3 – Whittaker Chambers

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Whittaker Chambers

In 1938 Whittaker Chambers defected. Well they call it defected but he was an American in the USA who worked for the NKVD but saw the light and severed relations with the Soviets. Defection is probably too strong a word, disenchantment would be more descriptive. It took a while before he went public with his story only to be called a liar and be vilified by the left.

You would anticipate that he rushed off to somewhere safe, spilled the beans and disappeared with a new identity. Not quite, he eventually severed his ties in 1937/8, finally spoke to the FBI in 1945 and appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948. His story went to Roosevelt during the war and FDR laughed it off. There was the standard, his word against mine theory, even when others implicated the same names. It was only when the Venona data became available that he was taken seriously. My opinion is that there were many in the Administration who were either Communists or sympathetic and they managed to stem the tide enough to keep it all quiet.

Chambers was a student at Uni when he joined the Communist Party (CPUSA) in 1925. The member of the CPUSA were overwhelmingly foreign born, mostly from Tsarist Russia. There were English speaking branches and others that spoke all manner of foreign tongues. Most of the members were workers or small businessmen, he was considered to be an intellectual at a time when that word was considered an insult. As he said in his book, any illiterate could win an argument by accusing his opponent of being an intellectual.

The Party was riven by factions, the leading one was led by Charles Ruthenberg, a German who was described as dour. His deputies were Jay Lovestone and Ben Gitlow. The rival faction was led by William Foster aided by Earl Browder, later to assume the leadership. You may have heard the name Browder recently, his grandson Bill runs the Hermitage hedge fund which unsurprisingly had a lot of investments in Russia. An allied faction was led by James Cannon who eventually left to become a Trotskyite.

In periods of quiet between in-fighting, the Communists spent their time wondering how they could help the USSR. This was often achieved via the Workers International Relief headed by Willi Münzenberg, one of the Communist’s foremost propagandists. His name pops up in almost every story of infiltration and it is surprising he is not better known.

For a Party that denied any influence from Moscow it was rather odd to learn that they could do nothing without Stalin’s permission which was sought on a regular basis via the Comintern. The leaders were summoned to Moscow with Uncle Joe reading them the riot act regarding the various factions. The Foster faction was victorious and a trick was set up that included Earl Browder. Earl soon became the general secretary and the other two members faded into the background.

At this point Chambers was shunned by the Party, he had been close to Foster who was dumped as being a factionalist beyond redemption. He didn’t leave the Party but was very much out of favour. In 1931 he married Esther Shemitz and oddly enough they remained husband and wife for the rest of their lives. She was not a communist but most definitely a fellow traveller. By 1932 Whittaker was back in favour and an approach by Max Bedacht, one of the original troika members, informed Chambers that he had been selected to do “underground work” for the party. Being unsure, Whittaker asked if he could talk to his wife about this. Of course said Max but when Max heard the next day that they had decided not to, Chambers was told he had no choice.

He ended up meeting “Ulrich” and then realised he would be working directly for the Soviets. It was explained that his job was to be as a link between the underground apparatus and Bedacht of the open Communist Party. He later identified Ulrich as Alexander Ulanovsky of Russian Military Intelligence.

When members of the CPUSA had secret information for the Russians they sent it by courier to Bedacht who gave it to Chambers who then gave it to Ulrich. For years the Russians denied they used foreign operatives in intelligence work, even onto the 1990s. All this was yet another lie.

In the late 1930s the struggle between expelled factionalists and the CPUSA turned into real hostilities. The Comintern General Secretary received the entire burgled files of Jay Lovestone. These were described as revealing his close connection with notorious anti working class and bourgeois forces in America. The language never changes does it. There were also indications of a close relationship with Mendelson in Canada who was helping to get Russians into the USA. The Mendelsons had been working for the Soviets for years and remained close friends with Lovestone even though he had been expelled form the party.

Less than a year after starting with Bedacht, Chambers had a new controller, J. Peters who asked Chambers to set up a location in Washington DC or Baltimore where documents could be photographed. The leader of the Washington cell was Harold Ware who worked in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration where he recruited some colleagues into his cell. The Communist interest in agriculture was bizarre to say the least. The Soviets were convinced they could get the peasants along with the factory workers to rise up against the wicked capitalists. The idea was Stalin’s, he was sure they had to organise the farmers.

Of course little came of organising the farm workers but the real revelation was that Harold Ware realised he could infiltrate the other branches of the US Government in the same way. The Party members then set about creating cells in as many units as they were able to penetrate. Ware’s group originally consisted of Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, his brother Donald, Henry Hill Collins, Victor Perlo, John Abt, Nathan Witt and Charles Krivitsky. These agents then moved into other areas and the web grew.

Alger and Donald Hiss ended up working for the State Department, Alger was even present at the Teheran Conference. Ulrich was replaced in late 1936 by “Peter” who was in reality Boris Bykov and at this change the supply of documents became wholesale rather than sporadic. Up to that time Chambers had only received documents from Alger Hiss, Julian Wadleigh and Ward Pigman, and Harry Dexter White.

When his doubts grew Chambers decided to keep an “insurance policy” of original documents and microfilm. These later became famous as the pumpkin documents as Whittaker had buried them in his garden.

Before Bykov took over, J. Peters had introduced Chambers to “Richard” who specialised in obtaining false passports. Richard was Arnold Ikal who also worked for the GRU. As the purges went on, Richard confessed to being upset by them. He had heard that a close friend, the head of the GRU had been shot. Richard and his wife returned to Russia in 1937 carrying two passports. Both were arrested, the wife was an American citizen so US diplomats were allowed access to her but could not stop her being put on trial. Richard was tortured and confessed to just about everything imaginable. He was an agent of Latvia, he was an agent of Germany and so on. He implicated many others, many of whom disappeared. He admitted to being in contact with the Mendelsons and Lovestone. Eventually he denied everything but by then it was too late. The couple disappeared.

With some of his fellow agents being consumed by the Great Terror, Chambers started to wonder how he could escape the clutches of the Soviets. He went and confessed to a friend, Herbert Solow and wrote articles he wanted published that threatened to name Bedacht and J. Peters. They never appeared in print. Solow went to see Lovestone but could get no further.

Chambers was now worried that he would also be eliminated. He spoke again to Solow who advised him to tell all. There were two former defectors, one had said nothing and was bumped off, the other had said much and survived.

When the Hitler-Stalin Pact was announced Chambers went to see Adolf Berle, the assistant Secretary of State. Chambers named names and told Berle what was going on with Soviet spying. Berle passed it on to Roosevelt who had laughed, presumably his friend Uncle Joe would never do such things. Chambers then kept quiet and became a senior editor at Time Magazine.

In 1945 Chambers made yet more notes that eventually in 1947 reached the FBI. In 1948 he finally testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he named

  • Harold Ware (by then deceased)
  • John Abt
  • Nathan Witt
  • Lee Pressman
  • Alger Hiss
  • Donald Hiss
  • Henry H Collins
  • Charles Kramer (Krivitsky)
  • Victor Perlo
  • J. Peters as his supervisor
  • Harry Dexter White as a member of his group but not a Party member.
  • Later on he told the FBI about
  • George Silverman
  • Harold Glasser
  • Lawrence Duggan
  • Lauchlin Currie as someone close to Silverman but not known to him as an agent.

They all denied any such thing and invoked the 5th when asked if they were member of the Communist Party but when the Venona messages started to become available in 1948 they confirmed many of these lists as Soviet agents.

In 1949-1950 he testified in the Alger Hiss perjury trials and then became a very outspoken anti-Communist. Whittaker died age 60 in Maryland. Alger Hiss on the other hand was up to his neck in everything and deserves an article of his own.

It is striking that Whittaker was disenchanted with the Communist Party twice. Firstly because of the factional infighting, something all lefties thrive on, and secondly because the Great Terror affected people he knew.  Think of all the others who soldiered on regardless and continued working against their own country.

The next “defector” story concerns Elizabeth Bentley, a classic case of a woman scorned but not quite in the way you would imagine.

© well_chuffed 2019

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