The Paradox of Whittaker Chambers A newly published biography conjures the ghost of the rumpled outcast who embodied the Cold War.

March 23, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The name was always lurking around the edges of memory, perhaps because it was just odd enough. Long after you forgot why you remembered it in the first place, there would still be this faint murmur from the Cold War, a double-exposure ghost in a black-and-white photograph: Whittaker Chambers. Whittaker Chambers? Weren't pumpkins involved?

And another strange name: Alger Hiss. Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss and Richard M. Nixon and Joseph R. McCarthy and maybe J. Edgar Hoover standing in the mind's eye in a faded Cold War snapshot, waving from the Iron Curtain like those old Soviets in bulky coats on Lenin's tomb. Turns out that the most obscure of the bunch, this Whittaker Chambers, has much to tell us about that strange time, about why we built all the bombs and fallout shelters and how Dr. Strangelove came to rescue Gen. Jack D. Ripper's precious bodily fluids.

You could see it unfold in Chambers, the tormented outsider, the ardent Communist turned rabid anti-Communist, the man reviled a "moral leper."

His ghost is lately much with us. It drifted through the news in November with the death of Hiss at 92. Now from Random House comes the 638-page "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography" by Sam Tanenhaus. A flood of high-profile book reviews has prompted a national seance calling forth the spirit of the man whose testimony helped send Hiss to prison.

In the 1948 photographs, Chambers always appears not to have slept in a week. Not yet 50, Chambers looks closer to 60 with his gray hair and his weary eyes and great bulk seeming to slouch beneath the press of an awful burden. Such a woeful, rumpled figure. There he sits at a packed congressional hearing behind one of those fat, antique microphones, his stubby fingers settled tentatively around the mike stand as if to quell their trembling. Looking at those pictures, it's easy to forget Chambers was the accuser, not the accused.

In the crowd behind him, there's this natty fellow. Slim, dapper in light suit and perfectly knotted necktie. He's bright-eyed and intent, but not terribly anxious. He could be a spectator at the opera. That's the accused Communist spy.

That's Alger Hiss, the man from Baltimore with the Ivy League education, the promising career and the gold-plated personal references. He looks far more than three years younger than Chambers and would outlive him by more than three decades. Hiss was still around when Chambers died in 1961 at his beloved Pipe Creek Farm north of Westminster. Hiss was still proclaiming his innocence when President Reagan awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom and declared the farm -- where Chambers stashed incriminating evidence against Hiss in a pumpkin -- a National Historic Landmark.

Maybe Chambers would have found in that gesture some of the vindication he never received in life. Chambers and Hiss shared that. They collided on the public stage, then spent the rest of their lives vainly seeking vindication.

Their confrontation was big. The "Great Case," Chambers called it.

This was not Kenneth Starr pecking away at a pack of real-estate hustlers. Here you had Chambers, senior editor of Time magazine, fingering Hiss, former diplomat and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Their battle split the country. Choose your man, define your politics: Chambers or Hiss. Something like a "religious war," wrote Alistair Cooke. He called his book on the case "A Generation on Trial."

Two generations later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. By then, Chambers had already faded into a footnote, a bit player from what seems another century.

Yet when Tanenhaus set out to write a book about the origins of the Cold War, the path led to Chambers. The result is the first comprehensive biography of the man one historian called "the most formidable and fascinating of all the Cold Warriors."

"You can see through Whittaker Chambers why there was such a thing as fanatical Communism among the American elite," says Tanenhaus, 41. "You can also see why there was anti-Communist hysteria.

"There's a paradox to Chambers. He's an outcast who stood somehow at the center of the great events of the era. He's one of those rare people that really embody the history of our time."

Pick an hour when the shadows fall heavily at Franklin and Cathedral streets, and it's easy to imagine him mounting the stone steps of the Young Men's Christian Association. The husky, fair-haired 33-year-old man took a room at the YMCA under the name Lloyd Cantwell. A serious-looking fellow with pale blue eyes, "mournful eyes," said novelist Josephine Herbst, who met him then and described him as "not too carefully groomed kindly, but rather melancholy."

He didn't smile much. When he did, he revealed an outcropping of brown, crooked teeth, a missing incisor. His clothes were bad and his teeth were worse. But what did he care? He was on a mission in Baltimore. Everything else was beside the point.

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