Accuracy in Media

A library featuring the personal papers of anti-communist hero Whittaker Chambers will be opened on the site of his farm.

Chambers’ son John made the disclosure in a conversation with this writer during a visit to the Chambers farm last Wednesday. Chambers, who now owns the property, said that he has started a process to build a library and catalogue the papers, now in boxes and stacks in various locations. He said he has turned down offers from universities interested in acquiring some of the papers because he wants to make sure all of them are displayed and open to the public. He hopes to open the library by next Spring. 

In a major case that gripped the nation after the end of World War II, Whittaker Chambers’ charges that top State Department official Alger Hiss was a communist and Soviet spy were proven in court. Chambers went on to write Witness, which not only described the details of the case and his effort to tell the truth about communist penetration of the highest levels of the U.S. Government, but served as a basis for the establishment of the modern conservative movement. Chambers maintained that the nation’s only hope of surviving was in maintaining its spiritual foundation, belief in God, and commitment to freedom.    

Chambers passed away in 1961. Hiss died in 1996. 

Witness was a major influence on President Ronald Reagan, who resisted the advance of Soviet communism, especially in Central America, and laid the groundwork for the collapse of the “evil empire.” 

Scholars Welcome Library

“It is of course premature at this point to speculate about the value of Whittaker Chambers’ personal papers without an archival review,” said G. Edward White, author of Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars. “But the possibility of a rich depository of the papers of an individual who was so intimately involved, in multiple ways, with Soviet espionage in the United States from the 1920s until his death in 1961, is an exciting one for historians of those years.”

White, professor of law at the University of Virginia, added that “For persons interested in the Hiss case, and in the numerous dimensions of Soviet-American relations from the formation of the Soviet Union in 1918 to its collapse in 1989 and the aftermath of that collapse, Whittaker Chambers’ personal papers may prove to be a treasure trove.”

Herbert Romerstein, former chief investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (later the House Internal Security Committee), said that a Whittaker Chambers library will focus attention on a critical period in American history. “This is a man who warned us very early of the dangers of the Soviet Union and Soviet espionage,” he said. “The United States did not listen to him for at least 10 more years. Had we listened to him back in 1939, we might have been a lot safer during the Cold War period. We would have been able to expose the Soviet espionage rings that functioned during the war and the Cold War.”

Chambers emphasized in Witness that these secret communists not only served the interests of the Soviet Union but promoted the triumph of communism in China. 

Chambers, who became a writer for Time magazine, had served in the Fourth Section of Soviet military intelligence and provided information about members of the communist apparatus, including Hiss, to Adolf Berle, the security officer of the State Department, in 1939. But nothing much was done with the revelations until the House Committee on Un-American Activities, especially one of its members, Rep. Richard Nixon, examined them in 1948. Hiss was eventually prosecuted and convicted of perjury, for denying he was a communist and Soviet spy. But that came in 1950. By then, the statute of limitations on espionage had run out. Hiss was given a 5-year prison term but only served three years and eight months. 

He left the State Department in1946 to become the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

As a senior State Department official, Hiss had laid the groundwork for the U.N. and became its first acting secretary-general, causing it to be dubbed “the house that Hiss built.” He also advised President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta conference, which defined post-World War II Europe and betrayed Eastern European nations to Soviet control. 

“In accusing Hiss of Communism,” wrote Chambers, “I had attacked an architect of the U.N., and the partisans of peace fell upon me like combat boots. I had attacked an intellectual and a ‘liberal.'” 

The Farm Today

The Whittaker Chambers farm, located in Westminster, Maryland, in Carroll County, was declared a national historic landmark under the Reagan Administration and President Reagan posthumously bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Chambers. 

The farm is the scene of the famous pumpkin patch where the “pumpkin papers” had been hidden by Chambers before being turned over to the House Committee on un-American Activities. The “papers” were actually microfilm copies of secret and stolen State Department documents given to Chambers by Hiss for transmission to the Soviet Union. “The “pumpkin papers” constituted absolute proof of Hiss’s guilt. The patch today is part of the lawn. 

John Chambers said he considers himself a farmer, not a political person, but does have to spend some of his time fighting attempts by the county commissioners to seize part of his farmland in order to build a dam and a lake for development purposes. He vowed never to give up that fight.

He recalled being about 13-years-old and joining his father for an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” John Chambers sat in the small studio audience and his father was grilled by journalists about his charges against Hiss. In Witness, a young John Chambers is quoted as later saying, “Papa, why did those men hate you so?”

It was on this program that Chambers declared, “Alger Hiss was a Communist and may still be one.”

The Evidence

As White observes, “Chambers’ version of the Hiss case has turned out to be correct. Previously classified intelligence documents in U.S. and Soviet archives were made public for a brief interval in the early 1990s, and those documents definitively resolved what many close observers of the Hiss case had known since his perjury trials: Hiss was a spy for the Soviet Union who chose never to acknowledge that publicly.”

The Venona Secrets, by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, and published in 2000, notes that decoded Soviet messages identified Hiss as working for Soviet military intelligence.

On April 5, however, the Washington Post published an article about a New York University pro-Hiss conference. Post reporter Lynne Duke, a veteran correspondent for the paper, said about the case, “Alger Hiss was a spy, many scholars say. He was not, say many others.” 

A caption to a Post photo of Hiss stepson Timothy Hobson refers to Hiss “allegedly” passing secrets to the Soviets. 

Duke also claimed that “?it has to be noted that he was never indicted for espionage.” 

However, a correction to this story has now been included on the Post website. It says, “An April 5 Style article said that Alger Hiss was never indicted on espionage charges. The reason, it should have added, was that the statute of limitations had run out.”

Whittaker Chambers wrote in his book that during the time of the case the Post was “the most implacable of the pro-Hiss newspapers” and a “staunch friend” of the traitor.

Some things never change.

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