Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Truth or Consequences : WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus . Random House: 638 pp., $35

March 02, 1997|STANLEY I. KUTLER | Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate" (W. W. Norton) and "The American Inquisition: Justice & Injustice in the Cold War" (Hill & Wang)

As the Reagan administration wound down, it made a big-time symbolic gesture to its loyal conservative constituency. The true believers had watched the so-called Reagan Revolution with some dismay. Reagan had not dismantled the New Deal, had friendly dealings with "Red China," had negotiated significant arms reduction treaties with the "Evil Empire" and had sent the national debt and budget deficits soaring to unbelievable heights.

But the faithful had a moment in 1989 when Interior Secretary Donald Hodel overruled the unanimous recommendation of the National Park Service Advisory Board to designate an isolated bit of Maryland farmland as a national historical landmark. This was no ordinary piece of real estate but land that had belonged to Cold War icon Whittaker Chambers, where microfilm hidden in a pumpkin provided "conclusive" evidence that Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration harbored communist spies, opening the way for Richard Nixon's meteoric rise in American politics. The farm receives about two visitors a year. Like that of its former owner, the pumpkin patch's fame had long since expired.

Chambers burst onto the public scene in 1948 with sensational allegations that Alger Hiss, a onetime prominent New Deal official, was a deeply committed Communist in the 1930s and had belonged to a cell of covert Soviet agents. Hiss vehemently denied the charges but subsequently was indicted for perjury about his knowledge of Chambers and his own spying activities. His first trial resulted in a hung jury, but in 1950, a second jury convicted him, significantly, as the Cold War intensified with Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons, new spy charges and the triumph of the Chinese Communists.

Hiss emerged after 44 months in jail and jauntily remarked that it had been a useful corrective to his three years in Harvard Law School. He became a martyr and a Cold War victim for some, while Chambers was celebrated in other quarters. Those who acknowledged Hiss' guilt nevertheless found Chambers a dubious hero and hardly the savior that he and his ardent supporters imagined him to be. For himself, Chambers ambivalently described the case to one of his acolytes as "a waste," "a calamity." Chambers and Hiss--the names conjure bitterly contested memories of a time when many viewed the Cold War in religious terms as a mortal struggle against the atheistic demon of communism, or in secular terms as a long-running battle for "history."

Sam Tanenhaus' "Whittaker Chambers" labors mightily to resurrect Chambers. It is a relentless effort to place his subject at the vortex of 20th century political history, to take him beyond a mere "witness" (the title of Chambers' memoir), and to make him the prophetic hero of a morality play in which nothing less than the outcome of history was at stake. Yet Tanenhaus has also marshaled evidence that reveals a man who vastly inflated his importance and whose mind-set, in fact, remained conditioned all his life by the discipline he had acquired as a Communist. The biography takes us no closer to settling the Hiss-Chambers controversy--both sides will be reinforced in their beliefs--but it does take us to a fuller understanding of Chambers.

Chambers was born Jay Vivian Chambers in 1901. The middle name was bestowed by an adoring, domineering mother, and his first name was for his often-absent father, a man largely uninterested in his child. The father was bisexual and disappeared for long periods; he was, his son said, a man of "separate compartments." And so would the son be, "with far greater complexity," as Tanenhaus notes in a rare understatement. John Kenneth Galbraith called Chambers "one of the most avidly intellectual men of the century." Columbia literature professor Mark Van Doren called him the best of all his famous undergraduates--surely a bit of hyperbole for a student who amazed his teacher by ardently promoting the cause of the "great man" in 1920: Calvin Coolidge. Chambers always seemed to be in pursuit of a cause or a faith. He left Columbia, went to Europe, read Fabian socialist literature, Georges Sorel's reflections on syndicalism and violence and numerous reactionary tracts that celebrated Catholicism and monarchy.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|