An Un-American Life

‘An Un-American Life: The Case of Whittaker Chambers’ by Sam Tanenhaus; Old Street Publishing, 2007. 672pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 9 June 2007

ST refuses to be drawn. On anything. I have come to interview him about his re-released book ‘Whitaker Chambers: An Un-American Life’ exploring and explaining the lives and times of the key players during the McCarthy period in post-war America. His new introduction mentions that ‘distressingly little has changed’ in the way that politics is played out, but, he says, he doesn’t want to draw any symbolic connections between now and then. ‘It is simply a history book,’ he says, ‘there’s no message.’

Whittaker Chambers was a communist party member in the 1920s. He and the other main actors in this particular story, like Alger Hiss, were leftists residing at the heart of F D Roosevelt’s Washington administration. Predominantly based in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), several reputed Communist Party members also worked at the Dept of State, the Labor and Public Welfare Committee and the War Office. These underground activists carried out espionage activities and couriered information to the Soviet Union during the 1930s. However, as they became more disillusioned with the Soviet regime (especially given the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact of 1939) Chambers in particular, was worried by the fact that several spies had not returned from their missions.

Chambers turned in late 1939. He rejected his political past and pointed the finger at a large number of active agents, including Lauchlin Currie, a special assistant to the president and Alger Hiss in the State Department. It is the Hiss trial that forms the backdrop to this story and as far as ST is concerned, that trial, and the subsequent interpretation of Hiss’ and Chambers’ integrity, that has created modern American conservatism. Chambers’ book ‘Witness’ written in 1952, about the case and the dangers both of liberalism and communism, is reputedly the inspiration behind Ronald Reagan’s conversion from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican.

While Chambers admitted to being a spy and then became an informer; Hiss voluntarily appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to deny ever being a Communist. ST is attempting to right the wrong that he feels stems from Chambers being seen as a slovenly, unkempt, snitch, while Hiss is often portrayed as smart, intelligent man who kept his own counsel.

Intriguingly, Hiss continued in his job – joining the delegation at Yalta and opposing Stalin’s demands for more votes in the newly formed UN Security Council – even though Chambers had mentioned (rather than accused) him way back in September 1939. Hiss even received the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1946 where he worked until his indictment in 1948. He was eventually charged with perjury (given that the statute of limitations on the espionage charges had run out) serving three and a half years in Lewisburg Federal Prison. He was to outlive Chambers by 35 years and died one year before this book was published. ST is at pains to point out that, having researched the subject for seven years, this was coincidental, rather than legally shrewd.

ST has been the editor of the New York Times Book Review since his appointment in 2004 and his department is currently preparing to move, with the rest of his newspaper’s staff, into the spectacular new skyscraper office designed by Renzo Piano being constructed off Times Square. Somewhat less glamorously, his UK publisher, Old Street Publishing has arranged for us to meet in the Red Star gallery, surrounded by magnificent portraits of Lenin and Stalin. ST bears out the caricature that Americans don’t do irony, and appeared slightly bemused, slightly aghast at my interest in the socialist-realist images which I told him was a fitting backdrop to our interview.

The irony continued when, in echoes of McCarthy, Tanenhaus insisted that I recite a sentence (that he dictated to me) before agreeing to continue with the interview: “I want you to say,’ he said, ‘that “the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people”’. My casual observance that I wasn’t aware the exact number of deaths, caused him paroxysms, but I was happy to admit – why wouldn’t I – that millions were killed by Stalin and the Soviet system. ST relaxed only to bristle at my admission that I am, and ever have been, a Marxist. From then on, I was treated like a hostile witness.

ST is dismissive of so-called new evidence that has come to light since publishing the book to indicate that Hiss might have been innocent. ‘I’m not reappraising Hiss. He was absolutely guilty.’ So what motivated Hiss to deny his guilt until he died? ‘Well,’ says ST, ‘as Arthur Schlessinger said, he was probably adamant because he had involved other state officials and wanted not to tarnish them. Anyway,’ he continued, ‘guilt or innocence is beyond the point of this book. I look at the inseparability between the New Deal progressives and Hiss’ commitment to the Soviet utopia. This book is about the costliness of ideology.’

ST then explained the difference between the benign intellectualism of Marx versus the practical horrors of Leninism. ‘Marx’s criticism of capitalism is incredibly valuable’, he says, but ‘when criticism becomes action, that’s when ideology becomes a problem.’ ST’s point is to reclaim the unknown Whittaker Chambers – the post-war individual who opposed communism and liberalism, but also grew to reject the excesses of McCarthy because it gave anti-communism a bad name. It was Chambers’ little known refusal – in the latter years of his life – to engage in Manichean politics, that ST admires and wants to get across.

Whatever ST said to the contrary, he seemed to be clearly making some parallels. His new introduction raises his concerns with the way that the end of Cold War certainties has led to the substitution of ‘Islamofascism’ for ‘Communist’ to give didactic meaning and continuity.

He says that he is ‘embarrassed’, he says, ‘by Bush’s aggressive nationalism… because we (the American administration) are bullies and we distrust scepticism.’ This, he believes, is a historic hangover of the polarised postwar agenda arising out of the HUAC trials. As to whether there was anything specific about the contemporary period in America – whether the US is now less certain about its role than in the postwar period or the Sixties – he thought not. WMD was our Gulf of Tonkin, he says: ‘There is nothing new about the crisis of identity, it’s been going on for a long time…. The Iraq war suffers from the same Manichean approach that affected the postwar world.’ His great hope is that the growing ‘community’ of anti-war activists will be guided by non-ideological, non-confrontational protest, and can work within the system to fashion real change. If they are really challenging the direction of the state, while working within the system, the irony would be rich indeed. Once again, he didn’t get it.

ST is a liberal, of sorts, whose political analysis resembles the consensual trajectory spelled out in Barack Obama’s ‘Audacity of Hope.’ But just as with the practical repercussions of Obama’s middle class, middle way, Tanenhaus comes across as particularly hostile to the wrong type of consensus and unwilling to commit for fear of sounding dogmatic or ideological. When I asked him whether he was a fan of Obama, he simply replied: ‘I think he has a terrific complexion.’ When I asked whether he thought that the threats of sackings against state climatologists in America for not towing the global warming line was in any way comparable to McCarthy witch-hunts, he dodged again and simply expressed his bemusement that a ‘left-winger like you would argue that climate change isn’t happening.’ (I didn’t by the way). In the end of an exhausting interview, I came away wondering how such an interesting book could have been produced by such a seemingly disinterested, non-committal individual.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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