A visit to the right's least popular museum

The GOP insisted Whittaker Chambers' pumpkin patch become a historical site. It averages two guests a year

Published October 13, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America"

The most popular National Park Service site is the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, which has around 17 million visitors per year; the least popular seems to be the Whittaker Chambers pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark near Baltimore, which has around two visitors per year. I was one of them. One windy fall day, I set out from Baltimore with friends to search for the pumpkin patch. The Reagan administration designated it a National Historic Landmark (officially called “Whittaker Chambers Farm”) in 1988 over the unanimous objection of the National Park Service Advisory Board. The site, outside Westminster, Md., commemorates the spot where, in 1947, Whittaker Chambers reached into a hollowed-out pumpkin and pulled out some 35mm film. He said it showed that Alger Hiss, a pillar of the New Deal, had been a Soviet spy.

The “pumpkin papers” helped convict Hiss of perjury in 1950, which transformed public opinion, convincing Americans for the first time that communism posed a real danger to the country. The obscure congressman named Nixon who pushed the Hiss case won a Senate seat the year Hiss was convicted and got the vice-presidential nomination in 1952; a month after Hiss’s conviction, Sen. Joseph McCarthy gave the speech in Wheeling, W.Va., that launched his career and gave the new, virulent anticommunism its name. For the next 45 years, the Cold War served as the iron cage of American politics.

Conservatives had hoped this site would provide a place where the public could be told that the Communist Party did not just defend a totalitarian regime but also recruited its members to spy on that regime’s behalf. Thus the hunt for communist spies was not “McCarthyism”; it was a noble cause.

But, like the other Cold War commemorative efforts, the pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark is remarkable primarily as a failure. In Westminster, outside the Carroll County courthouse, we stopped to ask a cop in a squad car if he could tell us where the Whittaker Chambers pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark was. “Never heard of it,” he said definitively — even though it turned out we were less than two miles away. If we were looking for a pumpkin patch, his advice was “go to the Farm Museum.”

Munch’s Smoke-Free Cafe is in the middle of town, on Main Street; we asked the man behind the counter if he knew where the pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark was. “Never heard of that one,” he said. But another patron at the counter, obviously a local, said, “Isn’t that where the spies hid the microfilm in World War II?” Conversation ensued. Somebody else said, “That Alger Hiss deal”; another chimed in, “Yeah, that’s the guy”; and then the man behind the counter said, “I never knew that was in Carroll County.” Of course it wasn’t World War II that was commemorated at the landmark; it was supposed to be the Cold War. The locals’ confusion on this point suggested that the conservative campaign had been a complete failure. The locals suggested we ask for directions at the tourist center in town.

We found a variety of brochures at the Carroll County Visitor Center on Main Street, including “Ghost Walk in Carroll County,” which said the countryside here had drawn “opportunists”— was this a reference to Whittaker Chambers? It continued, “Seldom has one area played host to such a diverse and interesting array of local ghosts and specters.” Hadn’t Karl Marx himself said that communism was a specter haunting bourgeois society? But the ghost of Whittaker Chambers was not listed here.

We asked the volunteer on duty at the Visitor Center about the Whittaker Chambers pumpkin patch; she offered to direct us to places where we could pick pumpkins. When we said no, we’re interested in the National Historic Landmark, she started telling us instead about Civil War battles. Since no battles were actually fought in Westminster, her presentation focused on battles that should have been fought here — in particular, the Battle of Gettysburg. (Gettysburg is 40 miles to the north.) She seemed disappointed and actually somewhat bitter about this situation. She even had a map that showed where the battle should have been fought, between Westminster and Taneytown, “if Meade hadn’t run into the troops up there in Gettysburg.” This little lecture was interrupted by a phone caller asking where he could find the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.

When we brought the conversation back to Whittaker Chambers, she agreed to draw us a map, remarking quietly that “about two people a year go up there.” A National Historic Landmark with two visitors a year? That must be some kind of a record — and it makes you wonder how this site got established in the first place.

*   *   *

In the last days of the Reagan administration, conservative true believers finally succeeded in persuading Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel — one of their own —to overrule the National Park Service Advisory Board and declare the pumpkin patch an official National Historic Landmark. For them, only the Berlin Wall provided a more vivid site where the Cold War could be commemorated.

The landmark designation was announced by Hodel not in a public ceremony, which might have seemed the appropriate occasion, but rather in a media event at the Heritage Foundation. There Hodel called Chambers “a figure of transcendent importance in the nation’s history.” Chambers, he said, saw the Cold War as a “conflict of two irreconcilable faiths — Godless Communism versus the freedom of Divinely created and inspired Man.”

Reagan himself, the audience was reminded, had posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom a few years earlier. Reagan had declared that “at a critical moment in our Nation’s history, Whittaker Chambers stood alone against the brooding terrors of our age.” Reagan had described Chambers as a “consummate intellectual; writer of moving, majestic prose; and witness to the truth,” and said Chambers’ testimony against Hiss “symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, a controversy in which the solitary figure of Whittaker Chambers personified the mystery of human redemption in the face of evil and suffering.”

Reagan had concluded that “as long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire.”

"Witness," published by Chambers in 1952, four years after his HUAC testimony, was a best-seller. In the book Chambers described why he left the communist underground: He said he had been reading a book about the Gulag and concluded, “This is evil, absolute evil. Of this evil, I am a part.” Then “a voice said with perfect distinctness: ‘If you will fight for freedom, all will be well with you.’” Chambers understood this as the voice of God: “There tore through me a transformation with the force of a river.” And so he became a Christian and an anticommunist. "Witness" described the Cold War as a battle in which it would be “decided for generations whether all mankind is to become Communist, whether the whole world is to become free, or whether, in the struggle, civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyed.” The Cold War was not just a superpower conflict but a battle to the end between “irreconcilable opposites — God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism.”

Hodel reminded the Heritage Foundation audience about "Witness" and then said, “My staff informs me that certain persons or organizations appear to be engaged in an effort to prevent designation of the Whittaker Chambers Farm as a National Historic Landmark ... If there be objection by some as to this designation, or if there is controversy, so be it. When we consider Mr. Chambers’ observation that one must be ‘willing to die that your faith may live,’ it seems to me that mere controversy is not sufficient reason to walk away from the opportunity to do what is right.”

Hodel later presented the bronze plaque intended to mark the site to Chambers’ son John. John Chambers told the Washington Post, “For all of his life, Donald Hodel will be welcome at Pipe Creek Farm.” But what about the rest of us?

The New York Times and the Washington Post, along with other publications, criticized the designation, siding with the Park Service Advisory Board in arguing that the site failed to meet the criterion of historic significance. The official History Division of the National Park Service pointed out that “the pumpkin patch was gone. The area where the famous pumpkin once grew had been partially paved over, and what remained was no longer a garden, but rather a grassy patch with a large evergreen tree growing in it.” Thus from a landmarks point of view the site raised “a very considerable issue of integrity.”

But the real objections concerned the politics behind the designation. The New York Times in an editorial called the designation “a low-water mark in landmarking.” An op-ed in the Washington Post called the designation “a rush to judgment by an influential group of arch-conservatives who wish to see Chambers appropriately ‘honored’ ... The fact is that neither Chambers nor his farm possesses ‘transcendent national significance,’ as Hodel proclaimed.”

Then the Washington Post ran a follow-up column asking “where this landmark business would stop, if it really got rolling.” Some of their suggestions: “the place in the Tidal Basin where that stripper, Fanne Foxe, leaped after bailing out of Wilbur Mills’ car”; “the spot where George Bush’s father disciplined him with a squash racket”; and “the radio station where Ronald Reagan broadcast the fictitious baseball game after communications with the ballpark broke down.” “So much history,” the piece concluded; “so few plaques.”

Meanwhile, back in the Westminster Visitor Center, the woman behind the counter dug out a one-page typewritten sheet titled “The Pumpkin Patch Papers.” It started out with the fact that Alger Hiss “was a native of Baltimore” — obviously the local angle is everything here. Chambers’ real name, it reported, was “Jay Vivian Chambers,” but he changed it to Whittaker “so not to be ridiculed by his classmates.” Chambers’ farm, it said, “is well known for the microfilm hidden in a hollowed out pumpkin and sometimes referred to as the Pumpkin Patch Papers” (well, not exactly). The information sheet said the site “will have a bronze plaque erected.” The fact sheet also said that in 1925 Chambers “left college disillusioned and joined the Communist Party” and then “worked alongside Alger Hiss in the Communist underground”— something that Hiss denied for 50 years, to his dying day.

*   *   *

There’s another big museum with an exhibit about the pumpkin patch: the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. Garry Wills once wrote, “Richard Nixon: Hiss is your life.” Nixon, a member of Congress and of HUAC in 1947, pursued Whittaker Chambers’ espionage charge against Hiss; Hiss’ conviction for perjury propelled the formerly unknown Nixon into national prominence. The Nixon Library has one display case about Chambers and Hiss, which includes a plastic pumpkin and vines. There’s also a Woodstock manual typewriter. Visitors at the museum are told that Hiss’s Woodstock typewriter convicted him when samples typed on it were found to match documents Chambers said Hiss had given him to transmit to the Soviets. The typewriter in the display case is a replica of Hiss’s Woodstock, and library officials told the L.A. Times that the original Hiss typewriter is kept in a vault in the library basement.

Could it be true that Nixon himself had the Hiss typewriter? Most of the artifacts in the library are from the National Archives; I asked Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper about the typewriter in the Nixon Library vault. “It’s not ours,” she said, “not the National Archives.’“ It turns out it isn’t Hiss’ either; that typewriter was returned to Hiss after his trial, and at the time the Nixon Library opened in 1990, it was in the attic of the documentary filmmaker John Lowenthal.

The claim that Nixon has Hiss’ typewriter in a vault in the library basement added another bizarre chapter to a 40-year saga. At the time Chambers charged Hiss with espionage, the typewriter on which Hiss was said to have typed the documents was missing; Hiss claimed it would prove him innocent. Despite a massive FBI effort to locate the typewriter, the Hiss defense found it and presented it triumphantly to the court, only to learn that it matched the Chambers documents. Ever since that time, the Hiss defense claimed that the typewriter was used to frame him, that the FBI manufactured a phony duplicate Woodstock to match the Chambers documents and left it for Hiss to find — a type of fabrication that even the Hiss critic Allen Weinstein acknowledged “had become standard procedure in the repertoire of espionage agencies by the time of the Second World War.”

Although the “forgery by typewriter” theory seems unlikely, evidence keeps cropping up suggesting that it’s true. In Nixon’s book "Six Crises," published in 1962, he wrote that the FBI had the typewriter four months before Hiss’s attorneys found what they thought was the right Woodstock. That fit Hiss’ “forgery by typewriter” theory. After a period of embarrassed silence, Nixon put out a press release saying this had been a researcher’s error; subsequent editions of the book said the FBI never had the typewriter. Eleven years later, during the Watergate crisis, John Dean, counsel to President Nixon, recalled Nixon telling him, “The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case.” Nixon’s edition of the White House tape transcripts confirmed Dean’s account, quoting Nixon as saying, “We got the typewriter, we got the Pumpkin Papers. We got all of that ourselves.” The debate for 50 years focused on the authenticity of the typewriter Hiss introduced at the trial; now it seems that the Nixon Library vault holds a second phony Woodstock.

Needless to say, the “forgery by typewriter” theory is not presented in the Nixon Library display. One visitor standing next to me at the display commented, “Isn’t that something! I remember hearing about the Pumpkin deal, but I never understood what it was about.”

The Nixon Library, and the “fact sheet” on the Whittaker Chambers pumpkin patch, could have said the evidence on which Hiss was convicted of perjury had not been very convincing. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. A second trial was held four months later; during the interval, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, and the communists won power in China, intensifying Cold War hysteria in the United States over communist espionage. The fact that Hiss was convicted in this overheated atmosphere created a cloud of doubt about the verdict that has never dissipated.

The doubts were renewed when the Pumpkin Papers themselves were released in 1975 in response to Hiss’ own Freedom of Information lawsuit. What Chambers had pulled out of the pumpkin that night in 1948 included some unreadable film and some innocuous Navy Department documents dealing with life rafts and fire extinguishers (they said they should be painted red). The documents were unrestricted at the time and obviously distributed widely — to everyone in the navy with jurisdiction over fire extinguishers. If these pages of the Pumpkin Papers had been made public at the time of the trial, the prosecution would have been laughed out of court.

The rest of the 55 images are of State Department documents that had been introduced at the two Hiss trials. All dated from 1938. At the time, government prosecutors — and Richard Nixon — described them as classified national security documents. But the topics seem routine — trade relations with Germany, developments in Japanese-occupied Manchuria — and many people other than Hiss had access to them. In the Rosenberg case, the prosecution said its evidence included a drawing revealing the secret of the A-bomb; the Pumpkin Papers contained nothing remotely like that. But you wouldn’t learn that at the Nixon Library, or at the pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark.

The opening of the Soviet archives after 1991 led conservative historians to look forward to the discovery of proof that Hiss was guilty, but in 1992 General Dmitri A. Volkogonov, chairman of the Russian government’s military intelligence archives, conducted a search and reported that “not a single document substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union ... If he was a spy then I believe positively I would have found a reflection in various files.” None have been found there since. (Volkogonov subsequently qualified his remarks, noting that evidence implicating Hiss could be in archives he hadn’t consulted.)

But the efforts to prove Hiss guilty continued. The most important attempt focused on the Venona documents, released in 1996 by the National Security Agency (NSA), Soviet messages from and about their spies decoded by the United States At the time New York Post editor, Eric Breindel, wrote in the New Republic that one of the Venona documents, purportedly sent by a Soviet spy in Washington to his superiors in Moscow in 1945, proves “beyond doubt” that Hiss “was still a Soviet agent in 1945.” Many others agreed.

The Venona page released by the NSA, dated March 30, 1945, reports that “ALES has been working with the NEIGHBORS continuously since 1935”—“neighbors” was the code word for Soviet military intelligence— “working on obtaining military information only.” It also reports that “after the Yalta Conference, when he had gone on to Moscow, a Soviet personage in a very responsible position ... allegedly got in touch with ALES and at the behest of the Military NEIGHBORS passed on him their gratitude and so on.”

At the bottom of that page a note declares, “ALES: probably Alger Hiss.” But that statement does not come from the Soviet document. Instead it appears in a separate section at the bottom of the page titled “Comments,” written by an unknown NSA functionary and dated Aug. 8, 1969 — 24 years after the original cable. Crucially, the identification of “Ales” as Hiss is not supported by any evidence from the Soviet archives.

It is true that Hiss attended the Yalta conference and then went on to Moscow. But in 2007 the historian Kai Bird made headlines with new evidence that “Hiss was not Ales.” In a lengthy article in the American Scholar, Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his coauthor, Svetlana Chervonnaya, showed that Ales’ travels did not match Hiss’: Hiss was in Washington when Ales, according to his Soviet handlers, was in Mexico City. Through painstaking research Bird and Chervonaya were able to identify another State Department official whose travel matched Ales’s, who had gone to Yalta and then Moscow, and who had also been in Mexico City at the crucial time: a man named Wilder Foote. The FBI had suspected him of espionage, and the FBI file documenting their investigation of Foote is large. But Foote was never indicted. Instead, because of Whittaker Chambers, and the Pumpkin Papers, they went after Hiss.

*   *   *

Back in Westminster, Md., searching for the Whittaker Chambers pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark, we left the Visitor Center, heading out of town with directions and a map called “Carroll County Roads to Gettysburg Driving Tour,” but it contained nothing about the National Historic Landmark. Another map, the “Carroll County/Classic Country/ Bicycle Friendly Bicycle Tour,” also “highlights historical attractions”—but that map doesn’t show the pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark either. The road itself is marked “scenic route,” and indeed it is, with beautiful rolling hills and farms and forests gleaming this day in their full fall colors.

At the corner of Bachman’s Valley Road and Saw Mill Road, where the landmark was supposed to be, we saw nothing but a field with a few horses in it. The bronze plaque displayed at the Heritage Foundation back in 1988 — the one that was supposed to mark this spot — was nowhere to be seen. Off Saw Mill Road was a handsome brick gate. I had an old article from the Washington Post that said the pumpkin patch was “in back of the barn.” We could see the barn; we were almost there. We drove through the gate and headed up the tree-lined driveway—but were confronted by a sign reading, “No Trespassing, hunting or fishing/Violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Prosecuted for visiting a National Historic Landmark? Surely the taxpayers — who paid for the plaque — deserved better than this. I went home and sent an email, as any concerned citizen would, to the National Park Service; Barry Mackintosh replied. He said he had asked John Chambers — at that point a staff member at the Joint Congressional Committee on Printing — what happened and was told that he kept the plaque “inside one of the houses on the property,” because he “feared the plaque might be a target for thieves” if it were displayed outside. “I fully appreciate his concern,” Mackintosh wrote.

Then I got a second e-mail, from Robbie Lange of the National Park Service. Government regulations, he wrote, “clearly indicate that the government provides NHL [National Historic Landmark] plaques for the purpose of public display. A National Historic Landmark not providing some degree of public access does not meet the requirements for the receipt of a plaque at government expense. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.”

Thus the pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark is evidence not of conservatives’ success in honoring one of their heroes but rather of their failure. How many tourists are interested in being told that HUAC’s hunt for communist spies was not “McCarthyism” but rather a noble cause? “About two people a year.”

Excerpted from "How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America" by Jon Wiener. Copyright 2012. University of California Press. Republished with permission of the publisher and author.

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