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Whittaker Chambers: A Biography ()

CSPAN Booknotes

A defining moment in the ongoing Cultural Wars; several years ago, when Anthony Lake was up for the job of National Security Advisor to President Clinton, he appeared on Meet the Press.  Tim Russert asked him if, in light of new access to Soviet files & the revelation of the Venona Intercepts, he would be prepared to acknowledge that Alger Hiss was a spy.  Lake sat there like a deer in the headlights & then mumbled some bilge about how it was still an open question.  And there you had it; for 50 years now, this seemingly simple question has lain at the fault line of the Left/Right divide in American politics. You could tell where someone stood on the political spectrum simply by getting their answer to whether Chambers or Hiss had told the truth.   (If you think this overstates the case, compare Victor Navasky's obituary editorial from The Nation with Brent Bozell's analysis of the Hiss obituaries). For the American Left (never mind the European Left), the innocence of Alger Hiss was an article of faith.  After all, if such a mainstream New Deal figure as Hiss had actually been part of a secret underground cabal, spying on the US for the Soviets, even as WWII was underway, then a whole battery of conservative attacks would gain legitimacy and the whole of FDR's legacy (both New Deal and Grand Alliance) would be called into question.  Well, it's time for our entire society to face those questions and this celebrated Chambers biography by Sam Tanenhaus offers an excellent starting point.

The story of Whittaker Chambers is familiar enough, yet remains fundamentally elusive.  Born on April 1, 1901, his life journey is a virtual parable of Modern man.  His father was bisexual, his mother paranoid, grandmother (who lived with them) completely insane, younger brother committed suicide.  Chambers was brilliant but slovenly, both physically and mentally.  His own sexuality was somewhat ambiguous and he was generally alienated from the world around him.  After failing to complete his degree at Columbia, he joined the Communist party and went underground in it's extensive espionage apparatus, wherein, he helped to run a Washington, DC spy ring.  By 1937, with Stalinist purges and show trials in full swing and amidst the brutal Stalinization of the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Chambers became disenchanted with the Party & fled the underground.  he attempted to reveal what he knew about communist spying to the requisite government authorities, but was basically ignored. Chambers ended up as an editor at Henry Luce's Time magazine & built a reputable middle class life for himself, his wife & their son & daughter.  He become devoutly religious and vehemently anti-Communist.

Then he was sucked back into the maelstrom when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  He revealed that Alger Hiss, a prominent New Dealer and pillar of the Establishment, had been a member of his 30's spy ring.  Hiss promptly denied it and the stage was set for a years long legal battle that finally ended with Hiss being convicted for perjury.

In 1952, he published his brilliant memoir, Witness, in which he recounted his own life experiences and sounded the alarm to alert the West that it was locked in a death struggle between Communism and Christianity.  One of the things that made the book so extraordinary was his assertion that in leaving Communism & becoming a Christian, he had joined the losing side in this struggle.

He spent the last few years of his life working on his beloved farm & writing articles & reviews, including a series of letters to the newly born National Review.  He died in 1961.

Seems straightforward enough, eh?    But he was & remains one of the most controversial figures, along with Hiss, of the 20th century.  Oceans of ink have been spilled, trying to explain how he could have been mistaken about Hiss or how he was a scorned lover of Hiss or how he was used to discredit Hiss & through Hiss impeach the whole New Deal, and so on & so on....

Despite the real greatness of this book, Tanenhaus can't clear up many of the mysteries of the story for us, but he does provide several valuable services.  First, by presenting the Hiss material in a simple declarative manner, he lays to rest any lingering doubts about whether Hiss was guilty of spying for the Soviet Union and then committing perjury about it later.  It will be impossible for anyone to contest the mountain of evidence that he lays out so masterfully.  Second, he reclaims Chambers the writer.  Witness is widely recognized as one of the great books of the Century, but Tanenhaus also demonstrates that his work for Time and National Review and even the stories that he wrote as a young man are the product of a gifted writer.  Third, he shows that there were Reds to be uncovered during the Red Scares and when diligent men like Richard Nixon went after them, they hit pay dirt.   But he also shows that Joe McCarthy, who alienated Chambers with his dilettantish behavior & was never really serious about the investigatory process, effectively discredited the whole anti-Communist movement.  Finally, as the Cold War fades in our rearview mirror, Tanenhaus recaptures the mood & feeling of the time when it seemed likely to be our Gotterdammerung.  Hopefully, folks who read this book will also seek out Witness and find, in it's dark and frightening world view, the lost emotional fervor that fueled the anti-Communists & brought us Barry Goldwater & Ronald Reagan and eventual victory over the USSR.


Grade: (A)


Sam Tanenhaus Links:

    The End of the Journey: From Whittaker Chambers to George W. Bush. (Sam Tanenhaus, 07.02.07, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: A Vast Right-Wing Cry of Treason: In her new book, Ann Coulter gets McCarthy right--and makes conservatives mad. (Sam Tanenhaus, July 24, 2003, Slate)
    -PROFILE: New N.Y. Times Book Review editor is a smart conservative (David Kipen, 4/13/04, SF Chronicle)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Imperial? No, Presidential: Bush is no "Caesar." (SAM TANENHAUS, December 27, 2002, Wall Street Journal)     -REVIEW : Sam Tanenhaus, Unamerican Activities (NY Review of Books)
        Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator by Arthur Herman
    -REVIEW: of SECRECY The American Experience. By Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Sam Tanenhaus, NY Times Book Review)
    -1948: The Alger Hiss Spy Case (from American History magazine)
    -Booknotes with Allen Weinstein on The Haunted Wood
    -Booknotes with Sam Tanenhaus
    -Case of Cases (Theodore Draper Review from New York Review of Books)
    -Hiss and Chambers: Strange Story of Two Men (New Yoork Times story from 1948)
    -The Literature & Culture of the American 1950s
    -REVIEW: of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus (William F. Buckley, Jr., First Things)
    -Review by Ann Douglas
    -The Truest Believer (Arthur Schlesinger review from New York Times)
    -Whittaker Chambers' Forward to Witness: Foreward in the Form of a Letter to my Children
    -REVIEW: of Cold Friday by Whittaker Chambers (Conor Cruise O'Brien, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The View from Alger's Window by Tony Hiss A Father and a Spy, A son's memoir and Soviet cable decrypts provide different perspectives on Alger Hiss (David Ignatius, Washington Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Cold War Without End (JACOB WEISBERG, NY Times Sunday Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr & The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America-The Stalin Era. By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (Andrew J. Bacevich, First Things)
    -REVIEW: The Soviet World of American Communism. By Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson (Paul Hollander, First Things)
    -ESSAY : An Essay on Historical Writing on Domestic Communism  and Anti-Communism (John Earl Haynes)

    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "hiss, alger"
    -OBIT : Alger Hiss, Central Figure in Long-Running Cold War Controversy, Dies (Nov. 16, 1996, NY Times)
    -The Alger Hiss Story (NYU)
    -ESSAY :  Alger Hiss Innocent, Anticommunists Declare! (Timothy Noah, Slate)
    -Alger Hiss (Spartacus)
    -ESSAY : Lessons of the Alger Hiss Case, by Richard Nixon (Jan. 8, 1986, NY Times)
    -RESPONSE : The Lessons of the Richard Nixon Case, Alger Hiss' response to Nixon's article (Jan. 21, 1986, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : ëVenona and Alger Hiss' (John Lowenthal, Intelligence and National Security)
    -ESSAY : THE FAITHFUL TRAITOR :  Alger Hiss's refusal to recant helped create the myth of his innocence (Eric Breindel, National Review)
    -ESSAY : Alger Hiss, Perjurer (Sue Schuurman, Weekly Wire)
    -TRIBUTE : Flowers for Alger Hiss : What if they gave a funeral for a cold-war icon - and no one came? (DAN KENNEDY, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Alger Hiss (Victor Navasky, The Nation)
    -G-FILES : Alger Hiss spy case (APB News)
    -The Alger Hiss Spy Case (History Net)
    -Minicourse on the Alger Hiss Case
    -REVIEW : of RECOLLECTIONS OF A LIFE By Alger Hiss (Dennis H. Wrong, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Recollections of a Life By Alger Hiss  (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of JOSEPHINE HERBST By Elinor Langer (Robert Gorham Davis, NY Times Book Review)
    -LETTER : Alger Hiss Responds (Alger Hiss, NY Times, September 2, 1984)
    -INTERVIEW : "We're a long way from the end of this" : Alger Hiss' son talks about his new memoir, "The View From Alger's Window," and the espionage case that wouldn't die. (DAN CRYER, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of THE VIEW FROM ALGER'S WINDOW A Son's Memoir. By Tony Hiss (Ann Douglas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The View from Alger's Window : A Father and a Spy : A son's memoir and Soviet cable decrypts provide different perspectives on Alger Hiss (David Ignatius , Washington Monthly)

If you liked Whittaker Chambers, try:

    Billingsley, Kenneth Lloyd
    -Hollywood Party : How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s

    Chambers, Whittaker
    -Witness (1952)

    Fast, Howard
    -Being Red

    Klehr, Harvey
    -The Amerasia Spy Case : Prelude to McCarthyism
    -The Secret World of American Communism

    Powers, Richard Gid
    -Not Without Honor : The History of American Anticommunism

    Weinstein, Allen
    -Perjury : The Hiss-Chambers Case
    -The Haunted Wood : Soviet Espionage in America-The Stalin Era (with Alexander Vassiliev)