This story begins, as it so often does, on a day when I was at the library looking for something to read. With no real plan in mind, I wandered into the biography section, where I found Sam Tanenhaus’s 1997 biography of Whittaker Chambers.
Whittaker Chambers in 1948.
Whittaker Chambers in 1948.
I knew very little about Chambers, other than that his name had appeared in other books I’d read about communism in post-World War II America (I went through a big phase where I read everything I could find about the Hollywood Ten and the 1950s blacklist at an age when I probably should have been doing things like having fun and developing social skills that didn’t include conversation starters like, “You know, Ring Lardner Jr. said the funniest thing while testifying in front of HUAC…”). But it always seemed that these references were just throwaways that assumed the reader knew who he was and why he was significant.
There was a time, though, when everyone did know Chambers' name. Every decade seems to produce a newly proclaimed “trial of the century” and in the 1940s, the crown went to the Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss trial, in which Chambers revealed that Hiss, a highly placed government official, was a communist who had been passing information to the Soviets. Chambers knew because he had once been a communist who had, in fact, been part of the spy ring that included Hiss.
Jay Vivian Chambers was born in 1901. He was called Vivian throughout his childhood but when he was old enough he understandably changed his name to Whittaker, the last name of his maternal grandfather.
The Chambers family lived on Long Island in a state of crumbling gentility. Jay Chambers, Whittaker’s father, was an artist for an ad agency. Jay was, as we would say now, living on the down low, and desperately unhappy in his marriage. At one point he moved out and left the family to fend for itself while he set himself up in an apartment in Brooklyn to live, as Tanenhaus puts it, a “bachelor lifestyle.” He eventually returned to Lynbrook, but continued to lead a double life. He had a perverse sense of humor about the dullness of the suburbs that included letting the house crumble around them—sagging ceilings, peeling paint and wallpaper, dangling shutters. Laha, his wife, was determined to make her sons a success (she eventually sold some of her belongings to hire workmen on her own to repair the house a bit). She was a former actress, though, whose grand ways and ideas made her stand out in a place where standing out meant not fitting in. Jay’s benign neglect meant that Whittaker and his brother Richard were typically unkempt, wearing their father’s hand me down clothes and letting their hair grow long in a time when that was hardly the fashion. They never saw a dentist and Whittaker’s teeth rotted, something that people would comment on throughout his life. Both of his grandmothers, in varying states of madness and decline, eventually moved in, adding to the spectacle.
After finishing high school, Chambers knocked around as a laborer for a little while. He eventually returned to the family and was sent to his mother’s idea of an appropriate school, Williams College. He hated the remote, pastoral location and left after three days to return to New York to enroll in Columbia University.
Chambers loved the intense, intellectual atmosphere at Columbia. Mark Van Doren was one of his teachers; Van Doren was impressed by his writing and encouraged him. Chambers became involved in the university magazine, cranking out short stories and in one issue, a play that was “dedicated to the Antichrist.” Chambers, who had arrived at the school as a Christian, had (not for the last time on any topic) swung completely to the other side and was now an atheist. His play managed to cause enough of an uproar that he left the university for a while. He returned for a while, neglected his studies while becoming involved in various campus organizations. Concerned about what he felt was the deteriorating state of the US, he immersed himself in socialist reading for a while, then stumbled across Lenin’s Soviet at Work and became a passionate communist. Like some other young intellectuals at the time, he felt capitalism wasn’t working for everyone; his own disaster of a family seemed like a symptom of a national disease, a middle-class that was in crisis. Communism seemed like the remedy.
In 1925, Chambers threw himself into the New York red community, selling copies of the Daily Worker and taking instruction in the ways of “the Party.” He was still living in Lynbrooke, though, and was witness to the deterioration of his younger brother Richard, an alcoholic who committed suicide at twenty-one. This event, Chambers later wrote, was what made him completely dedicate himself to communism. He felt that “any society which could result in the death of a boy like my brother was wrong and I was at war with it. This was the beginning of my fanaticism.”
An uproar between the Leninists and Trotskyites led to a division in the American Communist Party. Chambers left the Party for a while, and married Esther Shemitz, an artist who had been involved in socialist causes and dabbled in communism. He wrote a short story for the New Masses, another Communist publication, that was rated as one of the best pieces of fiction to come out of the communist movement; overnight he became the “hottest literary Bolshevik.”
Chambers recommitted to the Party. He became editor of New Masses and tried to settle into domestic life with Esther. He was so successful as a leading light of the American communists that he was invited to a meeting where he was asked to become involved in “special work”—espionage. He would seem like he had dropped out of the communist movement, but in reality would be “underground,” helping to ferry information about the US government back to the Soviets.
Chambers was intrigued—he didn’t love the idea of abandoning the literary career he was carving out, but felt that this kind of work would allow him to really contribute to the revolution in a much more important way. Esther, however, wasn’t sure—she wanted to start a family and worried about the impact of such a life on children. Chambers decided he had to decline, but then found out he didn’t really have a choice—now that he knew of the existence of the Soviet spy apparatus in the US, he had to become part of it.
Chambers quit his job at New Masses; he now would be paid by the underground. For the next six years, he worked under a variety of aliases and lived at a number of different addresses, sometimes with Esther and eventually his son and daughter, sometimes without them. He worked with a group of spies who had obtained government positions in Washington, taking documents they slipped to him back to New York, where he turned them over to his Soviet handlers. Chambers’s contacts weren’t the stereotypical communist of the time, the working class immigrant; rather, they were young, clean-cut American born men, Ivy League educated, lawyers, economists, who fit into Washington society. That was one of the reasons Chambers had been selected for this job—he was American and had attended an Ivy League school, so it didn’t seem strange for him to be associating with these men (though he never did reach clean-cut status—Chambers rarely managed to rise above slovenly).
The work was intense, with Chambers sometimes making several trips between New York and Washington in one day. It also was increasingly disheartening—Chambers saw some of his Soviet handlers recalled to Russia where they disappeared in Stalin’s purges. He heard from American communists who had traveled themselves to the Soviet Union to live in what they had thought was a utopia but actually was miserable. He lost faith in the movement and became increasingly paranoid about his and his family’s own safety. He quietly began to extricate himself from the underground, until all business completed and ties severed, he and Esther and the children finally made a run for it to Florida. Chambers and his family bounced around Baltimore and New York for a while (they figured those would be the last places the Soviets would have expected him to stay), finally settling on a farm in a quiet part of Maryland.
In 1939, an old friend got Chambers a job as a book reviewer at Time, then in its heyday under the leadership of founder Henry Luce. Now adamantly anti-communist, Chambers became a pet of Luce’s, not just for his writing, which was widely admired, but because, unlike many other Time staffers, he shared Luce’s conservative views.
Chambers quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a senior editor. He was known as a tireless worker, but also as somewhat peculiar—rarely talking to anyone or socializing much. Once, when he did finally agree to go to lunch with a colleague, he led the way to their destination by a roundabout, circuitous route, traveling the way spies traveled, so that they couldn’t be easily followed. Word of his communist past (though not his espionage work) began to surface, but it wasn’t that big a deal; after the Stalin-Hitler pact, there were many ex-communists floating around. The biggest complaint against Chambers was that as he became increasingly confident in his position, he began to let his fiercely anti-communist agenda affect his work, sometimes editing writers' material beyond recognition so it would fit with the ideas he wanted to promote.
An anti-communist friend who knew about his spy work had persuaded Chambers to tell a government official what he knew. Chambers met with Adolf Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State, in 1939, and named the Soviet agents he knew were working in the government. Some of the names were familiar to Berle as known communists; others weren’t. Berle found Chambers’ account light on evidence and details, and decided not to take any action on it.
In 1948, though, Chambers’ past finally caught up with him. Elizabeth Bentley had been the one to take over Chambers’ courier job after he left the communist underground. She came clean and her explosive testimony about the spies she had worked with in the federal government including someone who was now a "New York editor, led to Chambers’ being subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
At first Chambers hedged. He acknowledged that he had been a communist and named communists he knew had worked in the government. However, he did not admit that they were involved in espionage, though he said that was surely an "eventual goal" for the Party.
Many of those named pleaded the Fifth when they were called before HUAC. However, one of them, Alger Hiss, adamantly denied he had ever been a communist and in fact had never even met Chambers.
Hiss had been one of the best and the brightest of the New Deal era. A Harvard Law grad, he had clerked under Oliver Wendell Holmes before going to Washington. He worked in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (where many of the communists named by Chambers started out) then moved to the State Department. He served as an organizer for the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, was a delegate at the Yalta Conference and was secretary-general at the United Nations Conference on International Organization. He left the government in 1946 to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
When Hiss testified before HUAC, most people thought that his demeanor matched his impeccable resume. Cool and confident under questioning, with a clean-cut, youthful appearance, he denied everything. Two members of HUAC, though, thought something else. Richard Nixon, a young California congressman and Robert Stripling, the head investigator for the committee, thought that Hiss had left a lot of room in his answers, replying with a kind of lawyerly caution that provided only responses to certain words. More importantly, they also knew that Chambers' charge wasn’t the first time Hiss’s name had been connected to a communist underground; it had been circulating for years, actually.
Nixon was anxious to pursue the case. First of all, he had disliked Hiss on sight. Hiss was exactly the kind of Eastern, Harvard intellectual that bothered Nixon the Californian who didn’t have Ivy League credentials and connections. Second, Nixon had an eye on publicity—if he could prove that FDR’s administration had been riddled with communists, he would make his career.
Chambers was interrogated again and repeated his charges. A surprise meeting was arranged between Hiss and Chambers, and finally Hiss allowed that he might have known Chambers under another name (he asked to look at Chambers' mouth—the notoriously bad teeth had come up again). Since Chambers had used a number of aliases while working in Washington, this was certainly possible, but since his picture had been all over the papers when he made his accusation, Hiss should still have been able to admit that he had known him before the meeting.
Hiss and Chambers continued to maintain their stories: Chambers, in public testimony in front of HUAC, described not just a casual acquaintance with Hiss, but a close friendship between their families that included visits together and enough time spent that Chambers could describe the Hisses’ home and cars that they had owned. In his testimony, Hiss allowed that he had sublet an apartment to Chambers who he knew as “George Crosley,” but that was all. He also pointed out that Chambers—a liar and admitted communist—was protected against a lawsuit when he testified to HUAC. Hiss dared Chambers to call him a communist in a public arena when he was open to a suit for libel or slander. Chambers repeated his statements on Meet the Press and Hiss sued him for slander.
Many on HUAC had felt that Chambers had been holding something back; after all, as it stood, his charges didn’t have that much real meaning beyond Hiss’s personal indignation. It wasn’t illegal to be a communist, after all. Bentley had mentioned spying, but so far Chambers hadn’t. However, in the pretrial discovery process, he finally revealed his secret: both he and Hiss had been more than just communists: they had indeed been involved in passing information to the Soviets. Moreover, Chambers could prove it—long ago, when he began his plans to leave the Party, he had hidden some of the documents Hiss had given him.
Chambers retrieved the box of documents from the relative he had given them to in 1938 (the instructions had been to not open them unless Chambers died; Chambers was sure he was going to be assassinated by the Soviets). Chambers immediately handed over some notes written in Hiss’s handwriting as well as typed summaries of State Department cables that Chambers said could be matched to a typewriter owned by the Hisses; the material was easily matched with State Department records. Chambers also had microfilms of cables that he at first hid in a hollowed out pumpkin in his garden in Maryland. When he produced them later, they became known as “the pumpkin papers.”
The FBI and the Justice Department now stepped in. Under questioning, Hiss denied it all. He said that the documents could have been stolen from his desk. He suggested that Chambers had psychiatric problems and harbored a strange vendetta against him, or that he had even used this fictional story about the communist underground back in the late ‘30s as a way of starting his journalism career.
A grand jury was convened and Hiss was charged with two counts of perjury: for saying that he had not seen Chambers/Crosley after January 1937 and about his spy activities; the statute of limitations had run out for espionage, so perjury was the best they could do.
The trial began in spring 1949 and was a sensation. Hiss’s attorneys’ strategy was to paint Chambers as a man of no character—he was a liar, a spy, an ex-communist, a traitor. He had mental problems and came from an unstable family. He was fat, unkempt, untrustworthy. Chambers’ attorneys countered with the reams of physical evidence they had. The Hiss typewriter had not been recovered but experts had shown that the documents Chambers had hidden had been typed on the same model the Hisses had admitted to owning. Both their wives testified. Mrs. Chambers described the layout of the Hiss’s house and the color of their drapes; Mrs. Hiss said she was wrong.
Both sides had their supporters. Many people believed Hiss simply because he seemed like such a nice, clean-cut young man who had served at a high level of government with such well-regarded, important people—just as Hiss’s attorney had hoped. Others supported Chambers because he said what they had long believed, that FDR’s government was riddled with communists.
And for many, this was what the trial was really all about—the vindication of the New Deal. Was it really a benign program designed to help a nation in trouble, or was it, with its socialistic ideas, really a subtle infiltration by Soviet operatives to move the US government towards communist policies and an eventual Soviet takeover? If Hiss was convicted, some feared, it would prove the former; for others, it would be exactly what they hoped for.
The trial ended in a hung jury in July 1949. A second trial began in November 1949. There was a different judge, and some different attorneys involved. New evidence was produced, new lines of questioning allowed. This time, in January 1950, the jury returned a guilty verdict on both counts. Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison for each count, both sentences to be served concurrently. He eventually was released after 44 months.
Alger Hiss's mug shot.
The Hiss supporters were outraged, sure that he had been railroaded. The anti-communists, though, felt finally vindicated. HUAC, which had become something of a joke prior to Chambers because of its widespread, vague net that had resulted in little more than the Hollywood Ten becoming freedom of speech heroes, now had power. They had set in motion the trial that proved that there was a communist menace at the highest levels of government. In February 1950, not long after Hiss had been convicted, a previously obscure Wisconsin senator, stated during a speech in West Virginia that he had a list of 205 people who were known to be members of the Communist Party but were still working at high levels of the federal government. The message was that Truman and the Democrats were soft on communism.
McCarthy didn’t have a list. The piece of paper he brandished with the supposed names didn’t have any names on it. In the years of investigation that followed, no more communist government employees were found—those who had been there in the 1930s had long either left the government, left communism, or both.
Nevertheless, the speech caught on and McCarthyism and the Red Scare were set in motion. It all seemed so possible now, the idea that the United States was riddled with communist spies—the Hiss trial, the admission of Klaus Fuchs that he had passed nuclear bomb secrets from Los Alamos to the Soviets, and the Rosenbergs all contributed to the perception that the US was only a few steps away from a Soviet invasion.
Chambers struggled with this part of his legacy—at first he cheered McCarthy, but when he met him, the two didn’t click. He suspected McCarthy’s motives and temperament. As McCarthy grew stronger, Chambers feared for the cause of anti-communism; he was sure that McCarthy would do something so reckless that he would make people lose faith in the movement. He felt that McCarthy’s endlessly wide net was just going to give ammunition to the anti-anti-communists.
Political cartoonist Herblock introduced the term "McCarthyism."
McCarthy was a hero to many, though, and Chambers was too, particularly after the publication of his dramatic autobiography, Witness. Chambers was admired by many of the new, young conservatives who were making their names in the 1950s (he was befriended by and particularly close to William F. Buckley, Jr.). But Chambers, as gratified as he was by the enthusiasm of these young men, never was completely sold on their beliefs. He didn’t agree with their lionization of McCarthy. He had come to believe that the New Deal wasn’t a total disaster for America. He didn’t think Eisenhower was the worst possible president. As he grew older, Chambers finally became something he had never really been: moderate.
Except on the issue of communism. He never lost his belief that communism was this powerful, destructive force that would result in the world’s end. Even into the 1950s, he repeated the line he had said when he first left the Party in 1938, that he felt he was leaving the winning side for the losing side.
Tanenhaus writes that Chambers never really left communism behind, that in Witness “Chambers seems not to realize how committed a Bolshevik he remains, not in his objectives, of course, but in his habit of mind. In his account, political men and women are never more than blind servants of ideology, motivated by a ‘soldier’s faith.” He filtered everyone’s action through this prism. Chambers saw Hiss’s behavior in the courtroom as that of a dedicated servant of the cause; others saw a man simply doing what he could to preserve his reputation. For Chambers, committing to communism, or any political belief for that matter, was more like committing to a religion, but not just a layperson’s commitment—the commitment of a priest or a nun. He felt that no one could really understand the situation of the world at that time except a communist or an ex-communist.
Some of the reviewers of his autobiography complained that he, too, cast his net too wide—New Dealers, liberals, Democrats, socialists, progressives, and humanists were lumped in with hardcore Party apparatchiks. And they were right—Chambers had a hard time understanding middle ground, anything but total commitment, total immersion. He made the always bad mistake of believing that everyone was just like him, and they aren’t. Many people may espouse a political cause or a belief, but when it comes right down to it, they are pragmatists whose first concerns are how to keep their own lives running as smoothly as possible with as little change as necessary. Total commitment and total sacrifice are rare.
Tanenhaus’s book is thoughtful, well-structured, and impressively researched (how many adverbs have I beaten to death all in the cause of modifying “researched?” impeccably, impressively, exhaustively). Even better, it’s very readable—the section describing the trials is especially fascinating, quite literally a page turner (yes, Mr. Tanenhaus, I did miss my train stop). It feels sympathetic towards Chambers, but not worshipful or apologetic. Tanenhaus doesn’t exonerate him or condemn him—he just tries to understand him.
I’m not sure what to make of Chambers now. You could say he’s to blame for McCarthyism and the Red Scare, but that seems a bit much (and there are surely others who would argue with my use of the word blame and perhaps want to substitute it with something like credit). After all, he was only one man, and it takes more than that for any movement—there have to be people who want to believe and circumstances that make it possible.
If you pull aside almost anyone on the street under say, the age of 70, and ask who Whittaker Chambers was, you would likely get mostly blank stares. You could say that this is a regretful failure of education or just that times have changed and what was once important isn’t always important. The Red Menace and a Soviet invasion are no longer daily fears and other things take priority and seem more necessary. I have witnessed firsthand the updating and revision of history textbooks and know that what got four pages in one edition will be down to one page a few editions later; in the next version, it may be a paragraph or not make the cut at all. There is only so much time in a school year and so much to be covered and decisions get made about what will matter most. Even in history the old gets removed to make room for the new. The rest is still there, but outside the classroom and common knowledge, still there to be discovered by the specialists, the curious, and the lucky who somehow find them.
P.S. To anyone who has read this far…I don’t even know what to say to you other than I worship at the feet of your persistence.