Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Revisiting Whittaker Chambers

photo detail of Whittaker Chambers during the Hiss Case (1949)

I went to high school with the grandchildren of Whittaker Chambers. At the time, I only knew the Chambers boys to be brilliant students and pleasant young gentlemen. It was only later, after I had read Witness and the Tanenhaus biography, that I was discussing Whittaker Chambers with another childhood friend, who said to me: "Well, you know, you went to school with his grandchildren." It was quite a revelation. Recently, courtesy of Facebook, I reconnected with former classmate David Chambers. David has started to write about his grandfather, setting the record straight on some misconceptions. Here is David Chambers' review of the recent Andrew Meier's book The Lost Spy. To quote:
The Lost Spy retraces the careers of Isaiah ("Cy") Oggins and wife Nerma Berman Oggins, two Americans who joined the Soviet underground in 1926, soon stationed in Europe and the Far East. In 1938, the Soviet government asked Cy Oggins to "remain" in Moscow. In February 1939, they arrested, sentenced, and sent him to the Norilsk gulag. When his sentence ended, the Soviets decided to liquidate him, rather than send him back to an America amidst HUAC investigations that might take interest in him. Wife Nerma had taken their young son home to the States and remained silent on the subject for the rest of her life (like many wives of liquidated spies). The Ogginses had all but disappeared from history -- until former TIME correspondent Andrew Meier picked up their trail....

Importantly, The Lost Spy demonstrates that Whittaker Chambers's fears of liquidation were all too real -- Cy Oggins gruesome death is proof. Poisonings and other assassinations emanating from Russia continue to the present day: President Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev (2004), ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London (2006), American intelligence expert Paul Joyal in Adelphi, MD (2008). Former KGB spy Oleg Gordievsky warned of continued poisonings -- only to be poisoned himself, along with, it seems, British intelligence chief Alex Allan.
David Chambers also has some interesting comments on an interview the the author of The Lost Spy:
During Power Line's interview on September 21, 2008, The Lost Spy author Andrew Meier made an inaccurate assertion:
[Whittaker] Chambers always said that he had been sent to Europe, and it's a big debate among sort of scholars of the Hiss Case. It's never been proven that he did go overseas.
Allow me to attempt to set the matter straight to the best of my knowledge.

Whittaker Chambers (my grandfather) claimed quite the opposite, that he had never gone overseas for the Soviets: others claimed he did.

The issue came up over postcards he had had sent to art historian (and lifelong friend) Meyer Schapiro and artist (and New Masses colleague) Jacob Burck -- as a joke -- as if he too had gone to Moscow as so many Americans were, publicly, in the 1930s. People very close to them had gone: Langston Hughes, with whom my grandfather -- and Jacob Burck -- had planned a "Suitcase Theater," had traveled to the Soviet Union the year before, in 1932 (and coincidentally toured the USSR with Arthur Koestler).

Allen Weinstein (Perjury, pp. 113-114) and Sam Tanenhaus (Whittaker Chambers, pp. 88) among others take these postcards seriously. Weinstein takes them so seriously that he attempts to expand upon my grandfather's supposed but in fact spurious visit to Moscow as part of otherwise unsubstantiated training he received there. More judiciously, Tanenhaus merely mentions the postcards and the supposed visit without elaboration.

More of David's reviews and collected articles about his grandfather, HERE.



Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Interesting post, Elena. I've been very interested in this period of history since we never covered it when I was in school. Particularly after I took a class called Great American Trials at NYU continuing ed, and we read about the Rosenbergs.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Everyone should read Whittaker Chambers' "Witness" and the biography by Sam Tanenhaus is good, too.

Pentimento said...

My father went to college with Chambers's son - I wonder if it was the son who was the father of your schoolmates.

I haven't finished Witness, because I found it personally too painful. My mother's mother was in the CPUSA. and I quite disheartened when I first started reading the book to find the name of a man I knew was a close friend of my grandmother; Chambers identified him as the Comintern's representative to the CPUSA, which I have no reason to doubt.

I see my family as a collection of very broken souls trying to do their best in the day-to-day; to imagine their nearness to and even participation in some of the worst evils of the twentieth century, regardless of good intentions, is discouraging, to say the least. But I hope to pick up the book again at some point; maybe in the new year.

elena maria vidal said...

That is really interesting, Pentimento. One of the things fascinating about "Witness" is that Chambers' describes the motivations which made people embrace Communism. Often with the best intentions, people such as Chambers, before he discovered the truth, saw it as a solution to poverty and injustice. Chambers' conversion to Christianity is genuinely inspiring to read about and not to be missed.

Pentimento said...

Yes, that was my grandmother's motivation too, along with the fact that the CP was associated with the struggle for civil rights for blacks, which was her main cause.

It's amazing, though, how much the true believers explained away. Though she died when I was a child, my parents have told me that my grandmother had all kinds of elaborate explanations for the abuses of the Soviet Union.

elena maria vidal said...

Amazing indeed. Thanks!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Elena Maria, and please pray for my family.

elena maria vidal said...

I will.

Pentimento said...

Thank you - God bless you.