The wave of publicity about Robert Hanssen, a
veteran FBI agent who became a master spy for the Russians, brings
to mind a far different man--Whittaker Chambers, a veteran Soviet
spy who became, in William F. Buckley Jr.'s words, "the most
important American defector from Communism." This April marks the
100th anniversary of Chambers' birth.
August 1948, Chambers, an editor at Time, identified Alger Hiss, a
golden boy of the liberal establishment, as a fellow member of his
underground Communist cell in the 1930s. Hiss, a former assistant
to the Secretary of State and former General Secretary of the
United Nations founding conference at San Francisco, and then
president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
immediately denied Chambers' allegation.
great deal more than the reputations of the two men was at stake.
If Hiss was innocent, anti-Communism--and the careers of those
closely associated with it, like Richard Nixon, a prominent member
of the congressional investigating committee--would be dealt a
deadly blow. If Hiss was guilty, anti-Communism would become a
permanent part of the political landscape, and its spokesmen would
become national leaders.
took two protracted trials (Hiss reluctantly sued Chambers for
slander), but Hiss was finally convicted of perjury for denying his
espionage activities and sentenced to five years in jail. Hiss went
to his grave more than 40 years later still protesting his
innocence--and still lauded by many on the Left. But the Venona
transcripts of secret KGB and GRU messages during World War II
(released in the mid-1990s) confirmed that Alger Hiss had been a
Soviet spy not only in the 1930s, but at least until 1945.
1952, Chambers published his magisterial, best-selling
autobiography, Witness. The work argued that America faced a
transcendent, not a transitory, crisis; the crisis was one not of
politics or economics but of faith; and secular liberalism, the
dominant "ism" of the day, was a watered-down version of Communist
ideology. The New Deal, Chambers insisted, was not liberal
democratic but "revolutionary" in its nature and intentions. All
these themes, especially that the crisis of the 20th century was
one of faith, resonated deeply with conservatives.
Among those who agreed with and often
quoted Chambers' uncompromising assessment was a future California
governor and U.S. President--Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Witness
may have enlisted more American anti-Communists than almost any
other book of the Cold War. They included, in addition to our 40th
President, William A. Rusher, longtime publisher of National
Review; veteran journalist John Chamberlain, who worked with
Chambers at Time; and columnist-commentator Robert
work continues to have a telling impact. At a Washington dinner
last November, retiring Senator Bob Kerrey admitted that reading
Witness had enabled him, for the first time in his life, to
understand what Communism was all about.
book is not easy reading but is permeated with what Bill Buckley
called "Spenglerian gloom." Exhausted by the demands of the two
Hiss trials and in poor health (he had suffered several heart
attacks), Chambers believed that he was probably leaving the
winning side but found reason to keep fighting against Communism
for his children. As he recounts in Witness, he once
surveyed, on a dark cold night at his Maryland farm, the formidable
forces arrayed against him--the powerful establishment, the hostile
press, the skeptical public, the calumnies of the Hiss
considered suicide. But when his young son John came looking for
him crying, "Papa! Papa! Don't ever go away," he replied, "No, no,
I won't ever go away."
Chambers continued to make significant
contributions to the conservative movement until his death in July
1961. Publisher Henry Regnery recalled that he sent page proofs of
Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind to Chambers, who
immediately urged the editor of Time to devote the entire
book section to a review of "one of the most important" books he
had read "in some time." Regnery never forgot his "sense of
exultation" when the long, laudatory Time review
Chambers was a close friend and mentor of
Bill Buckley. Invited to join National Review's masthead, he
at first demurred, pessimistic about its chances of success. But he
was persuaded to come aboard by Buckley's argument that "the
culture of liberty deserves to survive" and to have its own
journal. One of Chambers' more memorable contributions to the
magazine was his evisceration of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
He called its plot "preposterous," its characterization
"primitive," and much of its effect "sophomoric." In a lifetime of
reading, he concluded, "I can recall no other book in which a tone
of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained." His review,
"Big Sister Is Watching You," helped bar conservatism's door to
Rand's godless technocratic ideas.
Chambers was also a private critic of
Senator Joseph McCarthy. He told Buckley that McCarthy was "a
slugger and a rabble-rouser" who "simply knows that somebody threw
a tomato and the general direction from which it came."
Chambers was "one of the great men of our
time," wrote Henry Regnery, who had known many great men during his
decades-long publishing career. As a witness to God's grace and the
fortifying power of faith, Chambers "put all of us immeasurably in
his debt." For countless conservatives, Whittaker Chambers has
never gone away.
Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and
the author of several books, including The Conservative
Revolution: The Movement That Remade America.
Notable Quotes from
know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it
is better to die on the losing side than to live under
the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 3, 1948
man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only
incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.
--"Foreword in the Form of a Letter to
my Children," Witness, 1952
Religion and freedom are indivisible.
Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no
justification for freedom.
Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.
Economics is not the central problem of
this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in
relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age.
crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is
indifferent to God.
Communism is the central experience of the
first half of the 20th century, and may be its final
experience--will be, unless the free world, in the agony of its
struggle with Communism, overcomes its crisis by discovering, in
suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man's mind,
at the same intensity, with the same two certainties: a reason to
live and a reason to die.