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Whittaker Chambers: Taking Freedom’s Part, Irritating Everybody in the Process

Ronald Reagan could quote from memory the first pages of the foreword to Witness.

by
Lauren Weiner

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January 18, 2013 - 7:00 am

Whittaker Chambers, 1901-1961

Witness by Whittaker Chambers recently turned 60, and journalists and scholars met at Yale University to celebrate this literary landmark and seminal text of the conservative movement. The discussion brought out divisions on the Right that actually go back to the Cold War.

This classic memoir, about the author’s defection from communism and testimony against one of his former comrades, Alger Hiss, was an instant bestseller in 1952. Chambers pulls the reader into his strange life: his service to Soviet military intelligence, his disillusionment and flight from the communist underground, and the obloquy he faced when the East Coast establishment circled the wagons around Hiss, a veteran of the U.S. State Department.

When Random House published Witness, Hiss sat in prison for having denied under oath that he passed government documents to the Russians. The international context was one of steady gains for communism: the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, Mao’s triumph in China, and the Kremlin’s acquisition of the bomb. This is why Chambers wanted to make his book more than a spy story. Emulating Dostoevsky, he cast his account in dramatic philosophical and historical terms:

The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.

Hiss and others in government had helped the Russians in the 1930s. They were drawn to the Bolshevik cause during the economic crisis of the Depression, believing capitalism was doomed and state socialism was the wave of the future. At that time, the Kremlin was trolling for security and trade information not so much about the U.S. but about the Soviet Union’s adversaries in Europe and Asia. This it obtained in Washington, through Chambers and other underground party couriers, from the files of sympathetic officials at State, Treasury, and other U.S. government agencies.

New Dealers and liberals were affronted by this belated accusation against polished and articulate Alger Hiss. They believed he was innocent – not a spy but merely a whipping boy of anticommunists, a symbol by which the Right could smear the New Deal as subversive. Elite opinion scorned Chambers and defended Hiss throughout congressional hearings, grand jury investigations, and two trials at the conclusion of which Hiss was convicted of perjury.

The Hiss-Chambers case formed a partisan and ideological fault line that was to stretch across the generations. Witness solidified this effect. Its grim decline-of-the-West poetry and gripping cloak-and-dagger narrative “may have enlisted more American anticommunists than any other book of the Cold War,” said author Lee Edwards, one of the panelists at the November conference in honor of the book. Edwards, a biographer of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, recalled that Reagan could quote from memory the first pages of the foreword to Witness.

Regnery brought the memoir out in a paperback edition during the second Reagan administration. It shaped the political and cultural outlook of a new generation of readers, among them yours truly. The sufferings of the world weigh upon all of us; that much I knew. What Witness showed me was where this sensitivity could lead. The adventurous young tend to want to save the world, and in Witness, the most adventurous are the most prey to tunnel vision and a distasteful sort of hubris.

Chambers’ sharp portraits of the world-savers he met add up to a meditation on idealism that is without peer in American literature. Violence and repression on the part of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union dented some people’s – but only some people’s – dedication to the cause. Others were impervious. The book’s gallery of personalities includes more than Bolsheviks. Along with them we meet socialists, liberals, “unclassified progressives” – all people of good will who “share a similar vision [with communists], but do not share the faith because they will not take upon themselves the penalties of the faith.” The project of bringing the Soviet model to America held the appeal of a cult. This, writes Chambers, was “the root of that sense of moral superiority which makes Communists, though caught in crime, berate their opponents with withering self-righteousness.”

Sidney Hook and Norman Podhoretz, 1961.

Dismissing people for being tepid toward the revolution was Chambers’ own habit. The philosopher Sidney Hook, whom I interviewed in 1988, bore this out. Hook had met the underground communist in the 1930s through a mutual friend. Said Hook: “Chambers told Lionel Trilling after I left, ‘Lionel, I don’t trust that man, he has a Social Democratic face.’”

Hook was close to Trilling, the literary critic and Columbia University professor, and to others who first knew Chambers at Columbia in the 1920s. An expert on the ins and outs of the Hiss-Chambers case, Hook was also a walking history lesson on anticommunism – that glue holding together the otherwise fractious collection of people dedicated to defending the West in the Cold War.

One of the great anti-Stalinists, Hook was nonetheless a man of the Left. He tried to get Democrats and liberals to accept that the evidence of Hiss’s espionage was incontrovertible, all the while regretting the effect the case had on U.S. politics. Republicans made it a partisan matter, he complained, and their opportunism staved off its resolution:

You see, once the conservatives and the right-wing Republicans went on the warpath against Hiss to use him as a club to attack Truman and Roosevelt, then these people [liberals] would come to Hiss’s defense in a half-hearted way.

Hook took issue with Chambers, the onetime Stalinist, moving so much farther to the right than did Hook and the other intellectuals of their circle – radicals in their youth who later, in several cases, became identified with neoconservatism. Hook was cold to Chambers’ newfound Republicanism and to his newfound religiosity, too. (Chambers adopted Episcopalianism before seeking a home in the faith of his ancestors, Quakerism. The Friends were less than friendly; many supported Alger Hiss. This led to Chambers’ daughter being barred from attending Swarthmore College, a Quaker institution, according to Chambers’ biographer Sam Tanenhaus.)

Through it all, Hook felt for Chambers, whose sudden notoriety cost him his job as an editor of Time magazine. His predicament touched Hook’s heart. Hook believed Chambers, as did Trilling, and his wife, the writer Diana Trilling. Yet as the case unfolded, the anti-Stalinists of the Left held Chambers at arm’s length. They declared Hiss guilty; on the other hand, they thought of Chambers as histrionic, a bit extreme. Hook regretted this in retrospect:

I really almost have a sense of guilt that he should have borne all this suffering without relief or some sympathetic group which, [while] repudiating his ideas, could nonetheless accept him as a person. . . . If he had had leprosy he could not have endured more denunciation and humiliation . . . even at the hands of the government whom he was helping, because at the very last moment people didn’t know whether he was going to be indicted or Hiss.

Browsing Red publications (for which Whittaker Chambers wrote). Detail from mural by Victor Arnautoff, 1934.

That the animus against Chambers had ripple effects was something Lionel Trilling discovered when he wrote a novel with a character in it based on Chambers.  It took Trilling a while to figure out why Viking had failed to reissue his novel; this turned out to be because the man running the company, a communist, did not want to revive interest in the case “and had quietly offered his services to the Hiss [legal] defense,” in the words of biographer Tanenhaus.

During the judicial proceedings and after, Hook found impressive the way in which Chambers rose above any personal ire toward Hiss. He also credited Chambers with distancing himself from Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Wisconsin Republican, a latecomer to the issue of communist subversion, pursued spies mostly without the benefit of facts, and Chambers saw the harm that McCarthy’s recklessness did to the effort to unite believers in democracy and freedom against the threat posed by Russian and Chinese communism.

The Left today is not very interested in beating up on Whittaker Chambers. Not since the Soviet Union fell, and intelligence records became available that made the guilt of Alger Hiss, and also of atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, inescapable. (There are diehards, but they try to pick apart this or that decrypted cable from Moscow while implicitly conceding that Chambers’ account, not Hiss’s, has held up over time.)

Ironically, while Chambers no longer rankles academic and media liberals, he’s still unsettling to those who honored, and to this day honor, his lonely fight against Hiss. The writer and editor Norman Podhoretz, a former student of Lionel Trilling’s, was among the panelists at the Yale conference on Witness. In his remarks he allowed that it is a great book by a great man but emphasized his qualms about the attitude it displays toward America.

For all that Chambers turned away from socialism, said Podhoretz, he retained a dislike of capitalism that kept him from appreciating key aspects of freedom as Americans understand it. In Witness, and afterward as a founding contributor to National Review, Chambers criticized his country for “the putative crassness of its culture and its supposedly philistine indifference or hostility to things of the spirit,” said Podhoretz. No book, however great, that fails to affirm the free market can guide the Republican Party or conservatives today, he concluded.

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In this age of Obama, someone who reads Chambers’ words – “socialist revolution in the name of liberalism” – might be tempted to call them prophetic. Sidney Hook, who passed away in 1989, would have said to the contrary that you can have Social Security and unemployment insurance – and maybe even Obamacare – and not be on the road to serfdom. In a free country, Hook reasoned, citizens can calibrate the size of their social safety net. How? By deciding to change their political leaders and change direction.

May it turn out to be Hook’s optimism rather than Chambers’ gloom that proves justified in the end.

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Lauren Weiner is a writer living in Maryland.
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