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May 2, 2007

The Legacy of Whittaker Chambers

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On Monday evening, a tragic fire destroyed a circa-1850 barn on the historic Whittaker Chambers "Pumpkin Patch" farm just north or Westminster in Carroll County.

Interestingly enough, most of those attending the fire were not aware of the significance of the farm, which made history in 1948.

More than 45 years after his death on July 9, 1961, Whittaker Chambers continues to have a profound impact on the conservative movement in the United States.

Mr. Chambers was an accomplished writer and editor, who had been a member of the Communist Party of the United States from 1925 to 1937. He renounced communism in 1937.

After he defected from the Communist Party and abandoned his role as a Soviet spy, he became a courageous and vocal critic of communism and acquired lasting fame for outing Alger Hiss "as a fellow member of his underground Communist cell in the 1930s," according to Dr. Lee Edwards.

Dr. Edwards, writing for the Heritage Foundation in April 2001, called Mr. Hiss "a golden boy of the liberal establishment."

Mr. Hiss was "a former assistant to the Secretary of State and former general secretary of the United Nations founding conference at San Francisco and later was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace," according to Dr. Edwards.

Mr. Chambers was born in Philadelphia April 1, 1901, but spent most of his childhood living with his parents in New York City and on Long Island.

After he graduated from high school in 1919 he enrolled in Columbia University, where his classmates came to consider him as the possessor of a first rate mind and as a gifted writer.

It has been suggested that Mr. Chambers left Columbia in January 1923 in anticipation of being expelled for his writings in "The Morningside," a college magazine, which the New York press excoriated as sacrilegious, profane, and blasphemous.

In 1924 he read Vladimir Lenin's "Soviets at Work" and was profoundly affected. He joined the Communist Party of the United States the following year and wrote for "The Daily Worker" and "The New Masses," two prominent communist periodicals.

In the following years he worked with a who's who of communist intellectuals and prominent members of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's alphabet soup of liberal Democratic government agencies, to spy for the Soviets.

Mr. Chambers was called to testify on August 3, 1948, before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In several sessions he identified Alger Hiss as a communist but offered little in the way of corroborating evidence.

Subsequently, Mr. Hiss, who denied he was a communist spy, sued Mr. Chambers for libel in October 1948. Under pressure to provide materials to support his claims, and in response to a subpoena from HUAC, Mr. Chambers retrieved various materials he had secreted in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Carroll County farm in October 1948. The press immediately named them the "Pumpkin Papers."

In 1952, Mr. Chambers published a best-selling autobiography, "Witness," a profound commentary that is relevant today. The book "argued that America faced a transcendent, not a transitory, crisis; the crisis was one not of politics or economics but of faith and secular liberalism, the dominant "ism" of the day. It was a watered-down version of Communist ideology," observed Dr. Edwards.

Additionally, Mr. Chambers railed against the New Deal. These are all themes that resonate deeply with conservatives, claims Dr. Edwards accurately, "especially that the crisis of the 20th century was one of faith."

Dr. Edwards reminds us that President Ronald Reagan "often quoted Chambers' uncompromising assessment." And that his book "may have enlisted more American anti-Communists than almost any other book of the Cold War. including, among many, columnist-commentator Robert Novak.

"Former Senator Bob Kerrey admitted that reading "Witness" had enabled him, for the first time in his life, to understand what communism was all about," said Dr. Edwards.

We are reminded by Dr. Edwards that Mr. Chambers recounted in "Witness" that he seriously considering suicide "on a dark cold night at his (Carroll County) farm, (as he considered) the formidable forces arrayed against him - the powerful establishment, the hostile press, the skeptical public, the calumnies of the Hiss partisans. But when his young son John came looking for him crying, 'Papa! Papa! Don't ever go away,' he replied, 'No, no, I won't ever go away.' "

The site of the "Pumpkin Papers" has, over the years, come to be considered a national treasure by conservatives as many consider Whittaker Chambers to be a true American patriot of the first order.

President Reagan posthumously awarded Whittaker Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1984, "for his contribution to the century's epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism."

In recent months, the "Union Mills Reservoir" project, first suggested by the City of Westminster in the mid-1970s has been revived by the Carroll County Commissioners. Unfounded concerns immediately surfaced that the much-needed water project has threatened the site of the "Pumpkin Papers," and the Chambers' "Pipe Creek Farm," that was granted "national landmark status" in 1988 by Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel.

Fortunately, I have been led to a clear understanding that the Carroll County commissioners share the view of many that everything possible needs to be done to preserve the "Pumpkin Papers" site; yet, nevertheless, take care of the commissioners' basic "health, safety, and welfare" responsibilities to greater Carroll County.

Many of us are deeply saddened by the loss of the historic barn as it reminds all of us that we have a profound duty to do everything possible to protect and preserve our national treasures and be ever vigilant to the lessons of history. Not as much as to go back to those yesterdays, but to be sure to cherish the lessons of those yesterdays - today.

Whittaker Chambers will never go away.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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