In many respects the Hiss-Chambers investigation and trial can be viewed as shaping the Cold War era. Although Alger Hiss continues to have some partisans today, most historians agree that Whittaker Chambers’s testimony has been vindicated and that he did expose Hiss and others as members of an extensive Soviet espionage ring. In addition to a narrative that amply reveals Hiss’s culpability, Sam Tanenhaus gives Whittaker Chambers: A Biography an appendix that sets out the overwhelming evidence against Hiss and explains his futile efforts to refute it.
Tanenhaus approaches his story in measured, objective tones. He does not minimize Chambers’s weaknesses or spare his subject criticism, but the biographer 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’s changing moods and political positions.
Who was Whittaker Chambers? Tanenhaus takes a conventional approach, beginning with a childhood troubled by his father’s confused sexuality and his brother Richard’s suicide. Jay Vivian Chambers was bisexual, a condition that made him miserable and hard on his family. He left home for long periods, lived with other men, and endured the contempt of family members who regarded him as unmanly and perverted. His son did not realize that his father was bisexual until years later, when he found himself attracted to both men and women and the center of more than one ménage à trois. Named for his father, he abandoned Jay Vivian for his mother’s family name, Whittaker, and staked out an identity as a Communist and writer during his years at Columbia University.
Chambers had a formidable intellect and imagination. His professors at Columbia considered him the best of his generation, and fellow students—such as the art critic Meyer Shapiro and the literary critic Lionel Trilling—swore by his integrity as well as his genius. Chambers produced some of the best proletarian fiction and became an editor of The New Masses. His rebellious streak ended a promising education at Columbia, which was followed by episodes of bumming around the country and working as a manual laborer. He lived the life of a proletarian that most leftists only dreamed of.
Chambers had been a conservative before he was a Communist, but it is clear that he engaged in a lifelong quest for a spiritual and political solution to his agonized need for meaning, and that his return to a religious and traditional position later in life constituted not so much a betrayal of radicalism as an extension of his earliest yearnings for salvation. Marriage, family, and a farm represented his attempts to settle down, yet he could not forswear a life of action and political involvement—first as a member of the Communist underground, then as a writer for Time, and finally as a government witness against former Communists and spies.
Chambers had an independent spirit that balked at Communist Party discipline, a spirit he could control only as long as he thought the Communist Party represented human renewal and an antidote to the corruption of capitalism. Seeing the Party from the inside, however, convinced him that Communism was more corrupt than the system it sought to subvert. He broke with the party in the late 1930’s, fearing for his life but eventually establishing a respected, if controversial, position at Time as an extraordinary book reviewer and scourge of liberals and Communists.
Chambers first approached the government in 1939 with information about Communists in the Roosevelt administration. Although he named Hiss and others as officials who were passing sensitive secret government information to the Soviets, Chambers was largely ignored as the country mobilized for World War II. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for example, was more concerned with Nazi infiltrators than with Communists, especially after the United States and the Soviet Union became allies.
After the war, the political climate began to change. The Republican Party gained seats in Congress, and much of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program became suspect. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigated Communist influence in Hollywood, the labor unions, and government. Yet such congressional investigations were often done sloppily and for obvious political gain. HUAC abused its witnesses and destroyed the...
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