Chambers Blows Lid Off Communist Spying
On Aug. 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, then an editor at Time magazine, stunned official Washington by accusing Alger Hiss, a former Assistant Secretary of State and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of being a member of a communist cell that had infiltrated the United States government in the 1930s and was secretly working on behalf of the Soviet Union. Chambers twice before had attempted to warn the Roosevelt administration about the nature and extent of communist infiltration of the government, but each time the President chose to ignore the allegations.
Chambers named Hiss and others as communists in dramatic testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). “Almost exactly nine years ago,” he stated, “... two days after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact, I went to Washington and reported to the authorities what I knew about the infiltration of the United States Government by Communists. For years, international Communism, of which the United States Communist Party is an integral part, had been in a state of undeclared war with this Republic.” He regarded his action then as an “act of war, like the shooting of an armed enemy in combat.”
Chambers revealed that he had joined the Communist Party in 1924, while a student at Columbia University. He joined the Party, he explained, because he was “convinced that ... Western Civilization had reached a state of crisis ... and that it was doomed to collapse or revert to barbarism.” He thought he found the explanation of this crisis in the writings of Karl Marx, and a solution to the crisis in the writings of Lenin. In 1937, he broke with communism because experience had convinced him “that Communism is a form of totalitarianism, that its triumph means slavery to men wherever they fall under its sway and spiritual night to the human mind and soul.” He explained to the committee that upon leaving the communist movement he remarked to someone that “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”
Chambers told the committee that he had been a member of the communist underground in the 1930s, whose purpose was the infiltration of the U.S. government and espionage. “The Communist Party exists,” he said, for the specific purpose of overthrowing the Government ... by any and all means; and each of its members ... is dedicated to this purpose.” He expressed the hope that his testimony “helps to make America recognize ... that they are at grips with a secret, sinister and enormously powerful force whose tireless purpose is their enslavement.”
Just a few days before Chambers’ testimony, Elizabeth Bentley had testified about her knowledge of communist infiltration of the government that corroborated some of Chambers’ information. But she had not named Hiss as a member of the communist underground.
Alger Hiss had gone to Harvard Law School and clerked for a Supreme Court Justice. He was among the bright young New Dealers who responded to FDR’s call to make the government an engine of social change. He was at FDR’s side at Yalta, helped to establish the United Nations, and in 1948 headed up a prestigious organization dedicated to world peace. Most of official Washington and the media simply could not believe that a man of Hiss’ stature could betray his country.