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The Drama of Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers

by Sam Tanenhaus
Random House, 638 pp., $35.00

Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (updated edition)

by Allen Weinstein
Random House, 622 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Unlike Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers left no mystery about his political beliefs. He was not a systematic thinker, but he was a man of ideas. Without his ideas, he was merely an informer who soon would have been forgotten. Chambers’s ideas lay at the root of his actions, and both books under review, Sam Tanenhaus’s biography of Chambers and Allen Weinstein’s Perjury, now in a new edition, are notably weak in this respect, although they provide much information about Chambers.1

Witness is a detailed story of Chambers’s life, including its seamier aspects. But Chambers was not altogether satisfied with the book, because he had not wished to alarm his general readers. “More and more,” he wrote regretfully to a devotee, Ralph de Toledano, “it seems clear to me that I smoothed too many rough points in Witness, for the sake of sparing Americans the harsh import of history. The result is that almost nobody knows what I really said in that book.”2 Late in the 1950s he tried to write another book to clarify his thought but ended by burning a volume half the size of Witness.3 Meanwhile, he sent letters to friends in which he elaborated the ideas he had sketched out in Witness. Three volumes of his post-Witness letters have appeared; they are necessary for a full understanding of his post-Communist attitudes and thought. His posthumously published letters are far less guarded and fill out many of the themes in Witness.

Chambers came from a very troubled family. As he explained, his radicalism began at Columbia University in the early 1920s. He entered it as a conservative, he said, and ceased to be one at the end of his sophomore year. His literary career began at Columbia, where he published a long story and an irreverent play. In 1923, he made a trip to Europe with Meyer Schapiro, later the famous art historian, then a fellow student; he visited Germany at its most desperate state after World War I. It taught him, he wrote in Witness, that “the world we live in was dying” and that “only surgery could now save the wreckage of mankind, and that the Communist Party was history’s surgeon.” In 1925, sitting on a concrete bench on the Columbia campus, he decided to leave college and join the Communist Party, then a small, isolated sect, which at first he did not know where to find. He was soon in the Party and working on the Daily Worker. He was twenty-four years old.

The first crisis he experienced in the Party came in 1929 in connection with the downfall of Jay Lovestone, the Party leader, after his humiliating inquisition in Moscow directed by Stalin himself. Chambers stayed out of Party work for about two years but did not lose his faith in communism. During this period, he decided to write some stories, the first of which proved to be a phenomenal success. Called “Can You Make Out Their Voices?” about an uprising of farmers in the Midwest, it was published in The New Masses of March 1931 and made him an instant celebrity. It was published as a pamphlet, made into a play (called Can You Hear Their Voices?), translated into many languages, and put on in workers’ theaters all over the world. A Soviet critic singled out Chambers’s story for praise. He published three more stories that year and was asked to take over as editor of The New Masses. After he had worked on only three issues, his life changed abruptly again.

This transformation led directly into the Hiss-Chambers case, and it has always baffled me. Chambers was abruptly told to leave the open Communist Party and go into the underground, about which he knew nothing and for which he was hardly suited. Chambers says, in Witness, that he at first refused to make the change, that his “disappearance” from The New Masses had caused a scandal, and that the Party leadership demanded his return. He had just come out of two years of self-imposed political isolation, as a result of which his place in the Party was still somewhat ambiguous; he was an overnight literary sensation; he had just begun to edit The New Masses. Nevertheless, he obeyed instructions and cut off his ties to the open Party.

Why Chambers at just this time should have had his literary career cut short has mystified me. He was obviously able to do far more for the Communist cause in the open Party than in the underground. Chambers himself casts little light on the rationale for this decision. Yet he seems finally to have accepted it with enthusiasm. He says that he returned to communism “resolved to obey absolutely its harshest, most fantastic and irrational demands.”4 He apparently came to regard his shift to the underground as a promotion to more serious revolutionary work.

Tanenhaus agrees that Chambers was “an anomalous choice for ‘underground’ work.” But, he suggests, Moscow was not much concerned with his “ideological blemishes.” Chambers finally agreed to serve because, Tanenhaus writes, “his options were to obey, quit the Party altogether, or vanish—perhaps be sent to Moscow.” Weinstein thinks that Chambers was “an attractive prospect” for secret work; he was educated and highly literate. Chambers “welcomed and relished the new assignment as an opportunity to demonstrate his talents while serving as a front-line ‘soldier of the revolution.”’

In 1932, when Chambers was tapped for the underground, there was not, as far as we know, much to it. He was put in the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence, for which his background was nonexistent. He admittedly never recruited anyone for the underground. His job was to be the contact between the underground and the Party, but two years passed before there was anything much to contact. In 1934, he was sent to Washington, where Harold Ware had put together a secret group of upwardly mobile Communists. Ware was primarily interested in the farm prob-lem, and many in his group were employed in the newly formed Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), which was of minimal interest to Soviet Military Intelligence. For most of three years, Chambers says that he merely kept in touch with a “sleeper apparatus” designed to wait for future opportunities, not to act in the present.

His espionage work did not start until about September 1936 and lasted for about a year and a half. It was during this period that he claimed to have received documents from Alger Hiss, who had joined the State Department in 1936 after having worked for the AAA; from Harry Dexter White, who worked in the Treasury; and from Henry Julian Wadleigh, who also worked in the State Department.5 Yet he did not think much of their contributions. He says that he soon gave up reading their documents, because he had concluded that “political espionage was a magnificent waste of time and effort.”6 Chambers served as a courier and photographer, not a lofty role for a formerly highly prized writer.

Moreover, Chambers was a peculiar underground agent. As both Tanenhaus and Weinstein show, he made little effort to hide his secret activity. His old friends in New York, including some who had become increasingly anti-Communist, knew in general what he was doing. In the 1930s also, he engaged in casual homosexual activities both in New York and in Washington. Yet underground agents were expected to behave cautiously because they could not be sure when they might be picked up or for what reason. He made a full confession of this side of his life to the FBI in 1949, Tanenhaus concludes, only because he feared that Hiss’s lawyers might bring it out.

Curiously, Chambers, not Hiss, first expected to be tried for perjury. Hiss filed a suit for slander against Chambers on September 27, 1948, about two months after Chambers testified at the HUAC hearings accusing Hiss of being a secret Communist, but not of espionage. Chambers was called before a grand jury in mid-October and committed perjury by denying knowledge of espionage and disclaiming that he had received government documents. In November, apparently apprehensive that Hiss would win his libel suit, he turned over the documents and film strips he said he had received from Hiss to Hiss’s lawyers as well as to his own. Hearing about this, the Justice Department briefly decided to seek an indictment of Chambers alone. But both Hiss’s suit and the Justice Department’s plans to indict Chambers were set aside. After Chambers’s documents were publicly released in December, the Justice Department finally decided to try Hiss alone.

If Chambers had not accused Hiss of espionage and had not provided copies and filmstrips of documents he said Hiss had given him, it is doubtful whether Hiss would have been put on trial. None of the other known Washington Communists was ever tried for anything. But times had changed. Hiss was charged with perjury about events in the 1930s; his trials took place in 1949-1950. In those ten to fifteen years, the United States had become a different kind of country. In 1939, Chambers had gone to see Adolf A. Berle, Jr., then Assistant Secretary of State in charge of intelligence matters, and had for the first time divulged the names of Communists in the government, including that of Alger Hiss. He did not allege that any of them was engaged in espionage. Nothing happened. Berle did not attempt to check Chambers’s information about Hiss until 1941 and was assured by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson that the allegations were groundless.

FBI agents did not visit Chambers until 1942. FBI and State Department counterintelligence officials did not look into Chambers’s charges until 1945. By this time, Hiss had risen from being a minor official in 1938 to his highest post as Secretary General of the San Francisco Conference which set up the United Nations in 1945. Only in December 1945 was Hiss put under surveillance by the FBI. The case did not become public until the House Un-American Activities Committee opened its hearings in August 1948.

Both Hiss and Chambers contributed to the symbolism of the case. For Hiss, it was a trial of the New Deal, of which he professed to be a model exponent. For Chambers, it was a crusade against Communist infiltration of the government, of which Hiss was the outstanding example. “Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers and their supporting casts achieved even before Hiss had gone to prison the status of icons in the demonologies and hagiographies of the opposing camps,” Weinstein writes. “Contemporary arguments by politicians and intellectuals alike over the ‘meaning’ of the Hiss case, more than the evidence itself, set the direction and limits of subsequent historical investigation.”

The meaning of the case for Chambers was vastly larger, and it grew the further he got away from it. Already in Witness, which he wrote soon after the second trial, he had made Hiss and himself figures larger than life. They represented “the two irreconcilable faiths of our time—Communism and Freedom,” which “came to grips in the person of two conscious and resolute men.” Elsewhere, the irreconcilable struggle was between “Communism and Christianity.” Sometimes the opposites were “God or Man, Soul or Mind.”

  1. 1

    See Part One of this article, The New York Review, November 20, 1997.

  2. 2

    Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960, introduction by Terry Teachout(Regnery, 1997), p. 190. All quotations from letters to de Toledano in this review come from this book.

  3. 3

    Whittaker Chambers, Odyssey of a Friend:Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 (Regnery, 1987), p. 88. All quotations from letters to Buckley in this review come from this book.

  4. 4

    Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday (Random House, 1964), p. 204. This volume, edited by Duncan Norton-Taylor, a friend from his Time years, contains letters, diary entries, and other writings by Chambers.

  5. 5

    Chambers mentions these three in Witness (Random House, 1952), p. 426. A fourth, Franklin Victor Reno, allegedly provided him with material two or three times but Chambers did not know what it was (Witness, p. 433). Weinstein says that Chambers claimed to have received documents from five officials—these three, Reno, and someone at the National Bureau of Standards (p. 206).

  6. 6

    Yet he hastened to add that the danger was “formidable,” because “no government can function with enemies dedicated to its destruction posted high and low in its foreign, or any other, service” (Witness, p. 427).

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