Can I Get a Witness?

For decades, the forbidding bulk of the 808-page hardcover edition of Witness (1952)—Whittaker Chambers’s fam-ous apologia for his life as a Communist spy, his eventual political apostasy and religious rebirth, and his sensational agon with New Deal golden boy and probable fellow agent Alger Hiss—had resided on the bio-graphy section of our bookshelf, the legacy of a long-ago college paper written by my wife. I mentally filed it away in the category of books I was happy we owned (a valuable Random House first edition) and that I might get around to reading one of these years.

The occasion to do so finally arrived this summer, in the course of my research for a biography of the influential editor and critic Malcolm Cowley. Like much of the American literary intelligentsia, Cowley had become a committed leftist and fellow traveler in the 1930s, impelled by the domestic crisis of capitalism and the international crisis of fascism. Chambers in those years had been a Communist Party member and an editor and writer for the Daily Worker and the New Masses. In 1932 he went underground to serve as a courier and recruiter for a ring of Soviet spies in the US government. Recanting his Marxist faith and fearing, not without reason, for his life at the hands of assassins, Chambers resurfaced in 1939 as a writer and editor for Henry Luce’s Time magazine. His passionate born-again anti-Communism greatly influenced Luce himself and the subsequent rightward editorial slant of Time, Inc.

In December 1940, Chambers invited Cowley to lunch in Manhattan, supposedly to discuss the effect of the Nazi-Soviet pact on American writers. Cowley was alarmed enough by Chambers’s careless name-dropping volubility to write up the encounter in his notebook that evening. Shortly there-after, Chambers delivered his sucker punch in the form of a sneering article in Time, “The Revolt of the Intellectuals,” an indictment of American writers on the left for their gullibility about Stalinism and all-around anti-Americanism, in which Cowley was prominently mentioned.

Eight years later, Cowley got a measure of payback at both of Alger Hiss’s perjury trials: He testified, for the defense, that Chambers had during their lunch made the ludicrous assertion that Francis B. Sayre, Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law and the assistant secretary of state from 1933 to 1939 (and Hiss’s boss), had been a Communist sympathizer and agent. This helped bolster the defense’s case that Chambers was a delusional liar whose charges against Hiss were equally ludicrous. Hiss, of course, was eventually convicted of perjury before Congress and served forty-four months in federal prison. For the rest of his long life he denied that he had been either a Communist or a spy, an assertion that a preponderance of evidence over the decades has almost totally eroded.

So I was not favorably inclined toward Chambers, and picked up Witness warily, with the intention of gleaning such information as I required to tell the Cowley episode. Instead I read the whole thing, sometimes impatient and strongly put off, but more often completely rapt. I was not prepared for an encounter with a strange masterpiece—weird, ungainly, obsessive, self-important, often bathetic, but brilliantly and powerfully written and, in the end, entirely convincing. It not only made me think in a new way about Alger Hiss and his astonishing lifelong betrayal of his loyal supporters, but also forced me to a very uncomfortable reconsideration of the oft-lodged charge of liberal naïveté in the Cold War era.

I am not alone on the left of center in my real if qualified respect for Witness. Susan Jacoby, in her excellent book Alger Hiss and the Battle for History,says it is “written with such emotional conviction that it is hard to put down even today,” while Elinor Langer states even more forcefully that, “like it or not, Chambers’s witness and his Witness are among the small number of American statements about the god that failed that belong on the same shelf with the great European literature of disillusion and exposure from Koestler to Solzhenitsyn.” It is good to have their company in my state of perplexed and unsettled admiration.

The fact is that Whittaker Chambers was really a pure creature of literature who stumbled into politics, a stumble with immense personal and political consequences. Even in his glittering circle of classmates and associates at Columbia—including Meyer Schapiro, Clifton Fadiman, and Lionel Trilling, who rendered a very close facsimile of Chambers as “Gifford Maxim” in his novel The Middle of the Journey—he was seen as a real talent and a comer. After dropping out of Columbia despite a number of academic and student literary triumphs, Chambers was swiftly converted to a perfervid Bolshevism in 1925, well ahead of his generational cohort. He made a meager living for some years doing various jobs of editorial and journalistic work for the party and was highly praised for “Can You Make Out Their Voices,” his wrenching 1931 narrative in the New Masses of heartland agricultural devastation.

Chambers relates all of this and much more in Witness in propulsive fashion, albeit with drama-queen flourishes, generous helpings of self-pity, and the overweening conviction that his particular journey was one of world-historical import. But once Chambers is recruited in 1934 by one shadowy J. Peters to move to DC to begin his career as an agent for Soviet military intelligence, Witness becomes as gripping as the best spy thrillers. And, to me, shocking and eye-opening. Chambers calmly and fastidiously begins to name the Communist figures in the State Department— most prominently Alger Hiss, who would go on to become a special assistant to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. at the Yalta Conference, almost literally at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s right hand. In Chambers’s telling, Hiss began to feed him clandestine documents that he then transmitted to Soviet military intelligence; reading this, I had the sort of sensations of alarm I hadn’t experienced since age fourteen, when I devoured my father’s copy of John A. Stormer’s paranoid-style classic None Dare Call It Treason with complete credulity. For the first time in my life I was forced to reckon with the ugly and treasonous facts beneath my previously offhand sense that yes, certain Communist sympathizers had given certain unspecified bits of information to the Soviets at a time when we were literally allies.

We know what happened next. Chambers, in fear and trembling, broke with his handlers and resumed a life as a journalist and Maryland farmer. He approached Adolf A. Berle, FDR’s intelligence liaison and a power-ful Brain Truster, in 1939, and in the course of a three-hour interview at Berle’s grand Washington residence told most (but crucially, not all) of what he knew of the espionage ring he’d coordinated. Berle professed great interest, wrote up notes on the interview, and then, after a brief flurry of follow-up inquiries . . . nothing.

Until 1948, when Chambers was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings on Communist infiltration of the government and he entered the historical stage in spectacular fashion. His claim that Alger Hiss—Harvard Law graduate, clerk to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., grandee in the Agriculture and State Departments, architect of the United Nations Charter, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—was not only a member of Chambers’s network but also his closest underground friend was electrifying. Appearing before the committee, Hiss denied, under oath, the accusation. The matter might have been dropped but for the dogged efforts of the youngest member of the committee, the freshman congressman from California, Richard M. Nixon, who saw something phony in Hiss’s slick answers, so coolly calculated and lawyerly. (Not the least disconcerting effect of reading Witness is the necessity to think well of Nixon on at least this occasion for his shrewd instincts about Hiss.) Hiss’s lies set in motion a drama involving such once-iconic pieces of evidence as a rare bird (a prothonotary warbler), a Woodstock-brand typewriter, and the famed pumpkin on Chambers’s farm where incriminating microfilm was hidden, which eventuated in perjury trials that have been compared in drama and import to the Dreyfus Affair. Jacoby rightly terms the decades-long controversy as “a debate about the meaning of American history at what may well turn out to have been the apex of American power.” To put it bluntly, if Hiss were proven to have been a Communist agent, much of New Deal liberalism would have been found guilty of a vast carelessness concerning American security.

The stakes were that high, and the liberal establishment proceeded to mount an attack on Chambers’s character and credibility so vicious and personal that the philosopher and former Trotskyist Sidney Hook, in his favorable review of Witness in the New York Times, claimed that the “outrageous smears against his personal life and that of his wife surpassed in virulence anything known in recent American history.” It didn’t help that Chambers had originally lied to the committee about the nature of his network, terming it a Communist study group rather than the sort of espionage network that would have left him open to prosecution himself. Nor did his hidden homosexual past, which was much whispered about and which he was forced to testify about in secret to the FBI. On top of this, in contrast to Hiss’s urbane affect, Chambers’s florid religiosity and his insistence that New Deal liberalism was something like a political gateway drug to Communist tyranny and collectivism made him a figure hard to admire or support. A viewing of the surviving newsreel footage of the HUAC hearings quickly demonstrates that Hiss was simply better at lying than the lugubrious Chambers was at telling the truth.

Low-level warfare over the Hiss-Chambers affair has now been waged for seventy years, punctuated by periodic breakthroughs and renewed controversy. On balance, the scales have tipped conclusively against Hiss, in good part as a result of Allen Weinstein’s exhaustive excavation of the case in Perjury (1978), which concluded that Hiss was guilty as charged. More recent evidence, in the form of cables unearthed by post-Soviet researchers, has bolstered Weinstein’s findings. Like Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific atolls who fought the war long after Japan’s surrender, some supporters on the left still maintain that Hiss was the victim of an elaborate fraud concocted by Chambers and the FBI. But few people credit that position today. Hiss’s reckless willingness to risk the credibility of the liberal left that stood by him is simply breathtaking and appalling.

This is a hard pill to swallow, and my reading of Witness has entailed a fair amount of laryngeal distress. Many, many people I admire, Malcolm Cowley chief among them, were completely gulled by Alger Hiss and resorted to slandering Chambers in public and private in their attempts to vindicate Hiss. A lot of things that I’ve learned have just about set my hair on fire, especially this: I read in a footnote on page 342 of Sam Tanenhaus’s fine biography of Chambers that Ben Huebsch, an editor at Viking, not only was a Communist who offered his services to the Hiss defense team, but also refused to reissue Lionel Trilling’s 1947 roman à clef when Chambers’s sudden fame would have reignited interest and sales. I worked at Viking for eight years as an editor, and Huebsch, the American publisher of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence among many others, was a holy name to the young editors there. The enemy within?

In the end, my reading of Witness, as imperfect and unnecessarily incendiary as it sometimes is, led me to the same unexpected conclusion that Whittaker Chambers’s classmate—and, let it be noted, briefly fellow Communist in the early ’30s—Trilling came to when a Hiss investigator asked him to testify against him in court: “Whittaker Chambers is a man of honor.” Trilling maintained that position for the rest of his life, and he was right to.

Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday, is working on a biography of Malcolm Cowley.