A Regular Bull
- Whittaker Chambers: A Biography by Sam Tanenhaus
Random House, 640 pp, $35.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 394 58559 3
I once had the luck to meet the great Saul Bellow, who in the course of the evening told me the following story. In 1945 he had been engaged as a book reviewer for Henry Luce’ Time magazine. Or he thought he had been so engaged. When he turned up for work, he was informed that Whittaker Chambers, chief Pooh-Bah of the ‘back of the book’, wished to see him. He entered the sanctum and found the stout, surly presence waiting behind a desk. ‘Sit down Mr Bellow. Tell me, what did you study at university?’ Bellow replied that his study had been English literature. He was asked to give his opinion of William Wordsworth as a poet. He responded that he had always thought of William Wordsworth as one of the Romantics. ‘There is no place for you,’ said Chambers on hearing this, ‘in this organisation.’ The future Nobel Laureate was fired before he had been hired. Reflecting on this in 1989, he said he still had two questions about it. The first and unanswerable one was: what if he’d kept the job? He might be a book critic for Time to this very day. The second question was: what answer could possibly have saved him? I thought then, and I think now, that the books editor wanted the junior scribe to look him in the eye and say that William Wordsworth, a one-time revolutionary poet, had seen the error of his ways and – braving the scorn and contumely of his one-time comrades – become a reconciled conservative.
Bellow’s novel, The Victim, published in 1947, has a strong scene in which the protagonist Asa Leventhal is given the mother of all horrendous job interviews by the fat, bullying editor Rudiger. Leventhal strives not to be cowed:
Too many people looking for work were ready to allow anything. The habit of agreement was strong, terribly strong. Say anything you like to them, call them fools and they smiled, turn their beliefs inside out and they smiled, despise them and they might grow red, but they went on smiling because they could not let themselves disagree. And that was what Rudiger was used to.
Having defied Rudiger and been shown the door, he finds while relating the incident to a friend that his euphoria is abruptly dissipated:
‘You said that to Rudiger? Oh golly, that must have been something. Really something, Asa my boy. He’s a bull, that man. I’ve heard stories about him. A regular bull!’
‘Yes. Well, you’ve got to remember one thing, Dan,’ Leventhal’s spirits dropped suddenly. ‘Someone like that can make trouble for me. He can have me blacklisted. You’ve got to realise ... Eh, can he?’
Incidental as it is to the main plot, this episode demonstrates again Bellow’s uncanny facility for encapsulating an atmosphere. Here was the America of the immediate postwar: the most powerful and proud and strong nation in the history of the world. It had just demonstrated thermonuclear supremacy and – at what was literally a knock-down price – acquired an empire. It had no serious adversary, foreign or domestic. Yet at this precise moment (‘There were blacklists; that was well-known. After all, Rudiger was influential, powerful. And who knew how these things were done, through what channels?’) the whole suffocating business of loyalty oaths and heresy hunts began to disfigure an entire culture. The obvious and immediate answer to this conundrum – that there was nothing imaginary about the ghastliness of Stalinism – is insufficient. The Cold War was fought just as hard in France or Germany or England, but without the same grotesque paranoia or the chilling readiness to surrender liberty and believe the absurd. The enduring interest of this period is the light it throws, or fails to throw, on the matter of American insecurity.
Whittaker Chambers is the essential symptomatic miniature here. And, when we consider how he unwittingly saved Saul Bellow for American letters, we are guided in the right direction. Much of the Chambers story has to do with unintended consequences. And it can be viewed as a quasi-literary narrative. Chambers himself appears as a fiercely dedicated and principled character – a penitent ex-Soviet agent named Gifford Maxim – in Lionel Trilling’s novel, The Middle of the Journey (also published in 1947). He is the precipitating agent, in another sense of that term, in Alistair Cooke’s great account of the time, Generation on Trial. He was the man who made Richard Nixon’s self-serving book, Six Crises (a ‘campaign book’ for an entire career), possible in the first place. Witness, his own work, had a marked influence on Arthur Koestler and on Czeslaw Milosz and is, indeed, the nativist American equivalent of Darkness at Noon or The Captive Mind. With its ostentatious religiosity and its relentless emphasis on redemption and conversion – and its subplot concerning the triumph of the plain man over the devious intellectuals and sinister pointy-heads – it was one of the building blocks for McCarthyism, for the Goldwater campaign and for what eventually became the ‘Reagan revolution’.
Vol. 19 No. 17 · 4 September 1997
From Sam Tanenhaus
In his analysis of Whittaker Chamber’s testimony against Alger Hiss, Christopher Hitchens implies that it arose ex nihilo amid the hysterias of the early Cold War (LRB, 31 July). Not so. As my biography of Chambers clearly states, in summer 1939, within days of the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact, Chambers met with Adolf Berle (Franklin Roosevelt’s chief intelligence officer) and confessed his secret Communist activity in 1932-38, naming many New Deal contacts, including Hiss, and making it very clear they were espionage agents. His reason for tattling was his fear – encouraged by his fellow defector Walter Krivitsky – that intelligence data sent from Washington to Moscow would now also find its way to Berlin. After hearing Chambers out, Berle, no alarmist, promptly put the White House and the FBI on alert. But to Berle’s dismay and Chambers’s astonishment, no meaningful steps were taken. The spies remained in place; indeed some, principally Hiss, soared ever higher up the State Department ladder. Chambers concluded, not unreasonably, that the Government was more interested in protecting spies than in prosecuting them and might choose to settle the problem by punishing informers like himself. No wonder he later toned down his allegations, releasing only bits of the story – until, of course, Hiss, after a delay that proved embarrassing to his supporters, at last lodged a slander suit in response to Chambers’s testimony to Nixon’s committee in 1948. Thereupon Chambers produced incriminating documents whose authenticity was conceded by the Hiss defence in the first perjury trial.
Hitchens compliments me on making ‘the demented sequence and evolution of Chambers’s actions into something intelligible’ but, as he grudgingly concedes, the sequence was not ‘demented’ at all. At each stage, Chambers reacted plausibly to events as they dizzily piled up. Sometimes he overdid it, but not irrationally. Even his celebrated formulation ‘that the Communists were on the winning side of history’ was not inconsistent with the prevailing wisdom of the day, at least to judge from the public statements of Dean Acheson and George Kennan, the chief architects of the ‘containment policy’ adopted by the United States in the late Forties, when it looked as if Stalin might be set on a course of empire-building in imitation of Hitler’s prior efforts. If Chambers was crazy, then so were many others. Hitchens mentions Chambers’s influence on Koestler and Milosz. He might also have mentioned those who expressed their admiration for Chambers’s literary and intellectual gifts, and who shared his intense anti-Communism: Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook, Meyer Schapiro, Rebecca West, Murray Kempton. Not one of these doubted the truth of Chambers’s testimony against Hiss.
It is true, as Hitchens says, that Chambers lived ‘a series of lies for almost a decade’. But what about Hiss, whose duplicities were sustained for more than sixty years, from the time he joined the CP in 1934 (at the latest) until his death last year, aged 92? Through it all, he remained impenitent, insouciant, arrogant – to the detriment of his own credibility and of the reputation of such distinguished supporters as Acheson and Felix Frankfurter. Worse still, Hiss badly damaged, and at a crucial time, the larger cause of New Deal liberalism, an offence not lightly forgiven by a much younger liberal (not ‘neo-conservative’) such as myself.
According to Hitchens, ‘Tanenhaus simply makes the assumption … that Hiss was lying and Chambers was telling the truth.’ This is absurd. Nearly half of a very long book, with 77 pages of closely printed notes, is given over to the complex evidential questions of the Hiss case, including the issues raised by new documents from Budapest, Moscow and Washington. This research underlies my conclusion that Hiss was guilty as charged. It is Hitchens, not I, who remains impervious to the claims of evidence.
Incidentally, it was a novel by Heinrich Mann, not Thomas, which Chambers brought into English.
Tarrytown, New York
From Robert Ostermann
Christopher Hitchens’s salute to Murray Kempton recalls an ‘encounter’ I once had with the great journalist. Kempton inspired my newspaper years, as he did those of many novices. In a manner that would have amused him, he was also instrumental in my dismissal from the editorship of the Catholic Review published by the Baltimore Catholic archdiocese. The year was, I think, 1960, and national health insurance was a red flag to the defenders of privilege and of a doctor’s right to unlimited prosperity. Borrowing Kempton’s arguments for my editorial one week, I said poor and underpaid Americans should have necessary medical treatment even if they could not afford it and that help from the Government was long overdue. The Baltimore establishment, with the help of affluent local John Birchers and other ilk, rolled out a few heavyweight patriots to call me a ‘Communist’. The Archbishop, deciding such thinking was out of place in the archdiocese, fired me. My citing Murray Kempton as a witness for the pertinence of my editorial position was not applauded by the Archbishop’s minions. In my spectacular ignorance, I had not realised that establishments elsewhere were busy maligning Kempton with the same label.
Vol. 19 No. 18 · 18 September 1997
From James Hamilton
Christopher Hitchens, in his review of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (LRB, 31 July), notes Alger Hiss’s testimony before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in August 1948 that he had not technically known Chambers during their association in the mid-Thirties, only ‘George Crosley’, one of Chambers’s pseudonyms. Hitchens observes that ‘not since Oscar Wilde regretted the ugliness of his serving boy while under oath has any cleverly crafted reply exacted such a stiff price.’ What he does not mention is that while Chambers at first denied to the Committee ever having resorted to using a pseudonym with Hiss, he admitted to the FBI in June 1949 that it was ‘entirely possible’ he had done so. Chambers also claimed that he had never used the ‘Crosley’ alias during his years as a member of the Communist underground and insisted that he had always been ‘Carl’ to his espionage contacts in the Federal Government, which he alleged included Hiss, speaking to them in a heavy European accent at all times. If Chambers used ‘George Crosley’ rather than ‘Carl’ with Hiss, for whatever reasons, it suggests that Hiss was not a Russian spy.