Whittaker Chambers in Books

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

Andrew Meier: The Lost Spy

The Lost Spy:
An American in Stalin’s Secret Service

Andrew Meier
(New York: W. W. Norton, August 2008)
Official website: thelostspy.com
Lauren Kim: dust jacket designer

[Reviewed from a galley copy provided by the publisher]

In 1992, Boris Yeltsin held out a dossier with a file inside to an American official:

It was a file recently retrieved from the archives. The prisoner, Yeltsin said, was an American, who, even though innocent of the crimes he had been charged with, had been killed. Here at last, he added gravely, was evidence of the crimes of the past: a U.S. citizen executed without cause on Stalin’s personal orders… He turned the pages of the Oggins dossier slowly, letting the horror sink in… “Likvidatsia“… The American prisoner, he said, had been liquidated. (p. 274, 276)

More sinister still are the detailed revelations in The Lost Spy, an admirable and gripping read. Anyone interested in American activity in the Soviet underground during the 1920s and 1930s should snap up Andrew Meier‘s new book right away. The Lost Spy can and should be the nation’s first choice for an end-of-summer read — replete with extra chilling chills, since this espionage thriller is no potboiler but a true story.

Isaiah Oggins in 1937, from dust jacket design work by Lauren Kim

The Lost Spy retraces the careers of Isaiah (“Cy”) Oggins and wife Nerma Berman Oggins, two Americans who joined the Soviet underground in 1926, soon stationed in Europe and the Far East. In 1938, the Soviet government asked Cy Oggins to “remain” in Moscow. In February 1939, they arrested, sentenced, and sent him to the Norilsk gulag. When his sentence ended, the Soviets decided to liquidate him, rather than send him back to an America amidst HUAC investigations that might take interest in him. Wife Nerma had taken their young son home to the States and remained silent on the subject for the rest of her life (like many wives of liquidated spies). The Ogginses had all but disappeared from history — until former TIME correspondent Andrew Meier picked up their trail.

Meier has written this book despite enormous challenges. Even after years of exhaustive research, large gaps remain in the story. How then to tell it? Meier chose to follow a commercially successful approach, namely, to create drama and rely on his own artistry as a storyteller to draw in readers and fill in the gaps. The drama does little to harm the accuracy of the story of Cy and Nerma Ogginses.

Given adequate material, the author does not fail as storyteller. He retells well the chance encounter of the undercover Cy Oggins and unexpected friend Sidney Hook, based on Hook’s own autobiography, Out of Step (1984). Meier deserves praise for the research into this chapter: this is a true “find” that has been lying within reach ever since Cy’s name first reappeared in 1992 (described by Meier in the book). In fact, wherever he found good material, Meier manages to spin a good yarn, however short — such as the tale of children’s book illustrator Irwin Shapiro, whose bizarre picture book The Gremlins of Lieutenant Oggins (1943) may have served as coded warning to communists and fellow travelers.

Nevertheless, the book suffers a bit from divided focus. It begins with the author and how he became interested in the story, then introduces the son of his subjects, professor emeritus Robin Oggins. From there on, the narrative shifts back and forth in timeline, not always smoothly, between Cy Oggins’s time in detention and the course of his and wife Nerma’s lives before and after his arrest and death. Sometimes, not even good writing can weave enough thread to cover patchiness. Again, Meier does not fail to capture drama where possible, whether the surprising demise of Cy Oggins or the last glimpse of Nerma Berman Oggins.

The book takes a negative, dismissive tone of Whittaker Chambers. There is pointless disparagement from the very first mention: “Whittaker Chambers, disheveled and overweight even as an undergraduate” (p. 85) — what end does such a leading line serve, other than notice of bias? No surprise then that the book cites Tony Hiss, son of Alger Hiss, in its acknowledgements.

John Chambers, son of Whittaker Chambers (and my father), goes unlisted. As Meier wrote me recently:

I did not contact your father. I had thought of it early on at first, but heard from a few historians that he did not enjoy such encounters — and out of respect for his privacy, I declined to pursue the matter.

Meier was right about my father, who until very recently has been the sole — and reticent — spokesperson for the Whittaker Chambers Family. Indeed, my father has declined all research interviews since publication of Sam Tanenhaus‘s book Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997).

Nevertheless, even without cooperation from the Chambers Family, The Lost Spy might have achieved more had the author not allowed this prejudice to deflect his research. The reason for that is simple: Cy and Nerma Oggins knew Whittaker and Esther Chambers rather well. Both couples knew Sidney and Carrie Hook. Cy and Whittaker knew each other from Columbia. They studied under the same professors, such as George C. D. Odell. They studied and taught within the same network of workers’ schools. Nerma and Esther knew each other, too, from the Rand School, from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and from The World Tomorrow, a pacifist magazine edited by Woodrow Wilson‘s son-in-law, the Reverend John Neville Sayre. The couples form doppelgängers: how easily they could have traded places, the Ogginses staying in New York, the Chamberses off to Berlin. Most people thought the polyglot Whittaker Chambers was a European operative anyway.

Meier could have drawn out comparisons and contrasts between these two couples much more deeply — an open invitation which this reviewer has begun to address already.

(The Ogginses relationship with Walter Krivitsky also merited more discussion. Krivitsky’s book In Stalin’s Secret Service is the reference point for Meier’s subtitle to The Lost Spy: “An American in Stalin’s Secret Service.” Again, the ties to Whittaker Chambers might have helped draw out more. After reading the long passage in Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography Witness [1952: pp. 459-463], one wonders: did Krivitsky and Chambers talk about Cy Oggins among others?)

Isaiah Oggins in 1947, from the New York Times

Importantly, The Lost Spy demonstrates that Whittaker Chambers’s fears of liquidation were all too real — Cy Oggins gruesome death is proof. Poisonings and other assassinations emanating from Russia continue to the present day: President Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev (2004), ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London (2006), American intelligence expert Paul Joyal in Adelphi, MD (2008). Former KGB spy Oleg Gordievsky warned of continued poisonings — only to be poisoned himself, along with, it seems, British intelligence chief Alex Allan.

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"Whittaker Chambers in Books" reviews books with Whittaker Chambers tagged either as Subject, Actor, or Mention, focusing on most recently published books and working back historically to the Hiss-Chambers Case (1948-1950).

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