Whittaker Chambers Essay - Critical Essays

Sam Tanenhaus

Whittaker Chambers

Although Alger Hiss continues to have his partisans, most historians agree that Whittaker Chambers’ testimony has been vindicated and that he did expose Hiss and others as members of an extensive Soviet espionage ring. Sam Tanenhaus provides an appendix which sets out the overwhelming evidence against Hiss and explains his futile efforts to refute it in WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: A BIOGRAPHY.

The biographer approaches his story in measured, objective tones. He does not minimize Chambers’ weaknesses or spare his subject criticism, but he does maintain a sympathetic tone and respect for a figure still vilified by remnants of the Left and consecrated as a saint by the Right. Chambers was more complicated than these labels suggest, and Tanenhaus deserves considerable praise for his finely tuned accounts of Chambers’ changing moods and political positions.

Except during the accounts of the trials, Esther Chambers receives little attention in this work. Why she believed so strongly in him is never explained. Tanenhaus might have teased out the implications of the Hiss/Chambers case. It did considerable damage to the American Left that is still not well understood because of the focus on the evils of McCarthyism. Certainly the witch-hunting associated with the reckless Senator Joseph McCarthy is a deplorable episode in American history. Yet so is the blindness of many liberals who insisted on Hiss’ innocence even in the face of mounting, irrefutable evidence. The Hiss/Chambers case can seem a relic of the past in the post-Cold War world, yet it demeaned political dialogue in ways that still deform America’s civic life.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXVII, July 19, 1997, p. 25.

Chicago Tribune. March 16, 1997, p. 3.

Commentary. CIII, February, 1997, p. 61.

The Economist. CCCXLIII, June 21, 1997, p. 6.

Houston Chronicle. March 2, 1997, p. 27.

Los Angeles Times. March 2, 1997, p. 4.

The Nation. CCLXIV, February 17, 1997, p. 27.

The New Republic. CCXVI, April 14, 1997, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 9, 1997, p. 5.

The New Yorker. March 17, 1997, pp. 112- 17.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 16, 1996, p. 48.

Time. CXLIX, March 10, 1997, p. 88.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 6, 1997, p. 9.

USA Today. March 27, 1997, p. D6.

The Wall Street Journal. February 20, 1997, p. A18.

The Washington Post Book Review. March 9, 1997, p. 1.