Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, and the HUAC

The Cold War was a time of espionage, counterespionage, and labyrinthian cases of undercover work. One of the more famous cases involved Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.

Hiss and Chambers met when they were both working for the Soviet Union. Hiss also worked inside the United States federal government, in the State Department.

With a successful and rising career, Hiss gained access to classified information inside the State Department, and was able to send it to Moscow. He was also able, as an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, to give distorted information and misleading guidance, so that the administration made certain decisions which played into the hands of the Soviets.

Chambers, meanwhile, grew disillusioned with the international communist conspiracy. He saw Stalin’s spree of ruthless murders, and eventually left the Soviet intelligence agencies for which he had been working.

Quitting one’s job as a Soviet spy is dangerous. Chambers had hidden his own set of documents so that Stalin’s agents wouldn’t harm Chambers or his family. The agents knew that if they killed him, the papers would be made public, destroying the cover of large parts of the espionage network inside the United States.

In late 1937 or early 1938, Chambers left the spy network, went into hiding for a few months to cool off, and then began a successful career as a journalist, writing for Time magazine from 1939 until 1948.

Around 1939, Chambers met with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. He offered information about the Soviet spy network, which had operatives inside the United States government. Surprisingly, Berle expressed little interest in the offer.

Berle’s notes from the conversation with Chambers would, however, become important evidence a few years later, when a group of congressmen realized the importance of the information which Chambers could give. An account of the events published by Three Rivers Press explains:

In 1948, almost a full decade later, when he was working at Time magazine, Chambers was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, more famously known as HUAC. Cham­bers again named Hiss as a Soviet agent.

The notion that a Soviet agent could not only get a job inside the State Department, but could also rise in his career to the point that he was giving face-to-face advice to the President of the United States, was shocking. “HUAC showed somewhat more heightened interest in this fact than had the” Roosevelt administration.

Perhaps FDR didn’t believe the Soviet threat was real. Perhaps his seriously worsening health robbed him of the energy to pursue an investigation of the matter. Perhaps his staffers didn’t want to risk the scandal that might ensue if the public learned that the executive branch was filled with communist spies.

Since the late 1930s, Whittaker Chambers had been offering evidence about the Soviet espionage network. Understanding that this information alerted the nation to a serious threat, the House of Representatives was interested, in contrast to the

administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Here at last, Chambers said, was “a force that was fiercely, albeit clumsily, fighting Communism.” Rumors had long dogged Hiss, but as Chambers said, “for the first time, a man had stood up and said, ‘I was there, I knew them. The rumors are facts.’”

At long last, after more than a decade of work as a Soviet agent, Alger Hiss was exposed and proven guilty. In addition to evidence from Whittaker Chambers, other witnesses came forth. Hiss served three year and eight months in prison.

In the years after Hiss’s trial, more evidence has surfaced. Had that evidence been available at the time of the trial, his sentence might have been longer.