Spies, Lies and Pumpkins: The Story of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers
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 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 play that the college didn't like. He worked at the New York Public Library but lost his job after being accused of stealing books. In 1925 he worked for a couple of Communist papers before hiding out and gathering information for his Soviet bosses.
Alger Hiss was an upper-class scholar. He graduated from Harvard Law School. He worked at the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and the State Department.
These two very different men would share a place together in history. One man accused the other of spying for the Communist Party…and it is not the one you might have guessed. The alleged "bad guy" in this situation was the one who seemed innocent - Alger Hiss.
In the late 1930s, Chambers left the Communist party and became an anti-Communist. By 1939, he was working as a senior editor at Time magazine. Around this time, Congress began to investigate Communist leaders in the U.S.
Chambers testified before Congress in 1948, telling everyone that Alger Hiss was a Communist. Alger's response was, "I am not and have never been a member of the Communist Party." Hiss also denied having ever met Whittaker Chambers.
Without any other proof, the story may well have blown-over if it wasn't for the efforts of a 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 did know each other. 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.
What was going on here?
The case then took an even more serious turn. The issue changed from whether Alger was a Communist to whether he was a spy. Chambers, who had originally denied any connection with espionage, changed his story and claimed that Alger 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.
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. 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 Alger Hiss and Whittaker 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 that of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.
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Neda - How would you like your lunch? Hot, cold, 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