Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, Sam Tanenhaus, Modern Library, 1998, 638 pages, $20
It was early December 1948, and Congressman Richard Nixon was in the midst of the first of his “six crises.” For the moment this particular crisis was in recess, and a supremely satisfied Nixon was posing for pictures. In his hands was a strip of microfilm that had been fished from Whittaker Chambers’ celebrated pumpkin patch. As cameras clicked, one of the photographers casually asked if anyone had bothered to check the date of the film’s production. As Chambers’ biographer Sam Tanenhaus tells it, “for a moment everyone froze.”
Moments later Nixon would be frozen in anger when a hurried call to Kodak headquarters revealed that the film had only begun to be manufactured in 1945. Suddenly, there was a crisis within the crisis. After all, Chambers had assured Nixon and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that the microfilm in question dated from 1938, the year he left the Communist Party with his “life preserver” of purloined documents, including the microfilm that was now very much in question.
Convinced that his political career was over, Nixon confronted Chambers with this not-so-small discrepancy. The accuser-turned-accused had no explanation other than “God must be against me.” The otherwise God-fearing Nixon was far from satisfied: “You better have a better answer than that.”
Chambers didn’t, but Kodak soon did. It seems that the film belonged to a series that had been manufactured through 1938 only to be discontinued during the war and resumed in 1945.
A relived and chagrined Nixon could only shake his jowls and mutter, “Poor Chambers, nobody ever believes him at first.”
At first? How about just plain “ever” — or at least for years after his initial testimony against Alger Hiss before HUAC in August 1948?
Richard Nixon was not among the permanent unbelievers, having been introduced to the rudiments of the communist spy apparatus by Father John Cronin of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, among others, and having been alone among HUAC members in harboring suspicions of the denials of the dapper Mr. Hiss. Nonetheless, notes Tanenhaus, a “wedge of distrust” arose between Nixon and Chambers following the explosion over the emulsion date of that crucial microfilm. For his part, Chambers felt as though he had become the “rejected instrument of God’s purpose,” much like the dishonored prophet Jonah, the biblical figure with whom he most closely identified. Shaken, Whittaker Chambers began to take steps to plot his own suicide.
In Chambers’s aggrieved mind the act would not be suicide, but “self-execution.” Whatever the description, his attempt to end his life ended in failure instead. His mother, who discovered him, was not exactly motherly: “Oh, how could you, how could you? The world hates a quitter.” His biographer is not any kinder: “Like so many of his grand acts, this one too had come to nothing.”
But of course the Hiss case did not come to nothing, thanks in part to a reluctant witness by the name of Chambers and a dogged congressman by the name of Nixon. And of course Hiss was guilty. The interesting question about the Hiss case is no longer his guilt or innocence. In fact, Hiss isn’t even the most interesting character in this still-fascinating story; that honor, instead, belongs to the accuser, Chambers. Who was Whittaker Chambers, and what drove him into and out of the Communist Party, into exile on his Maryland farm, and ultimately onto the witness stand before his HUAC interrogators? These are the questions that have preoccupied Sam Tanenhaus-and should preoccupy readers of this long-awaited biography of the mysterious Mr. Chambers.
Writing in a style that is as spare as it is riveting, Tanenhaus has produced a fat book that spares no one, Chambers included. His life as a young man was, to put it delicately, chaotic. His life as a communist was, to be blunt, traitorous. His life as an informer was, to be honest, less than honest in that he was not exactly forthcoming when it came to revealing all that he knew.
But testify he did. And in doing so Chambers joined what he morosely characterized as the “losing side” in the Cold War against communism. At the same time, it must be said that this intensely intellectual man was never really a joiner. Whether loyal party member, tormented ex-communist, or not-so-simple Maryland farmer, Whittaker Chambers always kept his distance. And therein lies the mystery.
As a young man of the right in the ’20s, Chambers joined the CP before it was fashionable to do so. As a man of the left in the ’30s, he spurned the party prior to the Nazi-Soviet Pact (meaning before there was anything approaching a politically correct mass exodus from it). As a rapidly aging man of the right in the ’50s, he carried on a war of words with conservatives he regarded as extremists. In fact, in the last years of his life, Chambers became, of all things, an Eisenhower Republican.
Until then the Hiss forces had been right about one thing: Whittaker Chambers was, at heart, un-American. Biographer Tanenhaus agrees; his Chambers invariably looks at the world through European lenses. Whether as a professional communist or a professed anticommunist, Chambers seldom found any room for ordinary political give and take. In his feverish world, fascists and communists were ever on the loose and on the rise.
And yet, Tanenhaus concludes, by the ’50s his less-tortured world was no longer divisible into camps of sinners and saints. After all, what was he if not both at once? Perhaps it was this realization that finally led Chambers to embrace both the soil and Eisenhower Republicanism, much to the chagrin of a young admirer by the name of William F. Buckley. And perhaps it is only fitting that an ever-elusive Whittaker Chambers remained highly mysterious-even to those among his friends and allies who never doubted the truth of this tortured witness’ telling testimony in what was once the trial of the century.
This review first appeared in the January 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.