A controversial figure in history, Chambers is credited with or blamed for--depending on the point of view--touching off McCarthyism. Some even trace the fall of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s directly back to Chambers.
Chambers was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and spent much of his youth in Brooklyn and Long Island, New York. He was described in childhood as a loner whose parents frequently separated. After graduating from high school in 1919, he worked for two years in a bank before enrolling in Columbia University in 1921, where he discovered communism. At Columbia University, his instructors recalled him as a talented writer who rarely went to class. He was expelled in 1922; some accounts attribute it to a blasphemous play he wrote and other attribute it to him simply not going to class.
In 1925, Chambers joined the American Communist Party and wrote and edited for communist periodicals, including The Daily Worker and The New Massess. He broke with the Communist party after he grew alienated by the Soviet labor camps and mass murders under Josef Stalin, leaving in 1938.
For a time, Chambers had worked as a spy. A collection of documents from that time that Chambers said he had saved in case he needed to protect himself from Communist retribution became known as the "pumpkin papers."
After leaving the Communist party, Chambers' politics shifted right. In the late 1930s, Chambers joined the staff of Time Magazine, where he would eventually rise to the position of senior editor and earn a yearly salary of $30,000. While at Time, Chambers became known as a staunch anti-Communist, sometimes enraging his writers with the changes he made to their stories.
In late 1939, after the Soviet Union and Germany signed a non-aggression pact, Chambers approached assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle and spent three hours detailing what he knew about Communist activity within the United States. In the wake of World War II, Chambers' story was mostly ignored.
During this period of his life, Chambers also translated Bambi[?] from its original German into English.
After the war, Chambers' story caught the attention of a freshman Representative from California, Richard Nixon. On August 3, 1948, Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and presented a list of what he said were members of an underground communist network working within the United States government in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the names on that list was that of a State Department official who had participated in the creation of the United Nations: Alger Hiss.
Chambers had skeptics. Hiss was well educated and had a long list of achievements to his name, and he vehemently denied the charges. Comparatively, Chambers was a drifter. Hiss had credibility; Chambers story seemed fantastic, with little hard evidence. Hiss used this to his advantage, maligning Chambers in the press. Hiss even dug up stories--some true, some questionable--about Chambers's homosexual experiences, and used them to smear Chambers in public.
Hiss initially denied knowing Chambers, then later said he recognized Chambers as a man he had known as George Crosley. After Chambers accused Hiss of being a communist on the radio program "Meet the Press," Hiss filed a $75,000 libel suit. Then, in November 1948, Chambers led two HUAC investigators into a pumpkin patch in Maryland, where he brought out a hollowed-out pumpkin containing four rolls of microfilm. The contents of the microfilm became known as the "pumpkin papers." Nixon posed with a magnifying glass and these microfilms in a number of highly publicized photographs.
On May 31, 1949, amidst unprecedented hype, Alger Hiss's perjury trial began. Charges of espionage could not be brought, because the statute of limitations had run out. It was called the "Trial of the Century" at the time, and Chambers was the chief witness for the prosecution. Hiss continued to vigorously maintain his innocence. The trial ended in a hung jury on July 7. A second trial began November 17, 1949, and Hiss was found guilty of perjury on January 21, 1950 and sentenced to five years in prison. The perjury conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. He served 44 months and was released in November 1954.
In the end, Chambers had made a total of 14 appearances. His testimony cost him his position at Time, and at one point during the trial, Chambers attempted suicide, unsuccessfully.
While the Hiss trial propelled Nixon's political career, Chambers derived little benefit from it. His job at Time gone, Chambers drifted, eventually becoming a Quaker, and wrote his autobiography, Witness, published in 1952.
Chambers died of a heart attack on July 9, 1961. A final book, titled Cold Friday, was published posthumously in 1964. It predicted, correctly, that the fall of communism would start in the satellite states surrounding the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.
In 1984, Chambers was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Although Chambers remains a controversial figure in history, information declassified in the 1990s in the United States and abroad corroborated at least some of his testimony. In particular, the Venona transcripts, released in 1996, detailed the activities of a spy code-named "Ales" mirrored Chambers' testimony against Hiss.