Whittaker Chambers: A Biography
by Sam Tanenhaus
Random House. 610 pp. $35.00
The recent death of Alger Hiss makes the appearance of Sam Tanenhaus’s book a particularly timely intellectual and political event. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography bids fair, indeed, to become the last word on one of the longest-running controversies of the cold war.
In the steamy summer of 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a senior writer for Time magazine and a self-confessed former Communist, appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Under oath, he accused Alger Hiss of having been active with him in a Soviet espionage ring while Hiss was serving as a top State Department official in the second Roosevelt administration.
On the face of it, the accusation seemed wildly improbable. Hiss, by then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was an immaculately tailored establishment mandarin who kept regular company with the likes of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles. Chambers, by contrast, was an unkempt, largely unknown journalist with, it seemed, a broad streak of paranoia. The contrast was brought into sharp relief when Hiss, appearing before HUAC at his own request to clear his name, struck a posture of elegance and self-assurance as he delivered responses both persuasive and witty.
At the time, only one Congressman—a first-termer by the name of Richard Nixon—detected certain false notes. To him, Hiss’s statements seemed, as Tanenhaus confirms they were, “evasive and legalistic, as though he were laying a defense against some future charge of perjury.” It was on this remarkably prescient hunch that Nixon convinced the committee to pursue Chambers’s leads. Eventually, HUAC’s (and Nixon’s) persistence was rewarded by an indictment before a federal grand jury in New York.
After two trials, the first of which resulted in a hung jury, Hiss was convicted of perjury. Specifically, he was shown to have lied to both Congress and the grand jury when he said he had never known Chambers. He evidently lied as well by denying that he had participated in the transmission of top-secret State Department documents to his Soviet controller. For in the course of the HUAC investigation, Chambers came forward with microfilm copies of sensitive documents dating around 1938 and copied either in Hiss’s handwriting or on a Woodstock typewriter which was later established to have belonged to him and his wife.
Had the trial taken place a decade or so earlier, before the statute of limitations on espionage had run out, these documents—the so-called “Pumpkin Papers,” since they had been hidden in a pumpkin on Chambers’s farm in Maryland—would have provided ample grounds for a conviction for spying. Not only did they contain information of extreme political and military interest, but once in Soviet hands—as former Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles revealed in his testimony before HUAC—they would have provided Moscow’s code-breakers “with text that could be matched against intercepted radio signals.”
Hiss was sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary on two counts of perjury, which the judge allowed to run concurrently. Released in late 1954, he worked as a salesman for a commercial stationery company in New York and labored with friends to get his sentence reversed. His most persistent claim was that Chambers or the government had somehow fabricated the Woodstock typewriter, which was the pièce de résistance of the government’s case against him. In spite of an increasingly more sympathetic climate in both the media and the judiciary, Hiss never succeeded in winning a reversal—though he did succeed in obtaining reinstatement to the Massachusetts bar and the cultural luster of his “cause” led to such bizarre outcomes as a professorship being named in his honor at Bard College.
Meanwhile, Chambers, having brought down one of the New Deal’s golden boys, and having embarrassed so many pillars of the establishment in the process, was pushed into the outer darkness. After a brief period of celebrity when his remarkable autobiography, Witness, appeared in 1952, he spent his final days in semi-obscurity as a senior editor at William F. Buckley, Jr.’s then-new journal, National Review. Chambers died in 1961.
Until now, Witness was certainly the best book on the Hiss case. Apart from its extraordinarily high literary quality, no other source reconstructs so vividly the world of American Communism in the 1930’s, and particularly that part of it conscripted into the service of Soviet espionage. What Tanenhaus does in this superb new biography is to widen the focus, interpreting the Hiss-Chambers controversy within the broader context of American political culture. The result is a monumental work of scholarship which benefits from a vast amount of new documentation, some of it made available as recently as two years ago. As such, Whittaker Chambers makes an invaluable contribution to the histories of American Communism, anti-Communism, and anti-anti-Communism. It is also as compelling to read as any espionage thriller.
Who was the obscure journalist who upset the political and cultural applecart of Truman’s America? Whittaker Chambers was born in 1901 to a shabby-genteel and somewhat dysfunctional Wasp family. In spite of precarious financial resources, he was able to attend Columbia and study with the eminent literary critic Mark Van Doren. Almost from the beginning of his college career, Chambers showed a remarkable capacity to master foreign languages. After a couple of semesters he dropped out, first to tramp around Europe, then to work at the New York Public Library. He returned briefly to Columbia, passing his exams with distinction, but left again before graduation to join the infant American Communist party.
Putting his emergent literary skills to work, Chambers wrote for the Daily Worker and other party publications, including the New Masses, its literary journal. After a series of liaisons with various party women, he met and married Esther Shemitz, a young artist whom he had encountered at a party-organized textile strike in 1926. Quarreling with Jay Lovestone, then the maximum party capo, Chambers resigned from the Daily Worker and for the next few years earned a precarious living as a translator—bringing into English such writers as Felix Salten (Bambi), Heinrich Mann, and Franz Werfel. In 1931 he began to write fiction. One of his short stories, “Can You Make Out Their Voices?,” remains a pinnacle of Communist fiction; turned into a play, it became a staple of the worldwide radical repertory, performed in Greek, French, Spanish, Russian, even Yiddish.1
Meanwhile, the Great Depression had catapulted the Communist party to the pinnacle of its cultural prestige. As the “hottest literary Bolshevik,” Chambers was invited to become a member of the editorial board, and then editor-in-chief, of the New Masses, whose contributors now included such luminaries as Edmund Wilson, Katherine Anne Porter, and John Dos Passos. But not long afterward he was informed that he had been selected for one of the party’s “special institutions”—institutions of which he, like most party members, was scarcely aware. In brief, he was invited to abandon his literary career and “go underground”—to become part of the Soviet espionage apparatus based in New York.
To this new assignment, Chambers brought unusual talents: an Ivy League education, a knowledge of foreign languages, and demonstrated courage, strength of character, and guile. Also, he was a Wasp at a time when the party was still largely made up either of foreigners or children of foreigners, many of them Jews. Chambers’s “Americanness” made it possible for him to operate without attracting undue attention. More to the point, it made it possible for him to relate to the kinds of people the party was now attracting in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Washington.
Chambers was sent to live in Baltimore, where he would be in close proximity to the capital. There, Harold Ware, son of the famous Communist matriarch Ella Reeve (“Mother”) Bloor, had already assembled an extensive covert network to photograph secret government documents and transmit them to Moscow, as well as to influence policy. The Ware group then had eight members, five with Harvard degrees, including both Alger Hiss and his brother Donald. In time, Chambers was able to enlarge the group to include Franklin Victor Reno, a statistician working at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a principal testing site for the U.S. Army; thanks to Reno, he conveyed to the Soviets a diagram of the Norden bombsight, a top-secret device. Small wonder that, what with figures like these, the Ware group’s Soviet controller bragged that “we have agents at the very center of the government, influencing policy.”
The human drama of Chambers’s conversion to Communism, his gradual disillusionment, and his eventual defection is but briefly summarized by Tanenhaus, possibly because his book—though never boring—was already very long, but also because the story has already been told in such vivid detail by Chambers himself in Witness. The proximate cause of his defection in 1938 appears to have been the Moscow trials and the purges that followed, a process whose ghoulish reach extended even to the Soviet espionage apparatus in the U.S. Chambers was alerted to the possibility of his peril by one summons to Moscow, another to Republican Spain, both of which he had the wit to disobey. As “the linchpin of an efficient espionage apparatus just reaching its maturity,” Tanenhaus writes, Chambers knew too much—not only about agents at Treasury, State, Agriculture, the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and the National Bureau of Standards but about literally hundreds of smaller fry scattered throughout the government.
One day in 1938, Chambers failed to meet his Soviet controller at the scheduled time and place. He had disappeared with his family to a farm he had bought in rural Maryland, where they lived for a full decade. During those same years, he resurfaced as a writer-editor at Time, then at the apogee of its influence in American journalism. With the imminent entry of the United States into World War II, Chambers felt that he should tell the government what he knew, and through intermediaries was able to arrange an appointment with Adolf A. Berle, then a key adviser to FDR. Berle took Chambers’s information to the President, who was frankly unimpressed; the FBI—then with its hands full chasing Axis operatives—was similarly uninterested.
It was only after the war, with the breakdown of the Yalta accords in 1946 and 1947, that the authorities in Washington—and specifically the House UnAmerican Activities Committee—became interested in Chambers’s information. The Republicans had recaptured Congress for the first time in more than fifteen years, and some were particularly anxious to use evidence of Communist infiltration of the Roosevelt administration to discredit the entire New Deal. The buffooneries and exaggerations of a number of these Republicans led even normally anti-Communist Democrats (including President Truman) initially to write off Chambers’s assertions as nothing more than jagged-edged partisanship.
One particular strength of Tanenhaus’s narrative is, indeed, to show how the Hiss-Chambers controversy was transformed from an argument over the facts of the case to a class war between America’s patrician liberal establishment and its populist opponents. While the latter fired their rounds without much care or discrimination, often hitting the target in spite of themselves, the former refused to admit the possibility of error, and closed ranks around the accused. Hiss’s character witnesses at his first trial included such notables as Adlai Stevenson, Justice Felix Frankfurter, and former Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis. As the critic Leslie Fiedler put it astutely at the time in COMMENTARY,2 Hiss, to his supporters, had to be innocent; for were he proved guilty, it would doom the “implicit dogma of American liberalism,” namely, that in any political drama, “the liberal per se is the hero.”
Thus, Tanenhaus writes, what set the Hiss case apart then, and continues to set it apart now, is not the mystery of what happened but “the passionate belief of so many that Hiss must be innocent no matter what the evidence.” Even when Hiss was found guilty of perjury at his second trial (a trial which he himself had demanded), so deep were the strains of class loyalty that Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared to the press that he for one did “not intend to turn [his] back on Alger Hiss.”
After Hiss’s death this past year, some media personalities suggested that he was one of the first victims of McCarthyism. This is very wide of the mark: in point of fact, Senator Joseph McCarthy began his career as a Red-hunter only after Hiss was sentenced. What is certainly true, however, is that Whittaker Chambers was the first important victim of anti-anti-Communism. When Witness appeared in 1952, the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy was outraged. “The great effort of this new Right is to get itself accepted as a normal part of publishing,” she wrote indignantly to her friend Hannah Arendt, “and this, it seems to me, must be scotched, if it’s not already too late.”
But if Hiss’s star has to this day remained undimmed in the eyes of his most ardent loyalists, he has not fared so well at the hands of historians and archivists. In the 1970’s a young American historian, Allen Weinstein, undertook to gain access to the relevant records under the new Freedom of Information Act; though he set out expecting to find fresh evidence vindicating Hiss, at the end of the day Weinstein was forced instead to reverse his own assumptions and declare (in Perjury, 1979) that Hiss was, in fact, guilty.
The fall of the Soviet empire and the opening of Communist files reawakened curiosity about the Hiss case. In 1992, General Dimitri A. Volkogonov, chairman of the Russian government’s military archives, announced that a search of KGB files had produced nothing to indicate Hiss had ever worked for Soviet intelligence, but within weeks the general backed off, admitting that his search had been cursory and that many relevant files had been destroyed. As Tanenhaus points out, however, some documentation on Hiss had turned up in Hungary, whence Noel Field, one of his State Department colleagues, had fled in 1949. In his debriefing by Hungarian agents, Field identified Alger Hiss as a fellow agent.
Moreover, State Department documents declassified in 1993 revealed that a security investigation in 1946 brought to light the embarrassing fact that Hiss had obtained top-secret reports he was not authorized to see—on atomic energy, China policy, and other matters relating to military intelligence. It was immediately thereafter that Hiss notified the Secretary of State that he would leave the government for the presidency of the Carnegie Endowment.
Finally, in the summer of 1995, the National Security Agency began to release the “Venona” traffic—more than 2,000 painstakingly decrypted cables sent over the decades from U.S.-based Soviet agents to Moscow. These, Tanenhaus writes, “confirmed that there had been a large espionage network centered in the federal government,” and among the figures implicated was Alger Hiss. On the evidence, Hiss had remained a Soviet agent long after Chambers’s own defection in 1938, and possibly up to the moment he was forced out of the State Department in 1946.
These facts affirm and reaffirm Whittaker Chambers’s accusation to the House committee in 1948 that “Alger Hiss was a Communist, and may be [one] now.” But I do not mean to suggest that Sam Tanenhaus’s book is valuable only as a trenchant and, one hopes, definitive analysis of the Hiss case. It is that; but it is much more.
As Tanenhaus shows, Whittaker Chambers was a complex, contradictory, and in many ways troubled and troubling individual, one whose personality quirks invited (if they did not always justify) the skepticism of his critics. In his remarks to HUAC and at the two trials (as well as in Witness), he revealed a cloying penchant for self-dramatization, and a preference for apocalyptic rhetoric rather too rich for the tastes of ordinary people. Even more puzzling, he harbored a deep fondness for the Hisses as people—he and his wife had been their friends as well as comrades, and in 1938 he attempted to persuade them, without success, to join him in abandoning the Soviet cause.
In short, Whittaker Chambers was one of the deepest, knottiest, and most enigmatic characters of our age. In this riveting full-length portrait, Tanenhaus gives us the whole man, warts and all—while showing that, covered as he was with those warts, Whittaker Chambers spoke the truth.
1 This story, along with another, “Our Comrade Munn,” is reprinted in Ghosts on the Roof: The Collected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, edited by Terry Teachout (Regnery Gateway, 1990).
2 “Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence,” August 1951.