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Sam Tanenhaus
Sam Tanenhaus
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Part 2
ISBN: 0375751459
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Part 2
Sam Tanenhaus discussed his book, "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography," published by Random House. Whittaker Chambers was a communist author and Soviet agent in his youth and later became a writer at Time. He was the main witness in the case against Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. In this portion, Mr. Tanenhaus talked about some of his covert activities and his accusations against Alger Hiss. This was the second half of a two-hour interview.
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Part 2
Program Air Date: March 2, 1997

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Sam Tanenhaus, as we start our second hour on Whittaker Chambers, which is the title of your book, if he were here, what would you ask him?
Mr. SAM TANENHAUS, AUTHOR, "WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: A BIOGRAPHY": I would ask him if there might have been another way for him, at his moment of real despair in the 1920s, besides the Communist Party, to find salvation. I would ask him if, in the end, might he not have been more fully satisfied and fulfilled if he had become the writer he was really meant to be. And even as I asked him that question, though, I would know that he would have a one-word answer for me, "Witness." There's a paradox to "Witness."
LAMB: The book.
Mr. TANENHAUS: The book. Had Chambers not been a Communist, he would not have had that story to tell. Had he not been a literary man, he wouldn't have made it so interesting. So Chambers, in a sense, found fulfillment in writing that book and in his last writings, his letters to William Buckley, published as "Odyssey of a Friend," by joining those two sides of his nature together.

And I would ask him if there might not have been some other way to do that aside from having gotten involved in this extreme ideology and the--the illegal actions of it. The illegality itself I don't think is really very important. That doesn't say so much about him. It's the knowing consequences that he undertook; that he realized when he was spying for the Soviets, for Stalin that people were being killed possibly as a result of the work he did. It's quite similar to the Aldrich Ames case. This is someone who knew very well what he was doing. It was also the case of Alger Hiss. And I would just wonder how someone like Chambers, with not only literary gifts but literary sensibility--he was really more a poet, religious person, than political operative--if he, in the end, might not have found a better path through writing.
LAMB: For those that didn't see the first part, you're a Grinnell College graduate, live in Tarrytown, New York, 41 years old, married, have how many children?
Mr. TANENHAUS: One child, a daughter.
LAMB: How old is she?
Mr. TANENHAUS: She will turn five on Saturday, which is a great event in our household, not the publication of this book.
LAMB: Now the writing of this book--how long did it physically take you to write it?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It took about five years to write. I began in 1990 and had a first draft approximately twice the length of what you've got at the end of those five years. I then reduced it by a third, from roughly 1,600 pages to 1,200; showed that to my editor Bob Loomis, who said I had to cut some more because the book would be too expensive and there were dead spots. Both the beginning and end dragged on too long. This often happens with biographers who are so excited to discover minutia that they falsely assume their readers will be interested in it, too.
LAMB: Six hundred and thirty-eight pages. How many words? You ever count them?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It's--well, text, it's about 200,000, and notes I have not calculated. They ran to I think 120 pages in on typewritten pages. The manuscript, with notes, after I had edited it, was about 1,000 pages.
LAMB: The one thing about Whittaker Chambers that you keep reading about throughout the entire book is constant references to his teeth.
LAMB: Why?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Because they seemed to make him, from a very early age, different from the people around him. His acquaintance, Lionel Trilling, was astonished by Chambers' teeth when he met Chambers at college, at Columbia, because hi--and Trilling writes in an essay that Chambers really looked like he belonged to the proletariat. He looked like the kind of student radical who should be throwing a canister into the coach of the Russian czar. He really looked like a revolutionary, and Chambers was very proud of that.

And later, when he became a successful journalist, long after he'd left the party, he actually had his teeth fixed. And that was a sign, an emblem, to himself and others that he had become a bourgeois, more ordinary man. And then, later, during the Hiss case, when it was not clear as yet whether Alger Hiss really recognized his accuser, he partly identified Chambers by his terrible teeth.

And interestingly, Hiss, who was a very fastidious and elegant man, beautifully groomed, was really disturbed by Chambers' teeth. Even when--he denied having known him very well or having been a Communist with him, he talked quite freely about Chambers' dental ruin. It was a kind of obsession of Hiss'. And that's why--one reason that that theme resurfaces in the book.
LAMB: How many different aliases did he have in his life?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I think at one point, I came up with a dozen or 15. His first alias he used as a teen-ager when he ran away from home and called himself Charles Adams, which was a very Chambersian name to take. He was a great admirer of the Adamses: Henry Adams, John Quincy, John Adams and Brooks Adams. And also his mother's father, who died before Whittaker was born but whom Chambers revered as a kind of family legacy, as a hero of his childhood, was named Charles Whittaker.

Whittaker Chambers is an alias. His real name was Jay Vivian Chambers. So even the name we know him by was an alias. He took succession of aliases while a Soviet agent then, usually only single first names. He was Bob or Carl because these names were familiar or, actually, duplicated the names other Communists used and so would confuse any counter surveyors who might be trailing him.

And Chambers loved this. This is one of the--the things he liked about communism was the romance of conspiracy; changing names, changing accents. Sometimes he would speak as if he really came from Germany or Russia. He was a gifted linguist. This was easy for him to do. He spoke German, according to the wife of his friend James Agee, the great writer, with perfect inflection.

He--grammatically, he would make errors now and again, but he sounded as if he came from Germany. So Chambers loved all this, all the disguises, all the mystifications that went with being an underground agent.
LAMB: What about the name David Breen?
Mr. TANENHAUS: David Breen--you reminded me of another one. That was a name he found o--I should describe how he came up with some of these more complicated names, because it's an interesting aspect of the underground; kind of spooky, really. Chambers was going to be sent to England to help form what was called an apparatus, an underground unit, in London. He was going to pose as a literary agent running an office whose New York headquarters was run by Maxim Lebur, one of the most successful literary agents of the day and also a Communist.

In order to go to England, Chambers needed a passport, and the way Communists got passports--Chambers did not do this himself; colleagues of his did--was, they went to the genealogical room of the New York public library and they combed back newspapers from about the time the agent in question was born. Chambers was born in 1901, so researchers looked for obituaries of children who had died shortly after 1901, say, from a range of 1905 to 1910, because once they found that deceased name, the agent could, using that name, write a letter to the passport bureau or, actually, the state registry of births and deaths and request his own, so to speak, death certificate and birth certificate. And with those two documents, in those days, it was sufficient to get a passport.

So the name they found was David Breen. There was a David Breen who had been born around the time Chambers was who died in the early 1900s. So Chambers, posing as David Breen, was able to get a passport to travel to London. And that actual passport exists. It's in the Alger Hiss archive at Harvard University. And that's how he achieved or arrived at the double names he sometimes used.
LAMB: By the way, is Harvard sympathetic to Alger Hiss?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, that's an interesting question. At the time of the case, certainly, they were. The Harvard Corporation, then newly formed in 1948, had only five members. One of its members was William Marbury, who was Hiss' lawyer. Now this is the kind of thing that has to be dispelled because it surrounds the mythology of this case.

William Marbury was a very distinguished attorney. He'd worked for the War Department; he had negotiated trades in Geneva after the war. He was not a Communist, although he defended Alger Hiss, although he was a longtime friend of Hiss. And Marbury later said, by the way, had he been shown the evidence the jury was, he would have convicted Hiss.

But he was a defender of Hiss and so was James Conant, then the president of Harvard University. And Conant saw something with great prescience and shrewdness. As soon as the case broke, he said, `If Hiss does not sue Chambers for slander and win this case, then the State Department and academics will henceforth be subject to witch-hunts.'

What's interesting about that is that James Conant, unconsciously perhaps, saw academicians and State Department officials as almost interchangeable figures. That is, they seemed to come from the same place. Cambridge--the State Department seemed an extension of Cambridge University, and that was the sentiment that Joseph McCarthy so shrewdly saw; that whether or not these people were Communists, they were all liberals and they all liked Alger Hiss and they'd all gone to Harvard, just as he had done, and so there must be something festering there. There's something not right in government.
LAMB: We talked about you being a secular liberal. Are you still a liberal after all this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I would say I'm a chastened liberal. Chambers taught me a lot. One thing he taught me is that what I long assumed to be fact and truths were simply assumptions. Even someone like McCarthy, I had to re-evaluate. It was not enough to say, `Joe McCarthy is a villain.' One has to understand where McCarthy came from, why he was successful, why so many people supported him, including some intellectuals. People like Sidney Hook and Lionel Trilling and Irving Crystal withheld their judgment, initially, about McCarthy.

And so I learned that these matters that were cut and dried really were not; they had to be re-examined. On the other hand, I think Chambers himself never really understood liberalism. He never understood that liberalism is not just a pale version of radical communism; that there is a kind of free-thinking, humane liberalism that sometimes he would show sympathy for. For instance, when he wrote his famous cover story on Reinhold Niebuhr for the 25th anniversary of Time magazine.
LAMB: Who was Reinhold Niebuhr?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was a theologian and also intellectual historian. He was the great conscience of the anti-Communist liberals of the post-war era. He was very influential with Arthur Schlesinger, for instance--admired Niebuhr very much. So did Chambers and many others who had come to question the extremes that progressive liberalism had taken but still believed in liberal principles. When Chambers wrote about Niebuhr, he wrote very sympathetically and insightfully about Niebuhr, the liberal.
LAMB: Let me go over quickly, for those who didn't see the first hour or haven't followed this case at all, Whittaker Chambers lived what years?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was born in 1901 and died in 1961.
LAMB: Where was he born?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Long Island--Lynbrook, Long Island.
LAMB: On Earl Avenue?
Mr. TANENHAUS: On Earl Avenue--228 Earl Avenue. The house still stands.
LAMB: Did you go back to see it?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, I did, and spoke with the current residents and took photos of it, saw the rooms that Chambers and his family inhabited.
LAMB: What other places did you go connected with this writing?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, I spent a lot of time in Washington. I looked at the hearing rooms where Chambers testified. He testified in two, the Ways and Means room and the House caucus room, the two largest auditoriums on Capitol Hill. I looked at the houses where he had known Alger Hiss. There are four of them in the Georgetown area.
LAMB: Twenty-eighth Street?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. There was one on Balta Place, there was one on 30th Street...
LAMB: One on O?
Mr. TANENHAUS: And one on O Street, yes. Very good. I also went to Baltimore and saw the houses where Chambers had lived while an underground agent there and also the area where Hiss had grown up. This is also--also a Baltimore story. Chambers and Hiss both lived in Baltimore. His was a native son of Baltimore. Chambers lived there for a while in the middle '30s. He liked Baltimore. It was--it--quieter than Washington, more of a small town, and he liked the Southern aroma of it. And so I saw a good deal of that city. New York...
LAMB: Does that help, by the way?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh, yes, it helps tremendously. It's enabled me to include some of the details that I think that are important to the telling of the story--very small details, but make it richer, I think. It was interesting to know that Chambers, in 1934, while a lowly paid functionary of the Communist underground, lived in a beautiful brownstone right near the Walker Art Gallery--Walter's Art Gallery in Baltimore.

It was interesting to know that, to see that in that world and in the Depression era, Chambers was actually doing pretty well for himself. Even though he was in the margins of society, he was enjoying many bourgeois comforts.
LAMB: Let me go back again to what he did. You...
LAMB: Where'd he go to college?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He went to college first at Williams, which he left after three days, I think, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and then at Columbia. And that was a formative experience in his life--Columbia University in uptown Manhattan.
LAMB: Told us he became a Communist in 1925...
LAMB: For how long?
Mr. TANENHAUS: For 13 years, until 1938.
LAMB: When did he work for Time magazine?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He went there in 1939 and worked through 1948, when the Hiss case began.
LAMB: And where did the Hiss case begin?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It began in Washington, DC, when Chambers was summoned. He received a subpoena at his office in Time. He knew it was coming. President Truman had reconvened Congress for a special session, the famous turnip session, in the summer of 1948 in order to pass legislation that Congress had not passed, but really as a publicity stunt for his upcoming presidential campaign.

And the Congress, then controlled by Republicans, as a result of the 1946 elections, decided to pay Truman back by holding hearings into Communist subversion, an issue that had been very big, really, for several years, since--and especially after the war. So a witness named Elizabeth Bentley, who had been a courier, as Chambers had been, with Washington contacts, first testified. And in order to back up her testimony, the congressional committee subpoenaed Chambers, who had previously asked to be spared a summons.
LAMB: There's Alger Hiss right in the picture there.
Mr. TANENHAUS: There he is listening intently. Hiss by--at this point, had already testified. He's sitting with journalists there. Those are journalists probably for the Washington papers. And Chambers is testifying about his relationship with Hiss.
LAMB: How long did the hearings last?
Mr. TANENHAUS: They began on August 3rd, 1948. My book includes, by the way, the first transcript of Chambers' initial testimony, his so-called executive testimony, when he told the congressmen what he would be saying when they--once they brought him out publicly.
LAMB: Like a deposition?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Kind of. A preview--really, a rehearsal.
LAMB: How'd you get this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Through a man named Herbert Romerstein, who is writing a book himself, an authority on communism, who was also at one time the research director of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. I believe that was his title. And he saw in his files that he had transcripts of executive sessions that had not been publishable before. They had been released 20 years ago but with the stipulation that they not be published. He double-checked checked his documentation and saw that they now could be published. So I have all the executive private testimony that Chambers gave.
LAMB: First time ever published?
Mr. TANENHAUS: First time ever published, yes. And it's very important for many reasons. One is that one of the long-standing myths of the Hiss case, one Chambers himself invented or perpetuated and even the leading scholars of the case have accepted, is that Chambers never mentioned the name Alger Hiss until he went before the public session of the committee, and that was not true.

The first time he was asked to identify the members of his underground unit, he mentioned Alger Hiss. And interestingly, no one followed up because Hiss was already rumored to have been a Communist by this point. And there were other names--were more intriguing to the committee than Alger Hiss'.
LAMB: What was the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It was originally formed in 1938 as a subcommittee on un-American activities, chaired by Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, interestingly. The idea was to pursue subversion, both Communist and fascist. There was a fair amount of Nazi agitation in the country at that point and this committee promised to look even-handedly into both and the period...
LAMB: In '38, the Democrats were in control?
LAMB: FDR was president?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right.
LAMB: And we're now up to '48.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, 10 years later.
LAMB: Who--who's controlling now?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Truman is a very weak president who looks as if he will be unseated by Thomas Dewey in the next election in November. The Republicans control Congress, so they launch the investigation. Chambers appeared on August 3rd, testified for about an hour. None of those he named refuted his testimony but for two, Alger Hiss and his brother, Donald--younger brother.
LAMB: Donald Hiss?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Donald Hiss, who had also been a State Department official but had left government to work for a Washington law firm. And...
LAMB: Covington and Burling.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Covington and Burling, where Dean Acheson was a--a senior partner. Both Hisses denied Chambers' testimony. Alger asked to be given equal time to appear before the committee himself, almost unprecedented among witnesses accused of communism. Hiss, at this point, had been, for a year and a half, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. So when the story broke, Whittaker Chambers, the senior editor of Time magazine, one of the best-known journalists in America, really--another myth is that he was obscure; he was not--had accused the president of the Carnegie Endowment of having been an ex-Communist, and it was explosive. It seemed to summon up all the fears and anxieties of that era.
LAMB: Who sat--how many members were there of the House Un-American Activities Committee?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, some didn't appear very much. I think maybe it was eight, but only four or five took an active part in the hearings, which lasted, to answer your question, through December of '48, but there was a break. The important hearings were all held in August. And in a period of three weeks, really, the hearings were held.
LAMB: But the key here is that the Republicans lost control going into the next session?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right.
LAMB: In other words, they're--we've seen it here recently where people worry that a party's going to change power; therefore, they lose a chairmanship.
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's exactly right, yes. And that was the fear. When Truman won the election, Chambers and Nixon, who was leading the investigation, both thought that Chambers would now be indicted for perjury for having given testimony that Hiss denied or that the investigation would simply be dropped. And it did, indeed, look as if it would be dropped.

Then Hiss lodged his slander suit against Chambers, challenging Chambers to repeat his testimony outside a hearing room where he was protected by immunity, and Chambers did so on "Meet the Press."
LAMB: All right. Let me establish...
LAMB: ..."Meet the Press," then, was radio?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. It was radio, 12 million listeners. I think...
LAMB: It was on at night?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: But you say that the American Mercury magazine editor, who was Larry Spivak...
LAMB: ...went on to be the permanent host of "Meet the Press."
LAMB: You said he was an anti-Communist, but then you went on to say everybody else on the panel that had questioned Whittaker Chambers was pro-Hiss.
LAMB: How did you know that?
Mr. TANENHAUS: By looking at the transcript and the kinds of questions they asked. I would not say so much pro-Hiss as skeptical of Chambers to the point of being abusive. For instance, one of the questioners, a reporter--Tom Reynolds, I think his name wa--for the Chicago-Sun Times, very liberal tabloid, asked Chambers if he had profited monetarily from his allegations against Hiss or from having left the Communist Party.

This was a very familiar kind of smear. Chambers, it was clear to anyone watching closely, was destroying his own reputation by coming forth with his testimony, couldn't possibly be profiting from it. And yet, Reynolds asked this question to provoke Chambers. And Chambers very levelly replied--he said, `I'm doing very well now. I don't have any financial problems.'

But the questions were of that ilk. James Reston, who was the moderator, never uttered a word during the questioning, yet he had written very favorably about Hiss' role in the Dumbarton Oaks Conference of 1944 at which the ground rules for the United Nations had first been established. Reston won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. It made him, as a journalist of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. And one of his sources was Alger Hiss, and he had later recommended Hiss as president of the Carnegie Endowment.
LAMB: Let me stop just a second because, again, if you've never heard this story, you say that there were three things that Alger Hiss had been involved in which w--worried the conservatives: the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, Yalta, and the San Francisco UN charter meeting?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right.
LAMB: Can you explain what role Alger Hiss played as a government official in those three events?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. The Dumbarton Oaks Conference, held in the summer and fall of 1944 right here in Washington at the Dumbarton Oaks Estate, was a meeting of the four great powers then--four powers: United States, England, France and China, I think--to create a United Nations. This had become one of Roosevelt's dream, visions, because Woodrow Wilson had tried to do the same thing--now that it was clear the war would be won by the Allies.

Hiss was, at that point, a junior-level State Department official, but a new secretary of state--or, rather, under secretary, had been appointed, later became secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, a man whom, by all judgment, seemed to have been unqualified for the job and relied very heavily on junior staff to brief him. Hiss briefed Stettinius for these meetings at which Stettinius had to bargain with Gromyko, the Soviet minister, with Lord Halifax of England, men who were in a different league from himself. And he quickly saw that Hiss was a very efficient and competent administrator and bureaucrat who could procure for him the papers he needed.
LAMB: And this year--the year for the Dumbarton Oaks Conference?
Mr. TANENHAUS: 1944.
LAMB: 1944. And allegedly--or has it been proven, once and for all, that Alger Hiss was a Communist or not?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I would say beyond the doubt of all but the most hopeful of his supporters. Very few people questioned Hiss was a Communist at this point.
LAMB: Was it ever proven?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It is--it has been proven as definitively as it could be without a membership card surfacing, which he never would have had because he was an underground agent.
LAMB: Any doubt in your mind?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Whatever doubts I had were dispelled as soon as I read the HUAC testimony, because it's very clear by the second session that Hiss is not only lying but lying in a way to protect himself against a future charge of perjury.
LAMB: But you go--go back to that period--this was 1944...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...the Dumbar--barton Oaks Conference. How long--at what time had Alger Hiss supposedly been a Communist?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, he had been a Communist for 10 years at that point.
LAMB: What-- was he a spy?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He became a spy in 1935, the latest documentation indicates. He first spied for Chambers before he got to the State Department, when Hiss was with something called the Nye Committee, a Senate committee that was investigating munitions expenditures in World War I. In the early '30s, there was great fear the United States would be embroiled in a second World War, which everyone knew was approaching. And so as a way to forestall this, there was investigation of the role arms manufacturers and Wall Street industrialists--the so-called `merchants of death'--had played in dragging the country into World War I. Hiss was on that committee as an investigator and apparently procured documents from the State Department because part of the committee's job is to assess the documentation available, a...
LAMB: And he was working at the State Department?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, he was working for the congressional committee.
LAMB: Oh, yeah, the...
Mr. TANENHAUS: He went to the State Department in 1936.
LAMB: '36?
LAMB: Was he paid by the Communists?
Mr. TANENHAUS: No, he was not. He--and he was an idealistic Communist, something Chambers was always ready to emphasize. He had--it was paid nothing, although Chambers did give him a rug, which became a key bit of evidence during the Hiss case.
LAMB: The Bokhana rug?
Mr. TANENHAUS: The Bokhana rug, woven in one of the Soviet republics, much prized by collectors. Chambers did not want to give Hiss or the others--he gave four rugs in total--he didn't want to give them gifts, but his supervisor at that point, his control, a Russian named Boris Beekov, said, `You must give these men gifts because that way, you have a hold over them.'
LAMB: Did you ever find that rug, by the way?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Hiss claimed to have it. He may still have it. I did not ask him to see it.
LAMB: Now--but off the subject a bit...
LAMB: ...but the--Alger Hiss has a son?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Tony Hiss, yes, a writer--quite a good writer.
LAMB: What about Timothy--is it Hobson?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. He was a stepson.
LAMB: Still alive?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Still alive, I believe, yes.
LAMB: Would Tony Hiss talk to you?
Mr. TANENHAUS: No. He did, however, field a question or two for his father. I did not have any direct dealings with him except by letter.
LAMB: How many-- I want to go back to the committee...
LAMB: ...because there are other members of the committee I want to get on the record. How many people did you talk to in the course of your how many years research?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, the research was ongoing. I would say four to five years of research. I probably talked to 60 or 70. I've listed, I think, 50 there who gave me really solid material that I could use.
LAMB: Name four or five we haven't talked about that were really important to you.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Some of Chambers' Time magazine colleagues--a man named James Bell, who worked under Chambers and actually kept the record, almost a stenographic record, of the perjury trials for Henry Luce's personal reading.
LAMB: Where did you-- did you have access to all those?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, I did. They are actually available at Yale University. Another Time colleague--very interesting interview with a man named Brad Derra, who still writes for Life magazine. And he was very young at the time of the case, but he was subletting one of Chambers' farms. Chambers was very generous to young staff at Time magazine even though he fought with every one or many people ideologically. When he learned someone wanted to write, had literary ambitions, Chambers would invite them to spend an entire year, if they liked, living rent-free on one of his farms. So they could take a year off from Time and write the great American novel and things like that.
LAMB: What about Ralph De Taledano?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Ralph De Taledano, a journalist of the era, is a very important interview. He was the key source for Chambers' doings in the period after the Hiss case and in 19--from 1950 until 1954, when Bill Buckley became Chambers' closest confidant.
LAMB: Is De Taledano still alive?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He is alive. He lives in Washington. He was extremely generous to me. He also is in possession of important letters--more than 100--from Chambers.
LAMB: There's another byline you can see in The Washington Times now, L. Brent Bozell, and you have an L. Brent Bozell in your book.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. I believe this is the son of the...
LAMB: The one now?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. The elder Brent Bozell was William Buckley's Yale classmate and friend and co-author of "McCarthy and His Enemies," a book the two published in 1954, a defense of McCarthy that Chambers refused to endorse. That was the beginning of his friendship with Buckley, oddly enough, with his refusal to endorse the book that these two young men had written.
LAMB: Go back to the committee. There was one--and I wrote the name down because I wanted to ask you about this gentleman. Parnell Thomas was chairman of the committee, a Republican at the time, from Texas. And you learn later on--you bring it up earlier that this man went to jail?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yeah. He's actually from New Jersey. It was Martin Dies, who was from Texas.
LAMB: Oh, I'm sorry.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Parnell Thomas was the first Republican to chair the committee. He had been a protege of Martin Dies, the longtime and very flamboyant Democratic chairman. Parnell Thomas was indicted for kickbacks. In fact...
LAMB: When in this process?
Mr. TANENHAUS: In 1949, really, right about the time the trial began. And he was also ill, which is why another congressman, Carl Mundt from South Dakota, I believe, was the de facto chairman of the committee. But Parnell Thomas is r--apparently was sent to the same prison as Alger Hiss and the two conversed there. But...
LAMB: But you say, though, early on in the--when the HUAC hearings were convened that Parnell Thomas wasn't around; that Carl Mundt became acting.
LAMB: And then how did Richard Nixon get in it?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Nixon got into it because after the Alger Hiss made his first appearance before the committee, two days after Chambers had testified, August 5th, 1948, Hiss gave a dazzling performance and members of the committee were ready to drop the investigation. He made a much more impressive appearance than Chambers had. Chambers spoke very well, but he was not a handsome man. He'd been up the night before. His suit was rumpled; his suits were always rumpled. He was a reluctant witness. He didn't meet his questioners' eyes. He was articulate but seemed detached as he spoke. Hiss came before the committee very forthrightly, denied everything, or seemed to, in the most forthright manner. So the committee felt embarrassed by this and thought they had better drop the investigation. But Richard Nixon, who had been virtually silent during both Chambers' testimony and Hiss', had been rubbed the wrong way by Hiss. He took an instant dislike to him. Also, Nixon was familiar with the basics of Chambers' story. Nixon had come to Washington as an anti-Communist and he was...
LAMB: As a freshman?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Freshman congressman in 1946. He was then 33 years old; defeated a very popular New Deal incumbent who held a seat on HUAC. Nixon took a seat on the committee; quickly established himself as the most reasoned, non-partisan and effective of the interrogators. For one reason, he was the only lawyer, so he knew how to question a witness; he knew how to weigh testimony. And he had, as I said, taken a dislike to Hiss and had been made familiar with some of Chambers' earlier allegations. Chambers had been telling this story in one form or another for almost 10 years.

He at first denounced Hiss after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 in a secret meeting with FDR's intelligence liaison, Adolph Burley, who was at the State Department. And Chambers told him practically everything long before the Hiss case broke--named names, mentioned spying, said this was a danger to the Allies because the Soviets were no--were now partners with the Nazis, materiel could reach them. All of this was on the record, but no one had picked up on Chambers' allegation, which was one reason he didn't want to testify. He thought that the government really didn't want to hear what he had to say. Nixon, at any rate, was familiar with some of this background, disliked Hiss and told the committee that he would volunteer to head a subcommittee that would look further into the investigation and he would oversee it himself. And it was one of the great political moves in modern history. It got him to the presidency.
LAMB: If Richard Nixon hadn't been in this mix, would this whole situation have come out the way it did?
LAMB: Why?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Alger Hiss came very, very close to winning early on, to having persuaded his listeners--not only the congressional committee but reporters, journalists and interested parties--that he had been slandered by Chambers.
LAMB: You say that liberal columnists were all for Hiss and you name them: James Reston, who used to run The New York Times; Walter Lippman, who used to write for Newsweek?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Herald Tribune, I think, and then later--the World, then the Herald Tribune, I think. Yes.
LAMB: Marcus Childs of St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Joseph Alsop--all of them were for Hiss?
Mr. TANENHAUS: O--to one extent or another. And they were the four most influential, respected and accomplished journalists in America. They were the four great columnists of the day.
LAMB: What--who was Bert Andrews and what role did he play?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Bert Andrews is absolutely a key to the Hiss investigation. He was also a very gifted journalist. He was the Washington bureau chief of the Herald Tribune and had known Hiss slightly; didn't like him much, but hadn't followed his career closely. But he knew a story when he saw one breaking. He was from California and so was interested in Nixon, also a Californian, and had seen early on that Nixon had ability.

More importantly, from Nixon's perspective, Andrews, months before the Hiss case broke, had won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles denouncing the investigation of Communist subversives. So Nixon saw that if Bert Andrews, who was the leading Washington journalist for a conservative newspaper, the Herald Tribune, which was really the paper of the conservative establishment if Andrews were in his camp, then he could control some of the news flow that followed from further hearings and it would not all be attacks on Chambers or himself for leading an investigation. Not only that, if Andrews got the material first, if Nixon could leak it through him, then stories would be broken through the Herald Tribune, which would treat the investigation more carefully. Pretty remarkable for a 35-year-old rube from California.
LAMB: You say that he tangled with another committee member, at least from time to time publicly, Eddie Aibair of Louisiana...
LAMB: ...who s--you say was a Dixiecrat following Strom Thurmond back in those days?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, he was, but he was also a Democrat--or--all the Dixiecrats were, and he didn't like Nixon and Carl Mundt making a spectacle of these hearings. He saw early on that there was a partisan slant to all this and, of course, he had his own partisan angle. And when Hiss came before the committee in his first appearance and said his sponsors included John Foster Dulles, who was Dewey's secretary of state-designate should Dewey defeat Truman, which everyone thought he would, Aibair realized that this would discredit Chambers before the committee and perhaps bring an end to the investigation. Eventually, however, Aibair was brought around to the others' view that Hiss was lying. It didn't take him long to see that. He had been an investigative journalist in New Orleans. He had reported some of Huey Long's scandals in--I think in the New Orleans papers, the Picayune, perhaps, and--so saw that Hiss was not really the witness he seemed.
LAMB: Parallel with this HUAC hearing between--hearings between August and December, what was the Justice Department doing?
Mr. TANENHAUS: The Justice Department was trying to make up its mind who it was going to go after, whom it would pursue. I...
LAMB: Democrat--Democratic president.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, Democratic Attorney General Tom Clark...
LAMB: Was that the father of Ramsey Clark?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, and later Supreme Court justice. In fact, rather soon afterwards, Supreme Court justice.
LAMB: So you had a Democratic presidency, a Democratic attorney general and a Republican Congress. Time was running out, the Republicans thought, and they--you say earlier they were worried about what the Justice Department would do.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. Truman initially portrayed all this as a partisan witch-hunt and, to a limited degree, he was correct because he added that the FBI had conducted a thorough investigation, had grand jury hearings in 1946 and '47, and Hiss had testified at these and not--there had been no indictments, no indictments of government employees. So he said, `This is old news.' `It's a red herring' became the famous phrase.
LAMB: Is that where that came from?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, interestingly, it was not Truman who first said it. This is a minute discovery in the book. It was one of those Chambers accused, a well-known Communist, John Abt, who later admitted he'd been a Communist. He died four or five years ago and had already said he'd been a lifelong Communist. When Abt was working on Henry Wallace's progressive campaign, a campaign for liberals who thought Truman was too anti-Soviet, a campaign that became commandeered, really, by the Communist Party, Abt was one of its leaders. When Abt was asked about Chambers' allegations, he said, `It's a red herring.' A reporter then said to Truman, `Do you think this is a red herring?' and Truman said, `Yes, it is.' So the phrase was attributed to him, although he didn't really originate it.

But the Justice Department suspected that there might be trouble with Hiss. He'd been investigated before. In fact, State Department security office had recommended his dismissal as early as 1945.
LAMB: When did they get the indictment?
Mr. TANENHAUS: They got the indictment in December 15th, the very last day a grand jury sat, 1948.
LAMB: Indicted--Alger Hiss was indicted for what?
Mr. TANENHAUS: For two counts of perjury, for first having denied he had known Chambers in 1936 and '37, which had been the crux of the HUAC questioning, and secondly and more importantly, for denying he had given classified, confidential State Department documents to Chambers.
LAMB: Any parallels with anything today? You had an active committee; you had an active Justice Department; you had an active press. Has this just kind of moved through the years the same way all the time?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It seems to happen all the time. The hearing that struck me as most parallel was the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. What was interesting to me about that was, many conservatives came to the defense of Clarence Thomas, but if you kind of drew the parallels, if you played it out schematically, Chambers was really much closer to Anita Hill. The two of them were accusers who made their allegations publicly years after the events occurred. Their enemies or adversaries wondered what they stood to gain by all this. Both took and passed lie detector tests. Both gave testimony that was intensely mortifying to them both. And both seemed to have the weight of public opinion against them, in forum and public opinion against them.
LAMB: In the end, Alger Hiss was found guilty of what?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Of the two counts of perjury.
LAMB: How long did it take to get there?
Mr. TANENHAUS: To get to that conviction?
LAMB: I mean, in other words, they had two trials.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Two trials. The first one began in--in June '49, ended in November, the--'49. The second began i...
LAMB: What was the finding in the first one?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh, I'm sorry, ended in--in--was it November? No, I can't remember. I believe it was Nove--the second began in November, so the first one must have ended in September, I guess.
LAMB: And what was the finding in the first trial?
Mr. TANENHAUS: The first was hung jury, 8-to-4 to convict.
LAMB: You say the judge in that case was?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Was a Truman appointee, Samuel Kaufman.
LAMB: Well, there was one instance in that that I wanted to ask you about--that the judge got off the bench, went down and sat in a witness chair for what reason?
Mr. TANENHAUS: To listen to Hiss' defense lawyer, a great theatrical attorney named Lloyd Striker, who was then considered the greatest courtroom performer since Clarence Darrow, give his opening statement in the case.
LAMB: But you also said that people like Governor Stevenson and Felix Frankfurter and others came to that trial, if I remember, and testified to character witness?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Stevenson submitted a deposition. Frankfurter and Justice Stanley Reed were the first two Supreme Court justices ever to give testimony in a criminal trial.
LAMB: What was Hiss' relationship to those two men?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Hiss had been Felix Frankfurter's protege, one of many proteges Frankfurter discovered at Harvard Law School. Hiss has studied with him, been one of his favorite pupils and had kept up with him through the years. Stanley Reed had been, I believe, the solicitor general when Hiss, in 1936, briefly went to the State Department to help write the department's defense of New Deal programs which were being challenged as unconstitutional.
LAMB: But these--both of these justices came and I mean, they both ended up being Justices--they came and served as character witnesses in this trial?
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right. And they were justices at the time.
LAMB: At the time.
Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right. Yes, they did.
LAMB: What was so unusual about that?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, it seems apparent to some that this was the kind of case that, on appeal, might reach the Supreme Court, which it did and, ironically, Hiss paid the price for that. Had Reed and Frankfurter not testified, they would not have had to recuse themselves and they could have voted an appeal for his. He lost his appeal four votes to two, I think. With two more votes, his conviction would have been overturned. But both Frankfurter and Reed had to abstain, recuse themselves, because they'd testified for Hiss. So that one backfired terribly.
LAMB: Found guilty the second time because of what?
Mr. TANENHAUS: A number of reasons. One, more evidence, a better presentation by the prosecution when ….
LAMB: Judge changed?
LAMB: Judge changed?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Judge changed, yes.
LAMB: Hiss--Hiss' lawyer changed?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. There was a new dramatis personae. The lawyer for Hiss was not as dramatic as Lloyd Striker had been. He was a Boston attorney named Claude Cross. There's some debate as to whether he was more or less effective than Striker had been. I mean, he went for an all-out acquittal; Striker very shrewdly had gone for a hung jury. He knew he could divide the jury because he attacked Chambers' credibility and his reputation. And in the first trial, the prosecutor, Thomas Murphy, made the mistake of inviting scrutiny of Chambers without having defended him. That was a costly error he made in his very opening presentation.
LAMB: And when he was found guilty, how long did he--did Alger Hiss spend in jail?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He spent 44 months in jail.
LAMB: Where?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He was sentenced to five years--Lewisburg Penitentiary. He was...
LAMB: Pennsylvania?
Mr. TANENHAUS: In Pennsylvania. He was a model prisoner. There is quite a fine piece by the journalist Murray Kempton, who says Alger Hiss was a great con, and by that he mean--he meant convict, I think, not con man--maybe he meant both. In prison, he wrote briefs for fellow inmates. He instructed them in the legal process. He worked in the library. When he left the prison in 1957--or '54--sorry--there was applause. The prisoners crowded against the bars and clapped.
LAMB: There were lots of little odds and ends. Esther Chambers had an accident in the middle of all this, the wife of Whittaker Chambers. What was that?
Mr. TANENHAUS: A car accident. Not long after Hiss was indicted--in fact, two days after Hiss was indicted, Chambers came back to Baltimore from New York. He was in New York most of the time during the grand jury hearings. That's where they were held. He stayed with his mother on Long Island, sometimes came home for weekends. When he got off the train at Union St--Penn Station in Baltimore, Esther, his wife, normally met him in the family car to drive him home the 35 minutes to Westminster. She was not there. She arrived, I think, half an hour later, badly shaken. She had hit and, they learned that night, killed a pedestrian. She was arraigned, almost spent a night in jail, but cleared of any wrongdoing because the pedestrian, an elderly woman, was deaf and had not heard oncoming traffic and simply had stepped in the path of Esther's car. The family, however, lodged a wrongful-death suit that cost Chambers several thousand dollars. So that was a legal case that occurred at the same time as the indictment. And moreover, there was a slander trial in which Chambers was the defendant that overlapped all this as well, although that was finally dismissed after Hiss' indictment--conviction for perjury.
LAMB: Slander trial for what?
Mr. TANENHAUS: For having called--met Hiss' dare and called him a--a Communist af...
LAMB: Who brought--who brought the suit?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Hiss did. He did it in November--late November. Chambers had gone on "Meet the Press." The very first question he was asked was, `Are you willing to say, clear of the immunity protection of a congressional committee, that Alger Hiss was a Communist?' and Chambers said, `Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be one now.'
LAMB: What happened in the trial?
Mr. TANENHAUS: In the slander...
LAMB: Yeah.
Mr. TANENHAUS: ...trial? Well, what happened first was, Chambers was deposed. He--at great length by Hiss' attorneys. Then, when Chambers, in early December, produced the `Pumpkin Papers,' the microfilm of documents that turned the tables on Hiss, all parties agreed to suspend that slander trial pending the outcome of the grand jury, which was hastily reconvened in New York, to investigate the question of Hiss' having been a Communist.
LAMB: How often did Whittaker Chambers lie?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Depends how you look at it. He told a couple of lie--you mean during the case?
LAMB: No, I mean, you--you...
Mr. TANENHAUS: In his whole entire life?
LAMB: But you see that brought up in your book all the time.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. He told a number of untruths and exaggerations. He never lied about much that was really important. You know, one of his Time colleagues, a man who did not like him much but came to respect him named John Osborne, a Time writer who later wrote for The New Republic...
LAMB: Did the White House Watch.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, that's right--said about Chambers--he said, `Chambers might think you were a Communist when you weren't and he'd spread the word that you were a Communist when he had no proof.' So in that sense, he would lie. He said, `But if Whittaker Chambers said he had lunch with you last week at such and such a restaurant, he would be telling the truth.' Chambers misled, to his own detriment and later sorrow, many of his friends by claiming he'd been to the Soviet Union when he ha--never had. That's another discovery in the book. Chambers led friends of his to believe, when he first joined the underground, that he'd made a secret trip to Russia, which he never made.
LAMB: Another item. Early in the book, you suggest that Whittaker Chambers had a son out of wedlock?
Mr. TANENHAUS: It's possible he did. Some of his friends remember that. The two of those I interviewed, Meyer Shapiro and a friend from--a man named Henry Zolan, whom Chambers knew as Zolinski--both remembered hearing Chambers talk about that, but it was something I could not track down.
LAMB: You had his grandfather dying in the arms of his mistress.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. Chambers helped write the obituary for that one.
LAMB: He did?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes. He was in Philadelphia at the time it happened. And he knew his grandfather, who was a famous journalist. I did not...
LAMB: What was his name?
Mr. TANENHAUS: His name was James Chambers. And another small fact in the book that'll be of so--interest to some, I think, is that he had been the newspaper man, the city editor who fired from his first job Richard Harding Davis, who became, really, the Jack London or Hemingway of his generation. He was the most famous journalist of that era. And he later said James Chambers made his career by firing him, teaching him he had to be more serious about his job. He died when Chambers was in Philadelphia visiting the family.
LAMB: You said in our first hour you talked to John Chambers, Whittaker Chambers' son. What did you learn from him?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I learned how much Whittaker and all the family loved the farm. John was not thrilled or particularly delighted to discuss the Hiss case. He would do it--he would answer questions. But once the talk turned to the farm, his eyes lit up and he actually, I think, was a better farmer than Whittaker ever was. John drove a chac--tractor at the age of nine and worked the farm all his life. Whittaker was afraid once John went to college, he would never come back, and he was wrong. John loves the farm. And he told me all kinds of details about what it felt like to be a farmer there and also gave me a sense of how close the family had been.
LAMB: What's the impact on him about a book like this coming out?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, we'll see. He, I hope, will see that it is a sympathetic account that is also detached. This is not a book of advocacy. A number of conservatives and even one liberal were a little surprised by that--reviewers--that it was as detached as it is, and even suspected I dislike Whittaker Chambers. That's been written twice. It mystifies me. I hope John does not see that. I hope he sees that this book, for the first time, tries to treat all this mes--material as a fact of history, as a narrative story that will tell us about ourselves and about the Cold War and help readers see the many different sides of Whittaker Chambers. I don't know if he will share that view.
LAMB: Any talk about a movie out of something like this?
Mr. TANENHAUS: There is interest, yes. A number of studios apparently have looked at galleys. I don't know if they've seen finished books; finished books have just come in. But it's possible. It's kind of difficult material. There's a lot of drama in it--high drama and excitement, but period pieces don't always seem to do that well, and that could be a problem.
LAMB: In the end, what did Alger Hiss in, either from the committee's standpoint or from the legal standpoint?
Mr. TANENHAUS: I'm sorry. What did he...
LAMB: What did Alger Hiss in?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Oh, what did him in?
LAMB: What did him in?
Mr. TANENHAUS: What did him in were the documents Chambers produced.
LAMB: And at what point did he produce them?
Mr. TANENHAUS: He produced them after Hiss had replied to Chambers' dare to repeat his allegations by lodging a slander suit. Chambers then, while being depositioned in Baltimore, had suffered a torment of conscience. He did not know whether he should produce the documentation he had. He'd put it away 10 years before as a life preserver, he called it, against possible recrimination by his ex-Communist co--commrades. He then brought some of those documents into the deposition and said, `Here is evidence that proves Alger Hiss had been a Communist before.'
LAMB: Wh--what was your biggest surprise after all this research and writing?
Mr. TANENHAUS: How fair-minded he could be. I have not talked much about his years at Time magazine. Chambers has been reviled for his treatment of his colleagues and of the news while at Time magazine. What I discovered was, he was right in almost everything he said and treated those around him with great personal consideration. He was really a very warm and humorous man.
LAMB: One of those that you said was quite upset with him that worked for Time magazine was Teddy White?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes, he had a big fight with Teddy White over China, and both were right in the end. White did not like Chambers' handling of a very important story White had filed from Chungking on the dismissal of General Joseph Stilwell. White portrayed Chiang Kai-shek as the villain and Chambers turned the piece upside down and made not a villain of Stilwell but a hero of Chiang.
LAMB: We still, Sam Tanenhaus, have just begun to scratch the surface. Here is what the book looks like in our second part of a two-part series--"Whittaker Chambers." Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. TANENHAUS: My pleasure.

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