Whittaker Chambers, a biography

Whittaker Chambers: A Biography By Sam Tanenhaus
Random House; 638 pages; $35
[review by Ann Douglas]

To my mind, Whittaker Chambers is the most formidable and fascinating of all the Cold Warriors. "Their panic is my peace," Chambers wrote, speaking through the persona of "The Devil" (a Communist with his eye on America) in a bizarre, compelling essay for Life magazine in 1948. Some thought Chambers was the devil. As an ex-Soviet spy and the man who kicked off the internal Cold War by naming a group of high government officials as fellow spies, he was certainly the instigator of a national panic. He remains the American right's best evidence that a first-rate intellect (and he was that) could see the world in the black-and-white terms the right has long favored. His torrential, lurid masterpiece Witness, a best seller in 1952 and still Ronald Reagan's favorite book in the 1980s, ranks as one of the great American autobiographies.

He was born Vivian Jay Chambers in 1901 to an unhappy, impoverished, middle-class family on Long Island. As a young man, the brilliant and tormented Chambers, a Columbia University dropout, consorted with married women, was caught stealing dozens of books from the New York Public Library, and bummed his way to New Orleans (he would later identify with Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg). Vacillating between wildly opposed political views, he fervidly supported Calvin Coolidge in the early 1920s, only to join the Communist Party in 1925. He spent 13 years as a party member, serving under various aliases as a courier in a Soviet spy ring infiltrating the U.S. government. Horrified by Stalin's purges, increasingly convinced that the Communists were literally the party of Satan and that "man without mysticism is a monster," in 1938 he broke with the party. He soon announced himself a radical Christian and a right-wing Republican, becoming in the 1940s a top editor and writer at Time magazine. In 1948, in a case that played itself out on television (a first) and in the national headlines, he successfully brought explicit charges of perjury, and implicit charges of Soviet espionage, against Alger Hiss, who was head of the Carnegie Endowment.

Chambers, in other words, is one of the most controversial Americans of the last half-century, his life a story rife with histrionic tableaux, profound ideological warfare, and high-level scandal. Sam Tanenhaus, a free-lance journalist, has written the first serious biography of him. Yet Tanenhaus' book, while well-researched and lucid, hardly does justice to its subject. Tanenhaus submits Chambers to a genteel alchemy in which the wonderfully low is transmuted to the dismally high, and vitality is traded for status.

There is much that is tantalizingly unclear about the Chambers-Hiss case, mysteries I would have expected a biographer of Chambers to elucidate. We know little about Chambers' years of homosexual activity, which terminated, he assured the FBI, with his break from the party. I wanted to learn more about his marriage and his relations with his imperious mother Laha (with whom he continued to spend much of his time after his marriage); with his unhappy, aloof, bisexual father Jay; and with his alcoholic brother, Richard, who committed suicide in 1926 after begging Whittaker to join him.

We need to learn more about Hiss, too. What about his less-than-manly side? Chambers referred to a "mince" in his walk, and Richard Nixon, a staunch Chambers ally, always believed the two men had been lovers. Hiss' family background was as lurid as Chambers'. His mother was cold and controlling; his father and sister both committed suicide (in 1907 and 1929, respectively); his beloved brother died of alcoholism in 1926, just as Hiss was beginning his superbly calculated rise out of the family muck to suave and well-tailored eminence in Roosevelt's State Department.

For light on the psychological aspects of the Chambers-Hiss story, the best sources remain Allen Weinstein's authoritative Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978) and Chambers himself, who, in Witness, is far more revealing about himself than Tanenhaus chooses to be. But I had also hoped that a biographer of Chambers would analyze the historical controversies over the Cold War to which Chambers' views are central. One can believe, as I do, Chambers' testimony against Hiss without accepting his interpretation of the Soviet-American confrontation. Tanenhaus, however, though he points to some of Chambers' blind spots and ideological excesses, does not doubt the Soviets' more or less total culpability for the long disaster we call the Cold War. In his telling, as in Chambers', Roosevelt, Truman, and American liberals in general "willfully" refused to mount a full-scale espionage operation against the Russians in the war years (when the two nations were allies). None of the important revisionist work by historians such as William Appleman Williams and others--work that poses a powerful challenge to such assumptions--is cited in Tanenhaus' footnotes or bibliography. If Chambers is to be believed, he and Hiss met in the early-mid-1930s. They became intimate friends as they collaborated in stealing government documents and transmitting them to their Soviet bosses. At their last meeting, as Chambers was preparing to flee the party, he begged Hiss to join him, but the supercool Hiss seemed to admire just what horrified Chambers in Soviet behavior--Stalin "played for keeps," as he put it--and his wife, Priscilla, termed Chambers' agonized apostasy "mental masturbation."

By all accounts, the two men did not meet again until 1948, when Chambers denounced Hiss, among others, to the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Most of those Chambers and others named initially took the Fifth Amendment before HUAC (though they confessed to the FBI shortly after). Some were murdered or committed suicide in mysterious circumstances early in the investigations. Henry Dexter White, once a top adviser to FDR and then head of the International Monetary Fund, succumbed to a heart attack in August 1948. Only Hiss, against the advice of his friends, chose to defy Chambers and HUAC, insisting that he had never even met Chambers, much less been a Communist or a Soviet spy.

From the start, Hiss, impeccably groomed and eerily calm ("It might be someone else who was on trial," one journalist marveled), relied on his patrician credentials. By now, he had admitted to knowing Chambers, but merely as one "George Crosley," a "deadbeat" he'd been kind to in passing a decade earlier. How could the testimony of a man like Chambers, Hiss asked with icy contempt, visibly unkempt, overweight, and "forbiddingly drab" (in Lionel Trilling's phrase), with no style and little personal status, a man who had lived, in Hiss' words, "in the sewers, plotting against his native land," possibly outweigh the simple facts of Hiss' career as Harvard graduate, trusted aide to FDR at Yalta, and one of the architects of the United Nations? It was a drama of politics and class, the "liberal" aristocracy of the New Deal pitted against the ill-bred ugly upstarts of right-wing reaction, a prelude and cue to the McCarthy era.

Most of all, it was a competition in truth-telling (or falsifying), a Cold War duel in credibility occurring amid a mounting pileup of classified information, exposés, and oxymoronic jargon that would eventually donate euphemistic doublespeak terms like "dual hegemony," "limited nuclear war," and the slogan "win the peace" to the American language. Chambers was eager to take a lie-detector test, on television (his lawyers dissuaded him). Hiss never volunteered to take one, but he pointed out to HUAC that it was "inconceivable" that he, a highly public figure, could have fooled for so long the journalists and statesmen who saw "my every facial expression," "heard the tones in which I spoke," and "knew my every act." It was, as Chambers saw it, a crisis of faith. Whom, and what, could you believe?

During the HUAC hearings, Congressman Edward Hébert commented, "Whichever one of you is lying is the greatest actor that America has ever produced." Or as one headline succinctly put it, "Who's the Psycho Now?" If a "psychopath," a term that enjoyed its greatest vogue in the Cold War years, is someone who meets no inner resistance in the act of uttering and maintaining what the world holds to be untruth, the honors must go to Hiss. The evidence that has accumulated over the years, mostly from Soviet archives, has overwhelmingly favored Chambers' version of the facts. Tellingly, Hiss thought the Mafia men he met in prison the "healthiest" people there, because they "had no sense of guilt." But Chambers had his own secrets and hidden motives--his pathological drive toward martyrdom, his homosexuality (the sin of sins in the Cold War era, routinely treated as a synonym for treason), and his undoubted obsession with Hiss. He, too, "began to play the part assigned to me," he writes in Witness.

[S]trangely, Tanenhaus chooses to withhold all information about Hiss until he gets to the 1948 Chambers-Hiss confrontation. He omits altogether the story of Chambers' friendship with Hiss, though he never doubts its authenticity. He identifies unavoidable references to Hiss only in footnotes, and finally presents their relationship in a brief flashback in the course of detailing the trials. By this awkward, deflationary reordering and compression, Tanenhaus clearly means to assert Chambers' importance independent of Hiss, to give him the dignity that comes with autonomy. But this is to desert, even betray, his subject. It was Chambers' peculiar fate, and choice, to live a life that was inseparable from another's. The two men have been joined forever in an intimacy deeper and more complex than that of blood or sex.

Chambers developed increasing reservations in his later years about the direction the American right was taking, distancing himself first from Joe McCarthy, then from Richard Nixon, and even from William Buckley Jr.'s National Review. But Chambers' importance lies, finally, not in his politics but in his romantic penchant for the extremes of the psychic and political undergrounds. With his susceptibility to ridicule and parody, his air of furtive portentousness, his apocalyptic Manichaean vision of purity overtaken by disease, his dazzling displays of the uncanny intuitive skills that sometimes accompany obsession, he was a pulp-fiction Dostoyevsky, an author he admired above all others.

Though he would have considered himself a champion of high art, melodrama was Chambers' medium. The roles he picked for himself were Dostoyevskian ones--the doppelgänger, playing unheeded guilty conscience to a modern Mephistopheles; the high-pitched prophet, trying to break what he saw as the "invincible ignorance" of a nation blinded to the "crisis of history" by its prosperity and misguided generous-mindedness. For Hegel, history was a slaughter bench; for Chambers, it had become an emergency room. He has not been adequately served by a biographer unwilling or unable to understand the nightmare of Cold War epistemology, the place where politics and pathology become indistinguishable.

You can read "Foreward in the Form of a Letter to my Children" from Whittaker Chambers' Witness, courtesy of the Augustine Club at Columbia University. In a Time piece, Charles Krauthammer reflects on Alger and O.J.--the two trials of the century. For a distinctly pro-Hiss perspective, try an editorial written by Victor Navasky for The Nation shortly after Hiss' death. For an anti-Hiss stance, try the American Spectator. For more on the post-Hiss events of Cold War America, the comprehensive Web site for The Literature & Culture of the American 1950s, a course at the University of Pennsylvania, includes a section on the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Ann Douglas is the author of Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (1996). She is at work on a cultural history of the Cold War.

  • 1948 article on the Hiss-Chambers confrontation


    Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/chambers-review.html
    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:41 EDT