Whittaker Chambers in Books


Reviews books with Whittaker Chambers tagged either as Subject, Actor, or Mention


Duncan Chaplin Lee, addressed by Robert Stripling before HUAC, 1948

A review of Mark A. Bradley‘s book A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior (Boston: Basic Books, 2014) appears in the latest issue of American Communist History (Volume 14, Issue 1), peer-reviewed journal of the academic association Historians of American Communism (HOAC)

The review, entitled “Fascination–Revulsion” cites many strengths in the book but also recommends a different approach to comparing protagonist Duncan Chaplin Lee — not to Whittaker Chambers but to Alger Hiss.

The article is available as follows:
American Communist History (subscription)
Academia.edu (no subscripton – PDF)
ResearchGate (no subscription – PDF)

Other reviews and discussions of this fascinating book include:
Foreign Affairs
Wall Street Journal
Washington Post
Washington Times
Washington & Lee University
Weekly Standard
FBI Studies
History Book Club

(During a public appearance before the Virginia Historical Society, the author explained how Senator Daniel Inouye brought up Bradley’s personal connection with his subject.)

C-SPAN: Cold War Era Spies


C-SPAN 3 aired “Cold War Era Spies” with new insight into the spy activities of Whittaker Chambers in the early 1930s, before the Hiss Case — more at WhittakerChambers.org.

TLS Letters to the Editor: Harry Dexter White

Times Literary Supplement - TLS


Harry Dexter White

Published: 26 April 2013

Sir, – Eric Rauchway‘s review of Benn Steil‘s book The Battle of Bretton Woods contains a common mistake about my grandfather, Whittaker Chambers. (Read more)

The Invisible Harry Gold: Allen Hornblum

A Real James Bond?

The Invisible Harry Gold, by Allen HornblumThe Invisible Harry Gold:
The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb

Allen M. Hornblum
(New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010)

[This article appears on pp. 116-117, Summer/Fall 2011 issue, Volume 18, Number 3, of The Intelligencer magazine, published by the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers (AFIO)]

In The Invisible Harry Gold, author Allen M. Hornblum lets the story speak for itself. Nevertheless, undercurrents of irony exude throughout Harry Gold’s tale. While people like FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called him a “master Soviet spy” (p. ix), Mr. Hornblum attributes the secret to Gold’s success to his lack of personality.

James Bond he was not—or was he the real thing? The author calls him a “shy nebbish” (p. x and in “Gold Fingered,” Philadelphia City Paper). It was Gold’s personality that was invisible to most people. He consulted tapes and documents by Gold and others and consulted with nearly everyone alive who knew him. What emerges from this careful research is a three-part story of sin, contrition, and redemption—often in Gold’s own voice.

This tale begs readers to consider whether personal redemption can follow terrible sins and crimes—even for “the crime of the century.”

Harry Gold was an American agent in the Soviet underground. In the mid-1940s, he took atomic secrets from the hands of Dr. Klaus Fuchs and placed them in the hands of the Soviets. He was a courier, a go-between. Hand-offs from Fuchs occurred first in New York City, then in Los Alamos. Gold made tedious trips. He spent long hours waiting for covert meetings. Eventually, he bagged the big one: top secret documents from the Manhattan Project.

Eventually, too, the FBI got him. In May 1950, he confessed to his crimes. He cooperated fully. He named every name he knew. Many arrests followed, including David Greenglass, Morton Sobell, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

In his book, the author addresses the many attacks made upon Gold’s character by Rosenberg supporters over the years. Here, Mr. Hornblum demonstrates restraint. Rather than make asides to address them, he lets them come up in the story as they occurred. These personal attacks formed the background to both Gold’s sentencing (1951) and his later parole (1966). This book lets Gold and supporters do the talking.

Harry Gold

Somewhat recently (2002), biographer Millicent Dillon published a “novel” called Harry Gold. That book’s blurb states that it “blends fact and fiction to chronicle the human drama of Harry Gold.” Ms. Dillon has two qualifications that make her an interesting person to write about him. In the 1940s, she was a staff writer for the Association of Scientists for Atomic Education in New York. She also was a physicist at Northrop Aircraft. That said, with all due respect, perhaps she should have taken Mr. Hornblum’s non-fiction approach. Mr. Hornblum avoids efforts at reaching “the psychological depth of Graham Greene‘s The Third Man, the taut pacing of All the President’ s Men, and the moral poignancy of Phillip Roth‘s I Married A Communist” (as Dillon’s book blurb claims). Of course, perhaps Ms. Dillon changed her conclusions in her research, like Allen Weinstein over the Hiss Case—and did not want to face Liberal attacks. Given the review by Victor Navasky‘s Nation magazine (bastion of support for the Rosenbergs and Hiss for decades), it seems she narrowly averted personal attacks on herself.

Hornblum’s chapter subheadings (usually quotes from actors in the story) become at times long and contrived. In fact, the writing seems almost to avoid artistry (in stark contrast to Ms. Dillon’s book). Here is a documentarian at work. Stripped down to bare essentials—events and actual statements of Gold and those around him—Hornblum proves that story alone can drive books.

There is an excellent epilogue that catches readers up on other actors in the book. It also covers new information that has come to light over the years. For example, the author notes Sobell’s amazing confession in 2008 about spying by himself, David Greenglass, and Julius Rosenberg.

Should Yale University Press ever republish the book, an appendix about the Soviet spy network in which Gold partook would help many readers, particularly with the passage of time. What were the real names of Gold’s handlers? Whom else did they handle? Where does Gold fit in with other famous names? While much of these details come up in the book, nowhere does it appear, assembled for easy reader reference. A social network chart would have helped, even as simplistic as those provided by “Namebase.org,” the online database published by Public Information Research, Inc.

Interestingly, while Mr. Hornblum tracks personal attacks on Gold’s physical appearance, he makes no mention of initial press reports about Elizabeth Bentley, dubbed the “Red Spy Queen.” Before photos of her came out, the press portrayed her as some kind of spy beauty, another Mata Hari. Nor does he note the same about Whittaker Chambers, though the Hiss Case comes up in the text. Using physical appearance to suggest moral character became a hallmark of spy cases in the Cold War era, used as much (if not more) by Left as by Right. In the two decades between the end of World War II and the Civil Rights movement, America exhibited prejudices nearly unthinkable today.

There is a movie to make here. One can hear the voice-over artist for PBS’s Frontline series or perhaps the BBC narrating this dark tale. Perhaps a film documentarian is up for the challenge of conjuring up the past with sight and sound as well.

Images of Harry Gold:
Smithsonian Magazine
Philadelphia Inquirer
Jerusalem Post

Head of the Whole Business

Red Conspirator

Red Conspirator: J. Peters and the American Communist Underground
By Thomas Sakmyster
(Champagne: University of Illinois Press, March 2011)

[This article appears on pp. 118-119 the Summer/Fall 2011 issue, Volume 18, Number 3, of The Intelligencer magazine, published by the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers (AFIO) It is also a revision of the version which appeared earlier in The American Mercury.]

America has had to wait long to learn more about the mysterious J. Peters, reputed head of Soviet espionage in Washington in the 1930s.

On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers told the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC):

The actual head of the group—well, the elected head of the group—was either [Nathan] Witt at one time or [John] Abt, and the organizer of the group had been Harold Ware. The head of the whole business was J. Peters.

Only a few Americans knew of this “J. Peters.” By 1947, the FBI and the INS had taken active interest in him and “Alexander Stevens,” two aliases they were slow to connect. For years, Peters had been hiding in plain sight, with a Manual on Organisation for the communist party (by “J. Peters”) available since 1935. Wary of the Feds, he had gone silent by 1947. When confronted in public by HUAC within weeks of Chambers’ testimony, he silenced himself altogether by self-deporting. In 1949, he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, leaving a cold trail. National Archivist Allen Weinstein has called Peters “one of the least known and most intriguing figures in the history of American Communism.”

At last, a sleuth has picked up the cold trail. Dr. Thomas Sakmyster is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Cincinnati. His expertise lies in Early 20th Century Hungarian affairs. His revelations in Red Conspirator are riveting.

“J. Peters” was born Sándor Goldberger, a secular Jew in an Austro-Hungarian border town in 1894. Trained as a lawyer, he entered a long career as a Communist Party functionary. He immigrated to the United States in 1924. Peters was a decidedly efficient and shrewd party bureaucrat and passionate in his belief of Communism. He rose quickly to leadership back in his homeland district, and again in the States to the party’s national committee. Had Peters applied himself to capitalism instead of Communism, he might have headed a very different business. Chances are we would speak of him today among prominent Hungarian-Americans entrepreneurs like George Soros, Calvin Klein, Estée Lauder, and John Hertz.

Instead, in 1931 Peter’s skills in party organization led him to Communism’s meccas, Moscow and Berlin. He trained as “Org Praticant”—and spy. In Moscow, he came to know many people who would figure in Federal investigations in the 1940s and 1950s, like Gerhard Eisler (first husband of Hedde Massing) and Jacob Golos (handler of Elizabeth Bentley). In Berlin, he became an expert in passport forgery.

Back in the States in 1932, Peters kept working on party organization, publishing his Manual. His repertoire expanded, however. He established an “illegal apparatus” for “special mail” via “mail drops” to decrease detection by American authorities. He set up a “secret apparatus” to infiltrate the Federal government. Whittaker Chambers served him, first in mail drop activities, then in the Ware Group. Thus, Chambers found himself in 1948 before HUAC, under subpoena, talking about Peters.

J. Peters confronts Whittaker Chambers in 1948

Most tantalizing in Red Conspirator is the thwarting of one Federal agency by another. In the 1940s, HUAC and the FBI were working to flush out Peters’s role in the Soviet underground. Meantime, the INS was trying to deport him. (Peters chose to leave of his own free will prior to deportation.) Rounding out the book are scrapbook-like anecdotes about Peters in Hungary, from his return in 1949 to his death four decades later.

Most exciting in Red Conspirator is the memoir Peters began to write in 1983 for the Hungarian party’s secret files. Since the fall of the Soviet empire, it has become available to the public—for those who have come to know of it. The memoir fills many gaps in Peters’ life. It helps Sakmyster weigh what to accept, interpret, and reject of what Peters chose to reveal.

Red Conspirator is a contribution to studies in Communism. The book’s approach and tone are scholarly. The findings are electrifying, particularly the author’s main conclusion: J. Peters operated his own infiltration networks. True, he worked with and supported Soviet intelligence. However, as a model organization man, he also prepared for the future on his own.

His secret apparatus he formed “largely on his own initiative,” Sakmyster concludes. “No Soviet agent ever served directly as his handler.” Peters may have been “head of the whole business,” but, says Sakmyster, the Ware Group was a rather private affair.


Scott Martelle: The Fear Within

Sledgehammer and Gnat

The Fear Within
Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial

By Scott Martelle
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011)

[This article appears on pp. 117-118 in the Summer/Fall 2011 issue, Volume 18, Number 3, of The Intelligencer magazine, published by the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers [AFIO)]

In The Fear Within, Scott Martelle writes about a pre-McCarthy trial, which helped set the tone of the 1950s: Dennis v US. He mines his subject well. The nuggets he turns up command far more than a glimmer’s glance.

He does so by straddling the line between professional journalism and personal passion for his subject. From the outset, he notes dangers of “partisan rhetoric and passions” (p. ix). He discloses his own liberal leanings. “Had I lived through the 1930s, I likely would have been at some of the same meetings of political progressives” as his subjects. Yet, he promises, “this is a journalistic look at a moment in history” (p. xii).

Martelle reins in these contending forces thanks to longer-term concerns. His interest lies in politics over time. He is acutely aware of First Amendment freedoms of speech and of press. He sees how they can conflict with notions of sedition and treason. He calls this to his readers’ attention in his preface. There, he discusses a conflict stretching from the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act through to the present with the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act.

The book proper opens with passage of the 1940 Alien Registration Act (Smith Act). It moves on to the 1945 defections of Igor Gouzenko in Canada and Elizabeth Bentley in the U.S. By 1947, the government was mounting efforts against communist infiltration—with inter-agency cooperation foundering:

Mutual distrust between Attorney General Tom C. Clark and J. Edgar Hoover, his supposed underling at the FBI, colored how the Bentley revelations ultimately would be handled. The underlying problem was that Hoover’s investigations couldn’t corroborate Bentley’s claims; Clark wanted to push ahead with prosecutions. Both men wanted political cover from congressional inquiries—particularly the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—if the Bentley allegations became public and it appeared that the Justice Department had done nothing. (p. 19)

HUAC’s began its Hollywood investigations later in 1947. News leaks of grand jury investigation into a “Red Spy Ring” followed in New York. The press was ready to print Bentley’s story by April 1948.

The arrest of twelve leaders of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) formed part of Justice’s political cover. Days before Bentley began testifying before HUAC, the FBI began making arrests in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Within two weeks, they had rounded up William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis, Jack Stachel, John Williamson, Henry Winston, John Gates, Robert Thompson, Benjamin Davis Jr., Carl Winter, Irving Potash, Gil Green, and Gus Hall.

The next day, July 21, The New York World-Telegram published the Bentley story.

The year that followed was eventful. In 1949, three major trials related to Communism started: this trial of the Communist Twelve, the espionage trial of Judith Coplon, and the perjury trial of Alger Hiss. There were also deportation cases, like that of Alexander Stevens, AKA spymaster J. Peters. Abroad, Mao completed the communist takeover of China. Stalin tested a Soviet atom bomb.

The case against the twelve CPUSA leaders was the longest criminal trial to date in U.S. history. For those who enjoy the minutiae of court proceedings, The Fear Within provides a lively overview. The case included major surprises like last-minute contempt of court rulings against the defendants’ lawyers. It went all the way to the Supreme Court as Eugene Dennis, et al. v. United States. (It seems hard to believe that this trial never received a nickname like “the Commie Twelve” like the “Hollywood Ten.”)

As for accuracy in detail, I focus not on this case but on a related one mentioned in the book, the Hiss Case. I found two examples of hasty wording that lead to misinterpretation. First, Martelle writes about “allegations by Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor and former Communist Party member who had been talking to the FBI about spies, including Alger Hiss, he had known while in the party” (p. 18). The phrase would be more accurate if it said “Chambers… whom the FBI had questioned in the 1940s about Alger Hiss and others he had known while in the party.” The author himself supports this correction: when recounting Chambers’ first testimony, he notes, “the people he named were not spies, he said” (p. 48). A second passage reads “The same grand jury that indicted the Communist Party leaders had indicted Alger Hiss on perjury charges, less than two weeks after Whittaker Chambers had revealed his ‘pumpkin papers‘” (p. 76). It would be more accurate to say, “…less than two weeks after Nixon paraded a leftover stash of microfilm from Chambers in front of the press, who dubbed the ‘Pumpkin Papers’.”

Such misreading may derive in part to a narrow bibliography. For the Hiss Case, Martelle cites solely John Chabot Smith‘s Alger Hiss: The True Story and not even Allen Weinstein‘s Perjury, which came out within two years in the 1970s and remains the definitive account. In fact, the author lists less than 50 books for research—a surprisingly small number, given the many books about the McCarthy Era.

Yet, Martelle’s book easily surmounts slips in shorthand and shorthanded references. Why?

Because he never lets passion—or fear—run unbridled when he writes. He keeps the long-term facts in mind. In Dennis v US, the government suspended the First Amendment based on fear of a small, impotent political party. Before that case had begun, CPUSA membership was seeing one-third turnover annually (p. 46). By the time most of the defendants got out of prison in 1955, the Party worldwide was about to suffer another, near-fatal blow from the Soviet heartland: Khrushchev would denounce Stalin. Martelle subscribes to the summation of British historian David Caute: “The government took a sledgehammer to squash a gnat” (p. 46).

Does undermining the First Amendment justify its cost? During intense moments, Americans have let their fears lead them to jettison freedoms, or degrees of freedoms. Over the longer term, however, those fears do not appear justified, claims Martelle.

Rather than slake thirst, this book should incite further interest from most readers, particularly students of colleges (or even high schools) lucky enough to have such relatively recent history taught in the classroom. The book may be a bit short on references, but the concerns it raises should impel readers to go out and read more.

There is one series of questions implied but left untouched. Had the U.S. government not gone on a witch hunt after the CPUSA after WWII, might homegrown Browderism have lived on? In which case, would a second strain of anti-Stalinist leftist have emerged? And would Browderism and Trotskyism have helped drown out Stalinism in the US?

Special addendum: TIME cover story of Eugene Dennis: April 25, 1949:

History’s Witness: Interview on Whittaker Chambers

In an interview syndicated in The American Conservative from Australia’s National Observer, American author Elena Maria Vidal discusses why we hear about McCarthyism and its excesses but not so much about the Hiss case.

(Full article)


Subscribe (RSS reader)

Subscribe (enter email address):

Delivered by FeedBurner


Amazon USA:

Amazon UK: