638 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0394585598
Many moons ago Anthony Lake was up for the job of National Security Advisor to President Clinton when he appeared on the news/interview program Meet the Press. Then-host, the late Tim Russert, asked him if, in light of new access to Soviet files and the revelation of the Venona Project, he would be prepared to acknowledge that Alger Hiss was a spy. Lake sat there like a deer in the headlights before mumbling some bilge about how it was still an open question – and just like a fault line of the Left/Right divide in American politics for 50 years was once again brought forth. In you wanted to know where someone stood upon the political spectrum you could find out simply by getting their answer to whether Whittaker Chambers or Alger Hiss had told the truth. For the American Left (never mind the European Left), the innocence of Alger Hiss was an article of faith; after all, if such a mainstream New Deal figure as Hiss had actually been part of a secret underground cabal, spying on the US for the Soviets, even as WWII was underway, then a whole battery of conservative attacks would gain legitimacy and the whole of FDR’s legacy (both New Deal and Grand Alliance) would be called into question. Well, it’s time for our entire society to face those questions and this celebrated Chambers biography by Sam Tanenhaus offers an excellent starting point.
The story of Whittaker Chambers is familiar enough, yet remains fundamentally elusive. Born on April 1, 1901, his life journey is a virtual parable of Modern man: his father was bisexual, his mother was paranoid, his grandmother (who lived with them) was completely insane, and his younger brother committed suicide. Chambers was brilliant but slovenly, both physically and mentally. His own sexuality was somewhat ambiguous and he was generally alienated from the world around him. After failing to complete his degree at Columbia, he joined the Communist party and went underground in its extensive espionage apparatus, wherein he helped to run a Washington spy ring. By 1937, with Stalinist purges and show trials in full swing and amidst the brutal Stalinization of the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Chambers became disenchanted with the Party and fled the underground. From there he attempted to reveal what he knew about communist spying to the requisite government authorities, but was basically ignored. Chambers ended up as an editor at Henry Luce’s Time magazine and built a reputable middle class life for himself, his wife, and their son and daughter. He became devoutly religious and vehemently anti-Communist. From there he was sucked back into the political maelstrom when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he revealed that Alger Hiss, a prominent New Dealer and pillar of the Establishment, had been a member of his spy ring in the 1930s. Hiss promptly denied it and the stage was set for a years long legal battle that finally ended with Hiss being convicted for perjury.
In 1952 Chambers published his brilliant memoir, Witness, in which he recounted his own life experiences and sounded the alarm to alert the West that it was locked in a death struggle between Communism and Christianity. One of the things that made the book so extraordinary was his assertion that, in leaving Communism and becoming a Christian, he had joined the losing side in this struggle. He spent the last few years of his life working on his beloved farm and writing articles and reviews, including a series of letters to the newborn opinion magazine National Review. He died in 1961 of a heart attack.
Tanenhaus’ book came is a revelation as his subject steps out of these pages and comes into his own as a person of significant accomplishment. Tanenhaus traces Chambers’ eclectic career, not only as a repentant and atoning undercover operative, but preeminently as someone with a gift for language who used that gift at every turn to give meaning to a chaos of events. The reader of this biography discovers Chambers as a commentator, poet, translator, and respected writer/editor for Time. Tanenhaus furthermore guides readers through a broader chronology that puts the history of Communism/anti-Communism in America into perspective (not only did most of the Hiss hearings and trials predated McCarthy’s, “Tail Gunner Joe” only came to power on the coattails of Hiss’ ultimate conviction for perjury). This book also provides an enlightening time-line of the careers of some of the major figures in American politics in the middle of the 20th Century, and I, for one, experienced an I didn't know that! jolt at least once a chapter (for example, I didn’t know that Richard Nixon ultimately became disenchanted with McCarthy and distanced himself from the bulk of McCarthy’s excesses; on the other hand, I also didn’t know that William F. Buckley, Jr., long regarded as one of America's leading intellectual conservative spokesmen, remained a staunch supporter of McCarthy to the end).
While I feel that Tanenhaus is sympathetic to Chambers, I don’t believe this sympathy he was not prejudiced his view of his subject (at least, not more than any biographer’s identification with his subject). I finished the book comfortably assured that I hadn’t been manipulated or slanted away from any important truth. Beyond all the politics and court cases, this is a profound human drama about telling the truth whatever the costs. Chambers threw away a lucrative career at Time and personal well-being to testify against Communists in government; his concern about personally damaging people like Alger Hiss only multiplied his problems. While later evidence ultimately vindicated Chambers, the damage had been done; to the end of his life, Chambers remained a pessimist – but in that pessimism, he found a kind of hope, and his life today seems not a tragedy but a triumph.