A Regular Bull

Christopher Hitchens

  • 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’.

Yet the man at the centre of it was anything but the simple, honest all-American type. Chambers was an intellectual of a sort, and a poet and writer of some gifts. To an extent probably greater than his more ‘educated’ antagonist Alger Hiss, he was in thrall to the potency of ideas. And he never doubted his own centrality: his sometimes subjective and at other times objective importance as an instrument of history. He had, in every declension of the word, a rich and vivid imagination. In consequence, melodrama and bathos were always close at hand.

Born into a family of astonishing dysfunction (a gay father, a brittle and over-protective mother, the deplorable and never-to-be-forgiven birth-name Vivian, alcoholic and suicidal siblings) Chambers could well have become a drifter if he had not signed on at Columbia University and been noticed by Mark Van Doren. Even though he dropped out of Columbia, and joined the Communist Party in the unpropitious year of 1925 (excited typically into this decision by one gripping Lenin pamphlet discovered in a secondhand bookshop), he was always to be able to win a living by his pen. He was a fine translator as well as writer, and brought some works of Thomas Mann and Franz Werfel into English. Only a paltry nickel-and-dime dispute lost him the commission to complete Scott-Moncrieff’s version of A la recherche du temps perdu. (As you reel from this thought, reflect that instead he attained immortality by his translation of the Austrian folk tale Bambi, which carried a moist Foreword from John Galsworthy.)

This was the literary bridge that carried Chambers from relative hackdom on the Daily Worker to pre-eminence at the Stalinist flagship of letters, The New Masses. Indeed it was his usefulness and ability in this department that got him rehabilitated by the Party apparat. He had been briefly unpersoned by Stalin’s purge of the generally pro-Bukharin leadership of the American Communist Party – known to history and to aficionados as the Lovestone faction – but his talent as a ‘proletarian writer’ gained his re-admission. Some of his short stories were at least as good as the early Steinbeck. He also took a Party wife, a devoted Russian-born loyalist named Esther Shemitz. She seems to have supplied him with two sorts of cover, since his recruitment for ‘special work’ by the newly Sovietised Party overlapped in time with his discovery, or perhaps better say ‘self-admission’, that he was a homosexual. Opportunities for anonymous meetings, rapid switches of identity and habituation to the world of the covert signal and the shared code were to increase as the crisis of the Thirties became deeper. From his shabby rural retreat in Maryland, he made various theatrical forays into New Deal Washington, where sympathisers with the Great Soviet Experiment were not wanting. Tanenhaus calculates that between about 1931 and 1937, when he toiled for the Fourth Department of Russian military intelligence, he had been ‘without a fixed identity, lived at a total of 21 different addresses, had signed false names to leases, passports and cheques, had invented aliases for his wife and children, had paid no income tax’. His main triumph in Washington was his penetration of the Department of Agriculture and its New Deal farm plans, though, as a comrade of mine points out, contemporary Soviet agricultural policy does not seem to have profited much by the penetration.

It’s not absolutely clear whether, when he read a transcript of the Moscow trials in 1937, Chambers was more affected by fear than revulsion. At any rate, he underwent an excruciating self-examination. He had not failed to notice that other members of his subterranean fraternity, when recalled to Moscow, had a marked tendency to check out. (One such ‘disappeared’ member, Donald Robinson, falsely accused of contact with Trotsky in Mexico, later turned up in Hiss’s handwritten notes of the period and is the reason some on the left have always doubted Hiss’s word.) Chambers contrived to separate himself from the clandestine Communist world and, after a short period of indigence, find a roost at Time magazine in 1939. There, he quickly won golden opinions by executing what must have been a very delicate commission – a cover story on James Joyce and Finnegans Wake.

So by the time that Chambers fired Bellow in 1945, he was himself in the very middle of his journey. He had led a shadowy life in which he dreaded two varieties of exposure. He had been badly frightened, both physically and morally. He had moved in circles where a heterodox opinion on the Wordsworth question could be a deadly serious matter. He was still liable, under American law, to charges as a spy for Stalin. And he was still ostensibly scared of his former employers. A colleague in the Time books department named Sam Welles offered him lunch and met with repeated rebuffs. Finally agreeing to the date, Chambers took Welles through a nightmarish midtown routine, getting on and off subways, ducking through crowded shops to shake off tails and eventually eating lunch in silence at the Empire State Building. He later opened his jacket to show Welles the gun he was carrying, and said that he thought the lunch proposal might have been a set-up for a Soviet ambush. But at this stage, mark well, Chambers was still unknown outside literary circles and had made no charges against anyone.

This excellent book is intended as a biography and not as a study of the Hiss-Chambers case (which has generated a vast secondary literature of its own). Tanenhaus simply makes the assumption, increasingly common among American intellectuals, that Hiss was lying and Chambers was telling the truth. But his narration makes it perfectly easy to understand why so many people at the time took the opposing view. Let’s see now. An unstable fantasy-merchant signs up as an agent of Joseph Stalin. He lives a series of lies for almost a decade, and cultivates the habits and practices of deception. He then tries to go straight, and denounces his former comrades. But he steadfastly denies that Communists and fellow-travellers were involved in spy work. Then, as the Cold War pressure-cooker heats up, he remembers that there was some espionage after all. He lends himself to the most depraved right-wing circles, whose real objective is the undoing of the New Deal and the imposition of a politically conformist America. He amends and updates his story. Eventually, under what amounts to a threat to make good on his allegations – a threat issuing from the ambitious and neurotic Richard Nixon – he finds evidence against Alger Hiss hidden inside a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. Has there ever been a more discreditable or less probable tale?

Add to this two further elements: the elements of class and sex. Alger Hiss was not exactly a patrician but he had been a law clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; he had been one of the bright boys of the Roosevelt New Deal and he had been energetic and instrumental in setting up two of the pillars of the postwar liberal American imperial order – the United Nations and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was handsome and lively and charming withal. Was it bearable that such a man should be brought down and trampled, on the word of a bulbous, paranoid deadbeat? I met Alger Hiss a few times and was impressed, as it seems most people were, by his manners and bearing and address. On the last occasion on which I saw him, the dinner-table was a convention of all that is noblest in the New York left-wing tradition. (I do not name names.) As coffee-time drew near, I whispered sarcastically to the hostess: ‘Why don’t we secure the doors and say: “Look, Alger, it’s just us. Come on. You’re among friends. Tell us why you really did it.” ’ She gave me a look, and a pinch, which eloquently conveyed the words Don’t Even Think About It. And it’s true that this has long been, for many people, a loyalty oath of its own. If Hiss was wrong, then Nixon and McCarthy were right. And that could not be.

The element of sex is supplied by the fascination which Hiss evidently possessed for Chambers. He repeatedly cried out that he admired him and didn’t wish to injure him – only his Communist masters. He was suspected by some of harbouring a passion for the more lithe, easy, boyish rival. It was in the course of his depositions to the FBI in the matter that he came clean about his own homosexual life: a disclosure that in another context could have meant that it was he and not a former comrade who was in the dock. Hiss’s partisans pointed meaningly to one of the Franz Werfel books translated by Chambers: a story entitled Class Reunion, in which a charming and successful boy is ruined by the false witness of a jealous schoolmate. In the circumstances, the most wounding thing that Hiss could conceivably have said was the thing that he actually did say – that he had never even met anyone ‘named’ Whittaker Chambers. This lofty claim is believed by some to have been a legal technicality on which the hitherto unimpeachable Hiss got himself impeached by his own arrogance. He had indeed not met anyone so ‘named’, because Chambers had gone under pseudonyms all his life and most especially during his years as a spy. He was going under the moniker of George Crosley when Hiss knew him. Not since Oscar Wilde regretted the ugliness of his serving boy while under oath has any cleverly crafted reply exacted such a stiff price.

One of these days I’m going to write a book called ‘Guilty as Hell: A Short History of the American Left’. Revisionism has cut great roads through the causes célèbres of the bien pensants. Where are we now? Joe Hill probably guilty as charged, according to Wallace Stegner. Sacco and Vanzetti darker horses than we thought. The Rosenbergs at least half-guilty. Most of the Black Panthers (always excepting those murdered by the FBI) amazingly guilty. The McNamara brothers certainly guilty. The Haymarket martyrs probably innocent, and the later Chicago conspiracy defendants also, even if they tried their best to be guilty. Mitigation is supplied by the fact that many of these former heroes and heroines were framed whether they were guilty or not – even J. Edgar Hoover was disgusted by the court’s treatment of the Rosenbergs – and by the fact that many anonymous Wobblies and civil rights workers were brutally railroaded without a murmur. There is also my companion volume to bear in mind. (It’s to be called ‘Soft on Crime: The American Right from Nixon to North’.) What you learn is that an honourable fealty is easily corruptible into base utilitarianism: the injunction becomes one of ‘not giving ammunition to the enemy’. In some cases, though not in the present one, this is a rough translation from ‘not in front of the goyim’. Of course, a really determined denial of ammunition to the enemy could have licensed the abandonment of Hiss, in order to thwart Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy and thus accomplish a greater good. But this historically justifiable tactic did not recommend itself even to people who had swallowed the Moscow trials without gagging, and who had explained away the Hitler-Stalin Pact (which Chambers opposed, while predicting that Hitler would break it before Stalin would) in easy phrases. As ever, one discovers that those who boast of taking the long view of history are hopelessly wedded to the short-term.

The McCarthy period is doubly ridiculous from this perspective, because it involved apparently intelligent people in contending, as a matter of principle, either that American liberals were really Communists or that American Communists were really liberals. Not everybody matches this brainless Cold War identikit. I.F. Stone never believed that the Rosenbergs were pathetic innocents, and the late and dearly mourned Murray Kempton always thought that Hiss must have been in touch with Moscow Centre, and both of these men were tougher opponents of McCarthy than the Communist Party, with its evasions and euphemisms, ever was. Nor does this exhaust the ironies. Whittaker Chambers earnestly counselled William Buckley and the fledgling National Review to steer clear of Joe McCarthy and his thuggish tactics. Buckley and his supporters flatly ignored this advice from the man they acclaimed as their Founding Father. So that the chief lesson learned and inculcated on the right – the supposed superiority of the American populist Volk over the untrustworthy and even treasonable intellectuals – is easily shown to be silly, and nasty, and void.

It must be said for Tanenhaus, who on intuitive and other evidence is a neo-conservative of some stripe, that he makes the demented sequence and evolution of Chambers’s actions into something intelligible. Why did he deny that there had been ‘treason’ in Washington for such a suspiciously long time? Because he had been a part of what he later alleged, and because the statute of limitations had not expired. Why did he hold back his clinching evidence? Because he thought he needed an insurance policy or ace-in-the-hole. Why did he stuff the material into a pumpkin? Because he was a paranoid solipsist. Why did he fear assassination? Because he knew of other defectors who had fallen victim to ‘wet-jobs’. Why did he act as if he was Jesus of Nazareth when he was only being used as a launching-pad by the unscrupulous Nixon? Because he still thought that the Communists were on the winning side of history. This crazy salad of moves and motives, alternately loopy and rational, is somehow more believable for being absurd. And always there is the clumsy gallantry towards Hiss himself: the slightly creepy element of more in sorrow than in anger. Having given the decisive evidence of Hiss’s handwriting to Nixon, Chambers made a determined attempt to kill himself. When Hiss was released from Lewisburg Penitentiary, after serving 44 months for perjury, Chambers refused to write a lucrative article on the event and quoted Marvell: ‘He nothing common did or mean/Upon that memorable scene.’ The ode, remember, was to Cromwell but the bow was to King Charles I. With Chambers and Hiss, it can be hard to determine which was the Roundhead and which the Cavalier.

As soon as possible after the collapse of Communism, Hiss asked the Russian authorities to look in their files and clear his name which, under the stewardship of the late General Dmitri Volkogonov, they briefly did. This impressed a good number of people: why would Hiss take the risk of asking for a search in the first place? However, subsequent disclosures from the Hungarian archives, chiefly concerning the bewildering quadruple agent Noel Field, and from the Venona NKVD traffic don’t look so hot from the defence point of view. Devotees of the case may want to fault Tanenhaus for repeating what earlier witnesses told Allen Weinstein for his book, Perjury, and for taking the Hungarian papers at their face value, while excluding some second thoughts in both cases. There is no reason this argument should not continue until the last person who remembers it has expired.

Of William Wordsworth’s desertion, Browning wrote that he did it ‘just for a handful of silver’ and ‘just for a ribbon to stick in his coat’. That was probably unfair to Wordsworth and would be quite inadequate as a condemnation or explanation of Chambers. Of his own renunciation, Chambers said: ‘I am a man who is very reluctantly and grudgingly, step by step, destroying myself so that this nation and the faith by which it lives may continue to exist.’ This was the atrocious style the Cold War had taught him. He was capable of much better stuff. In 1951, he was commissioned to write a long essay on Graham Greene, but after a month’s work told his editor he couldn’t do it because he was too immersed in Witness. The review was to have been of The End of the Affair. What a shame that he never turned it in.