Whittaker Chambers: A Biography
Sam Tanenhaus. Random House (NY), $35 (638pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58559-8
One of the strangest political martyrs was the disheveled, overweight, once-bohemian defector from communism Whittaker Chambers, the nemesis of Alger Hiss. A sterling State Department intellectual, Hiss by 1948 was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Then Chambers, a disillusioned former Soviet courier who had turned his writing flair into an editorship at Time, charged that Hiss had been an agent for Moscow since the early 1930s. In a retrial after a hung jury, Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950. Tanenhaus takes the position that Chambers's accusation was thereby validated. The case made a national figure of House Un-American Activities Committee member Richard Nixon and lent credibility to the Reds-everywhere charges by a reckless senator, Joseph McCarthy. Hiss spent almost four years in prison, Nixon and McCarthy prospered for a time and Chambers, suddenly jobless, wrote his anguished memoir, Witness. He contended that even at the risk of self-destruction, it was important to examine why some of the best and brightest of the interwar years had embraced communism, why some persisted in self-deception and disloyalty and why others broke ranks and recanted. Tanenhaus (Literature Unbound) persuasively and movingly examines such double lives of these communists, lives which were driven by a perverse idealism that functioned almost as a new religion. Only when the Cold War exposed Soviet infiltration into policy-making levels of government and the wartime snatching of atomic secrets did politically orchestrated paranoia begin in the U.S. The Washington apparatus served by Chambers had been of little practical use to the Soviets, but when he saw it anew as the worm in the goodly apple, he committed what Arthur Koestler would admiringly call ""moral suicide"" to confront Hiss and his like with the bankruptcy of their illusions. To some a toweringly humane hero, Chambers nonetheless made McCarthyism possible, and--posthumously, as he died in 1961--made Nixon President. Here a tarnished saint, Whittaker Chambers is a John le Carre figure in the extreme. Photos not seen by PW. BOMC dual main selection; History Book Club selection. (Feb.) FYI: The 92-year-old Alger Hiss died in Manhattan this past November 15.
Reviewed on: 02/02/1997