This month’s column will be about papers. Papers sometimes play an important role in political incidents and historical events. A few examples that come to mind are the Pumpkin Papers, the Pentagon Papers, the Panama Papers, and the Paradise Papers.
The Pumpkin Papers concerned Whittaker Chambers. Whittaker Chambers was a communist spy. In 1936 he started to have second thoughts after Stalin’s Great Purge began. Chambers had a friend and fellow spy named Juliet Stuart Poyntz. Poyntz made a trip to Moscow. When she returned to the United States she was disillusioned with the communist cause. In 1937 she disappeared.
After this, Whittaker Chambers ignored several orders for him to report to Moscow. He was afraid he might be purged. He started hiding documents that were evidence of his spying. He also hid several rolls of 35 mm film, which were microfilm copies of documents. He called this his “life preserver.” He hoped this would give him leverage to keep the communists from killing his family.
On August 3, 1948, Chambers was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He named several communist spies, one of whom was Alger Hiss.
On October 8, 1948, Alger Hiss filed a $75,000 defamation suit against Whittaker Chambers. Under pressure from Hiss’ lawyers, Chambers retrieved his “life preserver” and presented it to the HUAC. This life preserver contained four notes in Alger Hiss’ handwriting. The press began to refer to the five rolls of 35 mm film as the “Pumpkin Papers,” since Chambers had hidden them in a hollowed-out pumpkin in a pumpkin patch.
The courts could not convict Alger Hiss of espionage because of the statute of limitations. They were able to convict him of perjury, however, because he had denied under oath that he had ever given Whittaker Chambers any documents.
Later Whittaker Chambers wrote a book called “Witness” that described his ordeal. The book made for gripping reading in some parts. It contained a transcript of Congressman Richard Nixon cross-examining Alger Hiss. In the book he mentioned that most ex-communists had to deal with what he called “a scream in the night.”
The Pentagon Papers were officially titled “United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study, turned the papers over to The New York Times. The Times wrote a front-page article about the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The article revealed that President Johnson had lied both to Congress and to the American public about the progress of the Vietnam War. It also revealed that Johnson had concealed the escalation of the war from the media.
At first, President Nixon decided to do nothing about the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The papers embarrassed the Kennedy administration and the Johnson administration, and Nixon was fine with that. Later, however, Henry Kissinger persuaded Nixon to take action. Kissinger was afraid it would set a dangerous precedent for revealing government secrets.
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