By Jeff Kisseloff
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 American publishing - 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. 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."
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." Dismayingly,
the new New Republic essay seems at best casually
researched, and is repeatedly at variance with known facts.
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 what
is troublesome is that, 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…."
they follow an introduction in which Tanenhaus expresses
admiration for George Orwell, the British journalist whose
"Nineteen-Eighty Four" is a firm 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
classic 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 real 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.
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 deconstruct a range of essays and books that build their
arguments against Hiss on fantasy and falsehood. But it's
one thing to correct the misrepresentations of a known exaggerator
such as Ann Coulter (click here to read "101 Errors
in Ann Coulter's 'Treason'"); it's
far more sobering to watch a National Book Award and Pulitzer
Prize finalist undermine his own reputation for meticulous
scholarship and cool detachment.
Here then is our comparison of the statements in "From
Whittaker Chambers to George Bush" to the facts.
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
* 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 states 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
* 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."This
is proclaiming guilt by association. 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.
* Although Tanenhaus says that Hiss' membership in these
cells was "well known," 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.
For more on Weyl's testimony, click here.
"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
* 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
* Tanenhaus writes that Hiss's agility made him "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
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
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 memoir, "The Beginning of The Journey,"
in which she also says that Harry Hopkins, Roosevelts 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 seminal mysteries of the Hiss Case – how
Chambers got hold of the State Department papers he used
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 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
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
reports of "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
* 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:
saw history being written not in terms of what happened
but of what ought to 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.