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Pumpkins and treachery

December 3, 2008, 7:24 pm

Sixty years ago today, the House Un-American Activities Committee announced that Whittaker Chambers, a confessed former Soviet spy, had produced physical evidence of a ring of Communist spies in the New Deal. He had plucked this evidence — rolls of microfilmed documents — out of a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. (Chambers had actually hidden the papers in a dumbwaiter for a decade, and just moved them a few days earlier to the pumpkin, which allegedly he saw as a safer hiding spot.)

The Pumpkin Papers, as they were quickly dubbed, included documents in the handwriting of former State Department official Alger Hiss and former assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White.  Neither man was still in government at the time, and the documents were more than a decade old.  But they did indicate that a handful of New Deal bureaucrats had stolen information for Moscow.  In the minds of conservatives, they provided proof that the entire New Deal was actually a communist project.

The story of the papers, which became iconic to conservatives, provides the focal point of an annual dinner in Washington, D.C. for a group of a hundred or so aging Chambers fans.  Senators, former CIA directors, Richard Nixon, and even Kenneth Starr have attended.  Because this dinner delights Ari as a historian of memory, I provide below Bruce Craig’s description of it in his great book on White:

When chimes signal the appointed hour, the formally outfitted guests enter the cavernous ballroom, where, in the pitch darkness, flickering jack-o-lanterns adorn all the tables.   At every place setting is a paperback copy of the cognoscenti’s most sacred text: Whittaker Chambers’s Witness.

Before taking our seats all eyes are on the head table, specifically, on the largest jack-o-lantern of all but one that is unlit.  In reverent silence, all watch as a senior member of the group ceremoniously extracts three rolls of 35-mm film from the cavity of the jack-o-lantern, and, with deliberate flair, waves them unceremoniously over his head….

With the strike of the match the face of the traitorous Hiss is outlined in the intricately carved jack-o-lantern, and so begins the annual meeting of the little known and at one time secret institution of the ‘Pumpkin Papers Irregulars.’

Then again, Ari’s love of this anecdote may be unrelated to his intellectual interests and instead a byproduct of his personal cosmology. (See also, here and here.)

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