Nobis on Chambers'
Communist Party break
Whittaker Chambers' break with the Communist Party was one
of the critical issues at the trial.
Chambers testified that he first told his story about his
involvement with the Communist Party to Adolf
Berle in September 1939. In that conversation
(which, under any version of the facts, was only a short time
after Chambers left the Party) he said that he left the Party
in 1937. In May 1942 Chambers
was interviewed by two FBI agents to whom he said that he
was a member of the Communist Party from 1924 until the spring
of 1937. On March 20, 1945,
Chambers told Raymond Murphy, Chief Security Officer of the
State Department, that he broke with the party at the end
of 1937; he repeated this on August
28, 1946. He gave the same date in an interview with
agent Spencer [of the FBI] on March
26, 1946, one of the FOIA documents
recently released. In that statement, Chambers says not once
but six times that he left the Party in 1937. Unlike earlier
statements, the 1946 statement was devoted in major part to
his alleged relationship to Hiss. After repeating several
times that he broke with the Party in 1937, Spencer further
summarized his interview with Chambers:
volunteered that he of course had made a mistake in his youth
in embracing Communism and that ever since 1937 when he broke
away from this type of activity, he felt that he owed a serious
debt to this country and that the only way that he could pay
it off was to do everything in his power to expose Communism
in this country. He stated that he has since 1937 denounced
Communism to the point that whenever his name is mentioned
in certain circles he is referred to as a 'red baiter'. He
volunteered that in his own organization there are some people
who have a liberal attitude towards Russia and that his name
testimony before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities
in August, 1948, he again said that he broke with the Party
in 1937. A few days later he testified that he broke with
the Party "two or three" weeks after he terminated
his employment with the WPA on February 1, 1938.
to this point Chambers had accused Hiss of having been a member
of the Communist Party underground but had never accused him
of espionage. That accusation was first made on November 17,
1948 in the course of the depositions taken in connection
with the Baltimore libel suit. The typewritten Baltimore Documents
were dated between January 6, 1938 and early April, 1938.
It therefore became necessary for Chambers to change the date
of the termination of his membership in the Party and
he did so, offering a date of early April in his December
3rd statement. In his libel deposition of February 17th, he
set April 15th as a definite date.
the trial Chambers testified that he visited New York to see
Bykov once or twice between April 1st and April 15th
"almost certainly once." He described his break
with the Party as follows:
did you on a number of occasions say that you broke with the
Party in 1937?
Q. Is that date correct?
No, it is not.
say now the approximate date was what?
The approximate date was the middle of April 1938.
can't be more specific than that, can you?
it was April 15.
after you broke - what do you do when you break? Just tell
me what you did or did not do when you broke in April 1938.
To break with the Communist Party I simply moved my family
bag and baggage out of the Mount Royal Terrace house into
the Old Court Road room and broke off all contact with the
Party. In fact, I did not appear at my next appointment with
long did you stay at this house at the Old Court Road?
stayed at the Old Court Road for about a month, I believe,
until I had obtained a translation to do.
did you obtain a translation to do?
Professor Schapiro introduced me to Paul Willert, who was
then either treasurer, I believe, or vicepresident of
the Oxford University Press. Paul Willert gave me
a translation and an advance.
you do that by coming to New York?
I saw Paul Willert in New York.
then what did you do after that?
As soon as I had the translation and the advance I went to
Florida to Daytona Beach where I believe I finished the translation,
and after a month returned to New York.
cross-examination he testified that his stay in Florida was
in "May or June of 1938." To summarize Chambers'
April 15 - broke with Party and moved from Mount Royal
Terrace to Old Court Road.
May 15 - obtained translation from Willert and left for
Florida by automobile.
June 15 returned from Florida.
of the grounds urged for a new trial in 1952 was the discovery
of new evidence that Chambers' story as to the date of his
break with the Communist Party was untrue. This evidence showed
that Chambers had received his
translation from Willert prior to March, 1938 and
that negotiations for the job had been going on for a few
months prior to that.
fact, Willert affirmed
that when he met Chambers "at the end of 1937 or
at the very beginning of 1938," Chambers was strongly
antiCommunist and a victim of Communist persecution,
an unlikely state of mind for a man who was transferring secret
documents from Hiss to Bykov. Since Chambers had tied the
date of his break with the Communist Party to a date before
he secured a translation from Willert, this new evidence would
put Chambers' break with the Party well before April 15th
and probably well before March 15th. Willert's affidavit established
that a portion of the manuscript was given to Chambers in
Willert's office and that a second portion was mailed to Chambers
in Baltimore on March 18, 1938. This was two full months
before Chambers had testified that he received the assignment
for the translation.
on April 12th Willert sent a check to Chambers
for $250 and apologized that the check had been sent "rather
belatedly." And, on May 3rd, Chambers wrote to Willert,
from Florida, saying that he had not been at his Mount Royal
Terrace address "for more
than a month." Furthermore, an affidavit
from Dr. Gumpert, the author of the book Chambers was translating,
states that Chambers "was hiding
from the Russian Secret Service" as soon as he
was engaged as translator, which he estimated would have been
shortly after the first of the year 1938.
motion for a new trial called for a new examination of the facts
by the FBI. The FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] documents
include a 31-page memorandum from [J. Edgar] Hoover to Assistant
Attorney General McInerny dated February 5, 1952 analyzing the
motion. The part of the memorandum relating to this branch of
the motion summarizes the defense exhibits and then says:
Baltimore office has been instructed to interview Chambers
as to this discrepancy and the points raised by the defense
as to the date of Chambers' break with the Party as reflected
in the affidavit and exhibits accompanying the motion for
a new trial."
FBI report on the ensuing interview with Chambers on February
6, 1952 reads, in part, as follows:
previously testified and was of the opinion that he first
contacted Mr. PAUL WILLERT of the Oxford University Press
in New York City, through CHAMBERS' old friend, Professor
SCHAPIRO of Columbia University, to obtain a book translation
job after his break with the Communist Party. From documentary
evidence presented by the defense in connection with its motion
for a new trial, CHAMBERS now believes he must have been
mistaken in this regard. CHAMBERS now believes
that he must have contacted WILLERT through SCHAPIRO prior
to his break with the Communist Party and in preparation for
such break. Although CHAMBERS does not have any clear recollection
in this regard, he believes that he contacted WILLERT regarding
the translation job at least once and possibly twice before
the trip to Florida. Again, although CHAMBERS cannot recall
it clearly, he believes that he must have gone to New York
and contacted WILLERT while the CHAMBERS family was still
residing at 2124 Mount Royal Terrace, Baltimore, and possibly
a second time while the CHAMBERS family was living at the
Old Court Road address." (Underline added)
the defense nor the court was ever advised, in the course
of the new trial proceedings, that Chambers had changed his
testimony. Neither was the defense advised of an interview
between the FBI and Prof. Schapiro at the time of the new
trial motion. Schapiro was uncertain as to the date on which
Chambers came to him to ask for aid in getting a translation
but he was clear enough as to the sequence of events. He told
the FBI that late in 1936 he sought to convince Chambers to
leave the Communist Party. Chambers refused, and Schapiro
did not "see Chambers again until the spring of 1938,
the exact time of which he could not recall, when Chambers
came to his home in New York City and told him he had broken
with the Party and requested some assistance in securing a
translating job. At this time Shapiro [sic] consulted Willert
of Oxford University Press and secured a translating job for
Chambers." The FBI decided at this point that "an
affidavit from Schapiro would be of no consequence."
U.S. Attorney] Myles Lane took the position, in arguing the
motion for a new trial, that Chambers' statement of the sequence
between his breach with the Party and his obtaining of a translation
was "offhand," and the court accepted this argument.
The new FOIA documents, however, make it abundantly clear that
this was far from true. In the preparation of Chambers [by the
FBI as a witness against Hiss], preparing his testimony with
great care and over a period of many days, [Chambers] said in
language which was quite clear:
Murphy, writing in his personal notebook, summarized the testimony
he expected to adduce from Chambers on this subject as follows:
"After my break I moved with my family from 2116 Mt.
Royal Terrace to a house on Old Court Rd. on the outskirts
of Baltimore where we lived in one room for about one month.
Meyer Schapiro, whom I have previously
mentioned in this statement, recommended me to one Paul
Willert, an Englishman who was an officer in the Oxford
University Press. Willert was described by Schapiro as an
absolutely reliable nonCommunist. Willert got
me a translation job through the firm of Longmans Green,
which was an affiliate company of the Oxford Press. Willert
also gave me an advance for this translation"
after his defection in April of 1938 he went to New York and
saw Dr. Meyer Shapiro [sic], informed him that he had broken
away from the Party and was desirous of obtaining some translation
the same notebook is the intended testimony of Schapiro which
says that he broke off his association with Chambers "until
1938, or 1939, when he learned that Chambers had broken with
other documents have been supplied to Hiss by the FBI, both
of which repeat the sequence of events which Chambers had
recited so often since producing the Baltimore Documents,
namely, that after breaking with the Party in April, 1938,
he went to see Dr. Schapiro, who in turn recommended him to
the FOIA disclosures, we now have statements of Chambers and
Schapiro corroborating Willert and Gumpert, which fix clearly
a sequence of events altogether consistent with Chambers'
trial testimony on a crucial point in the case. The recantation
by Chambers of his testimony was concealed from the defense
and the court, although it was clearly relevant and should
have been spread upon the record for whatever consideration
the court might choose to give to it. The fact is that Chambers'
conflicting statements surrounding his break with the Party
over a period of many years were so extensive and varied that
full presentation to the jury might well have made a decisive
difference in its verdict.
evidence supporting the coram nobis petition was made public
with the release of the Hiss case grand jury minutes in October,
1999. Among those who testified before the grand jury was
Meyer Schapiro. His testimony reaffirms the sequence of events
that Chambers obtained the translation work after his break
with the Party. Click here
to read excerpts from Schapiro's testimony.
to Chambers' Break with the Party