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Libel

From The Crimes of Alger Hiss

By William A. Reuben

William A. Reuben covered the Hiss appeals and the motion for a new trial in the 1950s. A former national publicity director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Reuben is the author of "The Atom Spy Hoax", "The Honorable Mr. Nixon," and "The Mark Fein Case." In studying the Hiss case, his travels have taken him from New York to California to Washington to Moscow, and he has benefited from having obtained thousands of government documents obtained as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit he initiated in 1975. His forthcoming book challenges not only the allegations made against Hiss by his sole accuser, Whittaker Chambers, but also the basic story that Chambers told about himself. The following chapter focuses on the revelations borne out of the interrogation of Whittaker Chambers during the libel suit depositions in 1948.

 

"For, you see, after six years, my side still does not really know what this [the Hiss case] is all about. . . ."

- Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley, Jr.
November 28, 1954[1]

"I have long feared (have sometimes cautioned) that you suppose me to be something which I really am not."

- Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley, Jr.,
C
hristmas Eve, 1958

In response to Hiss's challenge at their confrontation on August 17 ("make those same statements out of the presence of this Committee without their being privileged for suit to libel"), Chambers abandoned the immunity of Congressional testimony. On August 27 he appeared on "Meet the Press," a radio program broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System, which was presided over by American Mercury editor Lawrence Spivak, with whom Chambers had been friendly for several years.[2] These are the key passages of that broadcast:

MR. REYNOLDS (Tom Reynolds of the Chicago Sun Times): Are you prepared at this time to say that Alger Hiss was anything more than, in your opinion, a Communist? Did he do anything wrong? Did he commit any overt act? Had he been disloyal to his country? . . .

Are you willing to put on the record, so that it can be tested in courts under the laws of evidence, that this man did something wrong?

MR. CHAMBERS: I think that what needs clarification is the purpose for which that group was set up to which Mr. Hiss belonged. That was a group, not, as I think is in the back of your mind, for the purpose of espionage, but for the purpose of infiltrating the government and influencing policy by getting Communists in key places.

***

MR. FINNEY (Nat Finney of Cowles Publications): It was not, then, by definition, conspiracy?

MR. CHAMBERS: No, it was not . . . They certainly were not doing anything directly for the Russians.

MR. SPIVAK: You didn't place them there necessarily for spying, but rather to influence policy.

MR. CHAMBERS: That is true . . .

* * *

MR. REYNOLDS: I was in Washington at the time that the Soviet Union was recognized by the United States. Liberalism, so-called, was the fashion and the fad.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was the god of such young people as Mr. Alger Hiss. Mr. Alger Hiss was a leftist in the Holmes pattern. Did he have to go to the left to be guilty of whatever you are accusing him of, which I am not quite sure of.

MR. CHAMBERS: I am accusing him of membership in the Communist Party. I am not even accusing him of that. I am simply saying that he was a member of the Party.

Hiss filed a lawsuit for libel a month later, on September 25, in federal district court in Baltimore, Maryland, asking for damages of $50,000. Upon being served with the legal papers at his home in Westminster, Chambers was quoted in the press as having said he was not surprised at the "ferocity" of the "forces" that were "working through" Hiss. These statements caused Hiss to raise the demand to $75,000. As a defendant, Chambers took a serious view of his situation. He wrote in Witness, "The sum of $75,000 [was] fantastic as compared with any ability I had to pay it."

Time, Inc., under the command of Henry R. Luce, took over Chambers's defense. Time, Inc. provided counsel for Chambers, paid for investigators and, from the time of Hiss's filing of the suit for libel and extending over a six-month period, bore all other costs of Chambers's defense.

Chambers spent the better part of six weeks, he revealed in Witness, meeting with his attorneys every day in preparation for the trial. The testimony he gave when he was first subject to serious questioning, therefore, was not off-the-cuff - even though, despite such exhaustive preparation, as we shall see, his replies to Marbury's questions were incredibly vague, inconsistent, and at times even incoherent. On November 4, 1948, Chambers testified in a pretrial deposition in the law offices of the Baltimore firm, Marbury, Miller and Evans. The defendant was accompanied by his lawyers, Richard F. Cleveland and William MacMillan, Sr., and Harold Medina, Jr., who had been retained by Time, Inc. Present on behalf of the plaintiff were attorney William L. Marbury, a friend of Hiss's since childhood, and Marbury's law partner Charles C. G. Evans; and Harold Rosenwald, who had been a classmate of Hiss's at Harvard Law School, representing the New York firm Debevoise, Plimpton and McLean. Marbury examined Chambers and his wife, Esther, over four days, on November 4, 5, 16, and 17, and his questioning was intended to find out, and make part of a record, everything he possibly could about the life and family background of his client's accuser.

William Marbury began his questions on November 4 to develop evidence about Chambers's Communist functions. In two full days of testimony Chambers was unable to provide a scrap of documentary evidence to support his claim that he had for some thirteen years been a paid functionary of the Communist Party. He could not even prove he had been a member of the Communist Party.

At the beginning of his examination, just after Chambers testified that he had joined the Communist Party "in the spring or early part of 1924," Marbury asked Chambers if he would produce any written record reflecting the date of his joining the Communist Party, the name under which he joined, and the branch to which he was assigned. Chambers replied that he "presumed" such information "would have been included in some written record." However, he added, this was not available since such records were maintained "in a secret file in Moscow, or in Russia someplace." "What about a Communist Party card?" Marbury then asked. "That I do not have," Chambers replied. "You do not have that?" Marbury asked again. "No," Chambers replied.

The proceedings on November 4 were terminated with a request to Chambers by William Marbury "to produce tomorrow" any documentation, or anything at all he had in writing, relating to his testimony, and also to produce "anything of that sort" he had ever received "from any member of the Hiss family."

The second day of Chambers's pretrial deposition, on November 5, began with this exchange:

Q. Yesterday, at the close of the hearing, I asked you if you would produce any papers or notes or correspondence . . . Have you got any such papers with you, Mr. Chambers?

A. No, I do not.

Notwithstanding Marbury's requests, in two days of questioning Chambers was not only able to produce nothing, papers or "anything" else he had ever received from the man he characterized in his HUAC testimony as the best friend he ever had had in the Communist Party or any member of the family, but he was also unable to produce any documentation to show that he himself had ever been a card-carrying Party member.

* * *

Hiss's attorneys had managed to collect a great deal of factual information about Hiss's accuser's life that had not been brought to public attention by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Investigators hired by Hiss's attorneys spent September, October, and November 1948, in Lynbrook, Long Island, New York City, Washington, Baltimore, and Westminster, Maryland, interviewing Chambers's past and present neighbors, classmates, employers, publishers, and associates. The investigators and Chambers himself in his deposition did produce some verifiable evidence of his activities outside the Communist Party.

In August before the Committee, Chambers testified that he had quit Columbia University in 1924 to plunge into full-time paid activities in the Communist movement. He testified that from the time he left college until he went to work at Time in 1939, he had had only one employer: the Communist Party. On November 4, however, Marbury elicited the information that Chambers was first employed as a fifteen-dollar-a-week clerk in the Newspaper Division of the New York Public Library.

Asked how long he worked at the library, Chambers replied that he "was there about a year or a year and a half," until sometime "in the fall of 1924"; this was, he added, "perhaps six months" after he had joined the Communist Party. Marbury asked what the occasion was for his leaving the library. "My locker was forced open in my absence," Chambers replied, "and in it were found a number of Communist hand-bills, and I believe also evidence that there was a Communist cell working in the library."

Chambers's recollection was shown to be false by New York Public Library employment records obtained by Hiss's investigators. These records established that Chambers had worked as a clerk at the Forty-second Street branch of the New York Public Library for three and one-half years, from September 1923 until April 1927, and that he was fired, not because of any Communist Party activities, but because he had stolen sixty-three library books.[3]

William Marbury's next series of questions brought about the disclosure of other employment that had gone unmentioned during Chambers's six appearances before Nixon and his fellow investigators.

Q. Well, now, following your leaving the library, what did you do?

A. I think I next got a job in a second-hand book store on Fourth Avenue.

Q. Do you remember the name of the proprietor?

A. Morris Zukofsky.

Q. And what were you doing there?

A. Selling books.

Q. Now, you worked there as a clerk in the book store as a salesman. How long did you work at that occupation?

A. Perhaps for . . . six months or a year.

Chambers professed to remember nothing else about this second job except that the bookstore was located at Thirteenth Street and Fourth Avenue in Manhattan.

In response to Marbury's inquiry as to whether he had been active as a Communist Party member during this period, Chambers replied:

Yes, in the small ways novice Communists operate. I made newsstand collections, that is, I went around to the newsstands in New York and various sections of the city and picked up unsold copies of the Daily Worker and brought them back to the national office, or, rather, to the Daily Worker office - simple chores of that kind.
Marbury's next series of questions established that Chambers's activities as a "Party novice" continued through his employment at the New York Public Library and at the Fourth Avenue bookstore.

Chambers described his younger brother Richard's suicide as a major trauma in his life. He said it immobilized him for "several months," and only after he snapped out of his depressed state did he throw himself actively into Communist Party work. He pinpointed the beginning of his career as a full-time active Communist in the following exchange:

Q. Now, you say that after the period of several months following your brother's death, that you decided the best way to snap out of it, so to speak, was to throw yourself actively in the work of the Party. Now, will you tell us what you did?

A. Yes, I went to the Daily Worker and began to write for it.

Q. You mean as an employee, or just voluntarily?

A. I believe first voluntarily, and then later I was taken on the staff.

After testifying that he ultimately became the "editor of the Daily Worker," Chambers revealed that he quit the Party and the paper in 1929.

Q. Well, now, what did that mean?

A. I got on the bus and went to Chicago and visited a friend who had just been expelled from the Communist Party. . . .

Q. Well, now, while you were in Chicago, what was the purpose of the visit?

A. Well, it was in large measure to separate myself from the Communist Party. . . . but out of a desire to be apart and think a little, and to talk to a comrade who had been expelled and see what his views were, and a man whose view I respected, at least at that time, and I also met other Lovestonites out there who had been expelled. . . . I decided to remain out of the Party.[4]

Three months before he was questioned by Hiss's attorney, Chambers had testified before HUAC that he had been a "paid functionary" of the Communist Party for thirteen years and because of that experience he was "one of the few" persons in the Western world qualified to speak as an expert on the subject of communism-a claim that helped garner front-page banner headlines across the land. A sizable gap in those thirteen years now appeared:

Q. You had in fact left the Party at that time . . . in 1929?

A. That is right.

Q. You had diverted, I take it, from the Party line?

A. It is not only that, but I was working with the oppositionists, which is also a sin in the eyes of the official Party.

Q. In other words, you were definitely on the outside in that period.

A. That is right.

Chambers went on to testify that for the next three years, from 1929 to 1932, he was not only outside Communist Party ranks, but looked upon by members as "an enemy of the Communist Party." [5]

During the three years that he was "out of the fold," Chambers's roommate and best friend was Michael Intrator, who had been expelled from the Party as a Lovestone supporter. For the entire period, Chambers said, his only associates were "people who had been expelled from the Party." He was definitely "not in good standing." Although he said he was not quite in the category of "what is termed a diversionist wrecker," in the eyes of the Party comrades, he was "in disgrace."

Chambers's Baltimore deposition makes clear that the first eight years of his claimed paid employment as a full-time functionary of the open (i.e., non-underground) Communist Party added up to something considerably less than the tally he had given under oath before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

There were other contradictions. In the August version of Chambers's Communist past that Nixon asserted had been established to be "without a flaw," Chambers testified that after quitting the Party in 1937 and joining Time two years later, he "translated a book." Asked by Nixon whether he had ever done any translations other than that one, Chambers replied, "I do not recall any others." In providing a chronology of his life under William Marbury's questioning in November, however, Chambers engaged in the following exchange about the period before his split with the Party in 1929:

A. . . . I believe my nominal salary [from the Communist Party] was something like $10 a week, which very often I did not get. More often than not I think.

Q. . . . Now, what did you live on, and where did you live?

A. Well, I suppose it is scarcely credible, but I lived on the $10 among other things . . . And I also did some translating during that period.

Q. That was just the only other source of income, except the occasional $10 in the Communist Party, was the translations, is that correct?

A. I think so. I don't recall any other major source of income.

Pressed for details, Chambers maintained that, up until 1929, his only other income was $250 he received from Simon & Schuster for translating Bambi. This exchange came next:

Q. Now, what other translating did you do, can you remember?

A. I don't know that I did any more translations until after I broke with the Communist Party [in 1929].

Q. . . . Well, now, in other words, you think that prior to 1929 your only translation was Bambi? . . . Did you publish any other translations during this period?

A. No, I don't think that I did.

Under further questioning, Chambers disclosed that prior to the time he claimed to have gone "underground" in 1932, he had written and published a considerable amount of poetry and fiction, and translated some "faintly erotic" poems and stories for a twice-convicted publisher of pornography named Samuel Roth. He remembered none of these works except Aphrodite, but maintained that none of the translations he had done for Roth was "extravagantly pornographic."

None of this work-Chamber's employment as a library clerk, as a sales clerk in a bookstore, as a poet, a fiction writer, and as a translator-had been mentioned in his testimony before the Committee. He was able to offer no record to substantiate his claimed employment at the Daily Worker.[6] None of Chambers's verifiable activities had any connection whatsoever with the Communist Party.

Chambers's self-portrait drawn in the thousand pages of testimony before the Committee was that of an American Bolshevik, a man so wholly committed to the Communist revolution as to make his life as fraught with the threat of death as that of a front-line soldier. Before HUAC on August 3, Chambers testified that by virtue of having been a paid functionary of the Communist Party for thirteen years he was "one of the few" persons in the Western world who had any real knowledge of communism. No questions by Nixon or his colleagues jarred this image.

Two days of questioning by Hiss's lawyer brought forth a different picture, in which the only life-threatening danger was to be found in the realm of Chambers's imagination, stimulated by books, poems, and works of fiction.

* * *

Marbury questioned Chambers about his early life. Chambers testified that he went through his first twenty years with the given name Vivian. But thereafter, as Hiss's investigators had turned up, he used some seventeen other names. The name on Chambers's birth certificate was Jay Vivian Chambers. He was registered in elementary school as Vivian Chambers, in high school as Vivien Chambers, and in college as Whittaker Chambers. (Whittaker was his mother's maiden name.) In the fifteen months between high school and college he held two jobs, as Charles Adams and Charles Whittaker. He was known to friends in Lynbrook as Charley Chambers, to his family as Beadle. He lived in Staten Island as David Breen, in Baltimore as Lloyd Cantwell. He dealt with publishers as David Chambers and, beginning in October 1937, worked for the U.S. government on a WPA project in Washington as Jay Chambers. He published poems and short stories under the names John Grass, Malvern Hill, John Kelly, Julian Fechtner, and George Crosley.

By reading a class prophecy at his high school graduation ceremony predicting that a classmate, the daughter of a Rockville Centre banker, would wind up as a prostitute, he created a scandal of such proportions that he was not allowed to graduate with the rest of his class.[7] He ran away from home and as a teenager wandered around the country for two or three months, working briefly as a day laborer on the nation's capitol and idling for weeks in New Orleans' red-light district before calling his family for funds to come home.

He entered Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in August 1920 and, after spending three or four days buying furniture with his roommate, Karl Helfrich, he declared he had received inspiration from the scriptures and abruptly, at midnight, left Williamstown and returned home. He got into trouble, causing a postal authorities' investigation to see if his actions were in violation of federal law, by addressing a letter to a fictitious person, asking Helfrich to open the envelope, readdress the letter, and mail it back to Chambers in New York - an episode that would later be developed at trial and cause psychiatrists to question whether Chambers was able to distinguish between reality and fantasy.[8]

He entered Columbia University and was requested to leave after two years, having caused a scandal of such dimensions as to land on the front pages of four New York City newspapers by publishing in Morningside, the college literary magazine, a blasphemous playlet depicting Jesus Christ as a homosexual.[9] He spent the next year, his twenty-second, doing nothing. He then announced he was going to be a poet, made a trip to Europe, visiting France and Germany, to soak up culture, and abandoned that career in a matter of months. He landed a fifteen-dollar-a-week job at the New York Public Library, as mentioned above, until he was fired for stealing library books. He talked his way back into Columbia by convincing the dean that he had decided to become a teacher of history, and then, after three months, dropped out for the second time. His transcript was endorsed: "This man should not be allowed to register in any school of this university under any name." The reason listed for this banishment: "For stealing books."[10]

Under Marbury's questions Chambers testified that his younger brother, Richard, committed suicide at twenty-one. His father, Jay Chambers, lived apart from the family for most of Chambers's adolescent years. Chambers lived at home with his mother, Laha Whittaker Chambers, during the 1920s and 1930s, even after he himself had married and had become a father of two children. Chambers's mother, Laha, was, in Chambers's words, "a Black Republican."[11] The fourth member of the family home on Earle Avenue in Lynbrook, Long Island, was his maternal grandmother, Mary Whittaker, whom Chambers described as "mentally unsound." She lived with the family for ten years, until 1929, when, said Chambers, she was sent away to "an institution of some kind."[12]

Chambers said under oath that he graduated from high school "in 1918," though his high school record, on file at South Side High School, Rockville Centre, Long Island, gives the date of his graduation as June 1919.[13] In his deposition testimony Chambers told Marbury that he quit Columbia the first time "in the spring of 1921," before completing his sophomore year. His Columbia transcript revealed that he actually left in the spring of 1922 and was compelled to withdraw near the end of his junior year. He said he went to Europe "the summer of 1921," but, according to his passport, it was actually the summer of 1923. He said he returned to the United States from Europe "in September of 1922," though his passport says it was actually September 1923. He said he was employed at the New York Public Library for "about a year or a year and a half," and was fired "in 1924" because "Communist hand-bills" were found in his locker. Library records say he was actually employed at the library for three and a half years, from September 1923 to April 1927, and was fired for stealing books. He said he worked at the Zukofsky bookstore in 1924 and 1925, but in fact he worked at two Zukofsky bookstores, in 1927 and 1928.[14] He said his brother, Richard, committed suicide at age twenty-one "in 1925," but Richard's death certificate says he ended his life in September 1926, two weeks before his twenty-third birthday.[15] Chambers said that in 1925, he "went to the Daily Worker and began to write for it," and that this activity was commenced "several months following [his] brother's death." This statement was clearly not true, because of the conflict in dates. The Daily Worker, furthermore, was founded in 1924 and was published, edited, and manufactured in Chicago, Illinois, until its operation was transferred to New York City at the end of January 1927.[16] Chambers said that his father died of "a heart attack in 1927." In fact, according to his death certificate, Jay Chambers died of hepatitis on October 27, 1929.[17] Chambers said his mother was a housewife who never worked. New York City personnel records show she was employed from 1921 to 1941, by the City of New York, as a detective in a welfare agency.[18]

Under Richard Nixon's questioning before the Committee in August, Chambers testified that from 1924 to 1937, when he was a member of the Communist Party, he had translated only one book. Hiss's investigators discovered that Chambers's name appeared as translator (from the German and French) on eighteen books, sixteen of them between 1928 and 1937: "Bambi" by Felix Salten (1928); "Mother Mary" by Heinrich Mann (1928); "Aphrodite" by Pierre Louys (1928); "Class Reunion" by Franz Werfel (1929); "The Sentimental Vagabond" by A. T'Serstevens (1930); "The Passionate Rebel" by Kasimir Edschmid (1930); "Fifteen Rabbits" by Felix Salten (1930); "Thistles of the Barragon" by Panait Istrati (1930); "Adventures of Mario" by Waldemar Bonsels (1930); "Collected Works of Pierre Louys" (1930); "The Venetian Lover" by A. De Nora (1931); "Samson and Delilah" by Felix Salten (1931); "Mugel the Giant" by Paul Gartner (1931); "The Scorpion" by Anna Weirauch (1932); and "The City Jungle" by Felix Salten (1932). He was listed as translator of two books after the date he said he quit the Party: "Dunant: The Story of the Red Cross" by Martin Gumpert (1938); and "The Great Crusade" by Gustav Regler (1940), a book about the Spanish Civil War which, in his HUAC testimony, he said he translated while he was in the Party. Under William Marbury's questioning, Chambers testified that, prior to leaving the Party in 1929, he had translated only one book. In fact he translated four books before the end of 1929: "Bambi," "Mother Mary," "Aphrodite," and "Class Reunion."[19]

Chambers's first translation, "Bambi," was a Book-of-the-Month Club Selection. Six of his translations were published by Simon & Schuster, and most were reviewed in major newspapers and magazines. The Times Literary Supplement's reviewer of Chambers's translation of "Bambi" commented that the translator "was untrustworthy" and [he] "has not troubled to be accurate about his details."

Chambers's answers under examination had a gossamer quality. About his marriage he said: "Most of the time that I was out [of the Communist Party], for the three years that I was missing, I was either married to my present wife, or thinking of marrying her, and we were married in 1930, which will give you one landmark to go by." Whittaker Chambers and Esther Shemitz, according to their marriage certificate on file at the city's Department of Records, were married in New York City on April 15, 1931.

Another landmark that Chambers offered turned out to be even more elusive. Chambers gave a poignant description of how he remembered joining the Communist Party:

Q. Now, can you date the time of your leaving [Columbia]?

A. I can date it most clearly by giving you the date of my joining the Communist Party, because my decision to leave Columbia was the same decision as to join the Communist Party.

Q. What was that date?

A. I joined the Communist Party in the Spring or early part of 1924.

Q. 1924?

A. Yes. And I remember very distinctly sitting on a bench in front of the dormitories and making up my mind that that kind of life was bankrupt, and that I must seek another solution, and that solution was the Communist Party.

Q. . . . Now, you had then left Columbia approximately at the same time that you joined the Party?

A. That is right.

It turned out that Chambers was not at Columbia in the early part of 1924. His college transcript, obtained by Hiss's lawyers, showed that he was not at Columbia from the spring of 1922 until he matriculated for the second time in September 1924. Although at the second Hiss trial, Chambers gave a still different date for joining the Communist Party, saying it was in 1925, the fact is that, either way, he was untruthful in testifying that he "left Columbia approximately at the same time that [he] joined the Party."

* * *

There were many inconsistencies and contradictions in Chambers's accounts of his Communist past between his testimony before HUAC and his testimony in the libel action. He nevertheless always maintained that his career as a paid functionary of the Communist Party was restricted to his work on the Daily Worker, on the New Masses, and in the Party "underground." At the Committee hearings Chambers had given this answer when asked what positions he had held in the Communist Party: "I was at one time a writer on the Daily Worker, later foreign news editor of the Daily Worker, editor of New Masses, and a functionary in the underground . . ."

In the version of his Communist past in his deposition, Chambers said he left the Daily Worker and the Party in 1929 and remained out of the Party for three years until 1932, when he rejoined the Party and became editor of the New Masses.[20]

Before the Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers testified that from June 1932 until the end of 1937, he had been assigned to the Party's underground, an apparatus so hush-hush that even many card-holding CP members did not know of its existence.

Before Marbury, Chambers testified that he returned to the Communist Party fold to become the editor of New Masses, and that after "two months" in that post he was ordered underground.[21] Asked to describe the circumstances of going underground, Chambers offered a literal response: he said he went into the BMT subway station at Fourteenth Street and met a man named "Arthur," who then accompanied him to Grant's Tomb, where the two of them had a rendevous with "a Russian named Herbert."

For his first two years in the underground Chambers said he worked in New York - an assignment that had gone unmentioned in his Committee testimony. Chambers's descriptions of his fellow workers in the New York underground were meaningless. His first associate in the underground, said Chambers, was a man named "Arthur" - not otherwise described or identified. Next there was "a Russian - Herbert"; he was succeeded by "Ulrich - also a Russian"; his place in turn was taken by "a man called Charlie"; then came "Bill - a Russian or European of some kind"; then there was "Henry"; and, finally before meeting Alger Hiss, Chambers said he had been associated in the underground with someone name "Herman or Oscar - a Russian who spoke German." No other identifications or descriptions of any of his underground associates were forthcoming.

Marbury asked what Chambers had done in this first underground assignment, which Chambers said spanned a two-year period, from 1932 to 1934:

A. Very little that I can recall. . . . There were occasional days I think I did not do anything at all.

Q. Well, what did you do, just sit around the house?

A. Stayed home, or would go into the city and go to a movie. . . .

Under Marbury's questioning, Chambers described the Communist Party "apparatus" he said he worked with in the Washington, D.C., area, beginning in "the early spring" of 1934, in these words:

There was a leading group of about seven people, men, and probably the majority of these people were the heads of cells. Most of the people involved, both in the leading group, and in cells, were workers in the government.

His own participation in this apparatus, Chambers went on to say, was arranged in New York City when J. Peters introduced him to Harold Ware. On August 3, Chambers had testified before the Committee that he never met Ware. Now he said that a CP apparatus had been previously set up in Washington by Peters and Ware. His mission was to go to Washington and "look over the possibility of setting up a parallel apparatus." In Washington in the spring of 1934, Ware introduced him to other members of the apparatus. Chambers said the others knew him only as Carl and knew nothing about him except "that he was a man who could be trusted." Chambers gave few details:

Q. You were just introduced, "This is Carl, he is the contact with Peters in New York." They knew Peters, did they?

A. Yes, Peters had been there apparently, and was, of course, there at other times when I was there.

Q. They knew him as Peters?

A. As Peters, Peter or Peters.

Q. . . . Well, can you date it any closer than saying it was in the spring of 1934?

A. No, I would hesitate to do that. It is difficult to be absolutely accurate on that.

Chambers's description of his own function in the Washington underground, lacking in specific detail, was vague, dreamlike:

What I had to do was look over the possibilities for taking people out of the apparatus that existed and perhaps drawing other people in, if they could be suitable for the purpose. . . . The reason for organizing a parallel apparatus at that time was that there seemed to be a possibility of placing certain people in the old apparatus insofar as any restrictions which better suited the purposes of the Communist Party.

In August Hiss had testified before HUAC that he met Chambers in his own office of the Senate's Nye Committee, when Chambers walked in and introduced himself as a freelance writer named George Crosley interested in doing some articles on the munitions investigations. After Hiss gave this testimony, Nixon met with Chambers in secret many times during the month of August.[22] In his Committee testimony Chambers said his first meeting with Hiss had been arranged by J. Peters. Now, under questioning by Marbury in Baltimore, Chambers was uncertain as to how, when, where, and under what circumstances he had met Hiss, except that it was in the presence of the late Harold Ware, whom Chambers had told the Committee he had never met.

Q. When did you first meet Mr. Hiss?

A. I would think in the end of '34, or sometime in '35.

Q. In other words, you had been in Washington some 6 months before you met him?

A. No. If I had been in Washington six months, I had met him earlier than that. I met him probably very shortly after I met Henry Collins.

Q. Now, you said yesterday that your first visit to Washington you thought was paid around June, or in fact in the spring.

A. That is possible.

Q. In the spring of '34, and that you met Henry Collins on the second day, the day after you got there. Now, did you meet Mr. Hiss as far back as the spring of '34?

A. I would think I met Mr. Hiss at least a week or two after I met Henry Collins.

Q. Well, are you prepared to say now that you did meet him in the spring of '34?

A. I would have to say that that is what I recall.

Q. Well, now, where did you meet him?

A. Apparently in a restaurant of some kind.

Q. Why do you say apparently?

A. Because my recollection is not very clear about it.

Q. Well, then, you don't remember how you met him, and your guess is that you usually met people in the restaurant. Is that what you mean to say?

A. No, I recall that Harold Ware and Peters were present, and I have some kind of memory of a restaurant.

Q. Harold Ware was present?

A. Yes.

Chambers's Baltimore version was equally imprecise as to the purpose of the meeting:

Q. Now, what was the gist of the conversation on that occasion?

A. The gist of the conversation was, or the purpose of the meeting was to introduce me, and the gist of the conversation was that we wanted to begin to separate Mr. Hiss from his own [apparatus].

Q. . . . What was the function of that group?

A. The function of that group, I presume-I took part in very little of its affairs-was to consider their general work in Washington, the organization of the cells and certain policy matters with respect to work in the government.

Q. . . . Now, did I understand you to say just now that you were not particularly familiar with the activities of the group?

A. You did.

Q. Well, now, what did you learn about them when you were introduced to them, what were you told?

A. What I was told about them?

Q. Yes.

A. That this was a group of communists, most of them government workers, who were involved in certain party activities in Washington.

Q. And this is the extent of your knowledge?

A. That is the gist of it.

In response to Marbury's further questions, Chambers went on to supply this explanation of his own role:

One of my functions had been to set up a parallel apparatus. . . . The theory of the parallel apparatus is that the apparatuses co-exist in the same area, and the members are supposed to completely separate from one another, and if possible not to know of one another, or of another existence.

The parallel apparatus which he was assigned to set up, Chambers added, had for its purpose the withdrawal from the original group of "those people whom we thought had the best possible ability of advancing in the government," and forming with them a separate group. Marbury was unable to elicit from Chambers a straight assertion as to how long it took to start this new organization. Chambers was unable to say whether it began immediately after the first meeting, or whether it was a matter of days, weeks, or months. He said only that "it was some time" before Hiss was transferred from one party apparatus to another.

On August 25, in his televised face-to-face confrontation with Hiss before HUAC, Chambers had testified, "Mr. Hiss was certainly the closest friend I ever had in the Communist Party." Marbury now asked Chambers:

Q. Well, now, in the meantime, what did he [Hiss] do?

A. What did he do?

Q. Yes, I mean in relation to party activities, I mean to your knowledge.

A. In relation to party activities? . . . I don't know as he had any particular activities.

Q. . . . You don't know that he did anything at all?

A. I am not certainly sure of just what his activities were at that period.

Unsatisfied, Marbury pressed on, seeking to ascertain Hiss's role in the Communist Party underground:

Q. Now, in other words, can you explain to us exactly what Mr. Hiss was supposed to do after he had separated [from the Communist Party and joined the underground]?

A. Yes, he was supposed to keep himself as far removed from any Communist activities or suspicion of communism as possible, and advance as far in the government as possible.

Q. Is that all he was supposed to do?

A. That was his principal function.

Q. Now, I understood you to say his principal function. Now, what other function did he have?

A. Well, it was hoped that when he arrived at certain positions, he would be able to influence policy.

Q. That was the future, was that it?

A. Yes, it was. This is the beginning of the group.

Q. Well, was that a complete statement of his assignment?

A. At that time, yes.

Q. A complete statement. In other words, he was to behave himself like a man who is not a Communist, but to try to get ahead in the government, and separate himself from the other Communists - in other words, he was to behave exactly like a man who was not a Communist?

A. Yes, of course.

In his testimony before the Committee on August 16, Hiss stated that he knew the man to whom he sublet his apartment on 28th Street in 1935 as George Crosley. Chambers denied under Richard Nixon's questioning that he ever used any such name. But when Marbury turned to the name Chambers had used when he first knew Alger Hiss, this is what followed:

Q. Now, in that six or eight week period you stayed in the [Hiss] 28th Street apartment, what name did you use?

A. I have no recollection. . . . As you know, Mr. Hiss said I used the name Crosley. I don't recall it, but I dare say it is not beyond possibility. . . . I know I must have had a name, but what the name was I still don't recall.[23]

* * *

For four weeks in August, during his first five appearances before the Committee, Chambers consistently testified that he broke with the Communist Party "in 1937" and that during all of 1938 he was in hiding. But then, on August 30, he first shifted the date of his "break" with the Communist Party into early 1938. Chambers said he had taken a government job in Washington in the fall of 1937, and had continued in it until January 31, 1938.[24] Then came this exchange:

MR. NIXON: After you left the job, what happened then? Did you leave the party immediately?

MR. CHAMBERS: I think there may have been two or three weeks in between. I have no longer a recollection, but I left very shortly thereafter.

MR. NIXON: In other words, you severed your relationship with the party completely a few weeks afterward?

MR. CHAMBERS: I disappeared.

MR. NIXON: Completely disappeared?

MR. CHAMBERS: Yes, sir.

This testimony would seem to fix Chambers's break with the Communist Party "two or three weeks" after he left this government job, which would put it, and the date he went in hiding, at about the second or third week of February 1938.

On his first day of Baltimore deposition, November 4, testifying to the circumstances under which he said he left the Communist Party, Chambers was explicit in describing where and when he lived in Baltimore at the time of his break from the Party. William Marbury got Chambers to confirm what the Hiss investigators had established: that Chambers and his family lived on Auchentoroly Terrace until some time in October 1937; that they next moved to a house at Mt. Royal Terrace; that they next moved to Old Court Road; and that on July 1, 1938, under the names David and Esther Chambers, they purchased a house at 2616 St. Paul Street for $2,650, making a down payment of $500. As Marbury attempted to trace Chambers's movements during the period when (according to his Committee testimony) he was in hiding, this exchange followed:

Q. Now, how long did you stay at Mt. Royal Terrace?

A. I should think we stayed there until February or March of 1938.

Q. February or March of '38. And what then?

A. Then we moved to the Old Court Road.

Q. . . . And you think that you moved there in - when was this?

A. I should think February or March '38. . . .

Q. Well, now, let us get back to your leaving the Communist Party. You said that in 19- . . .

A. Whatever the day was that I left the house on Mt. Royal Terrace.

Q. The same day you left the Party?

A. That was the day that I had broken with the Party.

Q. How did you break with the Party?

A. By separating myself completely from them.

Q. How did you separate yourself completely?

A. By going into hiding.

Q. You mean that you just-

A. I disappeared.

Q. . . . In other words, as I now understand it, on the day that you moved from Mt. Royal Terrace, you ceased to go to Washington and perform the duties that you previously had been performing in connection with the Party?

A. That is correct.

Within minutes of giving these answers, Chambers testified:

Q. . . . By the way, what name did you live under [at Auchentoroly Terrace]?

A. Chambers.

Q. What Chambers?
A. Either Jay or Whittaker.

Q. What name did you live under on Mt. Royal Terrace?

A. The same, either Jay or Whittaker. Probably Jay.

Q. . . . Now, you say you stayed there [Old Court Road] until sometime in the summer?

A. Yes.

Q. And what did you do then?

A. We then moved to St. Paul Street.

Q. . . . Did you use your name? As I understand it, you lived in Baltimore from '37 right straight along under the name of Chambers?

A. That is right. . . . I have always used my own name since I came out of the party.

Q. Well, let us specify what you mean by your own name.

A. Whittaker Chambers.

At the end of the day on November 5, William Marbury, having in two days established a record that put into serious question the self-portrait of a time-hardened professional revolutionary that Chambers, with the help of Richard Nixon & Company, had presented through the media to the American people, formally notified Chambers and his lawyers that he intended to make the transcript of the Baltimore deposition available to the press.

As Chambers wrote in "Witness," after these two days of testifying in pretrial depositions, he was overcome "with despair" and had decided "to destroy [my]self."

Chambers had been shown to be inaccurate about almost every detail of his personal life, from when and how he left Columbia University and the New York Public Library to how he made a living, to whether his mother worked, to when he got married and how old his brother was when he committed suicide. More important, he had contradicted his earlier testimony given to the Committee on numerous crucial subjects, from when he joined and left the Communist Party and how long he was in it, to whether he had known Harold Ware, to how and where he first met Alger Hiss. Since he had testified under oath in both instances, it was clear that either he had willfully perjured himself or that he was a man incapable of differentiating truth from fiction.

However, there was one important thing he had remained consistent about, as he had been for the last nine years: he still maintained that whatever he and Hiss did in the underground, espionage was not part of their activities. "Alger Hiss didn't do anything of this character," Chambers said near the close of his examination on November 5. "I never obtained documents from him."


Notes

1. William F. Buckley, Jr., ed. "Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers' Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954–1961" (New York: Putnam, 1969). November 28, 1954, letter, p. 87; Christmas Eve, 1958, p. 227.

2. See Whittaker Chambers, "Witness" (New York: Random House, 1952), p. 705.

3. The record of Whittaker Chambers's employment at the New York Public Library and the report of the library's investigator, Edwyn White Gaillard, about Chambers's discharge, because of theft of library books from the main reading room, children's stacks and from the central circulation stacks of the Public Library and from the library of Columbia University, were introduced at the second Hiss trial as Defense Exhibits E and F.

4. Lovestonite is a designation for the "Right Opposition" of the Communist Party, led by Jay Lovestone, who was expelled from the Party in a factional struggle in 1929. At the same time a few hundred of his followers were expelled with him. An extremist in his Communist days, Lovestone later became a valued advisor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on trade union matters.

5. The Communist Party was organized in the United States in 1919. In the mid 1920s, two factions developed within the Party, one led by William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, the other led by Jay Lovestone. In 1928, the Comintern's Sixth World Congress decided that Foster's group should lead a party to be renamed the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Lovestone and his followers, referred to thereafter by the Party faithful as the "oppositionists," were expelled from the Party in 1929.

6. My own research shows that in the first five years of the Daily Worker's existence, 1924–29, Chambers's name did not appear on the masthead of the paper, nor did any news story carry his byline. During a period when more than 1,200 names were listed as contributors to or reporters for the paper, the name Whittaker Chambers appears just once: as the author of a 20-line poem published in the July 9, 1927, Sunday edition of The Worker.

7. For a detailed account of this bizarre episode, see Meyer Zeligs' "Friendship and Fratricide," pp. 47–48. In my own research in Rockville Centre, Long Island, I was able to track down Floyd B. Watson, who had been principal of South Side High School at the time of Chambers's attendance and who made the decision to hold up his diploma because of the scandal. A half century after it happened, Watson told me that he remembered the episode "as if it were yesterday." Choosing his words carefully, Watson told me he always thought of Vivien as "some kind of a nut." Shortly after the graduation-day ceremony resulting in Chambers's diploma being held up, his mother, Laha, came to the school and remonstrated with Watson and his assistant principal, a Mr. Covert, for punishing Vivien: "You just don't understand working with youthful minds." For years afterward, Watson told me, he and Covert used that line as a standing joke between themselves anytime a parent complained about the way their child was being treated.

8. The bizarre activities Chambers was shown to have engaged in at high school and at Williams College were explored at length at both Hiss trials. Karl Helfrich (a senior executive with Forstmann Woolen Company at the time of the Hiss trials) was called as a defense witness. He gave a statement to Hiss's lawyer Edward C. McLean relating how after Chambers's abrupt, middle-of-the-night departure, over a period of some six weeks he received a number of very long letters from Chambers "running to over twelve pages each," describing peculiar adventures "which Helfrich thought must have been invented." In one of these, dated at a time when Chambers was commuting to his freshman classes at Columbia from Lynbrook, "Chambers told of having been in a mining camp and of having seen ‘murder at the worst under my nose.' " A bewildering episode that occurred six weeks after Chambers's departure was set off, Helfrich said, by a letter he received from Chambers

saying there would be a letter at the post office addressed to some other name. . . . Chambers asked Helfrich to get this letter and to readdress it to Chambers at his New York address. Helfrich went to the post office and found the letter there and (fearing) that it might be some crime in tampering with the mails to send a letter addressed to one person to another person (he decided he) had better consult the President of the college, Dr. Garfield.

Dr. Garfield turned the matter over to the postal authorities. Helfrich said the letter, written by Chambers to himself, was "a weird recital" dealing with "some mystic communion between Chambers and the Devil or something of that sort." Two distinguished psychiatrists, Carl Binger and Henry Murray, relied heavily on this and the high school class-prophecy episode in testifying, without rebuttal challenge, that Chambers was a psychopathic personality frequently unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. (See Edward C. McLean interview with Karl Helfrich, January 19, 1949, HISS files, Harvard Law School Library; also see Hiss second trial, pp. 2534–36.)

9. The World, a leading newspaper of the day, gave the story a big play under this two-column head: COLUMBIA EDITOR / WROTE BLASPHEMY, / STUDENTS DECIDE. The dialogue of the playlet, "A Play for Puppets," was so shocking, The World reported, that "most of the dialogue cannot be reproduced." Whittaker Chambers's treatment of Jesus, The World said in its lead, "has given the Columbia University campus the shock of its long life."

10. Whittaker Chambers's Columbia College record, together with Dean H. E. Hawke's notation that "Whittaker Chambers should not be allowed to register at any school of the University," and the further notation that "It is for stealing library books," were all made part of the record of the second Hiss trial. See Defendant's Exhibits, G, H and I, at pp. 3658-64 of the trial record.

11. "Black Republican," a term first used during the Civil War by Southerners to apply to the most uncompromising wing of the newly-formed Republican Party, came in later years to be a conjuration referring to the most conservative elements of the Party.

12. The certificate of death of Whittaker Chambers's maternal grandmother, Mary Whittaker, on file at the Suffolk County clerk's office, Smithtown, Long Island, reveals that she was confined for two months and 23 days at the Kings Park State Hospital, a state institution for the mentally ill, from September 29, 1931, until her death on December 22, 1931.

13. In his senior year, the grades posted for Vivien Chambers for June 1919 at South Side High School were: English 80; Virgil 78; Plane Geometry 60; Chemistry 64; American History 83; and Civics 82 (author's research; on file with William A. Reuben papers, University of Michigan).

14. According to Chambers's own account, he obtained this job after his discharge from the Public Library, which was in April 1927 (see note 2, above). Louis Zukofsky, the poet, who described himself as a close friend of Chambers all through the 1920s into the early 1930s, confirmed that Chambers worked at his (Zukofsky's) brother's Fourth Avenue bookstores for "about a year" beginning some time in 1927. (Author interviews, September 18, 1967; March 20, 1971.)

15. Richard Chambers was born on September 26, 1903. Rockville Centre police officer Denton recorded his death by suicide at 8:15 a.m. on September 9, 1926. Denton's report, reviewed by author at Rockville Centre, Long Island, police station, stated, "He was lying on two chairs face upward with his head resting on a pillow in the oven of a small gas range in the kitchen, his lifeless form was cold. (Police Surgeon) . . . said the young man had been dead several hours. . . . In a talk I had with a brother, Whittaker, he told me that he (Richard) had tried to use gas on himself last winter in a shed in the rear of his parents' home at Lynbrook, and that he used to talk of being bitter of life in general."

16. Author's review of Daily Worker mastheads from 1924 to 1927, on file at New York Public Library.

17. The death certificate of Jay Chambers, attested to by S. J. Bradbury, M.D., of Lynbrook, was introduced as Defendant's Exhibit DD, Hiss 2nd trial; see pp. 3725-26.

18. Laha Chambers was employed from September 23, 1921, to September 26, 1941, as an investigator for the Board of Child Welfare of the City of New York. To qualify for this employment Laha Chambers lied about her age (lopping off ten years) and gave a series of fictitious addresses in New York City (while living in Lynbrook). Her starting salary was $1,518, and she received annual increases in pay until she retired. (Author's research, on file with William A. Reuben papers at the University of Michigan; also see Hiss investigator Horace Schmahl's report on Laha Chambers, October–November 1948, HISS, Harvard Law School Library.)

19 The eighteen books that Chambers translated from French and German to English can be found listed, for the appropriate years, in the "U.S. Catalog," "the Accumulated Book Index," "The New York Times Book Review Index," and the "National Union Catalog" at the Library of Congress.

20. In 1931 four short stories by Whittaker Chambers were published in the "New Masses" - at a time when, under oath, he told Marbury that he was considered an enemy of the Communist Party: "Can You Make Out Their Voices?" in the March issue; "You Have Seen the Heads," in April; "Our Comrade Munn," in October; and "Death of the Communists," in December. Chambers's name does appear on the masthead - not as the editor, as he testified before the Committee and in the deposition, but as one of forty persons listed as contributing editors. The six editors were: Egmont Arens, Joseph Freeman, Hugo Gellert, Michael Gold, James Rorty, and John Sloan. The executive board included these six and, in addition: Maurice Becker, Helen Black, John Dos Passos, Rubert Dunn, William Gropper, Paxton Hibben, Freda Kirchwey, Robert Leslie, Louis Lozowick, and Rex Stout. In his An American Testament, Joseph Freeman listed the contributing editors, who included Sherwood Anderson, Vay Wyck Brooks, Stuart Chase, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, Waldo Frank, Susan Gaspell, Lewis Mumford, Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Genevieve Taggard, Louis Untermeyer, Mary Heaton Vorse, and Edmund Wilson, among others. Freeman, one of New Masses's editors in this period, wrote, "Among the fifty-six writers and artists grouped around the New Masses only two were members of the Communist Party, less than a dozen were sympathetic to it."

21. On its face this assertion seems odd. According to Chambers's testimony, he was given this special assignment just two months after rejoining the very Party that for the previous two or three years had regarded him as its enemy. It was even more odd that a man who claimed to be "underground" would allow his name to appear on the masthead of the "New Masses" as a member of the editorial board. The FBI made its own investigation, "to ascertain the exact period Mr. Chambers was listed in mast head [sic] of "New Masses' Magazine," and, as Special Agent James R. Shinners reported, Chambers's name appeared in the masthead "for the first time" in the May 1932 issue of New Masses and with eight others (Robert Evans, Hugo Gellert, Michael Gold, Louis Lovowick, Moissaye J. Olgin, William Gropper, Joshua Kunitz, and Herman Michaelson) "was listed continuously in this capacity to September, 1933." During the period 1931-33, the only persons listed on the masthead as editor were Michael Gold and Walt Carmon. (See report of James R. Shinners, "Re: Jay David Whittaker Chambers," dated February 4, 1949, FBI File Number 65-14926-1886.)

22. In 1952, in his memoir of the case, Witness, Chambers first disclosed that "throughout" the summer and fall of 1948 Nixon regularly visited him for ex officio discussions at his farm in Westminster. See "Witness," pp. 537, 600, 618, 717-18, and 792-93. In 1962, Nixon himself first acknowledged making many private visits to Chambers in Westminster during the month of August and all through the fall of 1948. See Richard Nixon, "Six Crises" (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962), pp. 21, 22, 23, 46, and 47.

23. In the fall of 1948 Hiss investigators interviewed Samuel Roth, for whom Chambers had translated Aphrodite and some shorter works. Roth told them that Chambers had submitted several short stories to his magazine Two Worlds under the name George Crosley. Because Roth had served a prison term on a pornography conviction, Marbury and Hiss's later counsel decided against using Roth as a witness. At Hiss's second trial, Chambers admitted that George Crosley was a name he had used and "may have been" the name he used when he knew Alger and Priscilla Hiss.

24. In his HUAC testimony, Chambers said that his government employment paid six thousand dollars a year, but he did not otherwise describe the job. Hiss's lawyers later obtained this record and it was introduced in evidence at the second Hiss trial as Defendant's Exhibit J. This record showed that as Jay V. David Chambers he was employed in Washington for three and a half months, from October 18, 1937, to January 31, 1938, as an editorial and research assistant by the Works Projects Administration (WPA), at a salary of $166 per month.

© William A. Reuben, 2002

 

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