Whittaker Chambers in Books


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

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

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)

Amy Herzog: After the Revolution

Amy Herzog‘s play After the Revolution relates the anguish of Joseph family generations caught up by Communism. Central to the play is the revelation that their late patriarch, Joe Joseph, a victim of the McCarthy Era, had indeed spied for the Soviet Union. (While the Joseph family resembles that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Mr. Joseph’s role in the US Government adds a strong element from the HissChambers Case.)

The Village Voice seems unable to empathize with the impact that confirmation of spying would have on the Joseph family:

Emma and her elders naturally reel from the effect of the revelation, maybe a little excessively for 1999, when such informational shocks were already commonplace.

Does this comment represent new generations of Americans, oblivious to the “us-or-them” mentality fostered (if not created) by McCarthyism? Perhaps the reviewer should make more effort when walking in the shoes of the Joseph family.

While the play portrays the dysfunction that Communism has injected in three generations of the Joseph family, it does not seem to address whether changes in Communism itself during the 20th Century is also a factor.

Prior to World War I, “Communism” of Karl Marx was but one of a number of related political philosophies, including the Egalitarianism of Babeuf, the Utopianism of Fourier, the Socialism of Berstein, and the Anarchism of Proudhon — just to name a few. These groups formed their Left or Labor tribe, divided into many clans and family, who rarely reached agreements during congresses of the First International (1865-1872) and the Second International (1889–1916). Congresses of the Third International (1919-1935) started as a reconvening of the Second International — within new realities. Communist revolutions had erupted in Europe but succeeded only in the least anticipated country, Russia. Soviet Russia assumed full control of the Communist International movement (thereafter known by the telltale Soviet acronym “Comintern”). Lenin introduced the concept of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which Stalin turned into a totalitarianism that rivaled Mussolini‘s Fascism and Hitler‘s Nazism. Further deviations followed Leninism and Stalinism, like Titoism, Maoism, and Neo-Marxism.

Yes, the Joseph family has its dysfunctions — in this case, enough to stop any family member from ever asking, how did the family’s beliefs drift so far in the first place? What the audience sees results from those deviations on the road to utopia, compounded by McCarthy-induced forgetfulness. The Josephs do not question why grandfather Joe spied. Thus, they will never ask questions like, what form of Communism attracted patriarch Joe Joseph in the first place? Which means that they may never explore possibilities like whether, while he was spying, the Communism he worked towards ceased to exist.

On the other hand, the playwright could have made each family member represent some particular political interpretation. Perhaps the program notes could go further in terms of educating audiences, but at least the playwright is getting the problem across at the family level: full of confusion, misunderstanding, and disappointments.


New York Times
Village Voice
New York Daily News
New York Press
New York Magazine
Theater Mania
Show Business Weekly
Back Stage
Play Bill
The AndyGram
New York Theatre Guide
Socialist Worker


WTF Interview with Amy Herzog – After the Revolution

After the Revoultion: Actor, Mark Blum

After the Revolution: Audience Reaction

AndrewAndrew: After the Revolution at Playwrights Horizons


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