- Historic Sites
“i Think Hiss Is Lying”
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
When HUAC investigators Donald Appell and William Wheeler arrived at the Maryland farm with the subpoena, Chambers, with a flair for melodrama, mystified them by walking into his pumpkin patch, where he fumbled about for a moment and then took five rolls of film wrapped in wax paper out of a hollowed-out pumpkin shell. He had hidden them there that morning, he said, because of prowlers on his farm. Back in Washington Stripling examined the two already-developed films, with their confidential State Department cables, and instantly wired Nixon on the S.S. Panama , “ CASE CLINCHED. INFORMATION AMAZING. … CAN YOU POSSIBLY GET BACK .” Nixon transferred from the boat to a Coast Guard amphibious plane and flew to Miami. When newsmen besieged him with questions about papers Chambers had found in a pumpkin, he thought for a time that “we might really have a crazy man on our hands.”
After returning to Washington, where he was briefed by Stripling, Nixon welcomed in the press, and the photograph taken of him looking at the microfilm with a magnifying glass, presumably at the spot where it said “Department of State, Strictly Confidential,” was published all over the nation. He did not correct Stripling when he told newsmen the developed films had made a stack of letter-sized documents three or four feet high. Actually they barely reached an inch.
The Nixon euphoria suffered a brief but potentially catastrophic setback when Stripling, on a routine check with the Eastman Kodak Company concerning the age of the film, which Chambers dated early 1939, was told that it had not been manufactured before 1945. The news, said Nixon, “jolted us into almost complete shock.” “We sat looking at each other without saying a word. This meant that Chambers was, after all, a liar. … We had been taken in by a diabolically clever maniac who had finally made a fatal mistake.” Vazzana, who was in the office at the time, remembered Nixon shouting, “Oh, my God, this is the end of my political career!” Turning abusive, he hurled the blame on the young lawyer who had leaked the story of the espionage documents to him in the first place. “Well, you got us into this. This is all your fault.” Vazzana, who thought he had done Nixon a great favor, protested helplessly, “I didn’t know there was any microfilm there.”
When Nixon finally located Chambers in New York and demanded an explanation, there was a long silence. Then Chambers said, “in a voice full of despair and resignation, T can’t understand it. God must be against me.’”
“You’d better have a better answer than that,” Nixon said. “The Sub-Committee’s coming to New York tonight and we want to see you at the Commodore Hotel at nine o’clock and you’d better be there!” And he slammed down the receiver without waiting for an answer.
Stripling said later that it was he who now insisted on calling in the press to admit that they had been “sold a bill of goods,” but that Nixon would have none of it. Nixon in Six Crises said it was he who called the press conference. “This would be the biggest crow-eating performance in the history of Capitol Hill, but I was ready to go through with it.” As it turned out, the Eastman Kodak representative saved Nixon’s reputation by telephoning just in time to say that he had been in error, that films with the same emulsion figure had been produced through 1938, discontinued because of the war, and then manufactured again in 1945.
Chambers, meanwhile, wandered about the streets of New York in a state of deep shock. When he finally learned of the Eastman error he felt not so much relief as rage. “An error so burlesque, a comedy so gross in the midst of such catastrophe was a degradation of the spirit,” he said. A “pointless pain continued to roll under me like a drowning wave.” Once again he walked the streets, finally going into a seed store, where he bought some insecticide that contained cyanide. This he stored in a locker in Grand Central Station and then went on to the Commodore Hotel.
There he found what seemed to him idiocy and paranoia. Nixon had been met by enraged Justice Department agents who forbade him to question Chambers because he had just begun testifying again before the grand jury. They threatened Nixon with a contempt citation if he would not turn over the microfilm. After a shouting match, with charges of meddling on the one hand and cover-up on the other, Nixon won the right to question Chambers, providing that he would turn over enlargements of all the film. Chambers described the committee as being “in the preposterous position of having the microfilm in its possession, but of not knowing what it was all about.” A siege mentality convulsed the HUAC congressmen: “The Committee was convinced that the Justice Department had it surrounded, that the hotel was wired or that the session could be overheard by wireless devices. … Certain comments were not spoken at all. They were scribbled on a scrap of paper and passed around the room. None of them was important … members of the Committee’s staff stood guard at the doors to challenge intruders and keep off the press.”