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Whittaker Chambers: Taking Freedom's Part, Irritating Everybody in the Process

Sidney Hook and Norman Podhoretz, 1961.

Dismissing people for being tepid toward the revolution was Chambers’ own habit. The philosopher Sidney Hook, whom I interviewed in 1988, bore this out. Hook had met the underground communist in the 1930s through a mutual friend. Said Hook: “Chambers told Lionel Trilling after I left, ‘Lionel, I don't trust that man, he has a Social Democratic face.’”

Hook was close to Trilling, the literary critic and Columbia University professor, and to others who first knew Chambers at Columbia in the 1920s. An expert on the ins and outs of the Hiss-Chambers case, Hook was also a walking history lesson on anticommunism – that glue holding together the otherwise fractious collection of people dedicated to defending the West in the Cold War.

One of the great anti-Stalinists, Hook was nonetheless a man of the Left. He tried to get Democrats and liberals to accept that the evidence of Hiss’s espionage was incontrovertible, all the while regretting the effect the case had on U.S. politics. Republicans made it a partisan matter, he complained, and their opportunism staved off its resolution:

You see, once the conservatives and the right-wing Republicans went on the warpath against Hiss to use him as a club to attack Truman and Roosevelt, then these people [liberals] would come to Hiss’s defense in a half-hearted way.

Hook took issue with Chambers, the onetime Stalinist, moving so much farther to the right than did Hook and the other intellectuals of their circle – radicals in their youth who later, in several cases, became identified with neoconservatism. Hook was cold to Chambers’ newfound Republicanism and to his newfound religiosity, too. (Chambers adopted Episcopalianism before seeking a home in the faith of his ancestors, Quakerism. The Friends were less than friendly; many supported Alger Hiss. This led to Chambers’ daughter being barred from attending Swarthmore College, a Quaker institution, according to Chambers’ biographer Sam Tanenhaus.)

Through it all, Hook felt for Chambers, whose sudden notoriety cost him his job as an editor of Time magazine. His predicament touched Hook’s heart. Hook believed Chambers, as did Trilling, and his wife, the writer Diana Trilling. Yet as the case unfolded, the anti-Stalinists of the Left held Chambers at arm's length. They declared Hiss guilty; on the other hand, they thought of Chambers as histrionic, a bit extreme. Hook regretted this in retrospect:

I really almost have a sense of guilt that he should have borne all this suffering without relief or some sympathetic group which, [while] repudiating his ideas, could nonetheless accept him as a person. . . . If he had had leprosy he could not have endured more denunciation and humiliation . . . even at the hands of the government whom he was helping, because at the very last moment people didn't know whether he was going to be indicted or Hiss.