The Warbler that Made Two Presidents


President #1: Richard M. Nixon

On August 7, Nixon's subcommittee met Chambers at the Federal Court House in New York City to pursue its investigation into the confessed spy's association with Alger Hiss.  Nixon asked many questions designed to determine whether he knew the things about Hiss that he should "if he knew well as he claimed."  Chambers had most of the answers on such subjects as nicknames, habits, pets, vacations, mannerisms, and descriptions of floor plans and furniture.  On the question of whether Hiss had any hobbies, Chambers gave an answer that would soon haunt Hiss:

Yes, he did.  They both [Alger and Priscilla Hiss] had the same hobby--amateur ornithologists, bird observers.  They used to get up early in the morning and go to Glen Echo, out the canal, to observe birds.  I recall once they saw, to their great excitement, a prothonotary warbler.
Hiss faced more hostile questioning from the Committee in executive session on August 16.  Stripling pointedly observed that either Chambers has "made a study of your life in great detail or he knows you."  After being shown two photographs of Chambers, Chairman Thomas asked Hiss whether he still maintained that he did not recognize the man who claimed to have spent a week in his house. Hiss answered, "I do not recognize him from that picture...I want to hear the man's voice."  After a morning recess, Hiss announced that he now believed that his accuser might be a man he knew in the mid-1930s as "George Crosley," a free-lance writer who he said sought out information about Hiss's work on a congressional committee dealing with the munitions industry.  Crosley's most memorable feature, according to Hiss, was "very bad teeth." 

A turning point in the investigation came when Richard Nixon asked, "What hobby, if any do you have, Mr. Hiss?"  Hiss answered that his hobbies were "tennis and amateur ornithology."  Congressman John McDowell jumped in: "Did you ever see a prothonotary warbler?"  Hiss fell into the trap, responding, "I have--right here on the Potomac.  Do you know that place?"  In discussions after the hearing, Committee members indicated they were now convinced Hiss was lying, based in large part on the response about the warbler.  It seemed to Stripling and others very unlikely that Chambers could have known about such a detail through a general study of Hiss's life.  It had to be firsthand knowledge.....

The Hiss case set in a motion a chain of events that would forever change American politics.  Joseph McCarthy, a little known senator form Wisconsin, seized on the Hiss conviction to charge that the Department of State was "thoroughly infested" with Communists.  Soon he would begin divisive hearings--the controversial "witch-hunt."  (Chambers disassociated himself with McCathy's crusade, saying "For the Right to tie itself in any way to Senator McCarthy is suicide.  He is a raven of disaster.") Richard Nixon's sudden fame from his role in the Hiss-Chambers attention led the 1952 Republican nominee for President, General Dwight Eisenhower, to select him as his running mate.  Most significantly, Chambers fanned the anti-Communist embers that within a decade evolved into a grassroots conservative movement in the Republican Party that, in 1964, produced the nomination of Barry Goldwater and, in 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan.  It is often forgotten what Lionell Trilling observed about political thought in America before the Hiss case: "in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition."

President #2: Ronald Reagan

The lasting influence of Whittaker Chambers on American politics came not just from the hearings and the subsequent perjury trial.  In 1952, Chambers published a remarkable autobiography, Witness, that even so different a person as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. would call one of the greatest of all American autobiographies.  Sidney Hook, reviewing Witness in the New York Times wrote, "It throws more light on the conspiratorial and religious character of modern Communism, on the tangled complex of motives which led men and women of goodwill to immolate themselves on the altar of a fancied historical necessity, than all of the hundred great books of the past combined."  Ronald Reagan credited Chambers's book as leading to his own transformation from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican.  Throughout his political career, Reagan made repeated references to Chambers in his speeches.  Reagan said Chambers sparked "the counterrevolution of the intellectuals" and that Chambers's story "represents a generation's disenchantment with statism and its return to eternal truths and fundamental values."  On March 26, 1984, Chambers  (who died in 1961) posthumously received from President Reagan the nation's highest honor, the Medal of Freedom.