Books in Review

Wittaker Chambers: A Biography

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 51-53.

A Passionate Witness

Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus. Random House. 638 pp. $35.

Reviewed by William F. Buckley, Jr.

I’d hardly wish to disguise that I have known the author, who acknowledges this, as also that, like a dozen others, I helped him where I could, by giving him access to whatever materials relating to Chambers I had. And, in the text, the author records that Whittaker Chambers and I were close friends. Reviewer taboos can be carried to quite distracting lengths. "Do you know the author?" the New York Times will always ask before commissioning a review. Most recently, thinking to ask me to review the autobiography of Walter Cronkite, an editor asked, Did I know Walter Cronkite? Yes, I said: but who does not? (When the review appeared, it was signed by Tom Wicker.)

Not "everybody" knew Whittaker Chambers, of course. Though this book is mostly history, it succeeds also in recreation, with the result that many will now know Chambers. He died at age 60 in 1961. Sam Tanenhaus did not begin this study until the year the Berlin Wall came down, now securely in possesson of the knowledge that when Chambers turned to the West, he had not in fact joined the losing side. One might be tempted to conclude that Tanenhaus is a slow writer. That illusion dissipates soon after entering the book, and by the time one is finished reading it, the wonder is that any one person could have completed such a work in a mere six years.

I say this with caution, because such tributes can intimidate prospective readers of a six-hundred-page densely documented biography. Rather, they should bear in mind that Tanenhaus elected to spend one-tenth of his productive lifetime on Whittaker Chambers only after he convinced himself that Chambers is a figure of compelling interest. Why? Because he testified conclusively against Alger Hiss? Because he precipitated the ascendancy of Richard Nixon?

That story is hardly ignored. But Tanenhaus is engaged, and engages us, with a complex figure as profoundly interesting as any Dostoyevsky gave us. The story is told as imaginatively as a novelist might tell it, though the restraints of history are scrupulously observed. The author’s skill is such that his own presence is impalpable, even as we profit from his facility. He is masterful at compressed eloquence. No filigree, but lines that, in their honed directness, give the subtle satisfaction one gets from treatments done by sensitive hands.

The book observes the natural cleavages. The sections give us "Outcast (1901-1925)," "Bolshevik (1925-1932)," "Spy (1932-1938)," "Defector (1938-1939)," "Crusader (1939-1948)," "Witness I: The Hearings (August-December 1948)," "Witness II: The Trials (January 1949-January 1950)," and, finally, "Exile (1950-1961)."

Although the book can be fully enjoyed without consulting a single footnote, they are there to remind us of the mighty scaffolding, so painstakingly effected, of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography.

Let me give an example. In preparation for the Hiss trial, F.B.I. agents sought the cooperation of one John Sherman, who, Chambers had told them, had met with the Hisses in Baltimore on Soviet business. The agents knock on the door of his hotel room. "Combative and bitter, Sherman demanded the agents produce a warrant and then launched into an oration on the evils of capitalism."

The footnote on this item (footnotes appear at the end of the book). "3. WC [for Whittaker Chambers] deposition, March 25, 1949, p. 1299; FBI 65-1573-2328, Jan. 28, 1949; FBI 74-1333 3677, July 17, 1949; FBI 65-53508-96, Aug. 13, 1949; FBI 74-1333 3755, letter to director, Aug. 16, 1949; FBI NY 65-14920, pp. 312-13; FBI 3855, letter to director, Sept. 2, 1949; FBI teletype 74-1333-3862, Sept. 22, 1949. In March 1950, shortly after the second AH [Alger Hiss] trial concluded, Sherman was summoned by HUAC [The House Committee on Un-American Activities], but declined to answer any questions. He protested he was the victim of a ‘frame-up’ produced by a ‘disordered mind’ (presumably WC’s). Sherman added, ‘I would regard it as a privilege to have the acquaintance of Alger Hiss, but I am convinced that he would not know me from Adam’: NYT [New York Times], March 2, 1950. WC later said he had introduced AH to Sherman under the alias Adam: W [Witness] p. 367."

Moreover, late-breaking events, notably the Venona papers, were caught by the author in time to be included. We learn that in the 1940s American counterintelligence officers had intercepted more than two thousand cables sent from U.S.-based Soviet agents to the home office in Moscow. One of these cables (they were sitting around somewhere in Washington during the Hiss trial) was from Anatoly Gromov, the NKVD rezident in Washington, and reported on a conversation with another Soviet handler, Ishkak Akh merov, "the leading NKVD illegal" in the United States. "Akhmerov had recently interviewed a well-placed unnamed GRU agent within the State Department. The [agent] told Akhmerov he had attended the Yalta Conference and then flown on to Moscow, where he was thanked by Soviet diplomat Andre Vyshinsky for his devoted service."

Only four men would fit that harness. About the other three, no suspicion was ever raised by anybody. Moreover, the American agent (Hiss) told Akhmerov that he had been working for Soviet intelligence (as charged by Chambers) since 1935 and "for some years . . . has been the leader of a small group" of agents, "for the most part consisting of his [family] friends"—including, in Chambers’ testimony, Alger’s wife Priscilla, and brother Donald.

I am obliged to record that Tanenhaus’ dislike and distrust of Senator McCarthy take him to what I deem unnecessary lengths. Professor Owen Lattimore’s name was first mentioned, in context of the exploration of pro-Communist influences, by McCarthy. But it was Senator McCarran’s committee that effectively exposed him as the influential and perjurious pro-Communist he clearly was. The author leaves the reader with the impression that Chambers was simply carried away by McCarthy’s early singling out of loyalty risks, though Tanenhaus is convincing when citing the case of O. Edmund Clubb as a miscarriage of justice.

Tanenhaus correctly records that Chambers did not leave us with a systematic worldview of history, on the order of Marx, Spengler, or Toynbee:

His intellectual style was a hybrid of the autodidact’s and the educated publicist’s. He was a forager of texts, who read widely and collected memorable tag lines he employed as a form of illustrative shorthand, filling out his intuitions and adding them to the accumulated wisdom of his own experience. Much as he deplored "attempts to explain the Communist experience primarly in personal psychological terms," it was the one thing he really knew how to do. And he had . . . done it in Witness.

No systematic worldview can be decocted from Witness or from the accumulation of Chambers’ writings. What he would have come up with if he had pursued his ambitious idea of two successor volumes to Witness, which his bad health precluded, we do not know. That he would have succeeded in creating a historical or philosophical monument merely by ironing out theoretical wrinkles, Tanenhaus doubts. Chambers’ strength, his biographer persuasively concludes, was his passion and his art. These he passes along—unfortunately, without material that might further have documented his subject’s skills. He was handicapped by the eccentric behavior of Whittaker Chambers’ son, who, exercising his authority as executor of his father’s estate, forbade the publication of substantial excerpts from Tanenhaus’ enormous collection of Chambers’ letters. Under the restraints that bound him by the inscrutably motivated objections of the estate, quotations are given to us mincingly: a posthumous burden on Chambers, who as a journalist and artist would have welcomed the fullest disclosure of his skills, concerns, and interests. As a human being always grateful for the labors of his admirers and appreciative critics, he’d have been hurt by this capricious act of ingratitude.

But there is more than enough to illustrate Chambers’ skills in communicating his apocalyptic vision. Tanenhaus illuminatingly observes that Chambers’ attraction to communism, and subsequently his repulsion for it, was not "as a system of ideas but as a ‘great faith,’ towering out of the rubble of modern atheism. Its ‘simple vision of "Man without God" rivals Christanity’s vision’ of God and man’s relationship to God." Tanenhaus is himself "a secular liberal." But he feels the force of Chambers’ spiritual art. And lets us experience it.

There is more than enough, from Chambers’ text and from letters already published, to testify to the poetic powers of the most eloquent American witness to the greatest trials of the century: in the great arena, the Communist claim for the world; in the arena here, the fight of Alger Hiss to defy reality and let live the webs of his great deception.

William F. Buckley, Jr. is Editor-at-Large of National Review.