38 episodes

The Hiss-Chambers case gripped the nation in 1948 and still provokes controversy. Take a deep factual dive into the story of two brilliant, fascinating men, sensational Congressional hearings, spy documents hidden in a dumbwaiter shaft and a pumpkin, the trial of the century, and the launch of Richard Nixon’s career.

A Pumpkin Patch, a Typewriter, and Richard Nixon: The Hiss-Chambers Espionage Case John W. Berresford

    • True Crime
    • 5.0 • 23 Ratings

The Hiss-Chambers case gripped the nation in 1948 and still provokes controversy. Take a deep factual dive into the story of two brilliant, fascinating men, sensational Congressional hearings, spy documents hidden in a dumbwaiter shaft and a pumpkin, the trial of the century, and the launch of Richard Nixon’s career.

    Chapter One: Introduction and Alger Hiss

    Chapter One: Introduction and Alger Hiss

    Meet Alger Hiss: Johns Hopkins, Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerk, left Wall Street to join a New Deal farming agency, counsel to a Senate Committee at age 30, aide to president Roosevelt at Yalta, Secretary General of the UN’s founding conference, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace . . . and the most highly placed traitor in American history?
    Further Research:
    Episode 1: About Hiss’s life before the HUAC hearings, see his own autobiography, Recollections of a Life (Seaver Books 1988) at 1-148; the definitive book on the Case, Perjury:  The Hiss-Chambers Case by Allen Weinstein (Hoover Inst. Press 2013) at 81-92, 107-10, 152-69, 211-46, 281-83, 369-96; AlgerHiss’s Looking-Glass Wars:  The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy, by G. Edward White (Oxford University Press 2004) at 3-39; Alger Hiss: The True Story, by John Chabot Smith at 1-151; and, especially concerning Hiss’s years at The State Department, Christina Shelton, Alger Hiss:  Why He Chose Treason (Threshold Editions 2012) at 11-137.

    • 13 min
    Chapter Two: Whittaker Chambers - Communist

    Chapter Two: Whittaker Chambers - Communist

    Picture: Library of Congress
     
    Meet Whittaker Chambers: brilliant, melodramatic, painfully sincere, perpetually discontented and idealistic, and physically hard to forget; writer of controversial poems, plays, short stories, and communist journalism; and, as spymaster for Soviet Military Intelligence, traitor to the United States.  
     
    Further Research
    Episode 2: About Chambers’ early and communist years, here are some references: 
    1) Chambers’ autobiography Witness, the first 450 pages.  The book is still in print and, like most books about this case, can be found on Amazon and eBay.  One reviewer said that Chambers’ description of his middle class family’s wreckage was heart-breaking.  One might compare it to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.  Chambers’ description of his life in the Communist movement (above ground and underground and his attempt to escape) has been compared to Dante’s Inferno.
    2) Professor Weinstein’s Perjury (referenced above) at 92-106, 110-42, 148-64, and 325-33.
    3) Friendship and Fratricide: An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, by Meyer M. Zeligs, M.D.  This is a psychobiography of Hiss and Chambers, painting Chambers in a lugubrious light.  See pages 27-132, 201-74.  I have no expertise in psychiatry or related fields, but to me this book seems a relic of 1950s/60s psychiatry, when Freud was compared to Aristotle and Copernicus.  The eminent liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling (an admirer of Chambers), wrote that “no other work does as much as this one to bring into question the viability of the infant discipline of psycho-history.”  I include it here, not only because it may have some value today, but mostly because it shows that the real facts of Chambers’ life can be used, by skillful hands and a determined mind, to make him seem lunatic.

     

    • 20 min
    Chapter 3: Whittaker Chambers - Ex Communist

    Chapter 3: Whittaker Chambers - Ex Communist

    Whittaker Chambers tries to have a peaceful life, working a farm and becoming a high-paid and powerful editor at Time Magazine.  But his past in the Soviet underground won’t go away.  Stalin’s pact with Hitler impels him to inform the government about the underground.  Worse, from time to time government investigators ask him for more and more information.  Chambers tries to expose the conspiracy without ruining his own career or the friends who shared his treason.  How long can he continue threading the needle?
     
    If you were Chambers, how would you walk the tightrope, trying to alert the government about the Soviet underground without exposing your own role in its crimes and incriminating your best friend in those years, with whom you committed those crimes?
    If Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers both witnessed an event and gave different accounts of it, which one would you be more inclined to believe?  Hiss, the public man, has the resume to die for and all The Top People vouching for him.  Chambers, the creature of the underground, has been a professional liar for years and loves to tell melodramatic tales.  But is there something too good to be true about Hiss?  Do you wonder who is the real man behind the resume?  And while no one would say that Chambers is the embodiment of moderation, he is painfully honest in many ways and he does not hide all his past sins. 
    Even if your first inclination would be to believe Hiss, what would make you change to put more faith in Chambers?
    Further Research:
    Episode 3:  Professor Weinstein’s book and Chambers’ memoir, referenced above, contain much about what Chambers called “the tranquil years.”  
    Re Chambers’ emergence from the Communist underground, interesting memoirs are “The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren” by Mark Van Doren at 218-19 (Harcourt Brace & Co, 1958), “Navigating the Rapids 1918-1971: From the Papers of Adolf A. Berle” edited by Beatrice B. Berle & Travis B. Jacobs at 249-50 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1973), and “Eyewitness to History: Memoirs and Reflections of a Foreign Correspondent for Half a Century” by Isaac Don Levine at 179-200 (Hawthorn Books 1973).  Levine was the journalist who accompanied Chambers to see Berle the day World War II began.
    The best books about Chambers’ career at Time are “Harry & Teddy: The Turbulent Friendship of Press Lord Henry Luce and His Favorite Reporter, Theodore H. White” by Thomas Griffith (Random House 1995) and “One Man’s America: A Journalist’s Search for the Heart of His Country” by Henry Grunwald (Doubleday 1997).  Look in each book’s index for references to Whittaker Chambers.
    Concerning the disillusionment with Communism by intellectuals who had been bedazzled by it, see “The God That Failed,” edited by Richard Crossman (Columbia Univ. Press 2001, first published in London in 1950), “Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History” by John P. Diggins (Harper & Row 1975), and “A Better World: The Great Schism: Stalinism and the American Intellectuals” by William L. O’Neill (Simon & Schuster 1982) 259-368 passim.  Chambers’ admirer in Columbia and later a great Comparative Literature Professor there, Lionel Trilling, wrote a novel about leftist disillusionment with radical leftism.  Originally published just before the Hiss-Chambers scandal broke, it was reissued in 1975 (around the time of President Nixon’s disgrace).  “The Middle of the Journey” by Lionel Trilling (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1975).     A major character in the novel, Gifford Maxim, is based on Chambers and the 1975 reissue contains an introduction by Trilling that describes his long relationship with Chambers.  

    • 12 min
    Chapter 4: Communism in the 1930s

    Chapter 4: Communism in the 1930s

    Photo: Craig Whitehead on Unsplash
    The backdrop of this case is American Communism — infatuation with it and disillusionment with it.  Communism predicted a violent upheaval that would produce a better life.  In actual practice, it produced only drab, poverty-stricken dictatorships that killed and starved millions.  Around 1935, the American Communist Party stopped acting revolutionary and posed as “liberals in a hurry.”  It got a few hundred Americans to join the Communist underground and work secretly for the Soviet Union.  The issue is whether Hiss was one of those people.
     
    Further Research Episode 4:  Podcast 4:  The great book of Communism is Das Kapital, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  I’ve always found it impenetrably dense and boring; to follow it you have to know a lot about 19th century factories.  The best short (and readable) works expounding Communist theory and action plans are two by Marx, The Communist Manifesto and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  Among the many works from the Soviet Union describing Communism, the best short ones, in my opinion, are Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done?” and Stalin’s “The Foundations of Leninism.”  
    The best books about the reality and results of Communism are the short “Communism: A History,” by Richard Pipes and the long “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression,” by Stephane Courtois and others.
    Two excellent descriptions of what it felt like to live in the 1930s and lose faith in laissez-faire Capitalism, and perhaps briefly to fall for Communism, are (1) Alistair Cooke's book about the Case, "A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. v. Alger Hiss" (Knopf 1950 and 1952), the first Chapter, titled "Remembrance of Things Past: The 1930s," and (2) Murray Kempton's essays about the radicals of the 1930s, "Part of Our Time: Some Ruins & Monuments of the Thirties" (Simon & Schuster 1955 and The Modern Library 1998), the first chapter, titled "A Prelude."
    All these books are available on Amazon.
    Questions:  What do you think was the appeal of Soviet Communism in the 1930s?  What did Communism have that fascism, socialism, and The New Deal lacked?
    If you came to believe in Communism, what would make you lose your confidence in it?  The obvious lack of democracy in the Soviet Union, the American Party’s slavish adherence to every 180 degree change in the Party line from Moscow, the purge trials of 1936-38, and Stalin hopping into bed with Hitler in their 1939 Non-Aggression Pact? 
    Does Communism sound like a secular religion — with its all-encompassing philosophy, sacred texts, worshipped founders, and martyrs?
    Might part of Communism’s appeal in the 1930s, compared to conventional religion, be that (1) it claimed to be rational, even scientific, (2) it promised paradise here on earth in just a few years (you don’t have to wait for heaven), (3) you don’t have to work for it (it’s on the inevitable ‘timetable of history’), and (4) it frees the individual from any sense of personal sin?
    If you devoted your life to Communism and the Party and became disillusioned, what would you do?  Decide you had a bad picker when it came to politics and move on to baseball or real estate?  Remain a Marxist but not a Party member — hope another group will form and be “real Communists”?  Become a Socialist, or ‘get real’ and join the Republicans or the Democrats?  Or, like Chambers and a few others, make anti-Communism the mainspring of the rest of your life?

     

    • 8 min
    Chapter 5: The First HUAC Hearing

    Chapter 5: The First HUAC Hearing

    Above, Elizabeth Bentley, who gave evidence at the first HUAC hearing. Pic: Library of Congress
    In 1948, Whittaker Chambers is Time Magazine’s Senior Editor.  He is forced against his will to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee about his past in the Communist underground.  He names seven names, but the Committee zeroes in on one of them — Alger Hiss.  With this begins the doom of both men, major climate change in American politics, and the career of a future President.
    Further Research:
    Episode 5:  The best book about the colorful House Un-American Activities Committee is Walter Goodman’s “The Committee:  The extraordinary career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1968).  Goodman was a liberal, mildly mocking of HUAC, but even he had to admit that 1948 was HUAC’s “Vintage Year.”  Pages 247-67 concern the Hiss-Chambers hearings.  
    Chambers’ account of his testimony is at pages 535-50 of the 1980 Regnery Gateway edition of “Witness.”  Other accounts are in Alistair Cooke (1952) at 55-59 and Weinstein (2013) at 13-18.   
    A lacerating review of Alistair Cooke’s book (the 1950 edition) was written by the great British feminist and essayist Rebecca West, was published in the University of Chicago Law Review in 1952, and is available at https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2686&context=uclrev.  I commend Mr. Cooke’s book especially for the narration of the trials, which I believe he covered for The Manchester Guardian.  His verbal sketches of the courtroom scenes — the judges, lawyers, and witnesses — are almost worthy of Henry James.  Unfortunately, however, Mr. Cooke retained so much of his English detachment that he fell for Hiss’s pose as an honorable gentleman; and Cooke simply does not get the red-hot Chambers.  Cooke’s courtroom descriptions are wonderful, but my opinion is that Ms. West’s criticisms are correct.  By the 1952 edition of his book, which covers Hiss’s claims of “forgery by typewriter” (Podcast #25), Cooke seems to have concluded that Hiss was guilty.
    Richard Nixon, though he was almost silent during Chambers’ first testimony, recorded his impressions of Chambers in the first chapter of his 1962 book “Six Crises” (“Never . . . was a more sensational investigation started by a less impressive witness.”). 
    The transcript of most of HUAC’s 1948 Communist hearings was published in 2020 by Alpha Editions.  “Hearings Regarding Communist Espionage in the United States Government, Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, Second Session, Public Law 601 (Section 121, Subsection Q(2)).”  Chambers’ first testimony is at 563-84.  I find these transcripts fascinating because you see HUAC’s members first believe Chambers, then Hiss, and then slowly conclude that Hiss  is, as Representative Hebert said, the greatest actor that America has ever produced.
    Questions:  Imagine you are Whittaker Chambers.   You are forced in 1948 to testify about your underground  Communist past.  Do you talk about the chat group only, or the spy ring, too?  The first was silly, the second was a crime.  Do you name names, including the brilliant man who was your only friend in those years?
    About naming the names of your co-conspirators, you had less than 24 hours notice before your testimony.  There was no time to reach out and call them.  Maybe they reformed shortly after you did and are leading upstanding lives like you are.
    Before Congressional committees, there are no rules of evidence.  Any question may be asked and any answer may be given.  What questions can you anticipate?  If you testify only about the chat group and you are asked point blank about spying, what answer will you give?  Reveal the crime of spying, or commit perjury?  How do you say something, something to alert the governm

    • 13 min
    Chapter 6: Hiss' Denial

    Chapter 6: Hiss' Denial

    Richard M. Nixon, Library of Congress 
    Alger Hiss calmly and patiently denies Whittaker Chambers’ two charges: that the two of them were in the Communist underground in 1934-37 and that they became close friends.  The Commie-hunters on the House Un-American Activities Committee are swept away by his poise and simplicity and tell him what a wonderful witness he is.  Only two listeners smell something fishy in Hiss’ carefully phrased testimony: a staffer named Robert Stripling and a freshman Republican Representative named Richard Nixon.  The two form a team of rivals (each claiming credit for the tall thinking and smart talking) and change history.  All four men are now inextricably intertwined in a scandal that will rock the nation.
     
    Further Research
    Episode 6:  Robert Stripling’s book (largely ghostwritten by the popular writer Bob Considine) is “The Red Plot Against America” (Bell 1949); it describes Hiss’s testimony and reactions to it at 110-16.  More accounts of Hiss’s first testimony are; Nixon at 5-11; Smith at 161-83; Toledano at 151-54; and Weinstein at 21-28.  The full transcript of Hiss’s testimony is in the Alpa Editions reprint of the HUAC hearings at 642-59.
    Alger Hiss’s memoir of the Case, “In the Court of Public Opinion” (Knopf 1957) describes at 3-14 Hiss’s reaction to Chambers’ accusations and his first testimony in response.  This book is so dry (in it, Hiss never once describes having a feeling) that it has been called the only boring book ever written about this Case.  More interesting pro-Hiss reading is the John Chabot Smith book referenced above and a pro-Hiss book that focuses on Nixon’s misstatements and craftiness (a territory almost as target-rich as Hiss’s testimonies), “A Tissue of Lies:  Nixon vs. Hiss” (McGraw Hill 1979) by Morton and Michael Levitt.  
    Questions:  You’re Alger Hiss, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a minor luminary of America’s post-War foreign policy establishment.   Whittaker Chambers testifies to HUAC that the two of you were in a secret Communist chat group 10-15 years ago and that you two became best friends. 
    What do you do?
    Several options:  (1) Do nothing, because no one who matters to your life cares a fig for what goes on at HUAC; (2) appear before the Committee with both guns blazing, in the style of the Hollywood Communists (but remember they came to a sticky end); (3) admit, sheepishly, that back in the dark days of the Great Depression, when you were just out of grad school and had more youthful idealism than good judgment, you did something very foolish that, fortunately, did no harm in the long run and you stopped doing it years ago; and (4) calmly deny Chambers’ charges like a gentleman who will not stoop to wrestle in the mud; tough it out, hope Chambers gets tangled up in melodrama, and that, with your sterling reputation and friends in high places, you can emerge in two weeks as fabulous as always and with the added sheen of having repulsed a despicable smear campaign.  Hiss chose #4.
    If you were Hiss, would your choice depend much on whether Chambers’ charges were true?  What if they were true and you knew that you two had also been in a spy ring, a major league crime that Chambers could blackmail you with for the rest of your life if you admitted to the chat group and the friendship?  But since he was in the spy ring, too, you could blackmail him for the rest of his life.
    Extra Credit Question:  I assume that by now you have read parts of Hiss’s testimony and its dissection by Nixon and Stripling.  As you read Hiss for the first time, did you notice any of the suspicion-raising bits that Nixon and Stripling saw?

     


     

    • 12 min

Customer Reviews

5.0 out of 5
23 Ratings

23 Ratings

Jif Divingboard ,

Fabulous, fun, and smart.

Mr. Berresford’s exhaustive knowledge, passion, and legal insights come through with every episode. I found myself devouring this—even the legal stuff which, normally, might feel beyond me. He brought every moment to life, describing it with such cinematic terms, that it was impossible to not be drawn in or see the “film” in my mind.
This is clearly a labor of love, a project that rose out of Mr. Berresford’s lifelong fascination and passion, and it was a joy to listen to, think about, and (ultimately) be convinced by.
Excellent writing, great narration, and spot-on analysis.
For 20th century American history buffs—or those interested in a seminal story from the Cold War—look no further…

LucaFin ,

INDEBTED TO MR. BERRESFORD

Mr. Berresford has provided an informed & passsionate encapsulation of the Alger Hiss case. His hobby, as he described it in the 1st podcast, has brought this pivotal event back to life for me; it had been decades since I read Chambers’s book.

S.Bustamante ,

“History Doesn't Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes” – Mark Twain

This is a fascinating podcast. I am in my mid-sixties and I can still remember seeing Chambers being interviewed, I think, by William F. Buckley..

I found the whole thing fascinating, because in New York City schools we were already being taught the lie that McCarthy was the worst possible monster, not because he abused his power and attacked often relatively innocent people who were “pink” in their youth, but because THERE WERE NO COMMUNISTS among the liberal intelligencia.

The other argument was that under our system, people had a 1st amendment “right” to be Communists, ignoring the fact that Communists of the day were agents of the Soviet Union.

It is so very interesting to me that the same type of elitists still run our government, as evidenced by the COVID so-called emergency.

We never learn.

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