Whittaker Chambers (1997) by Sam Tanenhaus
Reviewed by STEVEN TRAVERS
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”
– Luke 4:24
In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union dissolved and ceased to exist. Shortly thereafter, in the spirit of glasnost, they opened up their archives to reveal many secrets of the Cold War. For American conservatives, it was the ultimate vindication. Numerous high-level members of Franklin Roosevelt’s and Harry Truman’s administrations were revealed to be spies for the U.S.S.R.; traitors against America, Democrats one and all.
Further revealed was an American military intelligence operation that says all that needs to be said about the so-called “patriotism” of the Left. It was called Venona. In essence, after the Soviets entered World War II, the U.S. Army became wary of the Russians quitting their fight against Nazi Germany, suing for peace, and leaving the U.S. and Great Britain all alone. Using sophisticated new technology, they began monitoring Soviet cable traffic, looking for signs of this potential disaster.
Instead of learning of a Soviet break with the Allies, they were stunned to discover something maybe worse. Top Oval Office and State Department officials of FDR were working for the Communists. They were not merely Communists or “fellow travelers.” They engaged in espionage against their country. Among the many Democrats identified were Lachlin Currie, one of the architects of the policy resulting in China going Red; Harry Dexter White, architect of the Breton Woods monetary agreements; and Alger Hiss, one of the statesmen responsible for allowing the U.S.S.R. to enslave Eastern Europe (with ramifications to this day; see Ukraine).
Worse, it was discovered that FDR and Truman knew all about these Communists. Either they chose to do nothing about it, or liked having Communists working for the Soviets in America! It was not until the Republicans captured Congress in 1946 that Richard Nixon of California led a concerted effort to root out these Reds, who had been embedded in the U.S. government – through the New Deal, in the Works’ Projects Administration, the State Department, the War Department, the Manhattan Project, and the White House – at least since 1933, as part of a spy apparatus in the U.S. going back to the early 1920s.
In 1948, Congressman Nixon brought forth a member of that apparatus. His name was Whittaker Chambers. However, Chambers had come forward with what he knew and who he knew about a decade earlier. He told the FBI. He told the House Un-American Activities Committee. He told members of Congress and members of the media. He tried to shout it from the rooftops.
Both FDR and Truman refused to act on his, and many other similar whistleblower’s evidence. The mainstream media largely refused to blow the story up. President Truman called it a “red herring.” It was only Nixon and the incontrovertible evidence he, Chambers and his investigators literally dug up that shed light on the entire sordid “conspiracy so immense,” to quote Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Perhaps this was the key moment in which the modern divisions in America, the great chasm we live with today, began to break apart, for the Democrat Party and their allies in the liberal media never admitted it was true! They continued to back Hiss to his dying day, and to excoriate Chambers – not to mention Nixon and McCarthy – until they had exacted their pound of flesh. When the Venona Project was finally uncovered, Hiss was not around to face the music. Neither were Chambers or Nixon around to be heralded as prophets, who as Jesus said in Luke 4:24 are never accepted in their time and place. It is only by history does real justice occasionally seep to the surface.
Sam Tanenhaus does a fabulous job researching the life of Whittaker Chambers. In reading this wonderful 1997 biography, likely inspired by the recent Venonas revelations, it appears he is sympathetic to Chambers, largely described in unsympathetic terms by friend and foe alike in his lifetime. Whether Tanenhaus is a Republican is not plainly stated. He may well have been, or at the least was that rarest of birds, the fair liberal.
Chambers grew up in poverty or near-poverty, in a highly dysfunctional, sometimes violent household. He had a brother he was close to and tried to be protective of, but the young man was always getting in his own way or facing obstacles. Eventually, he committed suicide. Chambers revealed later that this was the moment he broke from conventional American patriotism and joined the Communist Party. He blamed society, in essence the capitalist system of competition and the inherent difficulty in achieving a good life unless one is gifted by luck to have been born with the right connections.
Chambers was purely idealistic. He did not hate America and did not necessarily hate capitalism, but the Soviet Union, born out of Russia’s dropping out of World War I in 1917, offered to the poor and dispossessed the hope of a knew system that might just offer answers to universal, historic injustice. The Republicans hated it from the beginning, but the rest were willing to give it a chance. Nobody yet knew the full scope of its horrors, much of that to be revealed with the forced famines of the early 1930s, although that was covered up by Walter Duranty and the New York Times.
At first a “fellow traveler,” then a card-carrying Communist, Chambers broke no laws or even ruffled many feathers. In the East Coast academic circles he ran in he was not highly unusual. Radicals were everywhere. He studied at Columbia, where he was a classmate of Lionel Trilling, and was an academic star, a brilliant young man with a gift for foreign languages and literature. He read all the classics and was despite his Columbia pedigree a self-taught intellectual.
But money was always an issue. He was on the surface a WASP, a Christian who tried to find in his walk with Jesus some justification for Socialism/Communism. This was a partial facade. He was overweight and unattractive. He wore his clothes sloppily, his hair a mess, and did not fit in with the Ivy League crowd. He dropped out of school and eventually began writing for The Daily Worker, the CPUSA’s official newspaper. This was still not illegal or even highly controversial in New York, although he lived in many places, constantly moving, never settling down, looking for contentment he would never really find.
He wrote book reviews of classics such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, as well as Leo Tolstoy. He was searching for the seeds of Communist thought in the Russian novels before Karl Marx. His writing was brilliant, his analysis spot-on. He became the star of American Communist literary circles. He was slightly unusual in that he was neither Jewish nor Eastern European. The American Communist movement of the era was largely just that. Soviet intelligence, who ran a sophisticated espionage/propaganda operation on the East Coast, favored WASP Ivy Leaguers, who did not stand out as potential traitors as easily as “others.”
Thus he was approached and accepted the very fateful step of becoming a spy. Now he was doing something illegal, which could earn him prison time in the U.S. if caught, but far worse, murder by Communist octopus squads bent on keeping their operations secret.
Chambers, the great historian who from the very beginning understood the tides of history, and of God’s role in the affairs of man, was himself in precisely the right place and precisely the right time to become a cog in this magnificent, terrible new 20th Century, when the forces of capitalism and Communism, of Fascism and Nazism and Democracy, of good and evil in clarifying ways no longer visible to most of us today, were then the challenge of a new generation.
He was assigned a handler and quickly realized the magnitude of his choice. To turn back now would likely mean quick death. He was taught tradecraft. Nobody knew each other by their real names. It was the Great Depression and Roosevelt was in office. The Works’ Projects Administration was immediately rife with Communists. Rising young traitors were all over D.C., and Chambers worked with many of them. He became friends with them, and with their families. They helped each other out, gave each other cars, gifts, let their families live rent free in their homes because they were part of a new family of man, of Communism at its most idealistic.
Chambers joined the Ware Group, a highly placed Communist cell that consisted of outstanding young men, largely with Ivy League law degrees; WASPs from good families, with excellent connections. One of these was Alger Hiss, who with his wife Priscilla and his brother Donald, were members of the espionage unit while working in FDR’s New Deal, mainly trying to attract African-Americans to the Communist side. Chambers was known to Hiss as “George Crosley,” and despite substantial differences in their make-up and background – Hiss was polished, attractive, poised, his wife beautiful and educated, while Chambers was rumpled, his wife slovenly – they became good friends and even lived together for a time. Many gifts were exchanged, including use of a car.
Hiss rose in FDR’s government and eventually had access to sensitive State Department papers. He and Chambers copied the papers and distributed them to their Soviet handlers. Priscilla Hiss used their typewriter to create reports. At first it was an adventure, but by 1938, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s genocidal regime could no longer be papered over. He presided over forced famines killing millions. He purged the Soviet military of any officer who could possibly run a coup. He purged the ranks of his most loyal people in murderous rampages. Chambers became disillusioned and split from the party.
A voice crying in the wilderness
Scared for himself and his family that they would now be targets of an assassin, Chambers approached the authorities. Over the next years he told the FBI and HUAC who and what Hiss was; who and what the Ware Group was; and how the Soviet operations in America worked. Everything he and others like him told the authorities was passed up the chain of command, eventually reaching the Roosevelt White House, where it was all stonewalled. It was very frustrating for Chambers.
In the mean time, world history overshadowed everything. The Nazis and Soviets signed a non-aggression pact, which frustrated the American Left to no end, but that of course ended when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, followed by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Stalin was now our tacit ally, and hunting for Soviet spies was put on the back burner. All except for a few Republicans on HUAC, seen by the D.C. elite as a disgraced group of Right-wing yahoos, and J. Edgar Hoover, who bided his time and kept all the reports of treason and spying in his drawer, ready to be pulled out at just the right time.
Freed from Communism, Chambers was now free to make use of his literary talents, and found a willing patron in Harry Luce, founder/publisher of Time and Life magazines, the most influential journalistic organs in the world at the time. Luce was deeply Christian, having grown up the impoverished son of missionaries in China. He had ascended to Yale, where he made “Skull and Bones,” and from there Time and Life.
He liked Chambers as a writer/editor and even more so as a new conservative of sorts, although Chambers was by no means a Right-winger. He saw the Republicans as superior to the traitorous Democrats, but rife with in-fighting and policy differences. Chambers had not suddenly become a Wall Street capitalist, a free trade warrior, or a libertarian. But he had a true conversion to real Christian faith, which he embraced as a Quaker. This being World War II, he could not be a true Quaker; of course somebody had to kill all those Nazis and Japanese so nations could be free again, and Chambers rooted for America to do just that.
But he like Luce was a believer in the one true God, and he saw the world as a struggle between Christ and Satan. On the side of Jesus of course was the United States, with all its faults. Luce saw this struggle too, and pronounced the 20th to be the “American Century.” On the other side was Satan, in the form of Nazism and Communism. With Hitler disposed of in 1945, now there was only Communism, the truest form of evil ever conceived. Chambers, having fallen for its appeal as a sinner falls for temptation, understood its power better than anybody.
He wrote and edited for Luce throughout the 1940s. It was a sounding board for both of their conservative ideas. There were conflicts with liberal writers at Time, namely the magnificent Theodore White, assigned the China beat. Chambers routinely re-wrote his copy to favor the conservative view. This came to a head when White wrote that Chiang Kai-shek was corrupt, and his Kuomintang army was losing to Mao Tse-tung. Luce argued that propaganda was more important than journalism; that if support for Chiang dried up the Communists would win, and millions would die. White cared little and refused to follow this line of thinking. He continued to expose Chiang, the result being that his support dried up, Mao won, and 70 million would die in Red China. This is perhaps the most graphic example of patriotism being a superior approach to liberal journalism.
The end of the war and the eventual loss of China brought to a head the Communist issue. The Reds were everywhere; the State Department, the War Department, the media, Hollywood, even the Atomic weapons program. Having sounded off about them since 1938, Chambers had no confidence they would be exposed. It seemed business as usual, at least until the 1946 mid-terms and the arrival of Richard Nixon. Chambers grew close to the young Californian, who like Chambers had lost his brother, and was a well read intellectual, too.
Chambers vs. Hiss
HUAC began re-opening old investigations and inquiring of new allegations of Communism. At first they ran into a brick wall, but finally Chambers was questioned. He had tried to warn anybody who would listen and now somebody was ready to listen. But he was not yet a crusader. He wanted it both ways. Chambers did not hate Hiss or any of his other fellow Communists. He felt they had been drawn into the sweep of history, almost helpless pawns of events beyond their control. He had no desire to ruin Hiss, his wife, or his brother Donald. They had been kind to he and his wife. They were his friends. Yes, he had told the FBI who and what Hiss was, as others had, but Hiss had escaped.
But now Hiss had orchestrated the Yalta agreements, which in retrospect had opened the door for Stalin to enslave his neighbors. Millions were dying or in prison. Atomic weaponry was at play. China was going Red. The Soviets were not our allies.
Chambers tried to simply tell the authorities how the Communists operated and what a threat they were. His Christian faith drove him, but the others had political motivations. These conflicting motivations caused much anguish and consternation with Chambers, who the Republicans knew had the goods to expose the Democrat Party, but Chambers was squeamish about real-life human consequences. Thus, Chambers lied, often trying to cover up for some of his past associates, and sometimes to mitigate his own role as a traitor in the 1930s. Many of his “side” still saw him only as that.
It came to a head in 1947-48. The contrast between the rumpled, flaccid Chambers and the youthful, Kennedyesque Ivy Leaguer Hiss was tremendous. A who’s who of the liberal Washington elite came out in full force to back Hiss, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. When China fell to Mao, Acheson’s role in the catastrophe just amplified the Chambers-Hiss battle.
Hiss had taken classified State Department documents and passed them along to his Soviet handler. When Chambers made his accusations he denied all of it. Reports of those who had warned the government that Hiss and others had been at the very least “fellow travelers” surfaced.
While Chambers’s accusation had the ring of truth, there was no “smoking gun.” It looked like “he said, he said.” Much like today, while the Republicans have truth on their side, the Democrats and Hiss brazenly lied; the media and their old guard, like President Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the other unimpressives of history, refused to believe Chambers. It seemed merely a political issue, and when the underdog Truman won the 1948 Presidential election over the favored Thomas Dewey, Chambers and his supporters were shocked.
But the Justice Department decided to try Hiss. They wisely did not go after him for treason or espionage, but for perjury. A perjury conviction would be a solid, convenient stand-in for a treason conviction. The case came down to two pieces of evidence.
First there was the typewriter Mrs. Hiss had used. It seemed to be gone but an investigation turned it up. Then the maker of the typewriter declared this brand had not been made in 1938; it was only started in 1946. Congressman Nixon was furious and confronted Hiss. Nixon told colleagues that his entire career rested on Chambers being truthful.
“God must be against me,” is all Chambers could say.
But FBI Director Hoover slyly told Nixon he had evidence confirming his varied accusations; he had to hold it back so as to avoid letting the Soviets know how on to them we really were, but he was on the right path. Then it was revealed that the typewriter model in question had been in operation in 1938; it had gone out of production for a couple years then resumed in 1946.
The second and ultimately convicting piece of evidence were documents dating back to the Hiss-Chambers espionage years. They would confirm what Chambers said and of Hiss’s involvement. Chambers had hid them in a pumpkin patch on his Maryland farm. They were dug up and used in the trial. Hiss managed to gain a “hung jury.” The government’s prosecutor, Thomas Murphy, brother of Johnny Murphy, a famed New York Yankees reliever known as “the Fireman” (later general manager of the 1969 “Amazin’ Mets”) skillfully stayed with the case and in the second trial sent Hiss to the slammer.
Then Chambers wrote his magnum opus, Witness. The title had double meaning; he was a witness to history, to his own crimes, of Hiss, his fellow spies, and of international Communism, but also was a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ, who ultimately he served beyond even country in exposing the entire apparatus.
It was a true classic and stands up today as one of the great pieces of historical truth. Like the works of later “New Journalists” such as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, it read something like a novel, combined with Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. Its evangelism was imbued with Chambers’ touch for literary flair combined with his sweep of history.
God was history, and events all happened under His watch, to serve His purpose; he had merely been a vessel, or witness to it. People who read the book had their eyes opened to the dangers of Communism. Once they had been blind, now they could see.
It earned Chambers fame and fortune, which he was extremely uncomfortable with. He had not written Witness to get rich, but to serve God. It also all happened in confluence with McCarthyism, the Blacklist, and Dwight Eisenhower’s election the ascendance of the Republican Party after two decades of New Deal Socialism. The Democrats refused to concede their guilt in American Communism.
Chambers left Time and wrote for William F. Buckley’s National Review, but Buckley was a hard-Right politico. Chambers disliked McCarthy’s methods and despite everything was not political. He was being used by the GOP and did not like it.
It came to a head with the 1957 publication of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, an Objectivist, atheist polemic extolling the virtues of the capitalist dollar. Chambers’ review in National Review declared that each page seemed to declare, “To a gas chamber – go!” A furious Rand wrote a scathing letter to Buckley, and the review created a schism within nascent conservative circles, splitting the GOP and giving Lyndon Johnson a runaway victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.
By then Chambers had passed away, a man burdened by his place in history, like the pioneering black baseball player Jackie Robinson. He was barely 60. Richard Nixon rode his fame in the Hiss case to the Vice-Presidency and the Presidency, but paid for his overwrought politics. Eventually, after Roe v. Wade and the election of Ronald Reagan, the evangelical Right became the dominant theme of Republicanism. In reaction to this, the Democrats, weak and immoral, have allowed themselves to become a tool of evil forces at play in this fallen world. The emergence of Venona, convicting them of their historical crimes, was stonewalled the same way Hiss tried to stonewall his accusers.
But Chambers was a prophet for our times, and he seemed to see the future, in which the Democrat Party would become the party of the illegal, the immoral and the criminal; the party of open borders, the party of murdering babies, the party giving “aid and comfort” to Communists and Islamic Jihadists; the party of the unimpressive, the trans-gender, the radical queer, the unpatriotic; the party of the cop killer and the enemy of the cop.
In Witness Chambers wrote that in breaking with the Communists he felt he had left the winning side and was joining the losing side. Despite ascendant 1950s conservatism, he still felt that way until the day he died. In looking at the modern Democrats, the news media, the public schools, academia, and streets filled with Democrats freely burning down our cities, on this Earth at least it looks like he might have been right. The Christian has only faith in victory beyond this world.
And the beat goes on.
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the upcoming Best Sports Writing Ever. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a PhD who taught at USC. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.