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2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Hiss-Chambers espionage case, which gripped America in 1948 and still provokes controversy. Take a deep factual dive into the story of two brilliant, fascinating men, sensational Congressional hearings, spy documents hidden in a dumbwaiter shaft and a pumpkin, the trial of the century, and the launch of Richard Nixon’s career. Comments and politely phrased corrections or criticism are welcome by the writer and narrator, at john_berresford@comcast.net.

Mar 3, 2022

As Chambers wrote to his friend Bill Buckley, most of us think the story of Oedipus ends when he learns he married his own mother and puts his eyes out.  In fact, however, Oedipus lived for years afterwards.  After the trials, Chambers lived for 10 years and Hiss for 45.  Neither escaped The Case, nor did their wives and children.  (Add this, by the way, to all the reasons that committing treason is a bad idea.). Each man wrote a book.  Chambers’ became a best-seller, a major American autobiography, and a sacred text of the post-WWII right.  Hiss’s book sank like a stone, as did another he wrote in the mid-1980s.  Chambers tried to stay out of the public eye.  Hiss tried to stay in it, but failed to establish either his innocence or the dimensions of the shape-shifting conspiracy that had framed him.  This Podcast recounts the tragic post-court life of each of our protagonists. 
 
FURTHER RESEARCH
 
Episode 36:  Chambers’ autobiography is “Witness,” most recently published by Regnery Gateway in 2014.  He was working on a huge, never finished book (working title “The Third Rome”) when he died.  Associated essays of his were published by Random House in 1964 under the title “Cold Friday” — the name of a field on his farm.  His articles for The National Review (amounting to less than 85 pages) were published by that magazine in “The Whittaker Chambers Reader: His Complete National Review Writings 1957-59” in 2014; these and his earlier short pieces appear in “Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Essays,” edited by Terry Teachout and published by Transaction in 1996.  Two books of Chambers’ correspondence have been printed: “Odyssey of a Friend:  Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961” (Regnery Gateway 1987); and “Notes from the Underground:  The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters 1949-60,” published in 1997 by Regnery Gateway.  Mr. de Toledano covered the trials for Newsweek Magazine and became a prominent conservative writer.  If you’re interested in what Chambers did and thought in his last years, the best of the foregoing works is (in my opinion) the Chambers-Buckley correspondence.
 
Hiss’s memoir, “In the Court of Public Opinion” (Knopf 1957), draws heavily on his Petition for a New Trial on Grounds of Newly Discovered Evidence.  His late-in-life autobiography, “Recollections of a Life,” was published by Seaver in 1988.  It is as dry as his first book.  Hiss’s son, Anthony, maybe best known as The New Yorker’s railroad correspondent under the pseudonym E.M. Frimbo, wrote about himself and his father in “Laughing Last” (Houghton Mifflin 1977) when things were looking up for his dad.  After the verdict of history had turned the other way, the young Hiss produced “The View from Alger’s Window: A Son’s Memoir” (Houghton Mifflin 1999).  It concentrates on the correspondence he shared with his imprisoned father.  The New York Times reviewer described the latter book as “deeply troubling,” “a painful story of the family as a factory of denial.”“Family Ties,” by Ann Douglas, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/06/27/reviews/990627.27dougl.html. That The Times would publish such a review indicates how much, even among northeastern liberals, the verdict had solidified against Hiss and for Chambers.
 
More about the two protagonists’ post-trial lives can be found in Professor Weinstein’s book “Perjury” at pages 550-72 (chapter titled “Alger and Whittaker: The Vigil and the Death Watch”); and at pages 444-514 of the Sam Tanenhaus biography “Whittaker Chambers.”
 
Questions:  Which protagonist suffered more after the trials — the imprisoned Hiss or the ostracized Chambers?  Do you have a hunch that one or both of them overcame gloom and died with a somewhat satisfied, “something ventured, something gained” feeling?  Of the wives and children, only one (Hiss’s son) capitalized on The Case.  If you had been one of the others, would you have been tempted to follow Tony’s path?
 
If Hiss was guilty, why didn’t he avoid the limelight like Chambers did?  And, when his son got interested in The Case, why didn’t Hiss say to him “Son, this has taken over my life, but it doesn’t have to mess up yours. I’ve got some years to live and powerful friends on my side; you just get on with your own existence and leave this to us.”  Why would he let his son take up a cause that Hiss knew was a lie and would likely someday be exposed as such, making his son look pitiful?