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.

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)

Poisoning the Press: Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture
Mark Feldstein
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

What former U.S. president attempted the assassination of a prominent American journalist?

Author Mark Feldstein drops readers into an exciting moment in history as a prologue to his new book, Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture. The former journalist, now journalism professor packages his extensive research into the lives of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and columnist Jack Anderson. Any mention of Richard Nixon’s career is likely to bring up the name “Whittaker Chambers,” and Feldstein’s book is no exception.

While the book presents both men in context, often comparing them, this reviewer agrees with Greg Waldmann, senior editor at Open Letters Monthly, that Feldstein does not seem to prove his title’s overall claim. Washington’s scandal culture resulted from larger, deeper factors. Feldstein acknowledges the impact of new media technologies. However, books like Garry WillsBomb Power (2010) support an even darker view of the nature of power and the American presidency. Regardless, Feldstein tracks Nixon and Anderson very ably.

Whittaker Chambers receives mention twice and only in terms of a long-time, favorite tactic of 20th Century defamation: homosexuality.

In the first instance, Feldstein writes:

Throughout his life, Nixon continually returned to the Hiss case as a seminal event… In particular, Nixon fixated on one of the more bizarre sidebars of the affair: homosexuality… It was the ultimate of smears… In the Hiss case, it turned out that Nixon’s key witness, a former Communist named Whittaker Chambers, was, in the indelicate words of J. Edgar Hoover, “an admitted pervert.” Hiss claimed that Chambers framed him as a spy because he was a “spurned homosexual,” who formed “some obscure kind of love attachment” to Hiss and sought revenge “out of jealousy and resentment” after his advances were rebuffed. (p. 40)

Feldstein summarizes the case so that it reads that Hoover and Hiss were both talking publicly about homosexuals and perverts during the Hiss case in 1948-1950. These were words unmentionable in public at that time, hence the power of their implication then and later, an early instance Feldstein does not draw out.

Allen Weinstein quoted Hiss’s calling Chambers a “spurned homosexual” in his 1978 book Perjury (p. 561; phrase appears earlier on pp. 146, 281). In 1976, others were already quoting Hiss (e.g., New York Review of Books). Weinstein indicates that Hiss first used the term in 1976, though he does not state when and where (p. 584.) “Spurned homosexual” has become a stock phrase that continues in use in the 2000s, e.g., Spies (2007) and Nixonland (2008). Where the Hoover quote comes from, Feldstein does not mention, either.

Feldstein’s second mention comes from a now-famous presidential transcript in a later chapter called “Sex, Spies, Blackmail” (which reveals not only Nixon’s gay-bashing attitudes but an alleged plot to kill Anderson):

The President plunged ahead, once again harking back to the Hiss case, which was exposed by his gay accuser, Whittaker Chambers. “Hiss and Chambers, you know, nobody knows that, but that’s a fact about how that began… They were both — ‘that way’.” (p. 184)

Strangely, although Feldstein describes Nixon’s references, he does no digging there: he does not talk about how homosexuality came up during the Hiss case, not even as a book note. Yet, clearly, the homosexuality implied during the Hiss case in and out of court made a major impact on Nixon.

Perhaps most missing are the names of other 20th Century journalists whose careers helped lead up to the possibility of a Jack Anderson. Mentor Drew Pearson receives only a few pages: others far less, if named at all. (Pearson made the cover of TIME magazine in 1948, just as Alger Hiss was indicted for perjury.) It would have been interesting to hear this journalism professor talk about the developments from muckraking prior to World War I.

Also, it would have been interesting to hear Feldstein talk about just how many presidents (among other politicians) become embroiled in political character assassination and other illegal acts. While mentions a bribe to Nixon through brother Donald Nixon, which the Kennedy family uncovered and put forward through Anderson, he takes no further step. (However, Feldstein did point at Kennedy corruption in that event for The Washington Post after the book came out.) Many veteran reporters on Capitol Hill are convinced that activities like Watergate are simply the botched efforts of which the public learns of. They believe many (more) such acts go undetected.

In which case, is Washington’s “scandal culture” really the subject at all?

Perhaps the real subject revealed in this book is the depth of corruption rampant in Washington, of which Nixon and Anderson were merely some of the louder partakers.

Daily Beast


Other reviews:
New York Times
Wall Street Journal
Open Letters Monthly
Miami Herald (Associated Press)
Dalles News
American Journalism Review

The Ghosts in Sarah Palin’s Book

America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag
By Sarah Palin
(New York: Harper, 2010)

Like a miracle — that is, miraculously in time for America’s biggest annual sales season — Sarah Palin called upon ghosts of Christmases past to fill the pages of her second book, America by Heart. Her publisher promised an “intimate and personal look” at the former Alaska governor by presenting reflections that “read like a bible of American virtues.” Instead, the goods delivered read like a cut-and-paste job: comments stuffed between quotes from famous people — often dead, thus unable to protest Palin’s (mis)treatment.

Among the ghosts Palin invokes is Whittaker Chambers — my grandfather. “I picked up the book Witness again for the first time in a long time. (One wonders: does she actually read books after picking them up?)

She quotes Chambers to help explain one of her ideas of “family” in America:

I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore… My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life… My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear — those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design”… I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead. (Witness, pp. 16)

And the moral Palin draws?

“That is a wonderful way to put it: Our families lay the finger of God on our foreheads.”


An eye, an ear, and a forehead all appeared in that passage — and the ear outshone the rest by more than a nose.

This ear passage (or the “ear-flap-based assumption” as Christopher Hitchens calls it) has become the most frequently quoted from Whittaker Chambers. In which case, Palin has merely copycatted what others quote most — literally “reflective,” but not insightful.

(Speaking of ear, I should speak out here for my poor aunt. That ear of hers must turn red every time someone reads this passage, or so I imagine. Since no one alive knows which ear, right or left, is the actual subject, the reddening must alternate like the lights at a railroad crossing, causing her further embarrassment and discomfort. How typical of my grandfather, failing to mention precisely which ear! Worse, if confronted today, he might remember the wrong ear, leading to yet another round of condemnation from Hiss supporters for faulty or faked memory.)

Her reason for quoting Chambers, Palin states, is that “by reminding us that we are fallible and fallen, families show us in concrete, everyday terms that which is not.”

If reminding us of our own fallibility was her intent in quoting from Witness, Palin should first have read the chapter called “The Story of a Middle Class Family.” Fallibility runs rampant here. Whittaker Chambers’ parents were unhappily married. His paternal grandfather drank. His maternal grandmother went mad, amidst the comforts of home. His father left the comforts of home to explore his bi-sexuality (actually, that tidbit appears in a biography). His brother committed suicide.

Then, having recounted his family’s failings, Palin could have quoted from “The Child,” in which Chambers wrote darkly:

“For one of us to have a child,” my brother had said… “would be a crime against nature.” …I agreed with my brother. There had been enough misery in our line. What selfish right had I to perpetuate it? And what right had any man and woman to bring children into the 20th-Century world? They could only suffer its inevitable revolutions or die in its inevitable wars.

At this point, Governor Palin could have countered Chambers’ pessimism with something sage composed by herself and drawn from her own family experience.

However, to quote from Witness is to pass up Chambers’ most famous essay for TIME magazine — which is also about family. The piece is “The Ghosts on the Roof,” written about the Yalta Conference. Controversial when published, it proved so prescient that TIME reprinted it three years later.

The family in “The Ghosts on the Roof” are ghostly members of the Romanov dynasty, who are watching Yalta proceed from the roof of the Livadia Palace.

The Romanovs express great admiration for Joseph Stalin:

“What statesmanship! What vision! What power! We have known nothing like it since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic states in the 18th Century. Stalin has made Russia great again!… There he sits, so small, so sure. He is magnificent.”

A literary foil in the essay (the Muse of History) then pronounces:

“Your notions about Russia and Stalin are highly abnormal. All right-thinking people now agree that Russia is a mighty friend of democracy. Stalin has become a conservative. In a few hours the whole civilized world will hail the historic decisions just reached beneath your feet as proof that the Soviet Union is prepared to collaborate with her allies in making the world safe for democracy and capitalism. The revolution is over.” [emphasis added]

“Stalin has become a conservative.” At that particular moment, Chambers was mocking leftist and liberal Popular Front intellectuals, as he had in an earlier essay, “Revolt of the Intellectuals.” However, the line also hints at his own reservations about conservatism — feelings most conservatives (starting with ) have been averse to observe. Yet, Witness demonstrates this reservation:

Nor did Krivitsky suppose… that the revolution of our time is exclusively Communist, or that the counterrevolutionist is merely a conservative… He believed, as I believe, that fascism (whatever softening name the age of euphemism chooses to call it by) is inherent in every collectivist form, and that it can be fought only by the force of an intelligence, a faith, a courage, a self-sacrifice, which must equal the revolutionary spirit that, in coping with, it must in many ways come to resemble… Counterrevolution and conservatism have little in common. In the struggle against Communism the conservative is all but helpless. For that struggle cannot be fought, much less won, or even understood, except in terms of total sacrifice. And the conservative is suspicious of sacrifice; he wishes first to conserve, above all what he is and what he has. You cannot fight against revolutions so.(Witness, p. 462)

After his defection in 1938, Whittaker Chambers considered himself wholly counterrevolutionist. Conservatives were his allies in the fight against Communism. Otherwise, they had “little in common.” (Of course, his writings cited here all predate the rise of the “New Right” or Conservatism championed by Buckley & Co.)

I cannot speak for the other ghosts quoted in America by Heart, but I can for my grandfather. Governor Palin: let the soul of Whittaker Chambers rest in peace. (Meanwhile, feel free to sit down and read his books.)

Chambers on Reinsch on Chambers: Muffled—or Strangled?

Muffled—or Strangled?

Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary
By Richard M. Reinsch II
(Indianapolis: ISI Books, 2010)

(Reprint from “Letters: Muffled—or Strangled?,” published in the January 2011 issue of The New Criterion)

To the Editors:

I enjoyed your review (“He heard the screams,” November 2010) of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary, by Richard Reinsch. I offer comments, as a grandchild of Whittaker Chambers who has studied his life and writings.

I agree with the book’s reviewer. Gary Saul Morson says: “Where Chambers writes with passion and palpability, Reinsch offers fuzz. His prose muffles the screams.” Morson cites “SparkNotes” depth. He finds the “appalling” prose “irritating.” And there, he stops. He calls the author’s efforts “accurate . . . if simplistic.”

I would go further. More than muffling Whittaker Chambers’s intellectual thought, Reinsch strangles it. He narrows Chambers’s vistas to his own private passion: conversion passages in Witness (page 83). Fixation aside, nothing is new. There is no insight, key, or cipher to unlock Chambers’s thought. Like Michael Kimmage’s The Conservative Turn (2009), Reinsch raises no challenge to the view of Chambers set forth by William F. Buckley, Jr. He even shirks the task posed to himself—to “weave together” strands of Chambers’s thought (page vii). Instead, by ignoring vast areas of influence and thought, he renders readers as ignorant as himself. Reinsch leaves Sam Tanenhaus unchallenged too. Tanenhaus sacrificed accuracy for a Vanity Fair approach, which helped make his biography [Whittaker Chambers: A Biography] a bestseller. Reinsch ditches insight for personal bias.

Of course, bias mars most books on Chambers, Hiss, and the Hiss Case. These books, left-wing and right-wing alike, grind axes—they add little, and nothing new. Instead, by and large they recycle previous works. To date, no work has examined the life or thoughts of Chambers an Sich. Thus, none discerns why the Hiss Case unfolded as it did. Nor does any book relate Whittaker Chambers to today: they remain mired in the Cold War. Yet we live in a time of spy networks and bomb-wielding assassins. Our world is not unlike that of the young Whittaker Chambers.


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