I’ve been writing for the Wikipedia a fair bit lately. I was adapting some out-of-copyright articles about Civil War generals when the Columbia disaster happened, and I was shocked to see the Wikipedia’s information was as up to date as anyone else’s.
I’ve noticed that trend. Wikipedia authors keep up on their current events. People and events that will be forgotten in a couple of years have extensive entries. But the current events knowledge recorded there doesn’t run very deep yet; I found on the “requested articles” page a request for a biography of Newt Gingrich. I know he’s been laying low for the past five years or so, but is Newt Gingrich really a figure in history yet?
I took the Gingrich biography off a Congressional Web page (U.S. Government works are public domain) and spent half an hour fleshing it out.
Then I noticed another name I recognized on the requests page: G. Gordon Liddy. I’d seen his mug in conservative rags and I knew he did prison time in connection with Watergate and had a controversial radio program. But I didn’t know anything else about him. After an hour or so of digging, the most enlightening thing I learned about him was that he was a b-grade actor in the 1980s and early 1990s. I wrote up a sorry excuse for an entry, but a detail of his Watergate exploits, mention of his status as a radio talk show host and a list of movies and TV shows he appeared in is more useful than nothing. Even if I couldn’t hunt down minor details like his date or place of birth.
Then I closed out my Controversial Conservatives series with Whittaker Chambers, who was also on the requests page. Chambers was the accuser in the Alger Hiss trial that made Richard Nixon (in)famous. (Before Watergate made him even more (in)famous.) I remember hearing rude and nasty things about Chambers in history classes in college, but I didn’t know any specifics about the man. It’s a shame because he’s really pretty interesting. (I can tell the story a lot better here than I did at the Wikipedia. Writing really is better when it can have a little opinion in it.)
Chambers had dysfunctional parents before having dysfunctional parents was cool. He was a loser who struggled to finish high school and couldn’t hold down a job. So he went to college, where he got kicked out because he wouldn’t go to class. He became a communist. He was a good writer–possibly even a great writer–so he started writing for a couple of commie rags and eventually rose to the level of editor at both of them. Somewhere along the way someone asked him if he’d do some espionage work. He did. But Josef Stalin made him really nervous and eventually Stalin’s Hitleresque acts drove Chambers to not want to be a communist anymore. He left the party and his politics turned hard right.
FDR’s assistant Secretary of State was a friend of a friend. In the summer of 1939, Chambers crashed a party one night and spent three hours with him out on the front lawn telling him everyone he knew who’d ever had connections with the American Communist Party. The friend of a friend told FDR. FDR laughed, said it was impossible, and besides, he needed to concentrate on Hitler.
Chambers took a job at Time, captivating readers with his writing and pissing off writers with his editing. Chambers didn’t want anything he printed to be mistaken for being pro-Communist. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Chambers was Red Scare before Red Scare was cool too. Eventually Chambers became senior editor of Time Magazine and made a cushy $30,000 a year.
Then, in 1948, Dick Nixon came knocking. History tends to treat Chambers as an opportunist trying to gain fame by taking down the goliath Alger Hiss (Hiss, after all, was at the time a candidate to become Secretary-General of the United Nations). And while one could made a reasonably strong claim for opportunism in 1939 when he was a college dropout who couldn’t hold down a job, in 1948 that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Chambers was making 30 grand a year working for one of the biggest magazines in the free world, in an era before television had gotten a chance to take off, so writing for one of the biggest magazines in the free world was a bigger deal than it would be today. And 30 grand was a lot of money at the time. Some accounts say he was a reluctant witness. I know I would have been if I were him. Remember, the commie had by then had nine years to go capitalist.
But Chambers testified. And Hiss was just one of many names he dropped a dime on. But the House Un-American Activities Committee zeroed in on Hiss.
Hiss initially said he didn’t know the guy and had never even heard of him. Then Nixon arranged a meeting in person. Hiss said he knew a guy named George who used to run errands for him who kind of looked like him. After spending a little time with him, he acknowledged that maybe this Whittaker Chambers guy was the George he used to know.
Whittaker Chambers said Hiss used to be a commie and a spy and might still be. Hiss dared him to say it outside of a courtroom, where he wouldn’t be protected by immunity. Chambers went on Meet the Press and said it again. Hiss sued him for $75,000. Now back when Whittaker Chambers was finding himself, Hiss was doing things like getting a law degree from a prestigious school and working for famous people. And now he was getting pretty famous himself. Chambers was a schmuck who wrote for Time and it was the only steady job he’d ever been able to hold down. People wanted to believe Alger Hiss. Chambers made Kato Kaelin look legit. And Time was getting impatient with its loose-cannon editor.
Then Chambers produced the goods. Back when he decided not to be a communist anymore, Chambers got into mutually assured destruction before mutually assured destruction was cool. He stashed some spy stuff. Now was the time to use it. He whipped out some typewritten papers. They were copies of classified documents he said Hiss had given him to deliver. I heard Chambers couldn’t keep his story straight about whether Hiss typed them or his wife. Some Hiss apologists say Hiss didn’t know how to type. And maybe Chambers was too dumb to know that just because he knew how to type didn’t mean most men did at the time. But the documents were traced to a typewriter that had once been owned by the Hiss family. Hiss said they gave the typewriter away in the late 1930s. But he couldn’t say when.
Then Chambers took two HUAC goons out to a pumpkin patch in Maryland. Chambers located a hollowed-out pumpkin, opened it up, and produced four rolls of microfilm. If you’ve seen a picture of Richard Nixon holding a magnifying glass up to a piece of microfilm, the microfilm came from that pumpkin.
The Hiss trial ended in a hung jury. The retrial ended with Hiss being sentenced to five years in the slammer. He served 3 years and 8 months.
Richard Nixon rode high. He was a senator by 1950 and vice president by 1952, and a presidential candidate in 1960.
Chambers lost his job at Time. At one point he tried unsuccessfully to gas himself to death. He wandered around. Became a Quaker. Wrote an autobiography. Hooked up with a young William F. Buckley Jr. and worked as an editor for National Review for a while. His health left him. He wrote a couple more books. And he died in 1961 without much money, still convinced of the communist threat but also predicting what would ultimately bring it down.
Hiss was ruined. He was disbarred and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life. In 1975, he was reinstated into the Massachusetts bar. He died Nov. 15, 1996, still asserting his innocence.
Although U.S. conservatives and liberals will probably argue until the end of time whether it was Hiss or Chambers who was lying, the inescapable truth is that the trial ruined both men. Chambers had everything to lose and little to gain. While his stories sometimes changed and didn’t always mesh completely with other peoples’ recollections, when you piece a story together from multiple sources you find that’s usually the case. Perspectives differ and memories fade.
There’s a Web site at NYU that asserts Hiss’ innocence. It’s the only compelling case for Hiss’ innocence I was able to find. Most pro-Hiss writing I found read like ultra-right-wing conspiracy theory. The site at NYU does a good job, but I was severely disappointed in the lack of mention of the 1978 book Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein. Weinstein had intended to write a pro-Hiss book but the evidence he found, a decade and a half prior to the declassification of documents in communist countries, suggested Hiss was guilty.
Like I said, it’s a compelling case, and it definitely proves that the Alger Hiss trial wasn’t a black and white issue. Was Richard Nixon out to get someone? Absolutely. Was the U.S. Government eager to make someone take a fall? No doubt. Gotta teach those commies a lesson. Was Alger Hiss a man of great accomplishments? Certainly. Was Whittaker Chambers a screw-up? Absolutely. Was Whittaker Chambers wrong about some details? Certainly. But if I was called to give details about someone I knew 10 years ago today, I’d get some stuff wrong too. We all would. Was Whittaker Chambers guilty of embellishing some of his details? Possibly. A lot of people do that.
But does it prove his innocence? No. I can make a compelling case that the sky is pink if I ignore every photograph that shows a blue sky.