Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

A Change of Heart

The infamous purge trials in Moscow turned Chambers off as they did many others who had been drawn in by the Communist ideals. As increasing evidence of Stalin's tyranny came to light, Whittaker realized that he was working for a cause that was oppressive and murderous. In either 1937 or 1938 the exact year would later become a matter of importance and dispute in the Hiss case Chambers decided that he must break with the Communist Party. However, Chambers was, for good reason, concerned for his safety. Communist operatives who broke with the Party were often found dead under suspicious circumstances.

Chambers anxiously considered his options. He could turn himself in and ask his own government, the government he had betrayed, to protect his life. However, that would mean exposing himself to a prison sentence of up to twenty years. Moreover, he and Esther now had two children and Chambers did not want his kids to grow up with their father incarcerated.

His best bet, he decided, was to establish a high enough profile under his own name, rather than the Party-inspired aliases he had been using, so that his former comrades would be wary of attacking him or his family. Telling his handlers that he needed a government position as a cover, he got a job as an editor on the National Research Project for the WPA. He and Esther enrolled their four-year-old daughter Ellen in a pre-school and Esther began teaching classes in painting and sculpture there. In the words of a Chambers's biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, the family "now had public selves" even as Whittaker "kept up his normal underground routine, meeting at night with his Washington accomplices and traveling on weekends to New York" to deliver US secrets on microfilm to another agent.

In January 1938, the National Research Project laid people off; one of them was Chambers. This was not entirely bad news for Whittaker since he had been putting out feelers for a more flexible job, one that could be done from a position of hiding or semi-hiding. He found the answer in a translating assignment from Oxford University Press.

Searching for a suitable hideout, Chambers looked at places outside Baltimore. He found rooms for rent in the small town of Woodlawn. The owner of the home lived on the premises and had a police dog that Chambers believed would ward off unwelcome visitors. In April 1938, Chambers bundled up his family, then consisting of himself, Esther, their daughter Ellen, and infant son, John, and moved to Woodlawn. While his family was ensconced there, he performed his last "duty" as a Soviet spy, passing along documents but also keeping some of the filched materials as a "life preserver" because he wanted something in his possession that could prove embarrassing to Moscow and to people still in the Communist Party.

Whittaker Chambers (AP)
Whittaker Chambers (AP)

Chambers had been out of the Party for approximately a decade and was working as an editor for Time magazine when, on August 3, 1948, he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and dropped the bombshell that exploded the promising career of Alger Hiss.

From 1922 to 1937, Chambers told the Congressional committee, he had been a Communist. He "repudiated Marx's doctrine and Lenin's tactics" in 1937, convinced that "he was leaving the winning side for the losing side" but believing it was "better to die on the losing side than live under Communism." Chambers turned out to be a poor prophet.

Having had a change of political heart, Whittaker wanted, as much as possible, to alert America to the Communist menace within. To that end, he went to Washington, D.C. to report what he knew "about the infiltration of the United States Government by Communists." He had informed Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle, Jr. of a Communist "cell" in the government. These secret Communists were supposed to influence America in ways that were favorable to Communism and the Soviet Union. However, at the same time that Chambers testified to knowing of Communist Party members in high places in the American government, he also testified that neither he nor any of those he named were involved in spying.

Most of the people Chambers named as Communists refused to respond to the charge. Even called before HUAC, they took the Fifth Amendment.

However, one of those charged Alger Hiss responded immediately and adamantly. In a telegram to HUAC's chairman, Hiss wrote, "I do not know Mr. Chambers and insofar as I am aware have never laid eyes on him." Alger asked to be able to appear before HUAC to make these denials formally and under oath. Permission was granted.

On August 5, only two days after Chambers made his charge, Hiss testified before HUAC. Again, he was unequivocal in his denial and added that he wanted to confront his accuser. "So far as I know," Hiss said firmly, "I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like to have the opportunity to do so." Hiss further testified that he had never been a Communist. The name Whittaker Chambers, he insisted, "means nothing to me."

A committee member showed a recent photograph of Whittaker Chambers to Hiss. Suddenly Hiss was not so certain that he "had never laid eyes on the man." He still didn't believe they had been acquainted but said, "I would not want to take an oath that I had never seen that person. I would like to see him and then I think that I would be better able to tell whether I had ever seen him."

Although Hiss was hedging, his confidence appeared undimmed. He delivered his denial with carefully phrased qualifications like "to the best of my recollection" but he delivered them with aplomb. This photograph of Chambers, Hiss commented, was that of a very nondescript individual. "He is not particularly unusual looking," Hiss said. "I might even mistake him for the chairman of this Committee."

That drew appreciative laughter from spectators. Most of those watching, including members of the press, appeared to be on Hiss's side. Indeed, when he was finished testifying, he got a spontaneous round of appreciative applause.

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