Whittaker Chambers in Books


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

Miles Gone By: William F. Buckley, Jr.

Miles Gone By
William F. Buckley, Jr.
(Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004)

By my last count, more than two thirds of the books published by William F. Buckley, Jr., contain references to Whittaker Chambers.

The majority of these references are re-workings of previous material — from a surprisingly few number of original pieces, if one checks.

Miles Gone By falls into a smaller group within those: a simple reprinting of “un-reworked” work, as it were. In this case, Buckley republished the final chapter from Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers’ Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 (1969).

(Originally, Buckley edited Chambers letters with his own notes and published the book with a foreword by Ralph de Toledano. The 1987 reprint included a new foreward by Lance Morrow and demoted Ralph de Toledano’s foreward to an epilogue.)

The accompanying CD contains two short reflections about Chambers at National Review, such as filling with pipe tobacco smoke his little cubicle (which, Garry Wills once wrote me, he had inherited). “Everything he wrote had intellectual and stylistic distinction and above all the intense emotional quality of the man,” Buckley says. (Walter Cronkite introduces each segment.)

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.)

Whittaker Chambers Remembered

In an interview published in 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)

Thomas Sakmyster: Red Conspirator

Head of the Whole Business

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

(Reprint from “The American Mercury)

From August 3, 1948, until today, America has had to wait to learn more about the head of Soviet espionage in Washington during the 1930s.

On that day, Whittaker Chambers (my grandfather) told the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under subpoena:

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 then knew the name “J. Peters”—among half a dozen or more pseudonyms. By that time, however, both the FBI and the INS had taken active interest in his hidden career and that of an alter ego, “Alexander Stevens.” Like most good spies, Peters hid in plain sight. In fact, his definitive Communist Party’s Manual on Organisation (1935) was available in larger cities, predating William H. Whyte’s best-selling The Organization Man by 20 years.

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 US in 1932, Peters continued to work on organization practices during the 1930s. In this period he wrote and published his Manual. He also began to establish his “illegal apparatus.” He concentrated on “special mail” (secure communications) via “mail drops.” The network extended around the country, seeking to minimize detection by American government authorities. He also began to establish his “secret apparatus.” He concentrated on infiltrating the US Federal government. This task fell to him in part due to earlier association with Max Bedacht, a previous underground go-between. Bedacht seconded Whittaker Chambers to the underground, then Peters succeeded Bedacht. Chambers served Peters, first in mail drop activities, then in the Ware Group. Thus, Chambers found himself in 1948 under subpoena before HUAC, talking about Peters.

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.

In 1983, Peters began to write a memoir for the Hungarian party’s secret files. Since the fall of the Soviet empire, it has become available to the public—for those who know of it. The memoir fills in many gaps in Peters’ life. It also helps Dr. Sakmyster weigh what to accept, interpret, and reject in Peters’ own self-assessment.

Red Conspirator represents a major contribution to scholarship in 20th Century American and International Communism. The approach and tone are scholarly. The findings are electrifying. Perhaps the most dramatic is the author’s conclusion: J. Peters operated his own infiltration networks, namely the Ware Group and its successive apparatuses. He cooperated with and supported the KGB (in those years, the OGPU and then NKVD) and GRU (Soviet military intelligence). However, as a model organization man, he prepared for the future and formed his own secret apparatus as well. This was “the whole business” that he headed, “conducted by largely on his own initiative,” Sakmyster concludes. “No Soviet agent ever served directly as his handler.”


(Reprinted from “The American Mercury)

(Mentioned in History of American Communism)

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.

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)


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