The Case of Cases

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)

The Hiss-Chambers case was the cause célèbre a half century ago. Now two books have appeared that bring it once more to our attention. A young biographer has spent seven years on a 638-page book going over the ground of Whittaker Chambers’s own autobiography, Witness. A historian has put out a new edition, filling 622 pages, of his previous study of the case.

My impression is that today anyone under the age of fifty—and certainly forty—knows hardly anything about the case. Yet not so long ago the case stirred up the most agonizing conflict; it separated friends and divided families. The reason for the difference today is the change in the country and the world. The Hiss-Chambers case turned on the threat of communism and was exacerbated by the element of espionage. That threat has evaporated; the espionage is antiquated; and it is necessary to use some historical imagination to see into the innards of the case.

Historically, the case came at a major turning point in American life. It had its start in the New Deal of the 1930s and came to a climax during the cold war of the late 1940s. Anyone who seeks to understand the struggles over the New Deal, communism, and the cold war can hardly avoid it. It brought to national attention a future president, Richard Nixon, who was then an obscure first-term congressman from California. One of the early anti-Communist prosecutions that helped to define the 1940s and 1950s, it gave Senator Joseph McCarthy encouragement for his first attack on the State Department. In no other case in this century has the cry arisen—as from Hiss’s supporters—that a high official was an American Dreyfus and had been politically framed. An American Dostoevsky—he was one of Chambers’s favorite writers—is necessary to extract the full drama and pathos of this story.

Above all, the Hiss-Chambers case set off a social as well as a political schism in American life, one that may still be with us in various forms. Most of “the educated, progressive middle class, especially in its upper reaches, rallied to the cause and person of Alger Hiss, confident of his perfect innocence, deeply stirred by the pathos of what they never doubted was the injustice being visited upon him,” wrote Lionel Trilling. “By the same class Whittaker Chambers was regarded with loathing—the word is not too strong—as one who had resolved, for some perverse reason, to destroy a former friend.”

Allen Weinstein notes that, during the Vietnam War, Hiss “found himself transformed from a symbol of deception into one of injured innocence,” and “in no segment of American society did Alger Hiss benefit personally more than among university audiences, faculty, and students.” Chambers himself scorned “most of the forces of enlightenment [which] were poohpoohing the Communist danger and calling every allusion to it a witch hunt.” Some members of the “educated, progressive middle class,” such as Richard Rovere and James …

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Letters

Not a Recruiter December 18, 1997