On trial in the Red Star gallery

Sam Tanenhaus, the American editor and author of a book on McCarthyism, proves to be a prickly interviewee.

Austin Williams

Topics Books

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Sam Tanenhaus refuses to be drawn. On anything. I have come to interview him about his re-released book Whittaker Chambers: An Un-American Life, which explores and explains the lives and times of the key players during the McCarthyite period in postwar America. His new introduction mentions that ‘distressingly little has changed’ in the way that politics is played out, but, he says, he doesn’t want to draw any symbolic connections between then and now. ‘It is simply a history book’, he tells me. ‘There’s no message.’

Whittaker Chambers was an American Communist Party member in the 1920s. He and some of the other main actors in this story, including Alger Hiss, were leftists at the heart of FD Roosevelt’s Washington administration. Predominantly based in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), several reputed Communist Party members also worked at the Department of State, the Labor and Public Welfare Committee and the War Office. These underground activists carried out espionage activities and couriered information to the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

Chambers turned in late 1939. He rejected his communist past and pointed the finger at a large number of active agents, including Lauchlin Currie, a special assistant to the president, and Hiss in the State Department. It is the Hiss trial that forms the backdrop to this story; according to Tanenhaus, that trial, and the subsequent interpretation of Hiss’ and Chambers’ integrity, helped to create modern American conservatism. Chambers’ own book Witness, which was written in 1952 and which explored the trial and the dangers both of liberalism and communism, reputedly inspired Ronald Reagan to convert from being a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican.

While Chambers admitted to being a spy and then became an informer, Hiss voluntarily appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to deny ever being a communist. Tanenhaus is attempting to right what he sees as an historic wrong, namely that Chambers has tended to be viewed as a slovenly, unkempt snitch, while Hiss has been often portrayed as a smart, intelligent man who kept his own counsel.

Intriguingly, Hiss continued in his job – joining the delegation at Yalta in 1945 and opposing Stalin’s demands for more votes in the newly formed UN Security Council – even though Chambers had mentioned (rather than accused) him back in September 1939. Hiss even received the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1946, and he worked at that think tank until his indictment in 1948. He was eventually charged with perjury (given that the statute of limitations on the espionage charges had run out) and served three-and-a-half years in Lewisburg Federal Prison. He was to outlive Chambers by 35 years, and died in 1996, just one year before the first edition of Tanenhaus’ book was published. Tanenhaus is at pains to point out that this was coincidental rather than shrewd; he had been researching Chambers for seven years.

As well as an author, Tanenhaus is a well-known journalist and editor. He has been editor of the New York Times Book Review since 2004. His department is currently preparing to move, with the rest of the newspaper’s staff, into the spectacular new skyscraper office designed by Renzo Piano off Times Square. Somewhat less glamorously, his British publisher, Old Street Publishing, has arranged for us to meet in the Red Star gallery in London. We are surrounded by magnificent portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Tanenhaus seems to bear out the caricature of Americans failing to get irony: he came across as slightly bemused, if not aghast, at my suggestion that the socialist-realist images were a fitting backdrop to our interview, considering the subject matter.

The irony (or lack thereof) continued when, in echoes of McCarthy, Tanenhaus insisted that I recite a sentence (which he dictated to me) before agreeing to continue with the interview: ‘I want you to say that “the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people”’, he demanded. My casual observance that I wasn’t aware of the exact number of deaths carried out by the Stalinists caused him paroxysms, but I was happy to admit – why wouldn’t I? – that millions were killed by the Soviet system. Tanenhaus relaxed only to bristle at my admission (or perhaps, given the circumstances, confession) that I am, and ever have been, a Marxist. From then on, I was treated like a hostile witness.

Tanenhaus is dismissive of so-called new evidence that has come to light since his book was published and which seems to indicate that Hiss might have been innocent. ‘I’m not reappraising Hiss. He was absolutely guilty.’ So what motivated Hiss to deny his guilt until he died? ‘Well, as Arthur Schlessinger said, he was probably adamant because he had involved other state officials and wanted not to tarnish them. Anyway, guilt or innocence is beyond the point of my book. I look at the inseparability between the New Deal progressives and Hiss’ commitment to the Soviet utopia. This book is about the costliness of ideology.’

Tanenhaus then tells me the difference between the benign intellectualism of Marx and the practical horrors of Leninism. ‘Marx’s criticism of capitalism is incredibly valuable’, he says – but ‘when criticism becomes action, that’s when ideology becomes a problem’. His point is to reclaim the unknown Whittaker Chambers, the postwar individual who opposed communism and liberalism, but who also grew to reject the excesses of McCarthy because it gave anti-communism a bad name. It was Chambers’ little-known refusal – in the latter years of his life – to engage in Manichean politics which Tanenhaus admires and wants to get across.

Whatever Tanenhaus says to the contrary, he does seem to be clearly making some parallels between the past and today. His new introduction raises concerns with the way in which the end of Cold War certainties has led to the substitution of ‘Islamofascism’ for ‘Communism’ to provide today’s elites with didactic meaning and continuity.

He says he is ‘embarrassed…by Bush’s aggressive nationalism…because we [the American administration] are bullies and we distrust scepticism’. This, he believes, is a historic hangover of the polarised postwar agenda that arose out of the HUAC trials. As to whether there is anything specific about the contemporary period in America – whether the US is now less certain about its role than it was in the postwar period or in the 1960s – Tanenhaus thinks not. The WMD crisis was our Gulf of Tonkin, he says: ‘There is nothing new about the crisis of identity, it’s been going on for a long time…. The Iraq war suffers from the same Manichean approach that affected the postwar world.’ His great hope is that the growing ‘community’ of anti-war activists will be guided by non-ideological, non-confrontational protest, and thus can work within the system to fashion real change. If they are really challenging the direction of the state, while working within the system, the irony would be rich indeed. Once again, he didn’t get it.

Tanenhaus is a liberal, of sorts. His political analysis resembles the consensual trajectory spelled out in Barack Obama’s book Audacity of Hope. Yet while embracing this middle-class middle way of consensual politics, Tanenhaus appears hostile to any kind of wrong consensus. He is also unwilling to commit to any agenda for fear of being perceived as dogmatic or ideological. When I ask whether he is a fan of Obama, he says: ‘I think he has a terrific complexion.’ What does he think of the threat of sackings against state climatologists in America who do not toe the line on the global warming consensus? Is that in anyway comparable to McCarthy’s witch-hunts? Again, he avoids giving a clear-cut answer, instead expressing bemusement that a ‘left-winger like you would argue that climate change isn’t happening’. (I didn’t by the way.)

At the end of an exhausting interview, I came away wondering how such an interesting book could have been produced by such a seemingly disinterested, non-committal individual.

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project. An Un-American Life: The Case of Whittaker Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus is published by Old Street Publishing. Buy it from Amazon (UK).

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