Quiet Farm Echoes With History Again

COMMENT

November 22, 1992|By BRIAN SULLAM

No pumpkins were planted at Pipe Creek Farm this year.

It would have been fitting had there been a few of the large orange gourds lying in the small plot near the white farmhouse, because 44 years ago evidence hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin played a pivotal role in a national controversy that continues today.

The recent announcement that a search of Russian intelligence archives revealed no evidence that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy resurrects the debate about evidence that Whittaker Chambers hid on his farm off Bachman Valley Road.

Locating the pumpkin patch is no longer so easy. The patch was located to the side of a white clapboard farm house. Now there is neatly mowed grass there. Other landmarks remain on the property, however: A large red barn that used to house dozens of cows is now used for storage and a pond, that Mr. Chambers built, is still stocked with fish.

But if the farm's appearance hasn't changed dramatically, neither have some people's passions about the saga that began there four decades ago.

Mr. Hiss feels that a recent statement by Col. Gen. Dmitri Antonovich Volkogonov -- who called the charge against Mr. Hiss "completely groundless" -- vindicates his contention that he was falsely accused of being a Communist and a spy.

His detractors feel that the Russians have not provided any conclusive evidence to contradict their belief that Mr. Hiss was a spy.

It is quite possible that the question will never be answered to anybody's satisfaction, but for one short moment in November 1948, this modest Carroll County farm figured quite large in the nation's consciousness.

Out of a pumpkin growing in a small garden, Mr. Chambers produced for investigators of the House Un-American Activities Committee rolls of film that supported his allegations that Mr. Hiss passed State Department files to him in the 1930s when he was a member of the Communist Party.

The so-called "pumpkin papers" -- they were actually five strips of 35mm film -- helped to destroy the testimony, and career, of Mr. Hiss, a prominent Baltimorean, respected member of the Roosevelt administration and architect of the United Nations.

The event also launched the career of Richard M. Nixon, then a lackluster California congressman looking to make his mark, and created a climate of suspicion that a clandestine group of high government officials were actually Communists conspiring to destroy the United States of America from within.

The Hiss case is to the Cold War what the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings were to women's issues. It was one of those seminal events that made an indelible impression on the nation, dividing people who believed Mr. Hiss from those who believed Mr. Chambers. There was never any middle ground, and there never will be.

The Hiss case helped create the climate of suspicion that gave rise to the witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Thousands of

people lost their jobs, homes and reputations because they were suspected of being "fellow travelers," Communist sympathizers or part of a clandestine conspiracy to destroy America.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it is difficult today to imagine the fear and paranoia that arose from the Hiss case.

Mr. Chambers had squirreled away some papers and films at the New York house of his in-laws. After he testified before the congressional committee and his credibility was in doubt, he traveled up to New York and recovered these papers. He turned the papers over to his lawyers and hid the film for one night in a hollowed-out pumpkin in his garden.

Investigators at the House Un-American Activities Committee got wind of these documents and traveled from Washington to Westminster on Dec. 2, 1948, to recover them. Bert Andrews, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, re-created what happened that night in his book, "A Tragedy of History."

"It was about 10 p.m. The night was dark. Chambers did not enter the house at first. He walked to a pumpkin patch, stooped over and looked around. . . . The pumpkin had been hollowed out and dried. . . . Chambers lifted off the top . . . reached inside and brought out three small aluminum cylinders."

Two of the strips contained photographs of State Department documents on trade negotiations with Germany. One of the other strips was blank and the remaining two had photographs of Navy Department manuals that were publicly available.

We probably will never know what transpired between Mr. Hiss and Mr. Chambers. Mr. Chambers has left his account. Mr. Hiss has left his. Scholars periodically delve into the case, sift through evidence but rarely come up with new information.

The information released by the Russians may not be conclusive, but it is certainly a step toward resolving this case. Maybe as the fear and foreboding generated by the Cold War recedes, the American government will release all of its documents on the Hiss case.

Walking along a row of unharvested corn and listening to the chirping of two cardinals, it is rather difficult to reconcile the peace and tranquillity of this quiet farm and the heat and rancor that arose out of the Hiss case.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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