“Every honest man is a prophet.”
What is now known as the Hiss case exploded across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers on August 4,1948. The day before, Whittaker Chambers—a short, stocky man in a rumpled grey suit—had taken the stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify that a number of Americans, some of them highly regarded by the liberal establishment and its media handmaidens, were members of a communist cell in the federal government. To the country at large, the name Whittaker Chambers meant nothing. To the press corps covering the hearing or reading about it, he was known as one of the most brilliant editors in the Time-Life empire—a man who could write with equal eloquence about Marian Anderson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Ralph de Toledano’s Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-St. Benedict, or poets like Rilke.
The Chambers testimony would have been buried in HUAC’s archive but for two things. Harry Dexter White, who had been an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and who controlled Henry Morgenthau, the titular head of the department, took the stand to deny all and, having made a stirring speech about Americanism, shuffled off this mortal coil in a great show of martyrdom. Whether he committed suicide or coincidentally lost control of his heart will never be known, for his remains were hastily cremated. What opened up the Hiss case was Alger himself, who shrewdly realized that to remain silent would be considered an admission of guilt and who therefore decided, taking his cue from Mark Twain, that the better part of valor was to lie with panache.
That Whittaker Chambers was the accusing angel confused and deceived the press, which had over the years developed a technique for destroying the credibility of witnesses who came forth with accounts of their life in the Communist Party: indignation, innuendo, and malign invention. The more it probed, the more it discovered the real nature of the subject. Asked how he could testify to events of a decade earlier without tripping over his feet, Chambers answered, “It is simple if you are telling the truth.” But his major strength was that he was not defending himself, but defending a philosophy which was unassailable. Ironically, what made Chambers convincing was the shamelessness of the attack on him—an attack which was led by a President of the United States and a former First Lady whose connection with the apparat would be documented much later.
The details of the case—the typewriter on which Priscilla Hiss had copied a pyramid of top secret State Department documents for the Soviet secret police, the kitchen middens of the Hisses’ private lives, the manner in which they twisted and turned to avoid and evade their acts of complicity—had less effect in contributing to the drama of the case than the Whittaker Chambers whose trousers never knew the dignity of a crease, and the dapper, almost mincing Alger Hiss. For as the case progressed, it became increasingly clear that Chambers was not just another in the long list of witnesses who had given testimony to the treason of Americans in and out of government, but in the religious sense a witness for the civilization and the values under attack by the tacit alliance of Leninists and liberals. (In other guises, that alliance still exists and still feeds its hatred of the West—and of God and man—as it argues that the tse-tse fly is superior to humankind.)
It was this new dimension of anticommunism that caught the imagination of the people, though the media tried to reduce it to the formula of “Who is lying—Hiss or Chambers?” And it was this new dimension which overrode the efforts of the rich and politically favored to dismiss the case as the product of right-wing fanaticism. That effort took many forms. Hiss was made to seem the parfit gentle knight of diplomacy and, paradoxically, at the hands of ego-enlarged journalists like David Halberstam, as “just a clerk.” Simultaneously, Chambers was berogued and Richard Nixon belabored on the false assumption that he had forced the confrontation to litigation. The Leslie Fiedlers and Diana Trillings, in the then see-sawing pages of Commentary, distorted history or invoked Freud to discover all kinds of subtleties, accepting the guilt of Hiss but denigrating Chambers.
With the conviction of Hiss, Chambers retired to his farm in Westminster, Maryland—in a way content to be a fulltime dairy farmer, though aware that penury lay ahead if he put aside his typewriter. After the trials and for the first time since he had disclosed the espionage aspects of the Soviet apparat in Washington, he heard from his allegedly close friend Henry Luce in a letter which evoked some bitter laughter from those to whom it was shown. Luce’s letter recognized the Chambers ordeal, but added (this is somewhat paraphrased since I had only one quick look at the document), “I too have had an ordeal. I cannot decide whether to run for the Senate.” Chambers had been a Quaker for many years; to his great pain the American Friends Service Committee, the political and left-wing arm of Quakerism, openly espoused the Hiss cause.
In Whittaker Chambers, Sam Tanenhaus has gathered the facts of Whittaker Chambers’ life and background from childhood on. In the middle 1950’s, Chambers wrote nostalgically of his boyhood years on Long Island—then unlaced by superhighways and unpunctuated by Levitt-towns—with a love that Tanenhaus misses. Yet his biography is the result of prodigious research going back to original sources on the activities and events which took Whittaker Chambers through his stormy years at Columbia (again missing the betrayal by that friend of the left on the campus. Professor Mark Van Doren), his involvement in the Communist Party which brought him international recognition for his writings in the Daily Worker and the New Masses, his life in the underground, and his return, in Dante’s words, a riveder le stelle. Much of this has been rehearsed in Witness, in my Seeds of Treason, and in Allen Weinstein’s meticulously documented Perjury: but Tanenhaus dots many an i and crosses many a t in detail that is fascinating, as everything about Whittaker Chambers fascinates. And he solves the mystery of the alleged visit to Moscow, Chambers’ strong denials of which seemed to be contradicted by the evidence.
Though Tanenhaus’s account of the trials are by far the best I have read, he does not quite catch the drama: the press room a battlefield on which the pro-Hiss reporters began to retreat as the litigation proceeded, and where Victor Lasky (preparing to cash in on the book I wrote) sailed paper airplanes out over Foley Square inscribed, “Hiss is guilty”; Priscilla Hiss looking at the jury with sedated pinpoint eyes and destroying herself with irrelevant falsehoods; the theatrics of defense counsel Lloyd Paul Stryker, who won Hiss the first trial’s hung jury and for his efforts was denied payment; the galaxy of politically and socially important people who took seats in the courtroom (passes were required for most; I still have mine) which should have gone to those who futilely sought admission. When in my Newsweek reportage I wrote that Stryker made a point and “triumphantly shot his cuffs,” he sought me out. “My wife read what you wrote,” he said, “and she says I’m a ham.”
For his researches, and for having sought out possibly every friend, associate, co-worker, and enemy still alive of Whittaker Chambers, Sam Tanenhaus is to be commended. Too many biographers today suck their facts out of overworked thumbs. But where the book fails is in recapturing the period between the end of the trial and the death of Whittaker Chambers in 1961. There are two written sources for this period—the letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., which deal for the most part in political matters, and those written to me, which are deeply personal and reflect the writer’s sorrows, torments, hopes, and thoughts. (The Buckley letters were published years ago, and Regnery will publish mine late this summer or early this fall.) While Tanenhaus was working on his book I spent many hours talking to him, turning over material that would be of help, and giving him copies of the letters which Chambers had written to me and to my late wife Nora, which I had turned over to the Hoover Library in Palo Alto.
Tanenhaus has used this primary research sparingly and sometimes does violence to it, as when he attempts to demonstrate that in his last years Whittaker Chambers had begun a retreat from what Arthur Schlesinger, in his review of Witness, referred to as his “apocalyptic” beliefs. In fact, my correspondence with Chambers underscores what he wrote in that book, and records his regret that he did not state it more positively. Where Chambers made clear that the possibility of nuclear war, which he felt was very remote, did not disturb his sleep, Tanenhaus puts him in the other camp. He argues that Chambers returned in this period to the middleclass complacencies he had fought against all his life, as reflected by his alleged hopes for a life of suburbia in excelsis for his son. Yet, as his letters hint, and as he said to close friends, a great disappointment to him was that John Chambers chose a life as a television broadcaster, instead of returning to the land on which he had been reared.
The controversy surrounding Senator Joseph R. McCarthy is badly handled by Tanenhaus who has Richard Nixon engineering a Chambers-McCarthy meeting in January 1950, before Nixon was in the Senate or the Wisconsin senator had made his famous speech at Wheeling, West Virginia. Tanenhaus’s few pages recapitulating the McCarthy jihad are distressingly fictional, down to the assertion that in his Wheeling speech he referred to “205” communists in the government. No one knows what McCarthy said and, though a Democratic Senate spent a small fortune investigating, they were never able to find a single person or news story that sustained the “205,” the “57,” or the “83” of myth.
This is irrelevant to Chambers’ position on McCarthy. Whittaker Chambers knew that there were a host of people still in the State Department and the government whose primary loyalty was to the U.S.S.R,, and he believed that setting firm numbers was an exercise in futility. What Chambers said to me and to others was: “McCarthy is a scoundrel, but he’s our scoundrel.” In letters to former associates at Time-Life, he argued that there were many ways to fight communism. McCarthy’s way might not be his or theirs, but it had its uses. He refused to comment publicly on McCarthy for many reasons, one of which was that in the long run it would hurt the anticommunist cause.
Tanenhaus broadly implies that Chambers resigned from National Review and broke ideologically with Bill Buckley on grounds of policy, even as he says that Chambers was “dismissed” from Time. Neither the implication nor the statement is true. To the end of his life Chambers harbored a deep friendship with and gratitude toward Buckley; he resigned from National Review because the fortnightly visit to New York was too taxing. It took enough out of him to be the magnet for the great and the small who made pilgrimages to Westminster and sought intellectual sustenance there. Tanenhaus, moreover, has not the slightest understanding of how and why Chambers almost converted to Catholicism, and then retreated. Even after that retreat he was in constant correspondence with a group of intellectual priests—he was four-square for the medieval church. Tanenhaus ought to have read with greater care the essay Chambers wrote on St. Benedict for Clare Boothe Luce’s anthology Saints for Now.
Those later years tell us much about the young man who turned his back on the pounding surf of Lynbrook and contemplated the ruins of the Weimar Republic. It is uncertain why a man in his late 50’s, certain that death waited behind the arras, should have gone to school to study Russian. He had Spanish and French and Italian and German and Latin—but he felt that only through thrusting himself into the language of Dostoevsky and Peter the Great and Vladimir Ilyitch could he understand the country that sought to be the Third Rome and almost brought about the end of Western civilization. But of greater importance is Tanenhaus’s lack of empathy with a man who could, in an hour’s conversation, bring you to a realization of the contemporary crisis and shake the pillars of your life as Samson did for those in Gaza.
Whittaker Chambers agreed with me that one of the most acute political statements of our time was made by Groucho Marx, when asked where he lived. “I moved,” said Groucho. He also saw Groucho’s “If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs—if we had some eggs,” as a summation of liberal economics. That is why he thought that Ludwig von Mises’ V-8 lacked several cylinders. And why he could appreciate John Kenneth Galbraith, even as he disagreed with him.
Several generations have cast their pall on our contemporaneity since Whittaker Chambers seized America’s conscience by proclaiming the transcendence of what apologetic writers now refer to as Judeo-Christian civilization, and exposing thereby what Julien Benda called the trahison des clercs—the betrayal by the intellectuals, if we can so dignify the media and the establishment—in the eternal contest for men’s souls. Few now realize how he inspirited conservatives (or, as he classified them, the men of the right) in the political battles of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. History must give him this. He was sui generis, which may have been the core also of Isaiah’s greatness: a greatness that Bill Buckley and I—though perhaps not Sam Tanenhaus—can presume to understand.
[Chambers, by Sam Tanenhaus (New York: Random House) 638 pp., $35.00]