Logo Click BACK to return to Basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Neda Dispatch

Meet Neda

Neda Archive



Spies, Lies and Pumpkins: The Story of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers

C'mon Sally, you can do it! The snow is no match for our brave little car

It's a story of espionage and intrigue; of politics and public interest; of heated accusations and passionate denials. This is a story of two men and a pumpkin. A pumpkin? Oh yes indeed. The orange veggie of Halloween-inspired fame made a great cameo appearance in the Hiss-Chambers case of the late 1940s. But before I go into that, let me first tell you a little more about the two men involved.


Often rumpled and disheveled, Whittaker Chambers was also a bit of a loner. He went to Columbia University but was forced to leave after writing an offensive play. He worked at the New York Public Library but lost his job after being accused of stealing books. In 1925, Whittaker joined the Communist Party, claiming that Communism would save the dying world. He worked for a couple of Communist papers before joining the underground movement, hiding out and gathering information for his Soviet bosses.


Evlis is MIA!

Alger Hiss was an upper-class scholar. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School. He worked at the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and the State Department. He participated in the founding of the United Nations as temporary secretary general and served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Two men of seemingly opposite extremes, but whose lives became intertwined in history. One man accused the other of spying for the Communist Party…and it is not the one you might have guessed.
Chambers used to raise sheep, cattle, and various crops on his farm
The alleged "bad guy" in this situation was the one with the seemingly more upstanding character-Alger Hiss.

In the late 1930s, Chambers actually left the Communist party in a state of disenchantment, becoming a fervent Christian and anti-Communist. By 1939, he was working as a senior editor at Time magazine. Around this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed to investigate alleged Communist leaders and infiltration into the government.

No, it's not the Avon lady…Neda goes on a door-to-door mission

Chambers testified before the HUAC in 1948, making a flat-out accusation that Alger Hiss was a Communist. To those who knew Hiss, this was Red Scare paranoia that had gone too far. Hiss' response was a statement in which he said, "I am not and have never been a member of the Communist Party." Hiss also denied having ever met Whittaker Chambers.

Nixon's career was boosted by his involvement in the House Un-American Activities Committee

Without any other proof, the story may well have blown-over if it wasn't for the efforts of an ambitious congressman from California named Richard Nixon. Perhaps you've heard of him. This future president of the United States was determined to investigate the case further, to at least figure out if Hiss and Chambers knew each other.

The two men were summoned before the committee separately, with Chambers providing information about Alger's home, possessions and behaviors to prove that they were indeed acquaintances. When the two men finally were brought together face-to-face, Alger admitted to knowing Chambers but identified him as a man named "George Crosley" to whom he had once sublet his apartment.

Neda makes a good pumpkin, no?

The lack of substantial evidence may have once again led to the case fizzling out. Instead however, it suddenly took an even more serious turn. The issue changed from whether Hiss was a Communist to whether he was a spy. Chambers, who had originally denied any connection with espionage, changed his story and claimed that Hiss had given him government materials to pass on to the Soviets. The most dramatic evidence came when Chambers produced some old microfilm of State Department documents that he had been hiding out in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. Overnight, these became known as the "pumpkin papers" and public interest in the case heightened.

"Has anyone seen this farm?"

Although the statute of limitations prevented Hiss from being tried for espionage he was convicted of perjury for lying under oath about not knowing Chambers or giving him State Department documents. Hiss spent five years in jail and the rest of his life (he died in 1996) insisting upon his innocence.

Daphne and I went in search of the infamous pumpkin papers on a cold and snowy Thursday afternoon. It was a bit of a miserable day-Daphne was in the midst of a massive, cat-induced allergy attack
Gesundheit! Daphne sneezes her way through Westminster
while our car Sally was struggling against all the freezing white stuff on the road. Fighting the elements, we arrived in Westminster, Maryland and began our search. The woman at the visitor's center gave me a blank look. Got the same reaction at the Historical Society. Then it was off to the library, where the tides began to turn.

The librarians had actually heard of the pumpkin papers farm, although they weren't sure exactly where to find it. "All that happened before my time, before I lived here," explained one of them. However, with their help, I found some newspaper articles about the case, including one with a street name and photo of the farm. Armed with a copy of the article, we set off again. As we drove along the road, all the tracts of land looked remarkably similar, especially seeing that they were all blanketed in snow.

No secret documents here!

I was hoping we would run across a big sign with a pumpkin or perhaps a nice portrait of Whittaker Chambers on it-but no such luck. So I resorted to a tried and true method-knocking door-to-door and talking to people. Daphne finally waved down a woman in her car who was able to help us out. Although the names Hiss and Chambers didn't ring a bell for her, mention of the pumpkin papers brought a knowing smile. "Oh, go back down this road half a mile. It will be on your left, across from the chicken farm," she informed us.

Sure enough, there was a farm. No pumpkins though, no signs to tell the story. Most people in town seem to have forgotten about this little piece of local history. Perhaps, as time has passed, we no longer worry about secrets being transmitted to the Russians, and in turn have lost a focus on stories such as Alger Hiss. Perhaps the era of hysteria over spies and communism has ended. Or has it? The same day Daphne and I were out on our pumpkin hunt, the newspaper headlines were blaring-a new spy had been discovered…and he was a member of the F.B.I.

The FBI finds a spy in its midst

A 9-year veteran of the bureau, Robert Hanssen was arrested on espionage charges after allegedly dropping off secret documents at a park near his home. The government charges that he has been spying for about 15 years, selling secrets to Russia in exchange for money and diamonds. Hanssen's friends and colleagues were shocked, describing him as an extremely moral and ethical man, a fervent church-goer and anti-Communist.

I think the lesson to be learned here is that appearances can be deceiving. Just because someone is an anti-Communist and Christian, of seemingly upstanding moral character, it does not mean he is incapable of espionage. But on the same note, just because someone has been accused does not make him guilty.

In the example of Alger Hiss, the evidence seems to go both ways. Over the years, scholars and experts have debated the case, some arguing he was a victim of anti-Communist hysteria while others pointing to an array of evidence that indicates his guilt. So although looking for the Chambers' farm often made me feel like it was a forgotten story and a closed case, the uncertainty of Hiss' guilt leaves the door slightly open. And the recent occurrences make me realize that this is not history we should forget. For, although the details may change, the same stories remain.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - How would you like your martini? Shaken, stirred, or radioactive?
Irene - And while we're at it, let's burn down some movie theaters!
Team - Up, up, and away on our rocket to the stars
Neda - Guilty as charged, but should they get the chair?