Elena Maria Vidal: Whittaker Chambers's Grandson Sets the Record Straight

Roundup: Talking About History

Elena Maria Vidal is the author of the historical novels Trianon, Madame Royale, and The Night’s Dark Shade. A version of this interview appeared in The National Observer.

I went to high school with the grandchildren of Whittaker Chambers. At the time, I only knew the Chambers boys to be pleasant young gentlemen who were great at chess and foreign languages. Twenty years later I read Witness and then Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. Chambers quickly became one of my heroes, right up there with William Wallace, El Cid, and John Paul Jones. One time when I was exuberantly discussing Chambers with a close friend, she said to me: “Well, you know, you went to school with his grandchildren.” It was quite a revelation; I had never made the connection.

I was delighted when I ran into David Chambers again on Facebook. He has meticulously compiled an online archive about his grandfather—www.whittakerchambers.org—and is dedicated to setting the record straight. I told David in one of our exchanges that it concerned me how people were beginning to forget Whittaker Chambers and his courage in exposing communist agents in the United States government, particularly the State Department official Alger Hiss. Every high school student—and Hollywood producer—knows about McCarthy ism; those who were blacklisted are considered political martyrs. The House Un-American Activities Committee is popularly seen as a sort of Spanish Inquisition that sought to destroy innocent screenwriters. Yet the Hiss case has been frequently misrepresented, when it is remembered at all. I took this up with David. He agreed to answer some questions.

Elana Maria Vidal: David, your grandfather’s name never came up in any of my high school or college American history classes. How could the key figure of one of the most dramatic legal cases in American history, who exposed how deeply communist agents had infiltrated the United States government, be swept aside?

David Chambers: My grandmother (who outlived her husband by a quarter century), my father, and my aunt could not be happier to have the Hiss case swept aside. For them, it is a grim subject. My grandmother died in 1986. From all indications, my father and aunt hope the world will continue to sweep aside the Hiss case, each and every day.

Neither my father nor aunt is likely to write about their experiences, so I will not speak for them. I do recommend Anne Kimmage’s memoir, An Un-American Childhood, for insight into life for “red diaper babies.”

In the grand scheme of things—in 20th-century American history—the Hiss case now serves largely as a prelude. The case started with a 1948 presidential campaign season that ended with Harry S. Truman’s surprising defeat of Thomas Dewey. During Hiss’s trials in 1949, international events overshadowed the case, particularly the Soviet atomic bomb and the fall of China to Mao.

Alger Hiss’s jail sentencing in January 1950 seemed to set off a chain reaction of events, nationally and internationally. Within days, Dr. [Klaus] Fuchs had surrendered himself to British authorities as a nuclear spy. Within two weeks, Sen. Joseph McCarthy had made his first major speech about card-carrying communists in the federal government. Within a month, the Soviets had signed a mutual-defense treaty with the Chinese. In May, the FBI arrested Harry Gold, a crucial link between Klaus Fuchs and American atomic spies. Based on Gold’s accounts, the FBI began arresting scores of people, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In less than two years, our country had gone from the initial shock of the Hiss case in August 1948—federal officials involved in Soviet espionage—to a nationwide scare over nuclear espionage in July 1950, pre-verified as it were by the Soviets’ own A-Bomb and underscored by the potential for nuclear confrontation in Korea, a war that had just erupted....

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