Pumpkins, Spies, Traitors, and Presidents
Most Americans associate pumpkins with Halloween. But on a cold autumn day in 1948, a certain pumpkin located on a Westminster, Md. farm set in motion a criminal case that exposed to Americans a hidden enemy within our own government and influenced the future political careers of two presidents of the United States
That Maryland farm was called Pipe Creek Farm, and its owner was Whittaker Chambers. The farm is located just across the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, about 20 miles from the Gettysburg battlefield. (Coincidentally, Union General George Meade originally planned to fight General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia along a defensive line straddling Pipe Creek). For Chambers, who broke with the communist underground in early 1938, Pipe Creek Farm was a refuge and later contained an “insurance policy” against becoming a victim of Stalin’s purges. The “insurance policy” was a trove of government documents provided to Chambers by Alger Hiss, a rising star in FDR’s State Department, and others who were part of a communist cell in Washington.
Chambers had become a communist in the mid-1920s. He left Columbia University before graduation, joined the Communist Party, and began writing for communist newspapers and journals. He also joined the communist underground, working as a courier who obtained U.S. government documents from communists within our government and transferred them to Soviet operatives.
Chambers pivots from communism
Chambers’ faith in communism was broken by the Moscow purge trials in which many of Stalin’s former comrades — Bukharin, Kamenev, Radek, Zinoviev, and others — confessed to anti-Soviet conspiracies. One of Chambers’ underground colleagues upon his return from the Soviet Union informed Chambers about the horrors of Stalinism. “I won’t work for those murderers one hour longer,” the colleague said, and he urged Chambers to break with the Party. Chambers also read Vladimir Tchernavin’s account of the slave labor camps in Siberia, and as Chambers later recalled, “I was literally in a fever when I began reading it. I read it straight through in one sitting, and when I laid it down I was shattered.” Chambers was finally convinced, he wrote, “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 resolved to break with communism and the underground, no matter the cost.
In the first chapter of his autobiography Witness, Chambers recounted his flight from the underground. At the time of his break with communism, Chambers recalled, “the Soviet espionage apparatus in Washington had penetrated the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Bureau of Standards and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.” He identified Hiss of the State Department and Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department as two highly placed espionage sources. But their value to the Soviet Union was much greater as “agents of influence” who could affect U.S. policy in directions desired by their Soviet masters.
Chambers knew all too well what happened to those in the underground that broke with communism, so he carefully planned his flight. He moved out of Baltimore to a place in the suburbs on Old Court Road. He also remembered a remote farm he had seen (ironically with Hiss in 1936) in Westminster, Md., and he secretly purchased it. But his best insurance policy, he believed, was to maintain and conceal some of the documents provided to him by Hiss, White, and others. “So, over a period of time,” explained Ralph de Toledano in Seeds of Treason, “he did not destroy all the copies of documents which [were] microfilmed. He saved them along with four short memos in Alger Hiss’ handwriting and five long ones written by Harry Dexter White.”
Chambers initially provided the papers and microfilm to his lawyer, who placed them in a dumbwaiter in his mother’s residence in Brooklyn. Chambers and his family briefly resided in Florida then returned to Pipe Creek Farm. He realized he was a hunted man, so he kept a revolver and a shotgun at the farm. In 1939 and later in 1942, Chambers told State Department security officials and the FBI about Hiss, White, and other members of the communist cell in Washington, but when President Roosevelt was informed about Chambers’ information he carelessly dismissed it as untrue or unimportant.
Chambers wages literary war against communism
Chambers joined the staff of Time magazine. In 1944, he became Time’s foreign news editor and used that position to wage a literary war against communism even as Stalin’s Soviet Union was portrayed by FDR and much of the media as our gallant wartime ally. At the wartime Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill effectively agreed not to interfere with a Soviet postwar sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Alger Hiss was with FDR at Yalta as Assistant Secretary of State. In the wake of the Yalta Conference, Chambers wrote a memorable piece in Time entitled “Ghosts on the Roof,” a fable in which the ghosts of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and the murdered Romanov children descend on the roof of the Livadia Palace and acknowledge Stalin’s diplomatic victory over the Western democracies.
After other Soviet defectors came forward with stories of Soviet penetration of the U.S. government, Chambers was summoned to Washington in August 1948 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he repeated the information he had provided to the State Department in 1939 and the FBI in 1942. By that time, Hiss was no longer in the government and was President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Several weeks after Chamber’s testimony before HUAC, Harry Dexter White suffered two heart attacks and died as a result of an overdose of heart medicine.
Chambers finally heard on Hiss issue
HUAC committee member Richard Nixon believed Chambers’ testimony and later conducted a revealing examination of Alger Hiss before the committee. At first, Chambers accused Hiss of being a member of the Communist Party, but did not reveal Hiss’ espionage activities. Chambers later explained that he did this because he still had feelings for Hiss and his family and wanted to protect him from espionage charges. But as the Hiss supporters spread nasty rumors about Chambers, and Hiss sued Chambers for slander, Chambers was forced to provide HUAC with evidence that would corroborate his accusations.
In November 1948, Chambers traveled to Brooklyn to retrieve the documents and microfilm from his lawyer. He brought them back to Pipe Creek Farm. In dramatic fashion, at some point he hid some of them inside a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm. When HUAC investigators came to the entrance to the farm in early December 1948, de Toldano wrote, they “followed Chambers’ car up the long, winding approach to Chambers’ farm. By the light of the electric bulb on the back porch, they saw a number of squash lay with their necks pointing toward a pumpkin. Chambers picked it up. ‘Here’s what you’re looking for,’” Chambers said. The HUAC investigators noticed that the top of the pumpkin had been sliced off then replaced. Inside the pumpkin they retrieved undeveloped microfilm encased in metal cylinders. The developed film showed photographic copies of State Department and other government documents. The media soon dubbed this evidence the “pumpkin papers.” President Harry Truman, like his predecessor, had dismissed Chambers’ accusations as a “red herring.”
Hiss indicted after ‘pumpkin papers’ found
The “pumpkin papers” were also turned over to the Justice Department which subsequently indicted Hiss for perjury (Hiss had testified before a grand jury that he was not a communist and had not engaged in espionage, and the statute of limitations for espionage had run). The first Hiss trial ended in a hung jury (eight for conviction, four for acquittal). Hiss was convicted at the second trial, and served 44 months in prison at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA. Later, the Venona revelations confirmed that Hiss and White had been Soviet agents.
The “pumpkin papers” and the Hiss case made Nixon a household name, and launched him on a national career that included eight years as Eisenhower’s vice president and his own presidency that lasted from 1969 to 1974. Nixon wrote about the Hiss case in his first book Six Crises (1962).
The Hiss case also helped propel the career of Ronald Reagan, who read Chambers’ book Witness, and turned from being a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican, and became an avid reader of National Review, a journal that Chambers wrote for in the late 1950s. As President, Reagan paraphrased Chambers when he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” In March 1984, Reagan awarded Chambers the Medal of Freedom posthumously (Chambers died in 1961). In 1988, the Reagan administration designated the Pipe Creek Farm as a National Historic Landmark.