His grandson sets the record straight about Whittaker Chambers.
By Elena Maria Vidal | April 28, 2011
I went to high school with the grandchildren of Whittaker Chambers. At the time, I only knew the Chambers boys to be pleasant young gentlemen who were great at chess and foreign languages. Twenty years later I read Witness and then Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. Chambers quickly became one of my heroes, right up there with William Wallace, El Cid, and John Paul Jones. One time when I was exuberantly discussing Chambers with a close friend, she said to me: “Well, you know, you went to school with his grandchildren.” It was quite a revelation; I had never made the connection.
I was delighted when I ran into David Chambers again on Facebook. He has meticulously compiled an online archive about his grandfather—www.whittakerchambers.org—and is dedicated to setting the record straight. I told David in one of our exchanges that it concerned me how people were beginning to forget Whittaker Chambers and his courage in exposing communist agents in the United States government, particularly the State Department official Alger Hiss. Every high school student—and Hollywood producer—knows about McCarthy ism; those who were blacklisted are considered political martyrs. The House Un-American Activities Committee is popularly seen as a sort of Spanish Inquisition that sought to destroy innocent screenwriters. Yet the Hiss case has been frequently misrepresented, when it is remembered at all. I took this up with David. He agreed to answer some questions.
Elana Maria Vidal: David, your grandfather’s name never came up in any of my high school or college American history classes. How could the key figure of one of the most dramatic legal cases in American history, who exposed how deeply communist agents had infiltrated the United States government, be swept aside?
David Chambers: My grandmother (who outlived her husband by a quarter century), my father, and my aunt could not be happier to have the Hiss case swept aside. For them, it is a grim subject. My grandmother died in 1986. From all indications, my father and aunt hope the world will continue to sweep aside the Hiss case, each and every day.
Neither my father nor aunt is likely to write about their experiences, so I will not speak for them. I do recommend Anne Kimmage’s memoir, An Un-American Childhood, for insight into life for “red diaper babies.”
In the grand scheme of things—in 20th-century American history—the Hiss case now serves largely as a prelude. The case started with a 1948 presidential campaign season that ended with Harry S. Truman’s surprising defeat of Thomas Dewey. During Hiss’s trials in 1949, international events overshadowed the case, particularly the Soviet atomic bomb and the fall of China to Mao.
Alger Hiss’s jail sentencing in January 1950 seemed to set off a chain reaction of events, nationally and internationally. Within days, Dr. [Klaus] Fuchs had surrendered himself to British authorities as a nuclear spy. Within two weeks, Sen. Joseph McCarthy had made his first major speech about card-carrying communists in the federal government. Within a month, the Soviets had signed a mutual-defense treaty with the Chinese. In May, the FBI arrested Harry Gold, a crucial link between Klaus Fuchs and American atomic spies. Based on Gold’s accounts, the FBI began arresting scores of people, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In less than two years, our country had gone from the initial shock of the Hiss case in August 1948—federal officials involved in Soviet espionage—to a nationwide scare over nuclear espionage in July 1950, pre-verified as it were by the Soviets’ own A-Bomb and underscored by the potential for nuclear confrontation in Korea, a war that had just erupted.
EMV: Why do you think we constantly hear about McCarthyism and its excesses but not about the Hiss case?
DC: McCarthyism involved a series of federal investigations into communist infiltration in our country. Those investigations did not occur only with McCarthy or even in the U.S. Congress. The FBI went all over the country to investigate and, occasionally, arrest people. I often wondered whether some of the outrage was over-the-top—until I started researching someone whom my grandfather knew.
In Witness, my grandfather describes a man named John Loomis Sherman, who worked with him at The Daily Worker in the late 1920s and then disappeared. My grandfather saw him about four years later, when the party ordered him to enter the underground—that was in 1932. Sherman became his first boss, then headed west to help set up spy networks in California and Japan. My grandfather lost track of him again for another four years. They next met again in New York—some time after late 1936. Sherman had just escaped the Moscow purges; my grandfather covered for him while he then escaped from New York. Sherman resurfaced in Los Angeles, joined the open Communist Party, and returned to some semblance of normal life, married, with at least one child. So the trail ends in Witness.
Decades later when I picked up the trail, I found that Sherman’s troubles had not stopped there. In February and March of 1950, he received subpoenas to appear before a grand jury in Los Angeles and before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington. Sherman told HUAC how the FBI had hounded him at his place of work—a small university in Los Angeles—losing him his job. With restraint evident in his testimony, he said, “In the current year, largely due to the activities of the FBI, I have been unable to obtain a teaching position.” He understates further, “The FBI has known of my whereabouts and I think practically every detail of my life for years, for many years.” He was 54 years old at the time. I could find nothing more about him, even when posting to expert scholarly groups. I imagine the rest of his life went no easier.
Now, those hearings were not part of the Hiss case per se. But they do indicate just how fast and furious the U.S. Government conducted its investigations—even before anyone had heard of Harry Gold or the Rosenbergs.
EMV: I enjoy your reviews of the various books and articles that take on the role your grandfather played in history. The more liberal books tend to demonize him in favor of Hiss. I am thinking particularly of Susan Jacoby’s recent work Alger Hiss and the Battle for History.
On the other hand, Whittaker Chambers is lionized as the patron saint of modern conservatism by Buckley conservatives, although your grandfather resigned from the staff of National Review. Which view has greater currency in contemporary America? Those who love him or those who hate him? Or those who are indifferent?
DC: None of the views you mention have greater currency to contemporary America: neither left, nor right, nor indifferent, in my opinion.
I have read most books on the Hiss case. In the process, I have amassed a library of more than 500 books on that and closely related subjects. Almost every book is so partisan, whether left or right—again, in my opinion—as to contribute nearly nothing to understanding the case. Furthermore, most of them regurgitate what others in their camp have said before them.
Susan Jacoby’s book Alger Hiss and the Battle for History approaches the Hiss case from the left. Jacoby was so sloppy with her facts that even the Hiss camp decried the book. I like her writing style—when I started reading the book, I felt like I was listening to a deep discussion among family and friends. It seemed open and inviting, and I was eager to read on. However, she muffed numerous facts, which colored her account. Her sole contribution seems to have been to concede on behalf of the left that Hiss was indeed guilty.
The latest book, Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary, by Richard Reinsch, is weaker still. It takes a decidedly [right-wing] approach. The author promises to systematize Chambers’s thought. He then proceeds not only to dismiss all leftist influences but to focus solely on what he calls “conversion passages” in Witness and Chambers’s other late writings. This book was far more narrow-minded than Jacoby’s and contributed exactly nothing new to an understanding of Whittaker Chambers.
My father helped Allen Weinstein when he was writing Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. The only other book I know of to which my father contributed as a source is Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. To this day, my father remains so upset at the way Tanenhaus portrayed his approach to the book and then wrote it that my father has sworn never to work with anyone else again. That wound up hurting the only writer to publish something really interesting about my grandfather: Andrew Meier for his book The Lost Spy, which traces an American couple who not only mirrored my grandparents but whom they in fact knew.
I myself am working on a book on the Hiss case. It takes a very different approach to anything else I have ever read about the case. It is as non-partisan and impartial as any family member can make it. It also demonstrates why the story of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss remains highly relevant today—for any readers who wish to avoid the mistakes of the past.
My efforts received initial direction from the late Dr. Tony Judt of New York University. We corresponded intermittently in the past few years. In fact, he last wrote me just days before his death this past August. I hold his book Postwar in the highest esteem and reviewed his last book while living, Ill Fares the Land, with my grandfather much in mind. Given his specialty in 20th-century French intellectuals—most of them communists—and his overview of 20th-century Western history, I feel that I have solid ground to build on. His early death from ALS is a terrible loss to all, but I am hoping to work with some of his colleagues and former students as I continue.
Of course, Tony’s blessing is almost a curse for writer or historian: he was so absolutely excellent as both. Postwar runs less than 100 pages longer than Witness—896 to 799—and packs in more insight with better writing while covering many more lives and events of the 20th century. I do not really mean “curse,” of course: rather, Postwar sets the bar against which I will measure my own work gratefully.
EMV: Where exactly did your grandfather stand in terms of American politics? Can the right legitimately claim him?
DC: Based on what my grandfather published—his 1952 memoirs Witness and later articles for Life, Look, and National Review magazines—and posthumous publishings by my grandmother (Cold Friday), by William F. Buckley Jr. (Odyssey of a Friend), and by Ralph de Toledano (Notes From the Underground), one could easily fall prey to efforts to canonize Whittaker Chambers among patron saints in a modern pantheon of conservative intellectual thought.
However, in my opinion, that is a shallow reading and one that I am addressing in my book. Suffice here to say that, as a lifelong Marxian intellectual activist, forced into the limelight under the worst circumstances from 1948 onwards, Whittaker Chambers was willing to work with the right to combat communism, if only for the sake of political expediency. Beggars cannot be choosers—and by that time, people referred to Whittaker Chambers more often as a moral outcast or leper. So, no, in fact I do not believe the right can legitimately claim Whittaker Chambers as one of their own. The same goes for Lionel Trilling—in reference to Dr. Michael Kimmage’s interesting work The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism.
EMV: People forget the role that Richard Nixon, then a congressman, played in getting your grandfather’s testimony before HUAC and his ongoing defense of Chambers. Nixon is another person who is demonized while the good he did for his country is eradicated from public memory. What would have happened to your grandfather’s testimony without Nixon?
DC: That is a loaded way to ask that question. Yes, President—then Representative—Nixon played a pivotal role in sussing out the conflicting stories of Hiss and Chambers. Once upon a time, Nixon was a good showman. He first gained national attention when parading the Pumpkin Papers before the press in December 1948—without any certainty that any of the microfilm contained one shred of damaging evidence. He was very gutsy. His demonization started during the Hiss case—but of course that only mirrored his own demonizing efforts. I am referring here to the Republican-dominated HUAC’s efforts in demonizing FDR’s New Deal legacy and to defeat President Harry S. Truman in November 1948. Today, Nixon still suffers from Watergate, which wiped away most credit he ever earned.
Nixon’s reputation is not unlike my grandfather’s. Many people will never forgive Whittaker Chambers for betraying his country as a spy. Others will never forgive him for betraying colleagues like Hiss, even if they were also spies.
The difference between the two men lies in their motives. Part of why I am writing about my grandfather is to explain again just what makes a person join a movement like communism and act against his own country.
EMV: Your grandfather was an accomplished scholar. He was an editor, author, and linguist. Do you think that too often his literary contributions are ignored, even by conservative biographers?
DC: Yes—and I am working on that issue by collecting and annotating his surviving writings.
By the way, an innovative theater group called Peculiar Works just produced “Can You Hear Their Voices?” Hallie Flanagan and a former student had adapted that as a play from a short story my grandfather wrote in 1931 for The New Masses. The story was such an instant hit that Flanagan & Co. cranked out the play in less than a month. Although it ran in leftist theaters worldwide back in the 1930s, to my knowledge “Can You Hear Their Voices?” never made Broadway or even New York City. Peculiar Works put it on as “pop-up theater” in an empty shop at the corner of Broadway and Great Jones Street this past June. They received reviews from most top theater magazines, starting with Variety. I attended two performances and spoke afterwards at both. I went with my family the second time. So, finally, just under 80 years after it first came out, the play ran off-Broadway. Although a very stylized play, I found it very powerful. Seeing it performed just inches from the audience revealed to me nuances about my own family that I had never caught from just reading the story or the script. I learned a lot.
EMV: I often wonder why Witness has never been made into a film. As a spy story it is a ready-made thriller, not to mention the drama of the HUAC hearings and the trial scenes. It would be a marvelous film.
DC: Yes, Witness could make a marvelous film—could, if handled well artistically. We have received many offers over the years for a film based on Witness. We have reached no agreements, though several filmmakers have conversations going. Of course, the Whittaker Chambers family would demand total control over storyline—we’ve already seen plenty of distortions over the years. Also, no one wants to get caught up in a fight like “A Perfect Storm.”
In 1955, Sol Stein, a noted writer and editor, wrote a play called “A Shadow of My Enemy” based on Witness. I have a copy of the script. If no one has ever heard of it, that is no surprise: it flopped on Broadway.
I myself am scripting a play that involves my grandfather in an earlier period in his life. Although much narrower in terms of time and topic, it has all the same trappings: espionage, thrills, drama, and the titillation of seeing famous people long before they became famous. Overall, it is a much tighter, tenser story. It started as a 15-page speculative essay that no one wanted to publish: it was neither “current” enough, nor did it offer conclusive enough findings. I think that as a play it will prove far, far more powerful—and demonstrate that human drama remains best portrayed as human drama. Theater offers background, mood, and nuance as non-fiction can never afford.
EMV: Thank you so much for your time, David, and for sifting through the lies and half-truths to reveal the history which your family has had the privilege, and the burden, to make your own.
Elena Maria Vidal is the author of the historical novels Trianon, Madame Royale, and The Night’s Dark Shade. A version of this interview appeared in The National Observer.