Know Your Enemy: Whittaker Chambers and the Freight Train of History

Know Your Enemy: Whittaker Chambers and the Freight Train of History

A discussion on the life and times of Whittaker Chambers, the Communist spy who became a conservative hero.

Whittaker Chambers testifies before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Know Your Enemy is a podcast about the American right co-hosted by Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell. Read more about it here. You can subscribe to, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher, and receive bonus content by supporting the podcast on Patreon.


In this episode, Matt and Sam go deep into the life and times of Whittaker Chambers, whose accusation that Alger Hiss acted as a Communist spy while working in the federal government, especially the State Department, led to Hiss being tried for perjury in what became known as the trial of the century. 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. His status as an ex-Communist—one of many who would congregate around National Review in the mid-to-late 1950s—lent him moral credibility as one who had seen the other side and lived to tell his tale. Before all that, though, Chamberss life was like something out of a novel: a difficult family life, early brilliance at Columbia University, literary achievement in left-wing 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.

Sources and further reading:

Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, Random House (1997)

Whittaker Chambers, Witness, Random House (1952)

Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday, Random House (1964)

Whittaker Chambers, Big Sister is Watching You, National Review (1957)

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

William F. Buckley, Jr., editor, Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., G.P. Putnam’s Sons (1969)

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

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

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

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

Lionel Trilling, The Middle of the Journey, NYRB (1947)

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

Christopher Hitchens, A Regular Bull, London Review of Books (1997)

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

Jess Bravin, Whittaker Chambers Award Draws Criticism—From His Family, Wall Street Journal (2019)

Isaac Deutscher, The Ex-Communist’s Conscience, The Reporter (1950)

John Patrick Diggins, Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History, Columbia University Press (1975)

Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left, Columbia University Press (1961)

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

…and don’t forget to subscribe to Know Your Enemy on Patreon for access to all of our bonus episodes!

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