged a tenant named George Crosley around the time Chambers claimed to have known him. Then John McDowell stuck the knife in, asking Hiss “did you ever see a prothonotary warbler?”


Hiss smiled, as if enraptured by the memory. “I have right here on the Potomac,” he confirmed. “Do you know that place?”

McDowell, a former newspaperman, knew how to draw answers from even the most reluctant subjects. “I saw one in Arlington,” he responded (something, he admitted afterward, wasn’t true).

“Beautiful yellow head, a gorgeous bird,” Hiss continued, oblivious to the trap he’d stepped into. He then offered to meet Chambers in a face-to-face, public confrontation on August 25th to repeat his denials. As a postscript, he declined Nixon’s request that he take a polygraph – something which Nixon marked against him.

John McDowell (left) with J. Parnell Thomas

The following day, Nixon and McDowell contrived a face-to-face meeting between Hiss and Chambers, in the presence of the Committee. Hiss was furious that Bert Andrews had published a story about Chambers’ close-room testimony, and he could guess the responsible party. Bizarrely, at the start he demanded to examine Chambers’ teeth. He triumphantly concluded that they were too clean and straight to match Crosley, who “did not take care of his teeth.” A nonplussed Chambers responded that he’d visited a dentist for dentures several years earlier.

Once Hiss concluded his examination, the two sized each other up. Hiss scarcely concealed his disdain towards his accuser; Chambers remained blank and preternaturally calm.

“Are you George Crosley?” Hiss asked.

“Not to my knowledge,” Chambers responded. “You are Alger Hiss, I believe.”

Nixon interjected, suggesting that the two men be placed under oath before continuing.

“That is a good idea,” Hiss responded acidly.

“Mr. Hiss, may I say something?” Nixon commented. “I suggested that [Chambers] be sworn, and when I say something like that I want no interruptions from you.”

Chambers Nixon
Chambers, Nixon, Stripling

“Mr. Nixon,” Hiss hissed, “in view of what happened yesterday I think there is no occasion for you to use that tone of voice with me.”

Soon, Hiss began grilling Chambers, his legal training taking over. “Did you ever sublet an apartment on Twenty-Ninth Street?” he asked.

“No, I did not,” Chambers answered.

“Did you ever spend any time with your wife and child at any apartment on Twenty-Ninth Street in Washington when I was not there because my family and I were living on P Street?”

“I most certainly did.”

“Would you tell me how you reconcile your negative answers with this affirmative answer?” Hiss demanded, sure that he’d nailed Chambers in a contradiction.

“Very easily, Alger,” Chambers responded. “I was a Communist and you were a Communist.”

Hiss reporters
Hiss (with hand on head) with reporters

After further sparring, Hiss concluded that Chambers was George Crosley, after all (though Chambers denied ever using that name). Before the hearing adjourned, Hiss lost his cool again, lunging at Chambers (an investigator physically restrained him) and demanding that Chambers “make those same statements out of the presence of this committee without their being privileged to suit for libel. I challenge you to do so and I hope you will do it damn quick!”

The conversation ended on a similarly contentious note. After Hiss accepted Chambers’ identification, the Committee grilled him further. As the interrogation spiraled into mutual acrimony, Thomas decided to end it. He thanked Hiss for his testimony, to which Hiss snapped, “I don’t reciprocate.” An infuriated Thomas ordered the remark italicized in the record, and the session concluded.

That night, Nixon called Bert Andrews again, sharing the juicy details of the session. Chambers dined with Henry Luce, who lamented “that two men, able men, are destroying each other in this way.” (“That is what history does to men in periods like ours,” Chambers responded.) And Hiss held court at his apartment, venting to reporters about the absurdity, an excuse to vent as much to share his story. He harped obsessively on Chambers’ “perfect” teeth and mocked him in a high-pitched voice that hinted at Chambers’ sexuality. He added that “I do not believe in Communism,” dismissing the suggestion as absurd.

All sides had drawn their battle lines: the August 25th hearing, a public confrontation to be covered by reporters, newsreels and television cameras, seemed the likely climax. In fact, the Hiss-Chambers saga had scarcely begun.

This article will continue next week. 

Nixon paper

Sources and Further Reading

Walter Goodman’s The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1968) remains the most comprehensive chronicle of HUAC and its precursors. See also Frank J. Donner, The Un-Americans (1961); Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth Century America (2004); and Geoffrey R. Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004).

The literature on Hiss and Chambers is daunting and invariably must be treated with caution. My account relies on: Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952); Alistair Cooke, A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. v. Alger Hiss (1950); John A. Farrell, Richard Nixon: The Life (2017); Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997); Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (2013 revised edition; originally published 1978); and G. Edward White, Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy (2004).