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  • Writer's pictureJosh Lewis

131 – Witnessing Whittaker with Sam Tanenhaus


In 1948 Whittaker Chambers shocked the nation when, while testifying before Congress, he gave the names of individuals he claimed were working within the United States government as Communist spies for the Soviet Union. Among those named was Alger Hiss, Chamber’s close friend and former Communist comrade. The ensuing trial quickly divided the nation into competing narratives. Who was lying and who was telling the truth? Was Chambers insane or, perhaps, seeking to destroy Hiss due to some personal grievance? Was this merely a pretext to the coming Communist “purges” under the McCarthy hearings that took place a few years later? Or had Chambers alerted the nation to the fact there were Soviet spies deep within the government and the prevailing liberal elite of that era had failed completely to respond to the threat?


Sam Tanenhaus, American historian, biographer, and journalist joins Saving Elephants host Josh Lewis to take a deep dive into the remarkable life of Whittaker Chambers, including how Chambers came to break with Communism, whether Hiss was truly guilty, the real threat of Communism of that era, what the Chambers/Hiss trial came to represent for the nation as a whole, Chamber’s association with William F. Buckley and the burgeoning conservative movement, and his lasting impact on the Right.


About Sam Tanenhaus

Sam Tanenhaus is the US Writer at Large for Prospect and the editor of both The New York Times Book Review and the Week in Review section of the Times. From 1999 to 2004 he was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he wrote often on politics. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. Tanenhaus’s book, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His books also include The Death of Conservatism and a soon-to-be-released biography of William F. Buckley Jr. and is the US Writer at Large for Prospect.


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