Whittaker Chambers in Books


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

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)

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

Whittaker Chambers, by Richard Reinsch

He heard the screams

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

(Reviewed by Gary Saul Morson)

(Excerpts from “He Heard the Screams,” published in the November 2010 issue of The New Criterion)

Why do otherwise decent people embrace ideologies that entail the killing of millions? What is the appeal that made so many people, especially intellectuals, support Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao? Whittaker Chambers argued that if we are to combat the most monstrous evil in the history of the world—totalitarianism, as invented in the twentieth century by Lenin—we must understand what draws some people to it and makes others incapable of countering, or even understanding, its appeal.


It is no surprise, then, to learn from Richard Reinsch’s biography Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary that Chambers was deeply influenced by the greatest counterrevolutionary thinker of modern times, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, too, had once been a revolutionary conspirator, for which he had served four years in a Siberian prison camp. Both counter-revolutionaries rethought their convictions, embraced God, and became innovative conservative thinkers.


Chambers famously wrote that, in breaking with Communism and testifying against it, he was joining the losing side. I am not old enough to remember that testimony, but I do remember when both liberals and conservatives thought that the Soviet Union would soon outproduce us and, most likely, take over the world by the sheer power of example. So far as the Soviet Union goes, that thinking turned out to be completely mistaken. But, as Reinsch points out, Chambers’s point still holds. There are two ways in which freedom can lose—not only by challenge from without but also by gradual erosion from within. Freedom loses when people no longer value it. As recently as twenty-five years ago, most college professors I knew still believed in democracy, free elections, and free speech, even for their opponents. They stood up for Salman Rushdie. Now most have such contempt for hoi polloi that they do not see the point of allowing them to spread their ignorant lies. The rest of the faculty, who do cling to outmoded ideas of freedom, are embarrassed to express them.

Reinsch’s biography prompted me to read Witness for the first time. I discovered in it what I do not hesitate to call one of the great autobiographies of world literature. I could teach it alongside the autobiographical parts of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and even Tolstoy’s Confession. Chambers thinks deeply and commands a unique and powerful style.

For that very reason, Reinsch’s treatment falls short. It’s not that he gets Chambers wrong. He’s accurate, but in the way that one of the better editions of SparkNotes conveys an accurate, if simplistic, version of a great author’s “message.” Part of the problem is Reinsch’s appalling prose. In one characteristic passage, he explains that

Chambers never charged his nation’s leaders with possessing overt sympathy to Communism. Rather, the Western leaders were unable to understand an enemy who pursued immanent ends with transcendent fervor due to their own paucity of spirit.

I had to read this sentence three times before I realized that, despite the syntax, “paucity of spirit” pertains not to the enemy but to the Western leaders. Such sentences make reading this book an irritating experience. Where Chambers writes with passion and palpability, Reinsch offers fuzz. His prose muffles the screams.

Gary Saul Morson is Chair of Slavic Languages & Literature at Northwestern University.

(Please click here to read the complete article)

Thomas B. Allen: Declassified

50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History
Thomas B. Allen
(New York: Random House for National Geographic, 2008)

(Reviewed from a galley copy provided by the publisher)

To have 50 of the most important top-secret documents in history summarized in one handy reference book is an excellent idea.
Read the rest of this entry »


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