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Site of 'Pumpkin Papers' Spy Case Cache : Chambers' Farm Proposed as Landmark

April 17, 1988|JANE E. ALLEN | Associated Press

WESTMINSTER, Md. — The National Park Service has proposed landmark status for the farm of Whittaker Chambers, whose allegations about infiltration of the American government fueled the fires of the Red Scare and whose writings deeply influenced President Reagan and other conservatives.

Forty years ago, in a strange and symbolic incident, Chambers, then a Time magazine editor, opened a hollowed-out pumpkin on Pipe Creek Farm and retrieved microfilmed documents that connected Alger Hiss, a longtime State Department official, to communist activities a decade earlier.

Chambers, who had renounced his communist past, accused Hiss of having belonged to a secret cell of underground communists that passed documents to the Soviets in the 1930s. Chambers claimed that they had been close associates at one time.

Hiss sued Chambers for libel, but the tables turned as the "pumpkin papers" sealed Hiss' fate before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Criminal indictments followed and after two trials, Hiss was sent to prison on March 22, 1951. His libel suit was dismissed in 1951.

Maintained Innocence

Although Hiss served 44 months in prison after being convicted of perjuring himself before the committee by denying under oath that he ferried the documents to Chambers in 1938, he has maintained his innocence.

Reached at his New York home last week, the 83-year-old Hiss said he had no comment on the effort to honor Chambers with a landmark.

He added: "I will have something to say about him in the latter part of May," when he publishes what he termed a semi-autobiographical book.

After turning in his former associates, Chambers, who had slept for years with a gun fearing retribution, retreated with his family to the farm's 390 rolling acres, where he tended to the land and wrote about his experiences until his death in 1961.

One of the conservatives most influenced by Chambers' 1952 autobiographical volume "Witness" was a young Californian. Ronald Reagan's own book, "Where's the Rest of Me?," includes references to Chambers.

'Deep Impact'

"He talks about the deep impact that Whittaker Chambers had on him. He said reading 'Witness' was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of his life," according to White House chief speech writer Tony Dolan.

Dolan said Reagan was so stirred by the story of a communist who came to see the evils of totalitarian regimes that he bestowed a posthumous Medal of Freedom on Chambers in 1984.

Reagan and Dolan discussed the President's interest in Chambers; a subsequent exchange between Dolan and Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel led to the site nomination.

"Hodel is a very devoted conservative, very devoted to the President," Dolan said.

The landmark designation for the Chambers farm depends on approval from the National Park System Advisory Board, which is scheduled to meet on April 26, and then from Hodel. It would provide the property with a plaque and place it in a league with more than 1,800 other sites, from ships to presidential homes, with national historical value.

Historians point out that the Hiss-Chambers case polarized the political world, fueled the Cold War and rocketed then-Congressman Richard M. Nixon to prominence as one of Hiss' top interrogators.

Unpublicized Visits

According to Park Service historian Barry Mackintosh, Nixon made at least two unpublicized visits to the Chambers farm "and became convinced that Chambers was telling the truth about his association with Hiss." Years later, Nixon would return to Westminster to speak with Chambers about his desire to be President, but Chambers wrote supporter and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. that he found Nixon inadequate for the job.

Asked why the Reagan Administration chose to honor his father with a landmark nomination, John Chambers, a former journalist now serving as deputy staff director of the Joint Committee on Printing in Washington, said Whittaker Chambers "left behind a literary legacy and a legacy of action, a legacy of conscience, and this is the place where some of this was formulated, and one of the places where it came be focused.

"It's an honor that we welcome," said Chambers, who has lived at Pipe Creek Farm off and on since the age of 2.

Maintaining it as a working farm is, he said, his way of paying tribute to his father's conversion to a simple life of manual labor, expressed in the volume "Cold Friday."

"Here I determined to root the lives of my children. . . . I meant to root them in this way in their nation. For I hold that a nation is first of all the soil on which it lives, for which it is willing to die," Whittaker Chambers wrote.

"This was all there was to give--the ground beneath their feet. I meant to give it to them not only against the forces of open revolution but also against that suffocating materialism, which, more than want or hunger, recruits the forces of revolution in the West."

According to Dolan, "Chambers felt there was a death struggle going on in the world between freedom and totalitarianism. And as a matter of fact, he felt (the West) would probably lose that struggle.

"What he didn't count on was Ronald Reagan. . . . He could not know at the very moment he was pessimistic, an actor in California was being moved by Chambers' eloquence. What Chambers underestimated was not so much the West, but himself."

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