That Time a Presidential Advisor Was in Cahoots With the Communists
When confessed ex-communist, Whittaker Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on August 3, 1948, he dropped a bomb. He ousted Alger Hiss as a fellow communist and a spy.
Hiss, an unlikely communist spy, had been an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. If the Committee could validate Chambers’ accusation, that would mean a communist had been in the ear of the president, sharing secrets with the Soviets.
It opened a Pandora’s Box of questions nobody wanted to answer or ignore, starting with did the president know?
The Alger Hiss story remains somewhat of a mystery, although many would-be critics assert that the evidence points to his guilt. It demonstrated how easily one could get into the oval office with nefarious intentions.
His story reads like a perfect pedigree for Washington. Hiss was a good enough student to attend Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School. He once served as a clerk to a Supreme Court Justice.
Hiss practiced law in both Boston and New York, two of the toughest places in the nation to practice. When Franklin Roosevelt wins the presidency, he moved his life to Washington to work Roosevelt on the New Deal plan to save the U.S. from the Great Depression.
By 1936, Hiss had a job in the state department, working for the Secretary of State at the time, Francis Sayre.
It didn’t end there. Hiss was part of the planning team for the UN in 1945, serving as the Secretary General for the UN organizing conference.
Who could suspect such a man of being a commie?
The Communist Party of the United States
Before the rise of McCarthyism, the United States government concerned themselves little over the activities of the CPUSA. According to Chambers, they were no more than a political party.
The CPUSA had direct ties to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Chambers had served as a journalist and literary advisor to the CPUSA, working on various periodicals for the party.
In 1934, he’d been a courier for them, shuttling documents between Washington and Soviet spies in the U.S. government. By 1937 Chambers left the party as he learned more about Stalin’s version of communism. In short, it turned out that the communist Soviet Union wasn’t all rainbows and equality.
Chambers took a job with Time Magazine, rejecting the communist agenda, often in print. He made a name for his anti-communist stance.
His background, however, made him of particular interest to the HUAC. They summoned him to testify, and that was when the name Alger Hiss came into play.
Hiss, by Chamber’s assertion to the HUAC, was part of that network Chambers once served.
After the testimony by Chambers, the HUAC summoned Hiss to appear on August 3, 1948. He denied involvement and lobbied that he’d never met Chambers.
To settle the matter, the two met face to face with one of the HUAC members present, a young Richard Nixon. Hiss recognized Chambers but said he’d been using another name at the time, George Crosley.
Still, Hiss maintained that he was not a communist. He dared Chambers to make his accusations public, which Chambers did forthwith. Then, Hiss filed a suit of slander, and the situation blew up.
Responding the slander suit filed by Hiss, Chambers presented documents supporting his claim. He added that Hiss was not only a communist but a spy for the Soviets.
Chambers was able to produce microfilm of notes in Hiss’ handwriting, summarizing State documents. The papers, Chambers hid in a pumpkin on his farm in Maryland, branding them the Pumpkin Papers forever.
The authorities authenticated the documents and they indicted Hiss for two counts of perjury. As it turned out, the statute of limitations for espionage had passed, so that was the best they could do.
Hiss went to jail.
At his sentencing on January 25, 1950, Hiss told the judge “I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed.”
Until his death in 1996, Hiss swore his innocence.