[Cy Oggins in 1938 and 1947]
“[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.
In my own review of The Lost Spy, I noted that Meier did not elaborate on several intersections between Cy Oggins and Whittaker Chambers (some of which point at my family’s doorstep). In fact, throughout the review of The Lost Spy I thought of the German term “doppelgänger” in comparing protagonist Cy and my grandfather: one went abroad to spy, the other stayed home.
[Andrew Meier, author of The Lost Spy]
However, my grandfather did visit Europe ten years earlier than the 1933 date of those postcards — with Meyer Schapiro, as college students. It was during this 1923 visit, he wrote later, that “I saw for the first time the crisis of history and its dimensions,” especially in Germany (Witness , pp. 193-194). Within a short time he read a pamphlet by Lenin and was heading down the path to Communism. He did not return to Europe until a second and final time in the late 1950s, the highlight of which trip was meeting Arthur Koestler face-to-face. (He had reviewed Darkness at Noon in TIME, and Koestler had written much about the Hiss Case.)
Despite the weightiness of much of his writings, Whittaker Chambers was fond of jokes and often quite humorous. Many who knew him personally have noted this, such as Bill Buckley (“Witness and Friends“).
Quite a number of pieces by Whittaker Chambers are humorous. In Witness, the reason he cites for getting a job at TIME is because he opened a review of a war book with the phrase, “One bomby day in June…” Another lies in a chapter called “The Price Is Right” (pp. 287-288) in his posthumous book Cold Friday (1964).
Once upon a time, when the Yewnited States was just a little shaver among nations, but already very spoiled along the literate Eastern fringes, there lived younder [sic] in Tennessee a lovable old man with a tongue like a rat-tailed file and a face so hard they called him Old Hickory.
This was not the usual fare from TIME back then (nor has it been since).
“Yes, yes, oh yes,” said the Tsar eagerly, elbowing his wife’s ghost out of the way.
“What statesmanship! What vision! What power! We have known nothing like it since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic states in the 18th Century. Stalin has made Russia great again!”
In light of the rise of Vladimir Putin in parallel with the Bush 43 presidency (during which President George W. Bush famously stated, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy…”), my grandfather’s essay remains most current and relative today.
My father has told me about these joke postcards several times. For me, those postcards represent a humorous side to a man almost always portrayed in other lights. For my father, however, who grew up directly in the shadow of the Hiss Case, these postcards have always represented classic examples of mistakes and misunderstandings involved in the Case. While he always laughs when recounting the postcards, his laughter is edged and grim — gallows humor, indeed.
Sincerely – David Chambers
[This essay appeared originally as a comment on Power Line, which has subsequently removed (or lost) postings of the podcast, its announcement, the posting, and this comment.]
TagsAlexander Ulanovsky Alger Hiss Arthur Koestler Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand Benn Steil Cold War Communism Dwight Eisenhower FDR George W. Bush Ghosts on the Roof Harry Dexter White Hiss Case House Un-American Activities Committee HUAC Ignatz Reiss John Kenneth Galbraith John Loomis Sherman John Maynard Keynes Joseph McCarthy Joseph Stalin Karl Marx Leon Trotsky Max Bedacht Middle East National Review Nikita Khrushchev Peter the Great Pumpkin Papers Ralph de Toledano Richard Nixon Ronald Reagan Sputnik TIME magazine Tony Judt Vladimir Lenin Vladimir Putin Walter Krivitsky Westminster Whittaker Chambers William F. Buckley William F. Buckley Jr. Winston Churchill Yalta
- B&W Photos from Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection
- Life of the People: Radical Impulse + Capital and Labor
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- Armory Show 1913
Official website of Whittaker Chambers ( >> more )