Whittaker Chambers a biography

by Sam Tanenhaus

Paperback, 1998



Call number

MG 70100 T164



New York Random House 1998


Nearly half a century after giving the testimony that sent Alger Hiss to prison, Whittaker Chambers remains among the most controversial of twentieth-century Americans, hated by many, revered by others. Whittaker Chambers is the first biography of this complex and enigmatic figure. Drawing on dozens of interviews and on materials from forty archives in the United States and abroad - including still-classified KGB dossiers - Sam Tanenhaus traces the remarkable journey that led Chambers from a sleepy Long Island village to center stage in America's greatest political trial and then, in his last years, to a unique role as the godfather of post-war conservatism. Whittaker Chambers is rich in startling new information about every phase of its subject's varied life: his days as New York's "hottest literary Bolshevik"; his years as a Communist agent and then defector, hunted by the KGB; his conversion to Quakerism; his secret sexual turmoil; his turbulent decade at Time, where he rose from the obscurity of the book-review page to transform the magazine into an oracle of apocalyptic anti-Communism. But all this was merely a prelude to the memorable events that began in August 1948, when Chambers was summoned by a congressional committee to testify about his past as a Communist agent. Reluctantly, he divulged his key part in a spy ring that had penetrated the most sensitive areas of the U.S. government, including the State Department, where one of his accomplices, Alger Hiss, had risen to a senior position. Chamber's allegations, and Hiss's prompt, emphatic denial, held the nation spellbound - and initiated a drama that changed the face of America. Drawing on an array of new sources, including transcripts of secret HUAC testimony, Whittaker Chambers goes far beyond all previous accounts of the Hiss case, re-creating its improbable twists and turns, and disentangling the motives that propelled a vivid cast of characters in unpredictable directions.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member polo9
I read this book about ten years ago after seeing Sam Tanenhaus on Booknotes in an extremely interesting interview. The book was even more so - a multi-nuanced social and political history of three decades.

Hiss was such a controversial figure with such strongly entrenched partisans or accusers
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from a spectrum of political views that it will take several generations to pass before all the dissonance is sufficiently dampened to let objectivity have a better chance. But, the human mind doesn't seem to work that way, so don't bet on it.

Tanenbhaus is remarkably courageous in having taken on Chambers as a subject and he is very persuasive in establishing his case.

If you are interested in bio and like WW2, pre and post, and don't have a dog in this fight, this is as good as it gets. You can get it on line for $0.01, an incredible bargain! Is this a great country, or what? Five stars plus.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
"To many Chambers remained a puzzle. He had offered himself to the nation as both sinner and savior. . . His moral attitude at times recalled the stoic resignation of the ancient tragedians, at times the anti-heroism of Sartre or Beckett, at times the torment of the twice-born soul." (p 514)

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three months in the summer of 1952 Witness sat atop the New York Times list of bestselling books. It would end the year in the top ten of all nonfiction books published that year. it was the culmination of a life lived first in the secret shadow of communist underground and then in the glare of publicity over the two perjury trials of Alger Hiss. Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus beautifully relates the life of the author of that book - a man who was for many the epitome of the outspoken anti-communist in the middle of the twentieth century. But Whittaker Chambers was much more. He was an intellectual educated at Columbia, although he did not receive a degree. He studied with Mark Van Doren and other academic luminaries there and continued his personal journey of learning until his last days in 1961. Tanenhaus presents all the details of Chambers' journey as a Communist, his departure into a sort of isolation where, with good reason, he was in fear for his life, his days as editor at Time Magazine at the side of Henry Luce, and most of all a thorough examination and analysis of the trials. His was a life that was based on beliefs held strongly and ultimately a life that was not tragic, but one that was fulfilled through those beliefs. I found Chambers blend of faith, liberalism and anti-communism made him a more complex thinker. He grew to be close friends with many other anti-communists, but never shared the conservative free-market views that most of them espoused, especially his friend William F. Buckley, Jr.
The book includes a valuable appendix where Tanenhaus highlights documentation that was found in Communist archives in the 1990s, in spite of Soviet attempts to destroy all evidence of Hiss's career as a spy. Further evidence from the American NSA files confirmed that Hiss had continued to be an agent long after Chambers's defection. Through it all Tanenhaus presents the details with lucid prose that is worthy of the epic tale that was the life of Whittaker Chambers.
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LibraryThing member kerns222
Tanenhaus shows Chambers to be a mess, but he does so sympathetically in the beginning and then, as the book proceeds to the trial and beyond, heroically. Nixon comes off as only he could and Hiss as someone who could have avoided it all if only he had followed John Foster Dulles advice.

If you are
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upset about the rants going on in the 2010s, then this book puts the US fight between raving righters and liberals into perspective. It hints at the lure of commies in the '20s, it shows the infighting between true believers, but it dwells on the HUAC days.

A good history read if you are young and need background to understand today's US politics. Also, if you do not believe that the world is run by the arrogant, self-serving, and ruthless, this is a good antidote to your naïveté.
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LibraryThing member ecw0647
Where else can you find elements of a spy story, good guys against bad guys, weird characters, and cognitive dissonance all rolled into one? The Hiss/Chambers case riveted the nation, laid the groundwork for Nixon's rise, and epitomized national phobia.

Chambers, who died comparatively young at age
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60, certainly made a mark. Considered by many to be an uncouth individual (with notoriously bad teeth - a key component at the Hiss trial), Chambers like many others during the depression feared Capitalism was moribund and unable to address the inequities that had been exposed so they were tempted by Communism which appeared to have solved some of those problems. Almost all became disenchanted especially following the pact Stalin made with Hitler and revelations of his ruthlessness. Post WW II anti-Communist fervor became the rage and HUAC (the House on Un-American Activities, itself spectacularly un-American in its behavior) became a mechanism for politicians to loudly trumpet their pseudo-Americanism.

Many of those had actively spied for the Russians including Hiss and Chambers. Chambers, who had been early in his disenchantment moved with his family dozens of times in a no-to-unrealistic paranoiac fear of the NKVD's possible revenge.

Chambers had a fascinating background. His family life was a mess, but he managed to get into Columbia where he first considered himself a conservative and where his literary career began. He was considered a talented writer (indeed, Witness, his autobiography is considered by many to be a masterpiece.) Following a trip to Germany where he witnessed wretched poverty, he joined the Communist Party and left college. Soon disenchanted, he left the Communist Party, and eventually became editor of Time Magazine and a favorite of William Buckley. Jacques Barzun and Meyer Shapiro said that had he not gotten mixed up with the CP he might have gone on to be one of the great poets of the 20th century, he was so talented. Once tarred by the Hiss brush, however, his life was virtually ruined.

No need to go into the details of the trials here, other than to report that both men became larger-than-life symbols: Hiss representing the New Deal and Chambers the rising anti-communist political movement. Each was used rather abysmally by his respective disciples to each's detriment. Chamber target was modernism, not just Communism, and his weapon was the scatter shot which hit all sorts of groups including liberals, socialists, and humanists, as well as Communists, all of which he blamed for societal ills. Chambers became more and more religious and mystical. He became an Episcopalian, then a Quaker from whom he was quickly estranged. He also considered Hiss to be one of his best friends and only wanted him dismissed from his post, certainly not jailed. He was a man of ideas but of inconsistent ideology, refusing to be labeled or identified with any group. He didn't last long writing for The National Review after alienating many of its readers by defending the right of Hiss and Robeson to get US passports.

He wrote, "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 counter-revolutionist stood for, except as the opposite of revolutionist, he never said.

Ironically, had Hiss simply fessed up to having been a member and having passed documents (mostly on European economic policy) that probably would have been the end if it, but he made the fatal mistake of suing Chambers. That brought to light the famous pumpkin and typewriter that were Hiss's downfall.

The left according to Arthur Schlesinger, in a review of Witness, led a whispering and vilification campaign of Chambers that continued for decades, much of it homophobic even though Chambers was certainly not homosexual, and that this campaign was no less horrible than that orchestrated by HUAC.

The unanswered question we are left with is why out society requires a constant enemy. In the fifties and sixties it was the bugaboo of the Red Scare; today it's Islamic Facism. Is threat required as a glue for society? Just walk into any airport and realize you have become the sheep required to suffer indignities and silliness all in the name of the illusion of safety. Chambers and Hiss both served as useful stereotypes and straw men when each was far more interesting and complicated. The Communism each man was briefly enamored with never existed either; it was a chimera that Chambers recognized as such long before Hiss.

For a terrific series on the Hiss/Chambers case watch the 38 part series done by John Beresford on Youtube. It's very good. (A Pumpkin Patch, A Typewriter, And Richard Nixon .) On another note regarding government secrets -- the Chambers/Hiss thing was all about secrets, after all -- Thomas Powers wrote a review of Secrecy: An American Experience by Daniel Moynihan, which discusses, at length how secrecy is used within the government to hide things they don't want the rest of government to dins out about. This often puts decision-makers in awkward positions, e.g. Kennedy was never told of the CIA's own report on how the Bay of Pigs wouldn't work, and Truman was never informed of the VENONA decryptions. Moynihan writes:

All the bitter divisions of the McCarthy years, the exaggerated Republican charges of “twenty years of treason” and the Democratic countercharges of witch-hunting, might have been avoided, Moynihan suggests, with who knows what profound consequences. There might have been no fight to the death over who lost China, no lingering nightmares at the outset of the Kennedy administration that hands-off realism in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia would inexorably summon up new howling mobs demanding to know: Who lost Cuba? Who lost Vietnam?

I.e., there would have been no Hills/Chambers controversy, either. In the end, the secret documents Hiss passed along and the dotty actions Chambers was required to do undercover before he broke with the party, had no impact or consequence to anything. Looking back, it was like watching a children's game. I wonder how much of that has changed.

For an examination of why did otherwise reasonable men, at the highest levels of our political culture, succumb to these extreme suspicions see Ellen Schrecker’s book, Many are the Crimes. Her answer to this question is that the excesses of the cold war originated in “a sense of panic” that dated back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. That panic manifested itself in the fifties and continues today. The press failed during Hiss/Chambers.. To quote one reviewer, "Hysteria and paranoia aren't the exclusive preserve of ambitious politicians and the voters they seek to steer through the latest minefield of awful threats. Hysteria and paranoia aren't the exclusive preserve of ambitious politicians and the voters they seek to steer through the latest minefield of awful threats. The press made another muck of it here, too. The press couldn't cope with nuance or indecision." Watching the news today, you realize things haven't changed.
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