Mark Richardson —
In the current political atmosphere, in which angry conservatives seem to be claiming that the way to “make America great again” is to stifle the free expression of any ideas that are not theirs and to squash dissent, it appears to me to be a good time to look back at our history, to a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen, attorney Roy Cohn and U.S. Representative Richard Nixon, adopted and implemented a similar notion of safeguarding the American way.
The time was 1948, and Whittaker Chambers, a journalist of some renown, was being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to give testimony about the time when, as a young man, he had been a member of the Communist Party. His testimony would spark an investigation that was filled with startling allegations about his involvement with a spy ring that had penetrated the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the State Department, and would implicate his accomplices, in particular Alger Hiss. Hiss’ immediate denial of the charges made by Chambers divided the country. The story became the story. America followed, spellbound, as months and months of allegation, counter-allegation and denial played out in Washington.
In this outstanding biography of Chambers author Sam Tanenhaus lays bare the life of New York’s “hottest literary Bolshevik,” and his involvement, first as a Communist, then as an anti-Communist crusader, and finally as an informant who claimed reluctance but approached his role with a theatricality that placed him in the limelight of America’s attention. In one of the more improbable evidentiary discoveries one could imagine, the “pumpkin papers,” as a collection of incriminating papers came to be known after their discovery on Chambers’ Maryland farm, where they had purportedly been hidden in a patch of pumpkins (many believed that they had been conveniently placed there with the assistance of Richard Nixon), along with the direct testimony of Chambers in court, sent Hiss to prison, made Nixon a rising star in the Republican Party, and launched McCarthy’s despicable finger pointing campaign against everyone he suspected, usually without merit, of involvement in the Communist movement. Before long, what began as an investigation into the State Department had expanded to include often baseless allegations against Hollywood’s rich and famous, and just average Americans.
Chambers is, though, a sympathetic figure, and he is presented in such a way as to make it easy to understand the manipulation he experienced at the hands of the communist hunters. It was a time in which Americans were quick to believe that the dark forces of the Soviet Union were ready to arrive at the nation’s doorstep, and rooting out the evil of the Soviet doctrine was our only hope. Chambers, shoved into the role of savior by the witch-hunters, was overwhelmed but eager to prove that he was a good American. While some thought he had become a fascist, others considered him a martyr.
This book is an interesting study of the post World War II years in American diplomacy and political life, and it resonates today as we watch our politicians hurl invective and allegations at one another in order to foster their own ambitions.