After leaving secondary school he did a variety of menial jobs before enrolling as a day student at Columbia University. He became very interested in poetry and he became friendly with Louis Zukofsky, Guy Endore and Lionel Trilling.
In 1924, Chambers began reading the works of Lenin. According to his biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, he was attracted to his authoritarianism and he "had at last found his church." Chambers joined the American Communist Party and worked as a journalist for several left-wing publications.
In July 1927 Chambers joined the Daily Worker. Other contributors included Richard Wright, Howard Fast, John Gates, Louis Budenz, Michael Gold, Jacob Burck, Sandor Voros, William Patterson, Maurice Becker, Benjamin Davis, Edwin Rolfe, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Robert Minor, Fred Ellis, William Gropper, Lester Rodney, David Karr, John L. Spivak and Woody Guthrie. At its peak, the newspaper achieved a circulation of 35,000. Chambers also briefly edited the New Masses.
Chambers became critical of the main tone of articles that appeared in these left-wing journals: "It occurred to me that…I might by writing, not political polemics which few people ever wanted to read, but stories that anybody might want to read - stories in which the correct conduct of the Communist would be shown and without political comment.”
Chambers claimed that he became a spy for the Soviet Union during this period. He later wrote: "I have found that the mood of Communism (despite its atrocious features) is a mood of hope, while the West (despite its gracious features) promotes a mood of despair."
Chambers, like most members of the American Communist Party supported the policies of Joseph Stalin. In the summer of 1932 Stalin became aware that opposition to his policies were growing. Some party members were publicly criticizing Stalin and calling for the readmission of Leon Trotsky to the party. When the issue was discussed at the Politburo, Stalin demanded that the critics should be arrested and executed. Sergey Kirov, who up to this time had been a staunch Stalinist, argued against this policy. When the vote was taken, the majority of the Politburo supported Kirov against Stalin.
On 1st December, 1934, Kirov was assassinated by a young party member, Leonid Nikolayev. Stalin claimed that Nikolayev was part of a larger conspiracy led by Leon Trotsky against the Soviet government. This resulted in the arrest and trial in August, 1936, of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin. All were found guilty and executed.
Chambers began to privately question the policies of Stalin. His friend and fellow spy, Juliet Poyntz, was openly critical and when she disappeared in June 1937 he became convinced that she had been killed by Stalin's agents. In 1938, Chambers left the American Communist Party and fearing for his life he went into hiding.
In 1939, Chambers met the journalist, Isaac Don Levine. Chambers told Levine that there was a communist cell in the United States government. Chambers recalled in his book, Witness (1952): "For years, he (Levine) has carried on against Communism a kind of private war which is also a public service. He is a skillful professional journalist and a notable ghost writer... From the first, Levine had urged me to take my story to the proper authorities. I had said no. I was extremely wary of Levine. I knew little or nothing about him, and the ex-Communist Party, but the natural prey of anyone who can turn his plight to his own purpose or profit."
Levine arranged for Chambers to meet Adolf Berle, one of the top aides to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. John V. Fleming, has argued in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) that Chambers told Berle that Alger Hiss was one of the communist agents in the government. According to Chambers, Berle reacted with the comment: "We may be in this war within forty-eight hours and we cannot go into it without clean services." Berle, who was in effect the president's Director of Homeland Security, raised the issue with Roosevelt, "who profanely dismissed it as nonsense."
In April 1939 Chambers joined Time Magazine as a book and film reviewer. It soon became clear that Chambers was a strong anti-communist and this reflected the views of the owner of the magazine, Henry Luce, who arranged for him to be promoted to senior editor in September 1943. Later that year he joined the group that determined editorial policy.
In August 1948 Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and during his testimony claimed that Alger Hiss, a senior U.S. State Department official, was a spy. Hiss challenged Chambers to repeat in public his accusation that Hiss had been a Communist, Chambers took him up on it. As Time Magazine pointed out: "Two nights later, on the radio, he repeated the charge, in effect challenging Hiss to sue him for libel or slander."
On 8th October, 1948, Hiss filed a $75,000 libel suit against Chambers. However, before the case could be tried, Hiss was indicted for two counts of perjury relating to testimony he had given before a federal grand jury. There he had denied giving any documents to Chambers, and testified he hadn't seen Chambers after mid-1936. A fter a federal grand jury investigation of the cases, Hiss was charged with perjury. His first trial in 1949 ended in a hung jury but in the second trial in 1950, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment.
Chambers wrote about the Hiss case in his book Witness (1952). He wrote: “Like the soldier, the spy stakes his freedom or his life on the chances of action. The informer is different, particularly the ex-Communist informer. He risks little. He sits in security and uses his special knowledge to destroy others. He has that special information to give because he once lived within their confidence, in a shared faith, trusted by them as one of themselves, accepting their friendship, feeling their pleasures and griefs, sitting in their houses, eating at their tables, accepting their kindness, knowing their wives and children. If he had not done these things he would have no use as an informer.... 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 resigned from Time Magazine and worked during the 1950s for Life Magazine, Fortune and the National Review. Chambers wrote to his friend, William Buckley: "I am a man of the Right because I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version. But I claim that capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative."
(1) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)
Like the soldier, the spy stakes his freedom or his life on the chances of action. The informer is different, particularly the ex-Communist informer. He risks little. He sits in security and uses his special knowledge to destroy others. He has that special information to give because he once lived within their confidence, in a shared faith, trusted by them as one of themselves, accepting their friendship, feeling their pleasures and griefs, sitting in their houses, eating at their tables, accepting their kindness, knowing their wives and children. If he had not done these things he would have no use as an informer.
(2) Whittaker Chambers, testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (3rd August, 1948)
I joined the Communist Party in 1924 and left in 1937. For a number of years I had served in the underground, chiefly in Washington. I knew it at its top level, a group of seven or so men, from among whom in later years certain members of Miss Bentley's organization were apparently recruited. Lee Pressman was also a member of this group, as was Alger Hiss, who, as a member of the State Department, later organized the conferences at Dumbarton Oaks, San Francisco, and the United States side of the Yalta Conference.
The purpose of this group at that time was not primarily espionage. Its original purpose was the Communist infiltration of the American Government. But espionage was certainly one of of its eventual objectives. Let no one be surprised at this statement. Disloyalty is a matter of principle with every member of the Communist Party.
(3) William A. Reuben, review of The Secret World of American Communism in the journal Rights (1995).
Chambers had been shown to be inaccurate about almost every detail of his personal life, from when and how he left Columbia University and the New York Public Library to how he made a living, to whether his mother worked, to when he got married and how old his brother was when he committed suicide. More important, he had contradicted his earlier testimony given to the Committee on numerous crucial subjects, from when he joined and left the Communist Party and how long he was in it, to whether he had known Harold Ware, to how and where he first met Alger Hiss. Since he had testified under oath in both instances, it was clear that either he had willfully perjured himself or that he was a man incapable of differentiating truth from fiction.
However, there was one important thing he had remained consistent about, as he had been for the last nine years: he still maintained that whatever he and Hiss did in the underground, espionage was not part of their activities. "Alger Hiss didn't do anything of this character," Chambers said near the close of his examination on November 5. "I never obtained documents from him."
© John Simkin, March 2013