The 1997 publication of “Whittaker Chambers, a Biography,” a ten-year project that became a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, brought its author, Sam Tanenhaus, to immediate public attention, and, something unusual for a book, was for many months a featured daily recommendation on Don Imus’s drive-time talk radio show, “Imus in the Morning.” In the decade since, Tanenhaus, while holding down several increasingly prominent positions in the American book industry–he became Editor of The New York Times Sunday Book Review in 2004 – has also been widely (although not universally) praised by historians and reviewers as a careful scholar. The late John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, called Tanenhaus’s admiring portrait of the ex-Communist Chambers (and his concurrent and demeaning portrayal of Alger Hiss, the man Chambers accused of espionage for the Russians) “truly the last word,” and “wonderfully researched, cool and detached in the writing.”
Tanenhaus, who more recently has been working on a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr., occasionally returns to his original subject, most recently in “The End of the Journey: From Whittaker Chambers to George W. Bush,” a 6,000-word essay that appeared earlier this summer in the July 2, 2007 issue of The New Republic–several months, as it happens, after the generally well-received publication of an English edition of “Whittaker Chambers: A Biography.”
The new New Republic essay seems at best casually researched, and is repeatedly at variance with known facts. A thorough analysis of his essay’s many references to Hiss and Chambers has taken a full week of checking and cross-checking, but the remarks that appear below are not meant to be an exhaustive appraisal of the essay as a whole, since Hiss, especially, appears in only about half of its pages. In fact, Tanenhaus appears to be using the essay as a platform to reevaluate his feelings about the Bush administration. In an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal on December 27, 2002, he wrote, “The political performance of George W. Bush since Sept. 11, 2001 has left many marveling at the discipline and efficiency of the president and his admirers.” In The New Republic, however, Tanenhaus takes pains to distance himself from the President and the war in Iraq. This is of course well within his rights, but to support his apparently new world view, Tanenhaus creates an essentially fictitious characterization of both Alger Hiss (whom he calls “flat,” “uninteresting” and disappointing) and Whittaker Chambers (whom he says possesses an “almost mesmeric force”).
The fictions, slurs, distortions, and inaccuracies about Hiss, some of them simply sloppy, are presented in a casually omniscient, reassuring voice. These misrepresentations often come attached to phrases such as “it was well known that” or “as everyone knows” or “we now know with certainty that.” Ironically, they follow an introduction in which Tanenhaus expresses admiration for George Orwell, the British journalist whose “Nineteen-Eighty Four” is a denunciation of the misuse of language to achieve political ends.
Tanenhaus cites “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as the “truest prophet” of the Cold War, even while downplaying the central warning of the work: the dangers of totalitarianism, and the extent that those entrenched in command will go to retain power. Orwell clearly had Stalinist Russia in mind when he began composing the book in 1943, but it also appears that he was reading the news from America in 1948 when he was putting the final touches on his dystopian vision. In that sense, there’s a connection between Orwell and the Hiss Case, which was first making headlines just as the last pages of “Nineteen Eighty-four” were rolling off Orwell’s typewriter.
Tanenhaus’s admiration for the novel permeates his essay, but it is an undigested or dissociated admiration, since when it comes to Hiss and Chambers the essay very skillfully makes use of its own kind of “newspeak” to present opinions as facts. Tanenhaus–let’s be clear about this–did not invent “Hiss case newspeak.” The Alger Hiss Story Web site has frequently been called upon to dissect a range of essays and books that build their arguments against Hiss on fantasy and falsehood. So here is our comparison of the statements in “From Whittaker Chambers to George Bush” to the facts.
Section I–Tanenhaus’s Presentation of Hiss
* Tanenhaus gets off on the wrong foot by writing in the summer of 1948, Hiss was accused of being a Soviet agent in hearings before HUAC. In those hearings, Chambers specifically – and under oath – denied that Hiss had been an agent. He did not change his testimony until November 17, during pre-trial depositions for a libel suit that Hiss had brought against him. It was on that day that Chambers offered into evidence typed copies of State Department documents that he claimed were given to him by Hiss for transmission to the Soviet Union. This implicit reframing of the Chambers-Hiss confrontation at the outset of writing allows Tanenhaus to ignore all the contradictions and ambiguities in Chambers’ behavior.
*Tanenhaus writes that Hiss stood trial twice for lying about being an agent. Technically, this is wrong, and another smoothing away of ambiguity. Hiss was charged with lying before a grand jury when he denied seeing Chambers after January 1, 1937 and when he testified that he never handed any secret documents to Chambers. He was not indicted for being a Soviet agent, although, of course, that was the larger issue raised at trial.
*Tanenhaus, who later in the article accuses Pulitzer Prize winning author Kai Bird of not knowing his history, is wrong when he claims that the Hiss affair initiated the witch hunts of the 1950s. The public accusations against Hiss were preceded by a number of earlier cases, including the Hollywood 10, the first Smith Act prosecutions, the Carl Marzani case and the accusations by Elizabeth Bentley and Igor Gouzenko that subsequently resulted in trials.
*Tanenhaus calls the execution of the Rosenbergs “appalling,” but his assertion that they “chose” their fate is equally abhorrent. The Rosenbergs were given a choice: confess to a crime they didn’t commit or die. It wasn’t much of a choice.
*Tanenhaus says that the Hiss perjury trials were “models of restraint,” but as the Freedom of Information Act proved, the FBI and the prosecution ran rampant over Hiss’s civil rights by by suborning perjury, concealing evidence that would have helped the defense, wiretapping Hiss’s conversations and opening his mail, illegally obtaining privileged information and more.
* Tanenhaus writes that Hiss’s sentence was “surpassingly mild.” Actually, Hiss was given the maximum. Nor was he assigned, as Tanenhaus claims, to a minimum security prison. He was sent to Lewisburg Penitentiary, a maxium security federal facility in Pennsylvania, 150 miles from his family in Manhattan. Prison authorities wanted to avoid any suggestion of “coddling a Communist” and deliberately did not send him to the minimum security prison, 50 miles away in Danbury, Connecticut, which would have been the norm for a prisoner convicted of perjury in the Southern District of New York. Danbury, by the way, was where Republican Congressman J. Parnell Thomas, the former chairman of HUAC, served out his fraud conviction.
Nor was Hiss released “ahead of schedule.” His release was by statute; under the regulations of the day, any prisoner earned time off for good behavior.
* Tanenhaus compresses the story of Hiss’s government service into a familiar cliché, calling it a “rapid upward climb.” Hiss joined the New Deal in 1933. Over the next 14 years, he served with distinction in two other cabinet departments until he landed in his final position with the government as the head of the Office of Political Affairs, a rise yes, rapid, not really, and he never reached the highest ranks or became a well-known public figure.
* Tanenhaus, somewhat contradictorily, calls Hiss a “State Department mandarin,” a term generally applied only to conservative careerists. Hiss considered himself a volunteer when it came to government work; he had enlisted to help out in two national emergencies–the Depression and World War II–and always planned to return to a higher-paying job in private law practice. The term “mandarin” as it applies to a bureaucrat means someone who is “pedantic.” Hardly anyone who worked closely with Hiss would have described him that way.
* Tanenhaus cribs the phrase “shabby gentility” without credit from Murray Kempton (who frequently denigrated Hiss) to describe Hiss’s home life as a child. But whether he originated it or not, the description didn’t match up with Hiss’s own memories of his childhood. When Hiss was two years old, his father committed suicide, but he left the family financially secure until the bulk of Mary Hiss’s savings were lost during the Depression (by which time Hiss had graduated from law school and was raising a family of his own).
* Maybe the most egregiously misleading statement in the entire piece occurs when Tanenhaus cites what he says is a direct quote from Hiss to demonstrate Hiss’s alleged contempt for the “bluestockings” of Baltimore – a telling indication to Tanenhaus that Hiss was a secret Bolshevik. However, the partial quotation employed by Tanenhaus, in which Hiss allegedly belittled the “horrible old women of Baltimore” cannot be found in any of Hiss’s own writings or in the public record and appears only as an uncorrobrated remark attributed to him by his adversary, Whittaker Chambers in “Witness.” (p. 363). It is a hallmark of careful scholarship always to include the provenance of every selected quote–its origin and context. Then readers can evaluate both the words cited, and the nature and the reliability of the source from which a quote is taken. But Tanenhaus uses this supposed quote, and draws damning conclusions from it, without mentioning its source.
* As if that’s not enough, Tanenhaus then does it a second time. In this instance, he quotes Hiss saying admiringly of Stalin, that he “plays for keeps.” That quote as well can only be found in “Witness” (page 41 of the original hardcover edition).
* Tanenhaus says that Hiss’s brother Bosley Hiss died from lethal alcoholism. He died from Bright’s Disease, which may or may not have been a result from his excessive drinking.
* Tanenhaus writes that discipline was “the one outward clue to the Bolshevik within”. Discipline comes from many sources and serves many purposes. Hiss by his own admission was a slacker in high school but buckled down in college and law school. His government superiors prized this same “discipline,” meaning, presumably, his application and lack of laziness; it also brought him to the attention of two mentors who were among the brightest (and most disciplined) minds in America: Felix Frankfurter and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Neither of these men, who were the two most influential figures in shaping Hiss’s political ideals and his career, was of course even remotely Bolshevistic in outlook.
Nor has there ever been one shred of evidence presented at the trials or elsewhere that indicated Hiss held any kind of radical beliefs. The closest that anyone could point to was his wife’s registration with the Socialist Party in 1932 at a time when the Communist Party had few antagonists more hostile than the Socialist’s leader Norman Thomas.
* In the August 1948 hearings before HUAC, Hiss, according to Tanenhaus, performed poorly in the face of “mounting evidence” against him. Actually, there was no mounting evidence. Once the confusion about whether Hiss actually knew Chambers was sorted out, the evidence against Hiss mostly centered around Chambers’ claim that Hiss had wanted to turn over his old Ford car to a Communist Party-owned lot in Washington D.C. What the hearings did show in terms of the evidence on this matter was that Chambers was wrong: the car was not turned over to a Party-affiliated business (but but rather to one of the area’s oldest and largest Ford dealerships) and that Hiss’s memory about a minor event some twelve years previously wasn’t clear — especially since he was denied by HUAC investigators access to the records that could have cleared up the matter.
* Tanenhaus writes that Hiss refused “to declare himself, to say who he was and what he really stood for.” On August 3 in his opening statement before HUAC and on August 25th, in another statement regarding his relationship with Chambers and how he suffered for his acts of kindness, Hiss made it perfectly clear who he was and what he stood for. Transcripts of those hearings are publicly available.
On the contrary, it was remarkable (and no doubt foolish) for Hiss to have been as open as he was with the Committee: a hostile panel dominated by anti-New Deal Republicans in an election year when the White House was up for grabs for the first time since 1932.
Tanenhaus adds that Hiss, was “retreating behind his boyish grin and well-tailored suits, he took refuge in hedged lawyerly answers, hair-splitting qualifications, and murky evasions.” Again, this is a myth that would be clear to anyone who reads the record. It was a grim procedure for Hiss in front of the committee, and there wasn’t much opportunity for boyish grinning. And if Hiss’s suits were bettered tailored than Chambers’, it’s not clear what that indicates except that his suits were bettered tailored than Chambers’.
Again resorting to name-calling, Tanenhaus accuses Hiss of posing as “a Gilbert and Sullivan parody of the civil servant” (despite his “discipline” and his “mandarin” standing). Hiss, by all accounts, was a model civil servant. In fact, his work reviews by his superiors were uniformly excellent and are all available publicly. Hiss bosses at the State Department, during the time that Chambers accused him of being an agent, all testified to Hiss’s outstanding character and work.
Adding to his list of perjoratives, Tanenhaus writes that the “the dismal performance [before HUAC] stood in almost comical defiance of the truth” but this is again the author’s subjective view of what the truth was. Unlike Chambers’, Hiss story remained essentially the same from the first time he was questioned by the FBI to his death. In contrast, Chambers’ account changed direction dramatically and often.
Tanenhaus writes that the “truth,” apparently was that it was “well known” that “Hiss belonged to the most radical faction of the New Deal.” Hiss joined the AAA in March, 1933 when the Administration was quickly filling that department’s rolls from the hundreds of young men and women who had descended on Washington, D.C. Among the scores of young lawyers and administrators were conservatives, liberals, radicals. Many of the brightest young talent were funneled to their New Deal jobs by Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard University Law School. It was, indeed, Frankfurter who urged Hiss to join up, which he did under Jerome Frank. Frankfurter later testified as a character witness for Hiss at the first perjury trial. In 1935, when a number of the more radical staff members were purged from the AAA in a political dispute, Hiss was not among them.
*Tanenhaus writes that Hiss’ membership in these cells was “well known,” but other than Chambers, not a single person offered credible supporting evidence that Alger was a member of these secret groups. Of the one revealed by Chambers, – the so-called Ware group – Hiss was not a member, according to Lee Pressman, an acknowledged former participant. Others interviewed by the FBI backed Pressman. Even people like Julian Wadleigh, Chambers’ alleged confederate, testified, that Hiss was known as a moderate even conservative among his peers, a view echoed by several others who worked with Hiss. This was of course contradicted by Nathaniel Weyl in 1950, but his testimony is suspect.
*”So common was this knowledge” (that Hiss had been a Communist) John Foster Dulles advised him prior to his HUAC appearance he could satisfy the committee if he just admitted it. This story only appears in Alger Hiss: The True Story by John Chabot Smith. The source is apparently an interview with Hiss by Smith, a former reporter, who covered the trial for the Herald Tribune and who believed Hiss was innocent. Tanenhaus is partially correcting his own research here. In his biography of Chambers, he writes that Dulles gave this advice to Hiss when he was preparing to testify before the grand jury in early 1948.
Where Tanenhaus errs is in suggesting that Dulles’s advice was derived from some specific knowledge that he had. In fact, it was merely a suggestion tossed off as an easy way to get out from under the charges. Hiss, of course, rejected the advice, because it was untrue.
* Tanenhaus then declares about Hiss: “Far from having been a communist, he asserted he had not even known any communists”, but this is a conflation of events. During his August 5, testimony, Hiss mentioned that he did know Ware, Abt, Pressman and Witt, all of whom were members of the party. But at the second trial, Hiss refused to state whether they were Communists, saying rather that he didn’t know anyone who specifically told him they were members of the Party with cards from the Party.
* Tanenhaus says that appearing before HUAC Hiss “seemed mystified” at the charges against him, although he eventually “owned” to the fact that he had been previously questioned by the FBI regarding the allegations. “Owned” implies that Hiss had somewhow tried to conceal his interview with the FBI. It was not a secret, and while the FBI on that occasion asked Hiss about Chambers, they simply, according to their own transcript of the interview, asked him if he knew the name in the context of a series of names they ran by him. Hiss said he didn’t, which even Chambers said was truthful, because Hiss never knew him by his real name when they were friendly.
“Mystified” is a mischaracterization, but readers should judge by themselves. Hiss was angry and frustrated at having these charges made public. He had believed he had put them to rest, and since there was no basis for them in his mind, he didn’t understand why they kept coming forward, since he had no idea that Chambers was talking about him, or that he himself was under surveillance by the FBI.
* Tanenhaus writes that Hiss “had abruptly quit the State Department in 1946 amid public speculation that he had a long record of ‘leftist activity.'” But the record trail is clear. After the San Francisco Conference in April 1945 (the conference that created the United Nations; Hiss was its Secretary General), Hiss told Secretary of State Edward Stettinius that he wanted to leave the State Department and return to private practice. Stettiunius asked him to stay on, to help in the establishment of the United Nations, and Hiss reluctantly agreed. On the way to a London UN meeting in January, 1946, Dulles sounded Hiss out about taking the reins of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss was interested, but that March the first rumors about his involvement in the Party began to circulate. Hiss was questioned by the FBI and told then Secretary Byrnes that he would be willing to resign instead of embarrassing the Department. Byrnes wanted him to stay on. Hiss did until he received a firm offer from Dulles, and his resignation became official in December 1946.
Drawing a false parallel, Tanenhaus implies that Hiss deserves little sympathy because he didn’t suffer to the same extent as the former Russian officials who were executed after the Moscow show trials in the 1930s. Well, yes Hiss didn’t face execution, but his statement: “The suspected American communist, in contrast, had ample room to maneuver in 1948, particularly if he was a trained lawyer and accomplished careerist who had risen swiftly through the government bureaucracy.” It is true that Hiss, under the American legal system, had an opportunity to defend himself, unlike Stalin’s purge trial victims, but “maneuver” suggests that Hiss was using his (inaccurately described) swift and calculated rise through government ranks to evade deserved punishment. To be told that Stalin’s terror regime liquidated its opponents in the 1930s is not a useful way of evaluating the consequences of what happened to tens of thousands of Americans in the 1940s and 1950s who were named without proof as Communists and had their government or business careers destroyed. (A classic and comprehensive account of the toll these persecutions took is David Caute’s “The Great Fear.”)
Tanenhaus writes that Hiss’s agility made him an “excellent spy” but that he overdid it when he pulled “social rank on HUAC’s yahoos and its staff of gumshoes.” The seeds of the latter assertion are probably HUAC investigator Robert Stripling’s account as revealed in his book, “The Red Plot Against America.” According to Stripling, after an exchange with Richard Nixon in which, Hiss a Harvard Law School graduate noted that Nixon had attended Whittier, the junior Congressman, never one to slough off a perceived slight, had it in for Hiss. How this generalizes into Hiss “ostentatiously” pulling “social rank” on the other members of “HUAC’s yahoos and its staff of gumshoes” is unclear.
Furthermore, if the Pumpkin Papers and Baltimore documents produced by Chambers were an indication of the quality of government material procured by Hiss, he was not the “excellent spy” described. Those files, most of them publicly available, were useless for espionage. By turning Hiss into a master spy, Tanenhaus is moving beyond even Chambers’ accusations: Chambers, even while denouncing Hiss, made him out to be something of a bumbler, alleging that Hiss’s supposed Russian handler, Boris Bykov, complained that Hiss never produced documents that were of any use.
* Tanenhaus describes Hiss as a “covert enemy of the establishment” who, he says, “confidently” traded “on establishment privileges–snobbery, social pride, ‘old school’ ties, inveterate name-dropping.” Having previously compared Hiss (unfavorably) to Stalin’s purge victims, Tanenhaus in another false parallel likens him to English Communists, specifically the Cambridge spies, such as Kim Philby, who he says “like Hiss” were “audacious and self-serving and whose public embrace of the ‘proletariat’ grew, like his, out of a private history of hidden injuries and abasements.”
There are many accusations in this one compact phrase–Hiss was foolhardy, selfish, pretended to love the downtrodden, and distorted by psychic wounds. Tanenhaus offers no evidence for this phantom vision of Hiss; none exists, except in the dark but unsubstantiated portrait created by his accuser, and now embellished with new analogies by his accuser’s admiring biographer. Rather than deconstructing these mischaracterizations one by one, it is perhaps more appropriate simply to repeat that the record shows that, until his life was disrupted by Chambers’ charges, Hiss had spent most of his career supporting a family on a public servant’s salary and postponing the “establishment privileges” of a cushy corporate job. When he had received a telegram in 1933 from Felix Frankfurter that there was a national emergency and the country needed his talents, he answered the call. “One third of the nation,” President Roosevelt had already said, “is ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-clothed.” The situation, unprecedented in American history, threatened the viability of the entire country–not just its “proletariat.”
Section II – Tanenhaus’s Presentation of Chambers
* Turning his attention toward Chambers’ story of his life in the Communist underground, Tanenhaus writes that Whittaker Chambers, when he brought charges against Alger Hiss, was one of the few American Communists his countrymen had laid eyes on. Actually, Chambers was not a Communist when he made those charges. He was a self-confessed former Communist, a Senior Editor for Time magazine who had left the Party either in the 1920s or the 1930s, depending on which version of his story you want to accept. Using the same broad-brush strokes, Tanenhaus states without qualification that Chambers departed in 1938, ignoring the fact that from 1939 until 1948, Chambers said (and repeatedly swore under oath) that he had left the Party in 1937. The omission of the qualification is not just a paring away of inconsequential details for pithier journalistic presentation: it is an essential part of an assessment of Chambers; it goes to the heart of his veracity as a witness. Chambers did not change the date to 1938 until 1948. This is significant because it was in 1948 that Chambers, for the first time, produced the papers he said he got from Hiss–papers dated 1938.
Also, a check of newspaper and newsreel archives from the summer of 1948 reveals that many American Communists and ex-Communists, from Earl Browder and William Z. Foster to members of the Hollywood 10 and Elizabeth Bentley, had all preceded Chambers in the movie theater newsreels, then a far more widely available news source than television.
* Tanenhaus suggests that the Hiss defense team’s effort to uncover information about the chief government witness against their client was somehow unscrupulous. If readers want to understand more clearly about how the defense conducted itself, the defense papers are fully available at the Harvard University Law School Library. Having gone through those papers many times, I can attest to the fact that there isn’t a hint deliberate wrongdoing or coverup among those files.
* Tanenhaus reports that Chambers tried to recruit Diana Trilling for “secret work” in 1933. This is reported in Trilling’s nutball memoir, The Beginning of The Journey, in which she also says that Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s closest advisor, was a Soviet agent, and that FDR was operating under the control of the Communist Party when he made “tragic concessions [at Yalta] which put another sixth of the earth’s surface under the yoke of Soviet communism.” Trilling goes on to report that, when Chambers approached her to be his accomplice, she did not believe him. It was not until years later, she writes, that she understood what he was asking her to do.
The request sounds similar to one Chambers made to the journalist Ella Winter around the same time. Tanenhaus overlooks that visit. This is unfortunate, because it may unlock the keys to one of the great mysteries of the Hiss Case–how Chambers got hold of the State Department papers he used against Hiss.
In 1969, Winter said in an interview that, in the 1930s, Chambers asked her to steal documents from the State Department, and even explained to her how to do it. He said all she had to do was make an appointment with an official, wait for him to excuse himself to go to the men’s room, and then swipe papers from his desk. Winter also turned Chambers down, but the nature of the papers Chambers later produced indicates that either he or a confederate adopted the technique. Whether any such papers were actually transmitted to the Russians is another question; it is important to note that no papers that can be attributed directly to Chambers have ever turned up in Soviet files.
“Certainty”, on the other hand, is the term used by Mr. Tanenhaus to describe what he says is Hiss’s guilt, proved, he claims, by documents released in the past ten years from Soviet and American archives. His statement is in response to “The Mystery of Ales,” by Kai Bird and Soviet scholar Svetlana Chervonnaya in the Summer 2007 issue of The American Scholar. Bird and Chervonnaya contend that additional documents they have access to call into question a basic tenet of the National Security Agency–that its wartime Venona decryptions proved that Hiss was a longtime Soviet spy codenamed ALES.
Tanenhaus views Venona as an ultimate confirmation of Hiss’s guilt, but the FBI, which was familiar with the intercept program in the 1940s, did not. In fact, the Venona identification of ALES as Hiss was based on an FBI suggestion that Hiss was “probably” ALES, not a certainty, and the FBI was still so uncertain of this identification that three years later it was still conducting interviews to see if it was true.
* Rather than confront or refute the evidence brought forward by Bird and Chervonnaya, Tanenhaus characterizes the years of research behind their lengthy paper as “flimsy,” relying instead on a surrogate–a quickly assembled, conjectural, truncated, inaccurate summary of Bird and Chervonnaya’s findings included in a premature and hostile response to “The Mystery of Ales” by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr (see “Hiss Was Guilty,” History News Network, April 16, 2007), which was posted on the Internet two months before the Bird and Chervonnaya paper was published or even available for review. Tanenhaus calls this much shorter Haynes and Klehr rejoinder “painstaking.” (Writing a month after Tanenhaus’s New Republic essay appeared, the journalist Ron Rosenbaum turned to the same Haynes and Klehr “pre-refutation” in an attempt to discredit Bird and Chervonnaya (“Alger Hiss Rides Again,” Slate, July 16, 2007).)
* Tanenhaus refers to Bird and Chervonnaya’s findings as only a “tiny filament.” Yet, as already noted, the never-confirmed FBI hunch that Hiss was “probably” ALES is in his mind a “certainty.”
Tanenhaus also attacks Bird, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, for not knowing his history in describing the Hiss case as part of a broader attack on the New Deal. This understanding has been clear to many observers from the outset. The first book ever published about the Hiss trials, Alistair Cooke’s 1950 eyewitness account, had the title “A Generation on Trial.” Eager to regain the White House in 1948 after four straight losses, Republicans seized on the idea that Roosevelt, Truman, and Democrats in general had been “soft on Communism,” as a way of discrediting Roosevelt and undermining his towering reputation.
* Tanenhaus writes that “the truth about the intellectuals and Chambers” was that they “admired him even as they recoiled from him.” While this may have been true in some Social Democratic circles and among some postwar liberal anti-Communist intellectuals, the number of intellectuals who reviled him is substantial. That list would include: Malcolm Cowley, Matthew Josephson, Margaret Halsey, Henry Steele Commager, Felix Frankfurter and Adlai Stevenson.
* Tanenhaus writes that “with his gravid air of fatalism, of persecution and guilt, of tormented secrecy and penitential disclosure,” Chambers was superbly cast as a witness. But there’s another reason why he was superbly cast (an interesting term considering the possibility he may have been literally cast into the role by the FBI): he had a habit of collecting information or “life preservers.” on people; he had a novelist’s imagination and eye for detail and an appetite for invention. He was extremely paranoid. and he was desperately holding onto a secret – his homosexuality – that put him at the mercy of investigators who were in on it.
* Those qualities may have made him well cast as a martyr, they didn’t make him well cast as a spy, something the Soviets must have noted. In fact, nearly all of the techniques allegedly employed by Chambers as an agent, violated the most basic rules of Soviet espionage, according to experts such as Ladislas Farago and Alexander Foote.
* Tanenhaus tries to perpetuate another myth that has been spread by Chambers’ supporters for years: that he only “reluctantly” leveled his charges against Hiss. Chambers, who according to nearly everyone (even his friends) who knew him in the 1930s was always on the lookout for money. After his break from the Communist Party, approached one friend, the magazine writer Herbert Solow, with a story he wanted to sell about his underground days. Through the efforts of another writer, Isaac Don Levine, this led to his conversation with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf. A. Berle in 1939, in which where he was more than happy to name names, including those of both Hisses (and if he was only testifying against Alger because of the libel suit, why did Chambers tell a wild story about Donald that even the FBI said was untrue. For more on this, click here.). He talked to the FBI in 1942, 1943, 1945 and 1946. He also broadened his charges against Hiss in entirely voluntary conversation with the the State Department’s security officer, Ray Murphy, in 1946 and 1947.
* Tanenhaus adds that Chambers perjured himself repeatedly on Hiss’s behalf: This is true only if you believe that he was protecting Hiss, which he clearly was not. If anything, he was protecting himself. Being a self-confessed former Communist is one thing (as Tanenhaus himself tries to point out with Dulles’s suggestion that Hiss “confess” his past to the Committee), but a self-confessed former spy is another. Chambers himself could have faced perjury charges, jail and certainly the end of his career at Time had he told earlier the tale he began to weave in November 1948.
*Tanenhaus says that Hiss’s decision to press a libel suit against Chambers was a “fatal miscalculation,” but this makes several false assumptions. The first is that Chambers should be taken at his word when he says he was surprised at what he found in the contents of the envelope he claimed was secreted away in dumbwaiter for ten years (he had been asked at pre-trial depositions to produce evidence showing Hiss had been a Communist; the papers in the envelope he said went further and were proof that Hiss had been a spy). But it makes no sense that Chambers, who even Tanenhaus admits was paranoid and who demonstrated at both Hiss trials an ability to recall the smallest details from 12 or 13 years before, would have forgotten that he had secreted away “a life preserver” in the former of these documents to prevent any harm to himself or his family after he left the Communist Party.
* Next, Tanenhaus issues a blanket condemnation of Hiss’s supporters for what he says is their sympathetic attitude toward the Soviet Union and their blase attitude toward “its repressions.” This too is remarkable for its sweep that is not based on any empirical evidence. Ironically, Tanenhaus, who says he is appalled at the excesses of McCarthyism is calling for a disloyalty oath toward the Soviet Union from Hiss’s supporters. In fact, he has: according to a recent story in a British newspaper, Tanenhaus refused to begin the interview until the reporter repeated the phrase “Tens of millions died in the Soviet camps.”
In the end though, the prosecution of Alger Hiss had nothing to do with Stalinist tyranny, since Hiss’s political views weren’t on trial nor was he – unlike Chambers – ever on record as being a supporter of Stalin. For Tanenhaus, it’s simply another way to tar those who believe or believed in Hiss’s innocence. Tanenhaus condemns Henry Wallace for calling for a dialogue with the Soviet Union – something Hiss believed in as well – not because they were Stalinists, but because they believed that a Cold War was a potentially ruinous path for the world’s two leading powers – both economically and potentially militarily.
*Finally, Tanenhaus says that “rather than attack his attackers, Chambers accepted the burden of moral guilt and recast it in the rhetoric of high sacrifice.” But if Chambers wasn’t attacking Hiss and other dozens of people dead and alive that he named, what was he doing? Of course he was attacking them and attempting to ruin them while making it appear as if he was undergoing some kind of huge self sacrifice. The fact is he held onto his job, wrote a bestselling book purporting to be about his life and remained financially secure for the rest of his life while become idolized by the likes of people like Tanenhaus. Where was the sacrifice?
And while Tanenhaus prefers to see Chambers as “an American Cassandra” and the founding father of modern American conservatism, the problem is that his “we were caught in a tragedy of history” speech before HUAC was essentially a lie. Ultimately, casting Chambers that way says more about his supporters than it does about Chambers. This attempt to create history from what the historian hopes it was rather than the way it was, was the subject of a warning by a former journalist who said about his experiences in the 1930s and ’40s:
I saw history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought t
o have happened, according to the party; this kind of thing is frightening to me. If a leader says of such-and-such an event that it never happened -well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five -well, two and two are five.”
The author was George Orwell.
JEFF KISSELOFF can be reached at email@example.com