Trump Past Presidential Scandals

Richard Nixon says goodbye with a victorious salute to his staff members outside the White House as he boards a helicopter after resigning the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974. Bob Daugherty/Associated Press file

Seventy-five years ago Saturday, after most Americans had discarded the shrunken remains of their festive, hollowed-out Halloween pumpkins, a very different hollowed-out pumpkin suddenly burst into view – one that would supercharge the political career of a certain red-baiting freshman congressman from California.

The squash in question belonged to Whittaker Chambers, a confessed former Soviet spy and the star witness in the long-running House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) espionage case against former State Department official Alger Hiss. The pumpkin’s decidedly un-festive contents, which quickly became known as the Pumpkin Papers, consisted of a set of microfilm containing top-secret government documents that Hiss had allegedly passed on to Chambers when they working for the Soviets in the 1930s.

The congressman in question was Richard M. Nixon. And those five cans of microfilm HUAC investigators unearthed at Chambers’s Maryland farm shortly after midnight on the morning of Dec. 2, 1948, made Nixon famous.

At the time, the United States was amid its second great Red Scare.

The first Red Scare, which coincided with the Russian Revolution of 1917, was “a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent – a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility and the American way of life,” the political scientist and former Communist Murray Levin wrote in “Political Hysteria in America.”

In the second Red Scare, Americans worried about a vast underground army of Soviet agents who supposedly had penetrated the U.S. government and were otherwise seeking to undermine the American way of life – fears that were substantiated by several confessed or exposed Soviet operatives.


Enter the HUAC and Chambers. The House of Representatives had formed the HUAC in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities by citizens and organizations suspected of Communist ties.

Before World War II, the committee was known for its investigation of Hallie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theater Project, during which one of its members famously asked Flanagan whether Christopher Marlowe, the 16th-century English playwright, was a member of the Communist Party.

Presidents Legal Troubles

President Richard Nixon sits in his White House office on Aug. 16, 1973, as he poses for pictures after delivering a nationwide television address dealing with Watergate. Associated Press file

After the war, in 1947, as the Cold War was heating up, the HUAC held a series of sensational hearings into Hollywood’s alleged Communist influence, leading to the conviction and blacklisting of the so-called Hollywood Ten.

The next major case on HUAC’s docket was the one involving Chambers and Hiss. Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine, had recently confessed to being a Soviet courier during the 1930s. He eagerly named more than a half-dozen officials who he said were also Soviet agents, most of whom, like the Hollywood Ten, refused to answer the committee’s questions.

The most prominent of these was Hiss. Then head of the Carnegie Foundation, Hiss had worked for the State Department in a series of high-ranking positions before and during the war, including head of the Office of Special Political Affairs. Hiss adamantly denied Chambers’s allegations.

The veteran diplomat was a hard sell as a latter-day Bolshevik, especially given Chambers’s own confessed crimes. President Harry S. Truman, who despised the HUAC, which he saw as a legacy of the original Red Scare, dismissed the charges against Hiss as “a red herring,” as did others.


But one HUAC member took the charges seriously.

Then in his first term, Nixon had joined the committee in 1947. In May 1948, Nixon won favor with the right-wing crowd by sponsoring the Subversive Activities Control Act, known as the Mundt-Nixon Bill, which would have required Communist Party members to register with the government. The controversial bill passed the House but was defeated in the Senate.

During the Hiss-Chambers hearing that year, Nixon declared that he believed Chambers and pressed his colleagues to follow up on the former Soviet spy’s dramatic allegations, though Chambers lacked documentary proof to back them up. The outraged Hiss proceeded to file a slander suit against Chambers, who had claimed publicly on “Meet the Press” that Hiss “was a Communist and maybe [one] now.”

But by early December 1948, the episode had faded from view, as had the Justice Department’s parallel investigation. “The Justice Department’s investigation of the Hiss-Chambers affair is about to die for lack of evidence,” reported the New York Times on Dec. 2, adding, “unless something new turns up.”

Something new had just turned up, in the form of Chambers’s pumpkin. Two HUAC investigators had accompanied Chambers to his Maryland farm in the early hours of that morning. There, he led them to his prized pumpkin patch and a hollowed-out specimen, from which they removed five cans of microfilm containing State Department and Navy photographs.

The committee leaped at the astonishing discovery, calling it “definite proof of one of the most extensive spy rings in the United States.” That was a gross exaggeration, but Hiss was clearly in trouble.


President Richard M. Nixon chats with Treasury Secretary William Simon during an afternoon meeting at the White House in Washington on July 30, 1974. Charles Harrity/Associated Press file

The question now was whether Hiss was a Soviet agent. Fortunately for the accused operative, the statute of limitations for espionage was five years, and the incriminating evidence all involved documents that Hiss had supposedly passed to Chambers a decade earlier.

The statute of limitations did not apply, however, on the issue of whether Hiss had committed perjury.

Meanwhile, Nixon – his doubts about Hiss’s credibility vindicated – seized the moment. The 35-year-old Republican was on a ship in the Caribbean when news of the pumpkin’s discovery broke, but a Coast Guard rescue plane brought him ashore and he was flown to Washington, the Times reported. In the days that followed, photos of Nixon triumphantly brandishing the instantly famous Pumpkin Papers were splashed across the press.

The rest, of course, is history. Two years later, in 1950, as Joseph McCarthy had begun his reign of accusatory terror and the second Red Scare was approaching its delirious apex, Nixon was elected to the U.S. Senate, thanks in no small part to the recognition he had gained from the Hiss case.

That same year, Hiss was convicted of perjury in New York and sentenced to five years in prison. Asked for a comment by a reporter, Chambers said, “I hope the American people will realize the debt they owe to this jury and the FBI. Nor should they forget Congressman Richard Nixon of California, who single-handedly forced the House Committee on Un-American Activities to pursue the Hiss investigation.”

Nixon would never forget the Pumpkin Papers and the role they played in jump-starting his political career. The case helped shape his political image, and the reputation it gave him was likely a factor in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s selection of Nixon as his running mate in 1952.

Meanwhile, Chambers’s pumpkin had entered the American cultural bloodstream. At the climax of “North by Northwest,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 espionage thriller, Cary Grant alludes to the case when he confides to Eve Marie Saint, “I see you’ve got the pumpkin,” referring to a statue she is holding containing microfilm.

At the same time, the word “Papers,” with a capital “P,” entered the lexicon as shorthand for a set of secret or incriminating documents. The Pentagon Papers, Panama Papers, Pandora Papers, and more would follow Chambers’s renowned pumpkin’s lead.

Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian based in Latvia who specializes in writing about forgotten or overlooked episodes in American and European history.

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