Hiss and Chambers

Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers first testified publicly against Alger Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee on August 3, 1948. Two days later, Hiss appeared before the committee, denied being a Communist, and also said he did not know anyone named Whittaker Chambers.

Hiss told the Committee he would like to meet Chambers face to face, but instead of complying with his request, a subcommittee met privately with Chambers on August 7 to question him about Hiss. In his book on the HUAC investigation, The Red Plot Against America, the committee’s chief investigator, Robert Stripling, said the group was “dazzled” by the intimate details Chambers revealed about Hiss. Democratic Congressman F. Edward Hébert said the committee investigated the story and that it “checked in almost every detail.” As a result, both Stripling and Hébert would say the committee became convinced that Hiss was lying and Chambers was telling the truth.

Chambers’ August 7 Testimony: What did he really know about Alger Hiss?

As the annotated Chambers testimony presented here makes clear, Chambers was in fact wrong about many important aspects of Hiss’s life. Of particular interest is Chambers’ inability to recall crucial details about Hiss’s life after 1936, casting into his doubt his claim of an intimate friendship that extended through 1937, but bolstering Hiss’s contention that Chambers was someone he had known casually for about a year only around 1935-1936. These dates would loom large in the Hiss case because Chambers later produced copies of State Department papers he said Hiss had given him in early 1938.

Testimony about a bird

It was only a detail in Chambers’ story, but HUAC members found compelling his mention of a gorgeous and rarely seen little yellow bird, the prothonotary warbler.

Was there a George Crosley? Publisher Samuel Roth’s affidavit

When Alger Hiss first realized that he had known Chambers, he remembered him as a freelance writer named “George Crosley.” In testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers denied ever using the name. During depositons for Hiss’s libel suit, Chambers said it was possible he had presented himself as Crosley. Why did he change his testimony? The defense had obtained an affidavit from Samuel Roth, a publisher. Roth said he had received submissions from Whittaker Chambers, who wanted to use “George Crosley” as a pen name. But Roth never took the witness stand – he had been convicted for distributing James Joyce’s Ulysses, at the time considered an obscene book.

Tracing Chambers’ story back to Adolf Berle

Seen in retrospect, Chambers’ August 7 HUAC testimony was the “intermediate” version of his accusations against Alger Hiss (at this point he was calling Hiss a Communist, but was not yet willing to call him a spy). But when he had first talked about Hiss to a government official in 1939 (Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle), Chambers had only been willing to say that Hiss was the kind of person the Communists would have liked to have as a Party member.

Chambers’ crisis

If Chambers’ stories about Alger Hiss were a fantasy, what would have been his motive? At Hiss’s second trial, a defense witness who was a psychiatrist spoke about Chambers’ “pathological personality,” but was ridiculed by the prosecutor, Thomas Murphy, for suggesting Chambers might also have been homosexual. Murphy was aware, however – as the defense was not – that before the trial Chambers had given the FBI a lengthy statement confirming his homosexuality.