Know Your Enemy

Whittaker Chambers and the Freight Train of History

Episode Summary

Matt and Sam discuss the life and times of Whittaker Chambers, the Communist spy who became a conservative hero.

Episode Notes

In this episode, Matt and Sam go deep into the life and times of Whittaker Chambers, most famous for his role in the "trial of the century"—the trial of Alger Hiss for perjury after Chambers accused Hiss of being a Communist spy during his years working in the federal government, especially the State Department. The two figures, once friends, came to symbolize a clash that was bigger than themselves, and prefigured the turn American politics would take at the onset of the Cold War. Chambers would become a hero of the nascent postwar conservative movement, with his status as an ex-Communist—one of many who would congregate around National Review in the mid-to-late 1950s—bringing his moral credibility to the right as one who had seen the other side and lived to tell his tale. Before all that, though, Chambers's life was like something out of a novel: a difficult family life, early brilliance at Columbia University, literary achievement in leftwing publications, and years "underground" engaging in espionage for the Soviet Union against the United States. "Out of my weakness and folly (but also out of my strength), I committed the characteristic crimes of my century," writes  Chambers in his 1952 memoir/jeremiad Witness.  Your hosts break it all down, assess his crimes and contributions, and explore one of the most consequential American lives of the twentieth century. 



Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997)

Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)

Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday (1964)

Whittaker Chambers, "Big Sister is Watching You," National Review, December 28, 1957

The Whittaker Chambers Reader: His Complete National ReviewWritings, 1957-1959 (2014)

William F. Buckley, Jr., editor, Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr. (1969)

L. Brent Bozell, Jr. and William F. Buckley, Jr., McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning (1954)

Murray Kempton, Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1956)

Landon R.Y. Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (2013)

Richard H. Crossman, editor, The God that Failed: A Confession (1949)

Lionel Trilling, The Middle of the Journey (1947)

Matthew Richer, "The Cry Against Ninevah: A Centennial Tribute to Whittaker Chambers," Modern Age, Summer 2001

Christopher Hitchens, "A Regular Bull," London Review of Books, July 1997

Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, "No Laughing Matter" (YouTube, 2007)

Jess Bravin, "Whittaker Chambers Award Draws Criticism—From His Family," Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2019

Isaac Deutscher, "The Ex-Communist's Conscience,"  The Reporter, 1950. 

John Patrick Diggins, Up From Communism: Conservative odysseys in American intellectual history, (1975)

Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left, (1961)

Larry Ceplair, Anti-Communism in Twentieth-Century America: A Critical History, (2011)


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