Whittaker Chambers
Whittaker Chambers; drawing by David Levine

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.”

But communism was not Chambers’s exclusive target. He aimed, he wrote in Witness, at “miscellaneous socialists, liberals, fellow travelers, unclassified progressives and men of good will” who shared the same vision as that of Communists; the only difference was that the Communists were prepared to “take upon themselves the penalties of the faith.” He also wrote: “The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.”

Even more was at stake than the great socialist revolution. For Chambers believed that the real enemy was modern materialism and godlessness. “What I had been fell from me like dirty rags,” he avowed in Witness. “What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind.” Later, he contended, at the bottom of the materialist mind was the machine, which made the economy socialistic, and rationalism, “which must destroy the world” and of which Communism was merely “the logical, the inevitable epitome.”7

In effect, Chambers’s attack—beginning in Witness but elaborated in his letters—was on such a large scale that some of those who would not have sympathized with Hiss as a Soviet agent came to distrust Chambers as an enemy of modern life and civilization. He was just as ferocious in his attacks on liberals and humanists as on socialists or Communists; he came to reject the entire modern age and put the Communists only at its apex.

In order to make Hiss represent the hated enemy in all of its forms and permutations, Chambers took to making him into a monumental figure. “With Alger the justification of the entire age stands or falls,” he wrote in a letter to Ralph de Toledano. “If he is guilty, not the New Deal, but the whole Age of Reason is guilty.” In a letter to William Buckley, he made Hiss and himself into “archetypes”: “So far as I can see, the revolution, the chief fact of our time—and its prevailing form, Communism—produced in the U.S. two men, and only two: Alger and myself…. He was equal to becoming the Communist archetype; I the other.” In another letter, to de Toledano, he stated: “So I can say now: ‘Alger—that is one of the most extraordinary men of this age.”‘

Yet Hiss was a peculiar archetype, if he was one. He never admitted to being a Communist and never openly preached Communist doctrine. He was a bureaucrat who fed papers to a secret agent on behalf of the Communist cause but so subterraneously that only Chambers was able explicitly to identify him as such a source. Only a few Communists in Washington knew that he was one of them, and those who remained Communists subsequently did not openly acknowledge him. When he was let out of prison, he had difficulty getting work to support himself; so far as we know, the Communist movement did not come to his assistance. But Chambers had conceived of a mighty drama, which required mighty protagonists, and he made Hiss one of them.

Chambers treated Hiss with peculiar magnanimity. He wrote in a letter that Hiss “was certainly the closest friend I ever had in the Communist Party.” In Witness he called Hiss “a man of great simplicity and great gentleness and sweetness of character.” He originally wanted Hiss and the other Communists he named to be dismissed from their posts but not otherwise prosecuted. “No day passes,” Chambers wrote to Buckley, “without my dying a little at the thought of what befell them [Alger and Priscilla Hiss] through me.” Chambers never seems to have lost his affinity with Hiss and grieved that they happened to be on different sides.

Peculiarly, too, Chambers long believed that his side could not win. In Witness, he went so far as to say that “Communism is the central experience of the first half of the twentieth century, and may be its final experience—will be”—if the free world did not provide two certainties, “a reason to live and a reason to die.” But he was not sure which side would come out on top. In his letters, he all but buried the West and its civilization. He assured Buckley that “the total situation is hopeless, past repair, organically irremediable.” He lamented that “it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within.” He no longer believed that “political solutions are possible for us.” He informed Ralph de Toledano: “I am just about convinced now that the whole struggle, the West’s struggle, the nation’s struggle, everybody’s struggle, is foredoomed.”

In this mood, what could Chambers do to hold back the deluge? “I go,” he wrote Buckley, “a little in advance—to try to win for you that infinitesimal slightly better chance.” Or again: “By my acts then I hoped to give the West a slightly better chance against Communism.” And again: “I never believed that the West could make use of the Hiss Case. My business was only to give it an eleventh-hour opportunity to do so on the outside chance that it might.”

Chambers’s religiosity became more and more mystical. In Witness he tells us he sought a “daily mysticism (for I hold that God cannot be known in any other way).” When he gave up political solutions, he fell back on the last refuge: “There are only martyrdoms. And martyrdom does not speak to the present. It speaks to the future and to posterity.” He also wrote: “This is a period in which only martyrdom is striking enough to teach anything.”8

What the age needs is less minds than martyrs—less knowledge (knowledge was never so cheap) but that wisdom which begins with the necessity to die, if necessary, for one’s faith and thereby liberates that hope which is the virtue of the spirit.

Chambers said that he had found God in 1938 when he had renounced communism. But his God was not like anyone else’s. In 1940, he was baptized as an Episcopalian but moved over to the Quakers, from whom he was soon estranged. Finally, he advised Buckley that “you stand within a religious orthodoxy. I stand within no religious orthodoxy.” 9

Politically, Chambers was also a lone wolf. He preferred Richard Nixon to Joseph McCarthy, and Robert Taft to both of them, but had little in common with any of them. Of McCarthy, he wrote to Buckley after some hesitation: “For the Right to tie itself in any way to Senator McCarthy is suicide…. Of McCarthy as a politician, I want no part. He is a raven of disaster, and an irresponsible, headstrong bird, to boot.” In 1955, when Buckley invited him to write for the new National Review, he hesitated. Chambers had by then softened his views and did not want his friends to estrange themselves from broad sectors of the population. As Tanenhaus notes, he was “stimulated by the Keynesian heresies of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.” He joined the National Review’s staff in 1958 and scandalized many of its readers by defending the right of Alger Hiss and Paul Robeson to get US passports. He had such differences with the magazine that he stopped writing for it in the fall of 1959. Tanenhaus comments: “Chambers was sounding precariously like a liberal. So be it. He had wearied of ideological battles.”

He once explained to Buckley: “You mean to be a conservative…. I am not a conservative.” He called himself “a man of the Right,” by which he then meant that he upheld capitalism in its American form but also insisted that “conservatism and capitalism are mutually exclusive manifestations, and antipathetic at root.”10 But his favorite characterization for himself was “counterrevolutionist.” In Witness, he had already declared that one was either “a revolutionist or he is a counterrevolutionist.” He pointed out, “I declared myself a counterrevolutionist by express contrast with conservatism, which I found incapable of coping with revolution, for reasons given.” He wrote in Witness that

counterrevolution and conservatism have little in common. In the struggle against Communism the conservative is all but helpless. For that struggle cannot be fought, or much less won or even understood, except in terms of total sacrifice. And the conservative is suspicious of sacrifice; he writes first to conserve, above all what he is and what he has. You can’t fight against revolutions so.

But just what a counterrevolutionist stood for, except as the opposite of revolutionist, he never said.

In fact, Chambers was a Party of One. His deepest sympathies went out to European ex-Communists, such as Arthur Koestler and Manès Sperber. In the mid-fifties he wrote in Life magazine: “I lived through the purge outside Russia, but in a secret cell of the Red Army from whose underground walls every tremor of the purge reverberated. My closest comrades were military Communists.”11 He confessed in Witness to having a special feeling for Russian Communists, who were different from Western Communists. “I rarely have that difficulty [of communicating] with Europeans (we speak within the same frame of reference),”he explained to Ralph de Toledano, “and with Europeans Inever feel as I do with Americans, or seldom.” He liked to feign a vaguely German accent and to quote from German works (in German), as if to show that he was not merely another American. When he denounced communism, he did so as if he spoke from within a Communist country. For example, he exclaimed in Witness: “What Communist has not heard those screams? They come from husbands torn forever from their wives in midnight arrests. They come muffled, from the execution cellars of the secret police, from the torture chambers of the Lubianka, from all the citadels of terror now stretching from Berlin to Canton.”

Whittaker Chambers is not an easy man to pin down. He had different sides which did not always cohere. He was a skillful journalistic craftsman who could adapt himself to The New Masses in 1931 and to Time in the 1940s. He was a gifted linguist, especially in German, and translated a dozen books from the German and the French. When he worked at Time in 1939-1948, he was a literary tornado. He came in as a book reviewer and rose to become a senior editor. When he took over the foreign news section, he ruthlessly tore up the contributions of important correspondents, such as Theodore White and John Hersey, as not sufficiently anti-Communist and rewrote them in his own anti-Communist terms.

On the other hand, he was a mystical visionary who had found a personal God and denounced communism as only the most extreme version of a modern social disease. He was so idiosyncratic in his views that his most ardent admirers do not know how to emulate him, and his almost bottomless, black pessimism went against the American grain.

After Witness was published in 1952, Chambers lived for another nine years. He wanted to go back to Time but was disappointed. He tried to write another book but failed. He suffered heart attacks and barely survived. He spent much of the last two years of his life at a small college in Maryland, taking courses to get the bachelor’s degree that he had failed to obtain at Columbia four decades before. He died in 1961, at the age of sixty. Hiss was luckier; he died in 1996 at the age of ninety-two.

After the first HUAChearing, President Truman was asked by a reporter whether he thought that the case was a “red herring to divert the public attention from inflation.” Truman agreed that the Republicans were holding such hearings to disguise the failings of the Republican Congress. Ever afterwards it was said that Truman had called the case itself a “red herring.” Later, Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss”—and cited the Gospel of St. Matthew as his reason. Such statements—torn from their contexts—gave the Republicans the opening to make the case a trial of the Democratic Party. Senator McCarthy’s infamous exploitation of the Hiss case followed in the spring of 1950.

A distinguished journalist, Alistair Cooke, wrote a book, A Generation on Trial, about the case. He did not state what generation was on trial or why. In fact, he devoted only two sentences to the idea, and they seemed to withdraw the implications of the title.12 Nevertheless, the title of his book raised a question whether the case was about a man and the movement he denied supporting or about something larger and more deeply embedded in American reality.

To my mind, the Hiss-Chambers case was a child of its time and, while it continues to interest or even fascinate us, it has receded into the past. It came at a peculiar confluence of the early cold war, of a wave of militant anti-communism and the sudden recognition that the United States was vulnerable to subversion. It was also, as a result of Chambers’s charges and Hiss’s denials, a good mystery story, but it had what mystery stories lack—a profound influence on American politics.

This is the second of two articles.

This Issue

December 4, 1997