Chambers, Whittaker (1901-1961)

Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers

A one-time Communist, writer and editor and self-admitted Soviet espionage agent, who accused Alger Hiss of being a fellow Communist and a Soviet spy. Born Jay Vivian Chambers in Philadelphia, PA, Chambers studied at Columbia University from 1920 to 1923. In the summer of 1923, he traveled to Europe and spent a few weeks in Germany. In 1924 he went back to Columbia, but, however, did not graduate. In 1925 he joined the Communist Party. From July 1927 until late 1929,1 Chambers was an editor at the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. His major job function was listed in the paper’s files as “Worker Correspondence,” with the additional function of “Foreign News”. In early 1930, he was suspended from the Communist Party, following a decision by its Central Control Commission. Later he was expelled from the Party for “disciplinary” reasons. In late 1929 or early 1930, Chambers was released from his job at The Daily Worker.

In 1931, Chambers began writing for the Communist magazine, the New Masses, where his first article – entitled “Can You Hear Their Voices?” – appeared in its March 1931 issue. Three more articles followed in the April, October and December issues of the magazine. In June 1931, Chambers first appeared on the New Masses masthead as Contributing Editor. In March 1932, he was readmitted to the Communist Party – following a decision by its Central Control Commission – “with the provision that, besides his literary work, he should also do some direct mass organization work.” 2 Chambers quickly got involved in Party “literary” work, covering the 28th Party Nominating Convention, which opened in Chicago on May 28, 1932. In early June, he got his next Party assignment – a longer-term one – writing pamphlets for the coming election campaign. Chambers disappears from Communist Party files after mid-August of 1932.

By his own account, Chambers was recruited into “the Communist underground” in June, 1932. However, no documentary records confirming his description of these events have yet been discovered. His name was still listed on the New Masses masthead in 1933. According to Chambers, from 1932 to 1937 or early 1938 he was working for Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, reporting to several of its operatives. As he repeatedly said in interviews with the FBI beginning in 1942, and testified before both the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and a federal grand jury, he defected from the Communist cause “sometime in 1937.”  In November, 1948, however, after producing the Baltimore documents, he changed the date of his defection to April, 1938, to fit with the dates of those documents. However, he placed the date at 1937 in testimony before HUAC that summer. In 1939, Chambers joined the staff of Time magazine, where he worked until his resignation in December, 1948.

In his August 1948 testimony before HUAC, Chambers accused a number of individuals of being members of the Communist underground in the 1930s. One of them was Alger Hiss, who denied Chambers’s allegations and subsequently brought a libel suit against his accuser. Chambers was the main government witness in the two Hiss perjury trials and a source of corroborating material evidence – the Baltimore documents and the Pumpkin Papers. After Hiss’s conviction in 1950, Chambers continued to testify in a number of Congressional hearings during the early 1950s.

In 1952, Chambers published his best-selling autobiography, Witness, which one writer noted, almost 50 years later, “may have enlisted more American anti-Communists than almost any other book of the Cold War.” 3 . In 1984, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chambers for his contribution to “the century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism.” 4 In 1988, in an unusual gesture of tribute, Chambers’s farm in Maryland was declared a National Historic Landmark – despite the fact that the requisite 50 years had not elapsed since the historic moment in 1948 when Chambers led HUAC investigators to a hollowed-out pumpkin in the farm’s kitchen garden. A library featuring Chambers’s personal papers is to be opened on the site of his farm.

A 2009 Chambers Primer

Much about the life of Whittaker Chambers remains confusing, puzzling and unclear. And there is a further complication: important new information that is only now coming to light – almost 50 years after his death – solves some of the old puzzles, but also makes things that had been assumed to be well established seem less reliable. The story now unfolding is complex – Chambers was a complex man – but it is leading to conclusions more surprising and dramatic than any Chambers ever disclosed.

For many years there didn’t seem to be much to go on. For instance, although Chambers’s stories quickly became so well known they could be called a part of the American national narrative, his accounts of his activities, which were immediately questioned, until quite recently could only be tested for accuracy by comparing them to other oral or written reminiscences. None of these literary records had the authority or credibility of the kind of first-hand “documentary sources” that historians look for. So attempts to verify or refute his stories about his Communist past, his descent into the Communist underground and his Soviet espionage service seemed elusive.

Many people hoped that the fall of the Soviet Union and, in particular, the opening of former Soviet archives, in 1992, would change this situation. According to the “consensus historians” of the Cold War period, as they have come to be known, these hopes have now been fulfilled. In a series of books published over the last 15 years, they have asserted that:

1) Research during the early 1990s in the files of the Communist Party of the USA (CP USA), the Comintern and the Russian Communist Party (at that time known as VCP (b) has produced overwhelming evidence that confirms Whittaker Chambers’s accounts of Soviet pre-war activities and espionage – both his overall picture and his assertions about Alger Hiss.

2) Venona – a U.S. code-breaking operation that partially decrypted Soviet World War II-period intelligence cables – brings further corroboration of Chambers’s story, since one FBI footnote on one released decrypted cable identifies a code name, “Ales,” used in operational correspondence by NKGB Foreign Intelligence during the war, as “probably Alger Hiss.”

3) Research by Alexander Vassiliev – a former KGB agent turned journalist – into KGB foreign intelligence records from the 1930s and1940s, which became the basis for an important 1999 book, The Haunted Wood, supports and bolsters Chambers’s assertions yet again.

It should be noted at once, however, none of these three sources produced even a single document mentioning Chambers by name. Or at least so it seemed from the books that were written. When, however, I retraced the scholarship of the “consensus historians” who’d first examined the various Communist Party and Comintern files, I was finally able – after close scrutiny of these same files some ten years later – to discover a few files and singleton documents from the 1928 – 1932 period that do have direct references to Chambers. I should point out immediately, however, that these previously overlooked records, though they throw light on Chambers’s life, say nothing whatever about his alleged espionage activities.

Click here for a first-ever glimpse into the documentary records from Chambers’s Communist Party past.

Following the “consensus” pattern of documentary silence, the two most highly acclaimed books about Chambers from the 1990s, Whittaker Chambers, a biography by Sam Tanenhaus (1997), and The Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (1999) did not cite a single Russian documentary record containing Chambers’s name. Several years later, however, in 2005, it turned out that the research conducted by Weinstein’s Russian co-author, Vassiliev, in KGB foreign intelligence records from the 1930s and 1940s – the documentary basis for The Haunted Wood – had produced (although it never made it into the book) at least one record in which Chambers was mentioned both by name and by the cover name – “Karl” – which he said he had used while in the Communist underground.

Karl” in this document also appeared at the head of a long list of failures that Soviet intelligence suffered from 1938 to 1948 as a result of several defections. Chambers was designated in this list as the leader of a group of 21 alleged espionage assets, including Alger Hiss, his brother Donald Hiss and two Treasury Department officials, Harry Dexter White and Harold Glasser. (Several of the individuals on this list have three-digit numerical codes names, such as “101st,” “103rd,” “104th,” etc.) Coming from such an authoritative source as the American department of MGB foreign intelligence, and signed by its former resident in Washington, D.C. in 1944-1945, Anatoly Gorsky, the document, which became known as the “Gorsky list,” was hailed by espionage historian John Earl Haynes as an unequivocal corroboration of Chambers’s story.

This unambiguous interpretation of the “Gorsky list” four years later, in 2009, became part of a second re-write of Vassiliev’s research,5 Spies, a book co-authored by Haynes and published by Yale University Press. 6 According to Haynes, the “Gorsky list” is “coherent” and straightforward, and has a 1948 date which indicates that it relied on primary sources, namely GRU records (Chambers had said he had worked for Russian military intelligence), and not just on Anatoly Gorsky’s memory, since until February 1, 1949 the MGB (Gorsky’s agency) and the GRU were both officially part of the KI (Committee of Information). Haynes and his American co-author are also sure that “Karl” was Chambers’s “cryptonym,” meaning the authentic and official operational pseudonym that the GRU had conferred on Chambers, thus guaranteeing the legitimacy of the “Gorsky list” and of the 21 names listed under “Karl’s group.” The two American co-authors are so confident of the veracity and internal consistency of the “Gorsky list” that Chapter 1 of Spies is called “Alger Hiss: Case Closed.”

Case closed? At the very time when Spies was going through its final proofreading at Yale University Press in the early spring of 2009, a much more modest book was reaching the shelves of Moscow bookstores without any fanfare. This second book, The Intelligence Officers Who Changed the World, a collection of miscellaneous essays by a Russian military journalist, Mikhail Boltunov, a Colonel and the editor-in-chief of the official magazine published by the Russian Department of Defense, is – unquestionably – based on primary sources held in the GRU archives and, as such, offers a rare glimpse into Soviet prewar and wartime military intelligence files. One essay, about the GRU resident in Washington, D.C. during the World War II years, Lev Sergeev, immediately struck a familiar chord, when I found the following on its second page:

“… In the early 1930s, the resident of the Red Army in the capital of the USA, Vladimir Gorev, recruited a certain Robert Zelnis. Most probably, that was a pseudonym, and we will hardly learn his real name. That new agent was either Lettish [Latvian] or an Irish American. He used to study at Columbia University, but did not graduate. He spent some time in Germany, during the revolutionary events of 1923, and took an active part in them. He went back to the USA and worked at a print shop.

Zelnis got involved into the operations of the residency, and brought a few people into cooperation with it. He was assigned an operational pseudonym, ‘Sotyi‘ [in English, “100th”].” 7

This immediately caught my attention because I had long ago identified Vladimir Gorev, the Soviet Red Army intelligence resident in the United States from 1930 to 1933, as the elusive “Herbert,” the man Chambers said had been his first Soviet handler (although he never knew his real name). Although garbled, Boltunov’s description of Gorev’s “new agent” also sounded like Chambers – except that the name of the new recruit that Boltunov records, “Robert Zelnis,” is, amazingly and confusingly enough, one of the spellings of the name of a CP USA founding member and functionary (his name was more often spelled “Robert Zelms“), a man known to have been previously recruited into Soviet Red Army intelligence – in early 1930.

Click here to read more about the real man behind Chambers’s thus far unknown assumed name.

This seemed strange in itself, since other records indicate that Gorev was also the recruiter of the other Robert Zelnis (under the name of Zelms), who had begun to work with Soviet Red Army intelligence in early 1930 – and suggest, moreover, that it was Gorev who then arranged for this prior Zelnis to leave the United States for Russia by May 1930. How could Gorev have recruited two different Robert Zelnises?

A clue can be found in one of the draft chapters that Vassiliev wrote in the 1990s based upon his KGB research for his American co-author, Allen Weinstein. In December 1944, according to Vassiliev, an American who then was a recruitment target of Anatoly Gorsky (later the author of the “Gorsky list”) wrote an autobiography for Gorsky, whom he knew as Anatoly Gromov, an official at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. In his narrative for Gorsky, “Ruble” (a cover name for the U.S. Department of Treasury official Harold Glasser) described meetings with someone named “Karl” from May 1937 to the “summer or fall 1939,” when “Karl” disappeared. Gorsky queried Moscow, and soon received a response: “Karl” was one Robert Zelnis, who “used to cooperate with the neighbors, however, later refused to work and threatened to betray all the sources he knew to American authorities.” 8

Click here to read more from Vassiliev’s draft for The Haunted Wood.

This again suggested that “Ruble”‘s “Karl” and Gorsky’s Zelnis might have been Chambers. But according to Chambers’s account of his time as an intelligence agent, he had defected from the Russians by April 1938 at the latest. Hence the dating in “Ruble”‘s autobiography seemed to suggest a mismatch. My follow-up search, however, which involved checking records from three countries – Russia, America and Great Britain – seemed to rule out the “real” Robert Zelnis (that is, Zelms), since it failed to produce any documentary proof that that Zelms was back in the United States as of May 1937. Moreover, according to Moscow investigative files on members of Zelms’s family, Zelms was in Vienna as of late November 1937, and in Moscow as of January 1938. 9

I needed further evidence. In early March 2009, I visited Colonel Boltunov in his Moscow office. The Colonel turned to be a totally “uncontaminated” source – he had never heard the name of either Chambers or Alger Hiss, and had no idea that his 1990s archival find about Gorev might be connected to such a highly controversial story. Colonel Boltunov’s research interest at that time was to reconstruct and celebrate the story of a 1940s Red Army spymaster little known to the public, Lev Sergeev (“Moris“), and in his pursuit of that story, as he told me, the defection of an agent code named “Sotyi” (“100th”) had jumped out at him as “the circumstance that had made an impact upon the fate” of his hero. 10

Here are some more details about “Sotyi”, in verbatim translation:

“… The information about this man is contradictory. Born around 1900. According to one information, [he was] of Baltic descent (an Estonian or a Lett [Latvian]), according to another [information] he was an Irishman born in the United States. Worked at a print shop. Did not graduate from the Literary [sic – ‘literaturnyj’] department of Columbia University. Stayed in Germany during the revolutionary events of 1923. Was actively involved in the party work. Was married to an American-born Jew. Had two children. Was involved into intelligence work by resident Gorjev [sic, in Russian, for Gorev] in 1928-29. In his turn, [he] helped to involve and knew the appearance [Russian “znal v litso” – verbatim, “knew the face”] and the residence of six out of nine sources of the Washington residency. Among the “100th” names [names used by “100th”], the most often mentioned [name] – Robert Zel’nis; however, he [100th] is also listed as Robert Caldvin [Caldwin], David Breen and BENDT.”

Although garbled in a few details, this Russian sketch of “Sotyi”‘s circumstances bore resemblance to the known facts of Chambers’s life. It also looked like a probable original source for the information forwarded by Moscow Centre to the NKGB station chief Gorsky in Washington, D.C. in December 1944. Another confirmation was that, although “Robert Zelnis” and “Robert Caldvin” have never previously been listed on the long list of assumed names used by Chambers, “David Breen,” by Chambers’s own account, was the name he said he had used for the purpose of establishing “an apparatus” first in England and later in Japan. 11

Moreover, the cover name “Sotyi” [“100th”] filled an obvious gap in the three-digit numerical cover names in the “Karl’s group” section of “Gorsky’s list”: the first time I saw the list in early 2005, it had struck me as odd that these code names began with an odd number, “101st.” Now that gap no longer existed. On top of this, the omission of the code name “100th” from “Gorsky’s list” suggested that Gorsky’s source for his report was not direct, “first-hand” access to GRU files, as has been claimed by some American interpreters of the list.

Ever since the so-called “Gorsky list” became a subject of heated discussions in early 2005, historian John Earl Haynes has maintained that “Karl” and “Carl” were cryptonyms used by Chambers in the mid-1930s when he was the liaison between a covert CPUSA espionage network and various professional GRU officers. 12

Now turn this around the other way: why was there no reference to “Whittaker Chambers” or to “Karl” in the information about “Sotyi” that was comprehensive enough to include four of “Sotyi”‘s assumed names? There is only one probable answer: the Soviets did not know Chambers as Chambers, but mostly as Robert Zelnis and as “Sotyi,” or, in numerals, “100th.”

On the one hand, this provides the final, long-sought corroboration that Whittaker Chambers was involved with Soviet intelligence, just as he said he was. But not in the way he claimed to have been. They enrolled him as Zelnis and gave him the cryptonym “Sotyi”; they did not enroll him as Chambers and give him the cryptonym “Karl.” Which de-thrones “Karl” from its status as an “official” operational pseudonym bestowed by Russian intelligence. “Karl” was merely a self-bestowed “street name,” or alias, that Chambers used. Case closed – or at least this piece of it.

This new understanding also questions the “Karl’s group” part of the Gorsky list as a coherent document based on primary sources – because if Gorsky had had access to GRU records when writing his report, why did he not include Chambers’s real pseudonym? Instead, Gorsky merely transcribed the street name that had been widely known since Chambers first testified publicly before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on August 3, 1948.

The puzzles about Chambers – and their solutions – do not stop there, however.

The story goes further:

“By 1938, in Washington, there had already existed a group, consisting of 9 sources, which during 4 years of work had obtained 800 different materials. The residency was headed by ADAMS /pseudonym Bekmurzaev/.”

Here, at last, was a window into another part of Chambers’s story. “ADAMS” was the name of a celebrated Red Army spymaster, Arthur Adams, who was an “illegal” resident in the U.S. from late 1935 to early 1938 and, on a second posting, from 1939 to 1946. During Adams’s second American tour of duty, his cover name was “Achill” [meaning “Achilles”], and when I read this passage I was once again startled. The cover name “Bekmurzaev” jumped at me as a hitherto totally unknown name. Now, nobody has ever linked Chambers to the famous Adams, who became well known to the FBI since no later than 1944, and who was investigated in depth by American authorities for many years. Chambers, in his testimony and writings, said that the Russian, with whom he met from the later part of 1936 to the early part of 1938 had never told him his name, and Chambers had known him only as “Peter.” After Chambers’s break with the Russians, he said, he had been told by another defector from the Soviet cause, Walter Krivitsky that the man he had worked with from late 1936 to early 1938 was a Russian named “Colonel Bykov.”

Click here to read more about Krivitsky’s identification of “Colonel Bykov” in the late 1930s and Chambers’s acknowledgement of the source of his knowledge to the grand jury in December 1948.

There are no records of a “Colonel Bykov” in any Russian files, but Russian publications suggest that “Bykov” must have been a garbled version of a real name, Boris Yakovlevich Bukov, a GRU military intelligence officer with a rank equivalent to colonel who was, reportedly, an “illegal” resident in the United States from the latter part of 1936 until mid-1939. Bukov also appears on the Gorsky list, however, with an improbable first name, Barna. But was Bukov the man Chambers had unknowingly worked with and for? Amazingly, as I discovered only this year, the FBI had early on almost uncovered the identity of Chamber’s “Bykov” – but then had been deflected because Krivitsky’s explanation had already taken on the solidity of a fact in their minds. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the FBI investigated two people who have now turned up with three-digit code names (“116th” and “115th”) in the “Karl’s group” section of the “Gorsky list.” Their real names appear in somewhat garbled form in Vassiliev’s notes on the “list”: Lester Huetm (or Huetsh) and Garry Azizov. How do these incomplete names connect to “Bykov”‘s true identity?

In March 2009, Jeff Kisseloff, after many delays, was sent the FBI’s “Colonel Bykov” reference file, which he had requested under the Freedom of Information Act; he subsequently shared this “Bykov” file with me. Among archival references from numerous miscellaneous FBI files, we discovered memos on the Bureau’s interviews with one of these two “Karls’ group” individuals, a man whose name turns out to have been Lester Marx Huettig (rather than either “Huetm” or “Huetsh”), on January 30 and February 14, 1950. Asked about the person who had been his Russian contact beginning in the latter part of 1936, Huettig (whom we now know to have been “116th”) said at first that he “could not recall” the man’s name, but later remembered that it had been “Peter.” Both the physical description and the “character” description of “Peter” that Huettig then gave fit one known GRU agent in every detail – except that this man was not Boris Bukov, and was, instead, Arthur Adams. Despite this correlation, the FBI agents pressed Huettig to tell them “whether PETER had red hair” (“Bykov” had been said to have red hair; Adams was mostly bald). At which point, Huettig “said he has some recollection that PETER did actually have red hair.” Solely on this thin – and solicited – piece of evidence, the FBI then surmised that “it seems probable that the PETER whom HUETTIG knew” was the same “Russian espionage agent” Chambers had known as “Peter” and who had later been identified by Krivitsky as “Colonel Boris Bykov.” As the FBI ascertained from Huettig, “Peter” was last seen in the United States in the spring of 1938, at which time he said that he was “going away.” As we now know, Arthur Adams was recalled to Moscow on June 13, 1938, while Boris Bukov remained in the U.S. throughout much of 1939. 13

Click here to read more on how in the early 1950s the FBI accidentally stumbled upon evidence of Arthur Adams’s operations in the United States from 1935 to 1938.

Watch for alerts on this website for new revelations about agent “Sotyi” and Chambers’s espionage career.

  1. These and the following dates were ascertained from late 1920s-early 1930s files of the Communist Party of the USA
  2. Minutes of CC Meeting on March 11, 1932, 515-1-2769, p. 21, – RGASPI.
  3. “Whittaker Chambers: Man of Courage and Faith.”  Lee Edwards, Ph.D. The Heritage Foundation, April 2, 2001.
  4. See the official site of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, re recipient Whittaker Chambers:  www.medaloffreedom.com.
  5. In 2005, Vassiliev provided his notes from his 1994-1995 research for a new collaborative project, this time with American historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.
  6. Alexander Vassiliev’s notes on “A. Gorsky’s report – to Savchenko S.R. 23 December, [19]49.” See Spies. The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev. Yale University Press, 2009, pp. 29-30.
  7. “Nash chelovek v Vashingtone” – Mikhail Boltunov, Razvedchiki, izmenivshie mir, Moskva: Algoritm, 2009, s. 109. (“Our Man in Washington”, in The Intelligence Officers Who Changed the World, by Mikhail Boltunov. Moscow: Algorythm, 2009, p. 109.
  8. Alexander Vassiliev, The Sources in Washington, in Allen Weinstein Papers, 1948-2000, Collection No, 2204C61 – The Hoover Institution Archives on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University. Discovered in May 2007 by Jeff Kisseloff and submitted to me for identification and evaluation.
  9. “Arvid Yakovlevich Zelms” investigative file, Fund 10035, description 1, file P-24630, p. 8; “Bertha Indrikovna Ron’sala” investigative file, Fund 10035, description 1, file P-21889, p. 8. GARF, Moscow. Courtesy of Widwud Straus, a chronicler of the history of Letts (that is, Latvians) in Russia.
  10. Mikhail Boltunov, Op. Cit., p. 109.
  11. Witness, Op. Cit., p. 356.
  12. Alexander Vassiliev’s Notes on Anatoly Gorsky’s December 1948 Memo on Compromised American Sources and Networks. Annotated by John Earl Haynes. Translated by Ronald Bachman and Harold Leich, assisted by John Earl Haynes. Additional assistance provided by Alexander Vassiliev [Revised October 2005]. No longer available on John Earl Haynes’s website; previously at: www.johnearlhaynes.org/page44.html
  13. “Colonel Boris Bykov” FBI FOIA Reference file, PDF pp. 21-22, 26.