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Whittaker Chambers, the son of Jay Chambers, an artist, was born in Philadelphia on 1st April, 1901. When he was a child the family moved to Long Island. His father lost his job with the New York World: "The news camera and the newsphoto began to replace the staff artist on the newspapers.
His parents divorced and his brother committed suicide. "My brother was lying with his head in the gas oven, his body partly supported by the open door. He had made himself as comfortable as he could. There was a pillow in the oven under his head. His feet were resting on a pile of books set on a kitchen chair. One of his arms hung down rigid. Just below the fingers, on the floor, stood an empty quart whisky bottle." (1)
After leaving secondary school Whittaker Chambers did a variety of menial jobs before enrolling as a day student at Columbia University. He became very interested in poetry and he became friendly with Louis Zukofsky, Guy Endore and Lionel Trilling. In 1924, Chambers began reading the works of Lenin. According to his biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, he was attracted to his authoritarianism and he "had at last found his church." (2)
Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002): "Many adjectives can be used to describe.... Whittaker Chambers: he was brilliant, disturbed, idealistic, disfunctional. At Columbia, which he attended in the 1920s, his professors recognized him as a talented writer and an outstanding intellect - but also as a rogue. He went on destructive drinking binges; he let his teeth decay into blackened stumps; he struggled to overcome his homosexual tendencies by launching numerous affairs with women; and he wrote a play about Jesus Christ that the university's administrators found blasphemous. At first suspended, he was then barred from ever attending Columbia again." (3)
Chambers joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and worked as a journalist for several left-wing publications. In July 1927 he became a member of the staff of the Daily Worker. Other contributors included Richard Wright, Howard Fast, John Gates, Louis Budenz, Michael Gold, Jacob Burck, Sandor Voros, William Patterson, Maurice Becker, Benjamin Davis, Edwin Rolfe, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Robert Minor, Fred Ellis, William Gropper, Lester Rodney, David Karr, John L. Spivak and Woody Guthrie. At its peak, the newspaper achieved a circulation of 35,000. Chambers also briefly edited the New Masses. (3)
Chambers became critical of the main tone of articles that appeared in these left-wing journals: "It occurred to me that…I might by writing, not political polemics which few people ever wanted to read, but stories that anybody might want to read - stories in which the correct conduct of the Communist would be shown and without political comment.” The historian, Kathryn S. Olmsted, has argued that he "eventually became known as one of the Party's most effective propagandists. Ironically, though, just as his literary career was taking off, the Party decided it had a new job for him." (4)
In 1932 Whittaker Chambers, on the orders of the Communist Party of the United States leadership, officially dropped out of politics and went "underground". He became a full-time, salaried agent of the Soviet secret police. Over the next two years Chambers worked for Soviet military intelligence, the Foreign Section of the GPU, in New York City. (5) "During the six years that I worked underground, nobody ever told me what service I had been recruited into, and as a disciplined Communist, I never asked." (6)
Harold Ware, the son of Ella Reeve Bloor, was a member of the Communist Party of the United States and a consultant to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Ware established a "discussion group" that included Alger Hiss, Nathaniel Weyl, Laurence Duggan, Harry Dexter White, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Henry H. Collins, Lee Pressman and Victor Perlo. Ware was working very close with Joszef Peter, the "head of the underground section of the American Communist Party." It was claimed that Peter's design for the group of government agencies, to "influence policy at several levels" as their careers progressed". Weyl later recalled that every member of the Ware Group was also a member of the CPUSA: "No outsider or fellow traveller was ever admitted... I found the secrecy uncomfortable and disquieting." (7)
Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the Ware Group: "The Washington apparatus to which I was attached led its own secret existence. But through me, and through others, it maintained direct and helpful connections with two underground apparatuses of the American Communist Party in Washington. One of these was the so-called Ware group, which takes its name from Harold Ware, the American Communist who was active in organizing it. In addition to the four members of this group (including himself) whom Lee Pressman has named under oath, there must have been some sixty or seventy others, though Pressman did not necessarily know them all; neither did I. All were dues-paying members of the Communist Party. Nearly all were employed in the United States Government, some in rather high positions, notably in the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, the National Labor Relations Board, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Railroad Retirement Board, the National Research Project - and others." (8)
Susan Jacoby, the author of Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009), has pointed out: "Hiss's Washington journey from the AAA, one of the most innovative agencies established at the outset of the New Deal, to the State Department, a bastion of traditionalism in spite of its New Deal component, could have been nothing more than the rising trajectory of a committed careerist. But it was also a trajectory well suited to the aims of Soviet espionage agents in the United States, who hoped to penetrate the more traditional government agencies, like the State, War, and Treasury Departments, with young New Dealers sympathetic to the Soviet Union (whether or not they were actually members of the Party). Chambers, among others, would testify that the eventual penetration of the government was the ultimate aim of a group initially overseen in Washington by Hal Ware, a Communist and the son of Mother Bloor... When members did succeed in moving up the government ladder, they were supposed to separate from the Ware organization, which was well known for its Marxist participants. Chambers was dispatched from New York by underground Party superiors to supervise and coordinate the transmission of information and to ride herd on underground Communists - Hiss among them - with government jobs." (9)
In the summer of 1936, Joszef Peter introduced Chambers to Boris Bykov. According to Sam Tanenhaus, the author of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997): "Bykov, about forty years old and Chambers's own height, was turned out neatly in a worsted suit. He wore a hat, in part to cover his hair, which was memorably red. He gave in fact an overall impression of redness. His lashes were ginger-colored, his eyes an odd red-brown, and his complexion was ruddy.... He also was subject to violent mood swings, switching from ferocious tantrums to grating fits of false jollity. And he was habitually distrustful. Time and again he questioned Chambers sharply on his ideological views and about his previous underground activities." (10)
Chambers wrote in Witness (1952): " When I was with Colonel Bykov, I was not master of my movements. Most of our meetings took place in New York City. We always prearranged them a week or ten days ahead. As a rule, we first met in a movie house. I would go in and stand at the back. Bykov, who nearly always had arrived first, would get up from the audience at the agreed time and join me. We would go out together. Bykov, not I, would decide what route we should then take in our ramblings (we usually walked several miles about the city). We would wander at night, far out in Brooklyn or the Bronx, in lonely stretches of park or on streets where we were the only people." (11)
Chambers questioned Colonel Bykov about the Great Purge that was taking place in the Soviet Union but it was clear that he completely supported the policies of Joseph Stalin. "Like every Communist in the world, I felt its backlash, for the Purge also swept through the Soviet secret apparatuses. I underwent long hours of grilling by Colonel Bykov in which he tried, without the flamboyance, but with much of the insinuating skill of Lloyd Paul Stryker, the defense lawyer in the first Hiss trial, to prove that I had been guilty of Communist heresies in the past, that I was secretly a Trotskyist, that I was not loyal to Comrade Stalin. I emerged unharmed from those interrogations, in part because I was guiltless, but more importantly, because Colonel Bykov had begun to regard me as indispensable to his underground career." (12)
In December 1936 Bykov asked Chambers for names of people who would be willing to supply the Soviets with secret documents. (13) Chambers selected Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Julian Wadleigh and George Silverman. Bykov suggested that the men must be "put in a productive frame of mind" with cash gifts. Chambers argued against this policy as they were "idealists". Bykov was adamant. The handler must always have some kind of material hold over his asset: "Who pays is the boss, and he who accepts money must give something in return." (14)
Chambers was given $600 with which to purchase "Bokhara rugs, woven in one of the Asian Soviet republics and coveted by collectors". (15) Chambers recruited his friend, Meyer Schapiro, to buy carpets at an Armenian wholesale establishment on lower Fifth Avenue. Cambers then arranged for the four men to be interviewed by Bykov in New York City. The men agreed to work as Soviet agents. They were reluctant to take the gifts. Wadleigh said that he wanted nothing more than to do "something practical to protect mankind from its worst enemies." (16)
With the recruitment of the four agents, Chambers's underground work, and his daily routine, now centred on espionage. "In the case of each contact he had first to arrange a rendezvous, in rare instances at the contact's house, more commonly at a neutral site (street corner, park, coffee shop) in Washington. On the appointed day Chambers drove down from New Hope (a distance of 110 miles) and was handed a small batch of documents (at most twenty pages), which he slipped into a slim briefcase." (17)
Alger Hiss was the most productive of Bykov's agents. According to G. Edward White, the author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004): Hiss was so productive in bringing home documents that he precipitated a further change in the Soviets's methods for obtaining them... Chambers, however, only visited Hiss about once a week, since his practice was to round up documents from his sources, have them photocopied and returned, and take the photocopies to New York only at weekly intervals. In order to continue this practice, but protect Hiss, Bykov instructed Hiss to type copies of the documents himself and retain them for Chambers." (18)
Whittaker Chambers, later admitted in Witness (1952): "It was Alger Hiss's custom to bring home documents from the State Department approximately once a week or once in ten days. He would bring out only the documents that happened to cross his desk on that day, and a few that on one pretext or another he had been able to retain on his desk. Bykov wanted more complete coverage. He proposed that the (Lawyer - the Soviets's code name for Hiss at the time) should bring home a briefcase of documents every night." (19)
Chambers, like most members of the Communist Party of the United States supported the policies of Joseph Stalin. In the summer of 1932 Stalin became aware that opposition to his policies were growing. Some party members were publicly criticizing Stalin and calling for the readmission of Leon Trotsky to the party. When the issue was discussed at the Politburo, Stalin demanded that the critics should be arrested and executed. Sergey Kirov, who up to this time had been a staunch Stalinist, argued against this policy. When the vote was taken, the majority of the Politburo supported Kirov against Stalin.
On 1st December, 1934, Kirov was assassinated by a young party member, Leonid Nikolayev. Stalin claimed that Nikolayev was part of a larger conspiracy led by Leon Trotsky against the Soviet government. (20) This resulted in the arrest and trial in August, 1936, of Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov and thirteen other party members who had been critical of Stalin. All were found guilty and executed.
Whittaker Chambers began to privately question the policies of Stalin. So also did his friend and fellow spy, Juliet Poyntz. In 1936 she spent time in Moscow and was deeply shocked by the purge that was taking place of senior Bolsheviks. Unconvinced by the Show Trials she returned to the United States as a critic of the rule of Joseph Stalin. As fellow member, Benjamin Gitlow, pointed out: "She (Juliet Poyntz) saw how men and women with whom she had worked, men and women she knew were loyal to the Soviet Union and to Stalin, were sent to their doom." (21)
It has been argued by Ted Morgan, the author of Reds: McCarthyism in Twenty-Century America (2003) that "Juliet Poyntz.. got caught up in party factions, she had the distinction of giving her name to an 'ism,' when the Daily Worker called for the liquidation of Poyntzism." In May 1937, Carlo Tresca, later recalled that "she confided in me that she could no longer approve of things under the Stalin regime." (22)
Juliet Poyntz was reported missing in June, 1937. Whittaker Chambers claimed in Witness (1952): "She was living in a New York hotel. One evening she left her room with the light burning and a page of unfinished handwriting on the table. She was never seen again. It is known that she went to meet a Communist friend in Central Park and that he had decoyed her there as part of a G.P.U. trap. She was pushed into an automobile and two men drove her off. The thought of this intensely feminine woman, coldly murdered by two men, sickened me in a physical way, because I could always see her in my mind's eye." (23)
On 8th February, 1938, The New York Times ran a story, quoting Carlo Tresca, that Juliet Poyntz had been lured or kidnapped to Soviet Russia by a prominent Communist... connected with the secret police in Moscow, sent to this country for that purpose". Tresca claimed that the case was similar to that of Ignaz Reiss: "Poyntz was a marked person, similar to have disillusioned Bolsheviks." (24) Another source said that she had been murdered because she was planning to write a book that was highly critical of Joseph Stalin and would tell of her time in the "underground". (25)
Chambers asked Boris Bykov what had happened to Juliet Poyntz. He replied: "Gone with the wind". Chambers commented: "Brutality stirred something in him that at its mere mention came loping to the surface like a dog to a whistle. It was as close to pleasure as I ever saw him come. Otherwise, instead of showing pleasure, he gloated. He was incapable of joy, but he had moments of mean exultation. He was just as incapable of sorrow, though he felt disappointed and chagrin. He was vengeful and malicious. He would bribe or bargain, but spontaneous kindness or generosity seemed never to cross his mind. They were beyond the range of his feeling. In others he despised them as weaknesses." (26). As a result of this conversation, Chambers decided to stop working for the Communist Party of the United States.
After the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Chambers decided to take action: "Two days after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact - I went to Washington and reported to the authorities what I knew about the infiltration of the United States Government by Communists. For years, international Communism, of which the United States Communist Party is an integral part, had been in a state of undeclared war with this Republic. With the Hitler-Stalin pact that war reached a new stage. I regarded my action in going to the Government as a simple act of war, like the shooting of an armed enemy in combat." (27)
In 1939, Chambers met the journalist, Isaac Don Levine. Chambers told Levine that there was a communist cell in the United States government. Chambers recalled in his book, Witness (1952): "For years, he (Levine) has carried on against Communism a kind of private war which is also a public service. He is a skillful professional journalist and a notable ghost writer... From the first, Levine had urged me to take my story to the proper authorities. I had said no. I was extremely wary of Levine. I knew little or nothing about him, and the ex-Communist Party, but the natural prey of anyone who can turn his plight to his own purpose or profit." (28)
In April 1939 Chambers joined Time Magazine as a book and film reviewer. It soon became clear that Chambers was a strong anti-communist and this reflected the views of the owner of the magazine, Henry Luce, who arranged for him to be promoted to senior editor. Later that year he joined the group that determined editorial policy. Chambers wrote in his memoirs: "My debt and my gratitude to Time cannot be measured. At a critical moment, Time gave me back my life.
Chambers now bought a farm in Westminster, Maryland, and became a Quaker: "I returned to the land as a way of bringing up my children in close touch with the soil and hard work, and apart from what I consider the false standards and vitiating influence of the cities."
Chambers met Walter Krivitsky after he published an article on Joseph Stalin in the Saturday Evening Post. Chambers later recalled in Witness (1952): "I met Krivitsky with extreme reluctance. Long after my break with the Communist Party, I could not think of Communists or Communism without revulsion. I did not wish to meet even ex-Communists. Toward Russians, especially, I felt an organic antipathy. But one night, when I was at Levine's apartment in New York, Krivitsky telephoned that he was coming over. There presently walked into the room a tidy little man about five feet six with a somewhat lined gray face out of which peered pale blue eyes. They were professionally distrustful eyes, but oddly appealing and wistful, like a child whom life has forced to find out about the world, but who has never made his peace with it. By way of handshake, Krivitsky touched my hand. Then he sat down at the far end of the couch on which I also was sitting. His feet barely reached the floor. I turned to look at him. He did not look at me. He stared straight ahead." (29)
Krivitsky's biographer, Gary Kern, claims that he was not at first impressed with Chambers: "Krivitsky saw Chambers as a big slob. From childhood, unhappy with his bulky body and shabby, hand-me-down clothes, he had made a point of dressing badly as a private protest against the fortunately born... Everything about Chambers was disorderly, except his mind." Isaac Don Levine had once described "Chambers as looking like a plumber's helper on a repair mission... His clothes were rumpled, his short figure chunky, his teeth unsightly and his gait lumbering."
Krivitsky said that the Kronstadt Uprising was the turning point. "But who else for a thousand miles around could know what we were talking about? Here and there, some fugitive in a dingy room would know. But, as Krivitsky and I looked each other over, it seemed to me that we were like two survivors from another age of the earth, like two dated dinosaurs, the last relics of the revolutionary world that had vanished in the Purge. Even in that vanished world, we had been a special breed - the underground activists. There were not many of our kind left alive who still spoke the language that had also gone down in the submergence. I said, yes, Kronstadt had been the turning point.... Kronstadt is a naval base a few miles west of Leningrad in the Gulf of Finland. From Kronstadt during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the sailors of the Baltic Fleet had steamed their cruisers to aid the Communists in capturing Petrograd. Their aid had been decisive. They were the sons of peasants. They embodied the primitive revolutionary upheaval of the Russian people. They were the symbol of its instinctive surge for freedom. And they were the first Communists to realize their mistake and the first to try to correct it. When they saw that Communism meant terror and tyranny, they called for the overthrow of the Communist Government and for a time imperiled it. They were bloodily destroyed or sent into Siberian slavery by Communist troops led in person by the Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, and by Marshal Tukhachevsky, one of whom was later assassinated, the other executed, by the regime they then saved."
The two men talked all night. Chambers recalled that Walter Krivitsky said at one point: "Looked at concretely, there are no ex-Communists. There are only revolutionists and counter revolutionists." Chambers interpreted that these words "meant that, in the 20th century, all politics, national and international, is the politics of revolution - that, in sum, the forces of history in our time can be grasped only as the interaction of revolution and counterrevolution." Both men dismissed the importance of conservatives: "Is merely a conservative, resisting it out of habit and prejudice. He believed, as I believe, that fascism (whatever softening name the age of euphemism chooses to call it by) is inherent in every collectivist form, and that it can be fought only by the force of an intelligence, a faith, a courage, a self-sacrifice, which must equal the revolutionary spirit that, in coping with, it must in many ways come to resemble. No one knows so well as the ex-Communist the character of the conflict, and of the enemy, or shares so deeply the same power of faith and willingness to stake his life on his beliefs. For no other has seen so deeply into the total nature of the evil with which Communism threatens mankind. Counterrevolution and conservatism have little in common. In the struggle against Communism the conservative is all but helpless. For that struggle cannot be fought, much less won, or even understood, except in terms of total sacrifice. And the conservative is suspicious of sacrifice; he wishes first to conserve, above all what he is and what he has." Just before he left Krivitsky said: "In our time, informing is a duty." Chambers agreed and at that point: "I knew that, if the opportunity offered, I would inform." (30)
In August 1939, Isaac Don Levine arranged for Chambers to meet Adolf Berle, one of the top aides to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He later wrote in Witness: "The Berles were having cocktails. It was my first glimpse of that somewhat beetle-like man with the mild, intelligent eyes (at Harvard his phenomenal memory had made him a child prodigy). He asked the inevitable question: If I were responsible for the funny words in Time. I said no. Then he asked, with a touch of crossness, if I were responsible for Time's rough handling of him. I was not aware that Time had handled him roughly. At supper, Mrs. Berle took swift stock of the two strange guests who had thus appeared so oddly at her board, and graciously bounced the conversational ball. She found that we shared a common interest in gardening. I learned that the Berles imported their flower seeds from England and that Mrs. Berle had even been able to grow the wild cardinal flower from seed. I glanced at my hosts and at Levine, thinking of the one cardinal flower that grew in the running brook in my boyhood. But I was also thinking that it would take more than modulated voices, graciousness and candle-light to save a world that prized those things." (31)
After dinner Chambers told Berle about government officials spying for the Soviet Union: "Around midnight, we went into the house. What we said there is not in question because Berle took it in the form of penciled notes. Just inside the front door, he sat at a little desk or table with a telephone on it and while I talked he wrote, abbreviating swiftly as he went along. These notes did not cover the entire conversation on the lawn. They were what we recapitulated quickly at a late hour after a good many drinks. I assumed that they were an exploratory skeleton on which further conversations and investigation would be based." (32)
According to Isaac Don Levine the list of "espionage agents" included Alger Hiss, Donald Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White, John Abt, Marion Bachrach, Nathan Witt, Lee Pressman, Julian Wadleigh, Noel Field and Frank Coe. Chambers also named Joszef Peter, as being "responsible for the Washington sector" and "after 1929 the "head of the underground section" of the Communist Party of the United States.
Chambers later claimed that Berle reacted to the news with the comment: "We may be in this war within forty-eight hours and we cannot go into it without clean services." John V. Fleming, has argued in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) Chambers had "confessed to Berle the existence of a Communist cell - he did not yet identify it as an espionage team - in Washington." (33) Berle, who was in effect the president's Director of Homeland Security, raised the issue with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "who profanely dismissed it as nonsense."
In 1943 the FBI received a copy of Berle's memorandum. Whittaker Chambers was interviewed by the FBI but J. Edgar Hoover concluded, after being briefed on the interview, that Chambers had little specific information. However, this information was sent to the State Department security officials. One of them, Raymond Murphy, interviewed Chambers in March 1945 about these claims. Chambers now gave full details of Hiss's spying activities. A report was sent to the FBI and in May, 1945, they had another meeting with Chambers.
In August 1945, Elizabeth Bentley walked into an FBI office and announced that she was a former Soviet agent. In a statement she gave the names of several Soviet agents working for the government. This included Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie. Bentley also said that a man named "Hiss" in the State Department was working for Soviet military intelligence. In the margins of Bentley's comments about Hiss, someone at the FBI made a handwritten notation: "Alger Hiss".
The following month, Igor Guzenko, a clerk in the Soviet Embassy in Ottowa, defected to the Canadian authorities. He gave them a large number of documents detailing the existence of a large Soviet military intelligence network in Canada. Guzenko was also interviewed by the FBI. He told them that "the Soviets had an agent in the United States in May 1945 who was an assistant to the secretary of state, Edward R. Stettinius." Alger Hiss was Stettinius's assistant at the time."
The FBI sent a report on Hiss to the Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in November 1946. It concluded that Alger Hiss was probably a Soviet agent. Hiss was interviewed by D.M. Ladd, the FBI's Assistant Director, and denied any associations with Communism. The State Department security officials restricted his access to confidential documents, and the FBI wiretapped his office and home phones.
Dean Acheson came under pressure to sack Hiss. Acheson refused to do this and instead contacted John Foster Dulles, who was on the board of directors of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dulles arranged for Hiss to become president of the organization. At first Hiss refused to go and said he would rather stay and answer his critics. However, Acheson insisted and suggested that "this is the kind of thing which rarely, if ever, gets cleared up."
On 3rd August, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He testified that he had been "a member of the Communist Party and a paid functionary of that party" but left after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. He explained how the Ware Group's "original purpose" was "not primarily espionage," but "the Communist infiltration of the American government." Chambers claimed his network of spies included Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, Abraham George Silverman, John Abt, Lee Pressman, Nathan Witt, Henry H. Collins and Donald Hiss. Silverman, Collins, Abt, Pressman and Witt all used the Fifth Amendment defence and refused to answer any questions put by the HUAC. (34)
Chamber's accusations made headline news. Hiss immediately sent a telegram to John Parnell Thomas, HUAC's acting chairman: "I do not know Mr. Chambers, and, so far as I am aware, have never laid eyes on him. There is no basis for the statements about me made to your committee." Hiss asked for the opportunity to "appear... before your committee to make these statements formally and under oath." He also sent a copy of the telegram to John Foster Dulles.
On 5th August, 1948, Hiss appeared before the HUAC: "I am not and never have been a member of the Communist Party. I do not and never have adhered to the tenets of the Communist Party. I am not and never have been a member of any Communist-front organization. I have never followed the Communist Party line, directly or indirectly. To the best of my knowledge, none of my friends is a Communist.... To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two representatives of the Federal Bureau of investigation asked me if I knew him... I said I did not know Chambers. So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like to have the opportunity to do so."
G. Edward White, the author of Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004) has pointed out: "By his categorical disassociation of himself from even the slightest connection with Communism or Communist-front activities, Hiss set in motion a narrative of his career that he would devote the rest of his life to telling and retelling. In that narrative Hiss was simply a young lawyer who had gone to Washington and became committed to the policies of the New Deal and international peace. His career had been a consistent effort to promote those ideals. He had never been a Communist, and those who were accusing him of being such were seeking to scapegoat him for partisan purposes. They were a pack of liars, and he was their intended victim."
Richard Nixon now joined in the controversy. He argued that "while it would be virtually impossible to prove that Hiss was or was not a Communist... the HUAC... should be able to establish by corroborative testimony whether or not the two men knew each other." Nixon now became the head of a subcommittee to pursue the inquiry of Alger Hiss. HUAC called Hiss back for an executive session in New York City. This time he admitted that he did know Whittaker Chambers but at the time he used the name George Crosley. He also agreed with Chambers's testimony that he had rented him an apartment but denied that he was ever a member of the American Communist Party. Hiss added: "May I say for the record at this point that I would like to invite Mr. Whittaker Chambers to make those same statements out of the presence of the committee, without their being privileged for suit for libel. I challenge you to do it, and I hope you will do it damned quickly."
On 17th August, 1948, Chambers repeated his claim that "Alger Hiss was a communist and may be now." He added, "I do not think Mr. Hiss will sue me for slander or libel." At first Hiss hesitated but he realised that if he did not sue Chambers he would be considered guilty of being a communist. After lengthy discussions with several lawyers, Hiss filed a suit against Chambers on 27th September, 1948.
On 15th December, 1948, the grand jury asked Alger Hiss whether he had known Whittaker Chambers after 1936, and whether he had passed copies of any stolen government documents to Chambers. As he had done previously, Hiss answered no to both questions. The grand jury then indicted him on two counts of perjury. The New York Times reported that he "appeared solemn, anxious, and unhappy" with a grim and worried look". It added that to "observers it seemed obvious that he had not expected to be indicted".
The trial began in May 1949. The first piece of evidence concerned a car purchased by Chambers for $486.75 from a Randallstown car dealer on 23rd November, 1937. Chambers claimed that Hiss had given him $400 to buy the car. The prosecution was able to show that on 19th November Hiss had withdrawn $400 from his bank account. Hiss claimed that this was to buy furniture for a new house. But the Hisses had not signed a lease on any house at that time, and could produce no receipts for the furniture.
The main evidence that the prosecution produced consisted of sixty-five pages of re-typed State Department documents, plus four notes in Hiss's handwriting summarizing the contents of State Department cables. Chambers claimed Alger Hiss had given them to him in 1938 and that Priscilla Hiss had retyped them on the Hisses' Woodstock typewriter. Hiss initially denied writing the note, but experts confirmed it was his handwriting. The FBI was also able to show that the documents had been typed on Hiss's typewriter.
In the first trial Thomas Murphy stated that if the jury did not believe Chambers, the government had no case, and, at the end, four jurors remained unconvinced that Chambers had been telling the truth about how he had obtained the typed copies of documents. They thought that somehow Chambers had gained access to Hiss's typewriter and copied the documents. The first trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.
The second trial began in November 1949. One of the main witnesses against Alger Hiss in the second trial was Hede Massing. She claimed that at a dinner party in 1935 Hiss told her that he was attempting to recruit Noel Field, then an employee of the State Department, to his spy network. Whittaker Chambers claims in Witness (1952) that this was vital information against Hiss: "At the second Hiss trial, Hede Massing testified how Noel Field arranged a supper at his house, where Alger Hiss and she could meet and discuss which of them was to enlist him. Noel Field went to Hede Massing. But the Hisses continued to see Noel Field socially until he left the State Department to accept a position with the League of Nations at Geneva, Switzerland-a post that served him as a 'cover' for his underground work until he found an even better one as dispenser of Unitarian relief abroad.
Alger Hiss wrote in his autobiography, Recollections of a Life (1988): "Throughout the first trial and most of the second, I was confident of acquittal. But as the second trial wore on, I realized that it was no ordinary one. The entire jury of public opinion, all of those from whom my juries had been selected, had been tampered with. Richard Nixon, my unofficial prosecutor, seeking to build his career on getting a conviction in my case, had from the days of the congressional committee hearings constantly issued public statements and leaks to the press against me. There were moments when I was swept with gusts of anger at the prosecutor's bullying tactics with my witnesses and his devious insinuations in place of evidence - tactics that unfortunately are all too common in a prosecutor's bag of tricks... It was almost unbearable to hear the sneers of the prosecutor as he cross-examined my wife and other witnesses."
Hiss was unhappy with the way he was dealt with in court: "When it was my turn to be cross-examined, the ordeal was of a different sort. Here, court procedures are all weighted in favor of the questioner. The witness may not argue or explain. I was able only to answer directly and briefly, however weighted or hostile the question. My lawyer could object to improper questions, but at the risk of letting the jury get the impression that we were reluctant to have the subject explored. But I was at least not forced to remain mutely impassive, and I was confident that later my lawyer could correct false impressions which bullying cross-examination might leave. It was especially in those moments of provocation triggered by false insinuations that anger and fatigue were to be guarded against. I lost my temper at least once and immediately realized I had erred. The etiquette of the bull ring did not permit the tormented to show even annoyance. I sensed that the jury thought the prosecutor must have scored a point if I reacted so sharply."
Chambers wrote about the Hiss case in his book Witness (1952). He wrote: “ Like the soldier, the spy stakes his freedom or his life on the chances of action. The informer is different, particularly the ex-Communist informer. He risks little. He sits in security and uses his special knowledge to destroy others. He has that special information to give because he once lived within their confidence, in a shared faith, trusted by them as one of themselves, accepting their friendship, feeling their pleasures and griefs, sitting in their houses, eating at their tables, accepting their kindness, knowing their wives and children. If he had not done these things he would have no use as an informer.... I 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 Communism.”
The second jury found Alger Hiss guilty of two counts of perjury and on 25th January, 1950, he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The Secretary of State Dean Acheson, was asked later that day about the Hiss trial. He replied: "Mr. Hiss's case is before the courts, and I think it would be highly improper for me to discuss the legal aspects of the case, or the evidence, or anything to do with the case. I take it the purpose of your question was to bring something other than that out of me... I should like to make it clear to you that whatever the outcome of any appeal which Mr. Hiss or his lawyers may take in this case, I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss. I think every person who has known Alger Hiss, or has served with him at any time, has upon his conscience the very serious task of deciding what his attitude is, and what his conduct should be. That must be done by each person, in the light of his own standards and his own principles... My friendship is not easily given, and not easily withdrawn."
Chambers resigned from Time Magazine and worked during the 1950s for Life Magazine, Fortune and the National Review. Chambers wrote to his friend, William Buckley: "I am a man of the Right because I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version. But I claim that capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative."
Whittaker Chambers died after suffering a heart-attack at his home in Westminster, Maryland, on 9th July, 1961.
Like the soldier, the spy stakes his freedom or his life on the chances of action. If he had not done these things he would have no use as an informer.
I joined the Communist Party in 1924 and left in 1937. For a number of years I had served in the underground, chiefly in Washington. I knew it at its top level, a group of seven or so men, from among whom in later years certain members of Miss Bentley's organization were apparently recruited. Lee Pressman was also a member of this group, as was Alger Hiss, who, as a member of the State Department, later organized the conferences at Dumbarton Oaks, San Francisco, and the United States side of the Yalta Conference.
The purpose of this group at that time was not primarily espionage. Its original purpose was the Communist infiltration of the American Government. But espionage was certainly one of of its eventual objectives. Let no one be surprised at this statement. Disloyalty is a matter of principle with every member of the Communist Party.
Chambers had been shown to be inaccurate about almost every detail of his personal life, from when and how he left Columbia University and the New York Public Library to how he made a living, to whether his mother worked, to when he got married and how old his brother was when he committed suicide. More important, he had contradicted his earlier testimony given to the Committee on numerous crucial subjects, from when he joined and left the Communist Party and how long he was in it, to whether he had known Harold Ware, to how and where he first met Alger Hiss. Since he had testified under oath in both instances, it was clear that either he had willfully perjured himself or that he was a man incapable of differentiating truth from fiction.
However, there was one important thing he had remained consistent about, as he had been for the last nine years: he still maintained that whatever he and Hiss did in the underground, espionage was not part of their activities. "Alger Hiss didn't do anything of this character," Chambers said near the close of his examination on November 5. "I never obtained documents from him."
I met Krivitsky with extreme reluctance. Toward Russians, especially, I felt an organic antipathy.
But one night, when I was at Levine's apartment in New York, Krivitsky telephoned that he was coming over. He stared straight ahead. Then he asked in German (the only language that we ever spoke): "Is the Soviet Government a fascist government?"
Communists dearly love to begin a conversation with a key question the answer to which will also answer everything else of importance about the answerer. I recognized that this was one of those questions. On the political side, I had broken with the Communist Party in large part because I had become convinced that the Soviet Government was fascist. Yet when I had to give that answer out loud, instead of in the unspoken quiet of my own mind, all the emotions that had ever bound me to Communism rose in a final spasm to stop my mouth. I sat silent for some moments. Then I said: "The Soviet Government is a fascist government." Later on that night, Krivitsky told me that if I had answered yes at once, he would have distrusted me. Because I hesitated, and he felt the force of my struggle, he was convinced that I was sincere.
When I answered slowly, and a little somberly, as later on I sometimes answered questions during the Hiss Case, Krivitsky turned for the first time and looked at me directly. "You are right, and Kronstadt was the turning point."
I knew what he meant. But who else for a thousand miles around could know what we were talking about? Here and there, some fugitive in a dingy room would know. I said, yes, Kronstadt had been the turning point.
Kronstadt is a naval base a few miles west of Leningrad in the Gulf of Finland. They were bloodily destroyed or sent into Siberian slavery by Communist troops led in person by the Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, and by Marshal Tukhachevsky, one of whom was later assassinated, the other executed, by the regime they then saved.
Krivitsky meant that by the decision to destroy the Kronstadt sailors, and by its cold-blooded action in doing so, Communism had made the choice that changed it from benevolent socialism to malignant fascism. Today, I could not answer, yes, to Krivitsky's challenge. The fascist character of Communism was inherent in it from the beginning. Kronstadt changed the fate of millions of Russians. It changed nothing about Communism. It merely disclosed its character.
Krivitsky and I began to talk quickly as if we were racing time. Levine first dozed in his chair, and then, around midnight, went to bed. About three o'clock in the morning, he came down in his bathrobe, found us still talking and went back to bed. Day dawned. Krivitsky and I went out to a cafeteria near the corner of 59th Street and Lexington Avenue. We were still talking there at eleven o'clock that morning. We parted because we could no longer keep our eyes open.
We talked about Krivitsky's break with Communism and his flight with his wife and small son from Amsterdam to Paris. We talked about the attempts of the G.P.U. to trap or kill him in Europe and the fact that he had not been in the United States 3 week before the Russian secret police set a watch over his apartment. We talked about the murder of Ignatz Reiss, the Soviet agent whose break from the Communist Party in Switzerland had precipitated Krivitsky's. They had been friends. The G.P.U. had demanded that Krivitsky take advantage of his friendship to trap or kill Reiss.
That night, too, I learned the name of Boris Bykov and that Herman's real name had been Valentine Markin, and why he had been murdered and by whom.
But nothing else that we said was so important for the world, or for the course of action that it enjoined upon us both in our different ways, as what Krivitsky had to tell me about the designs of Soviet foreign policy. For it was then that I first learned that, for more than a year, Stalin had been desperately seeking to negotiate an alliance with Hitler. Attempts to negotiate the pact had been made throughout the period when Communism (through its agency, the Popular Front) was posing to the masses of mankind as the only inflexible enemy of fascism. As, in response to my first incredulity, Krivitsky developed the political logic that necessitated the alliance, I knew at once, as only an ex-Communist would, that he was speaking the truth. The alliance was, in fact, a political inevitability. I wondered only what blind spot had kept me from foreseeing it. For, by means of the pact, Communism could pit one sector of the West against the other, and use both to destroy what was left of the non-Communist world. As Communist strategy, the pact was thoroughly justified, and the Communist Party was right in denouncing all those who opposed it as Communism's enemies. From any human point of view, the pact was evil.
We passed naturally to the problem of the ex-Communist and what he could do against that evil. Krivitsky did not then, or at any later time, tell me what he himself had done or would do. It was from others that I learned the details of his co-operation with the British Government.
But Krivitsky said one or two things that were to take root in my mind and deeply to influence my conduct, for they seemed to correspond to the reality of my position. He said at one point: "Looked at concretely, there are no ex-Communists. There are only revolutionists and counter revolutionists." He meant that, in the 20th century, all politics, national and international, is the politics of revolution - that, in sum, the forces of history in our time can be grasped only as the interaction of revolution and counterrevolution. He meant that, in so far as a man ventures to think or act politically, or even if he tries not to think or act at all, history will, nevertheless, define what he is in the terms of those two mighty opposites. He is a revolutionist or he is a counter revolutionist. In action there is no middle ground. Nor did Krivitsky suppose, as we discussed then (and later) in specific detail, that the revolution of our time is exclusively Communist, or that the counter revolutionist. is merely a conservative, resisting it out of habit and prejudice. And the conservative is suspicious of sacrifice; he wishes first to conserve, above all what he is and what he has.
Unexpectedly, Levine provided the opportunity. Between the time that he proposed to arrange a conversation with the President, and the time I next saw Levine, some months had elapsed. I had gone to work for Time magazine. I was much too busy trying to learn my job to think of Levine, the President or anything else.
Then, on the morning of September 2, 1939, a few days after the Nazi-Communist Pact was signed, and the German armor had rushed on Warsaw, Isaac Don Levine appeared at my office at Time. He explained that he had been unable to arrange to see the President. But he had arranged a substitute meeting with Adolf Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of security. It was for eight o'clock that night. Would I go?
I hesitated. I did not like the way in which I was presented with an accomplished fact. But "looked at concretely, there are no ex-Communists; there are only revolutionists and counter-revolutionists"; "in our time, informing is a duty." In fact, I was grateful to Levine for presenting me with a decision to which I had only to assent, but which involved an act so hateful that I should have hesitated to take the initiative myself.
I said that I would meet Levine in Washington that night.
The plane was late. Levine was waiting for me nervously in front of the Hay-Adams House. No doubt, he thought that I might have changed my mind, leaving him with nothing to take to Adolf Berle but embarrassing explanations.
Berle was living in Secretary of War Stimson's house. It stood on Woodley Road near Connecticut Avenue. It stood deep in shaded grounds, somewhat jungle like at night. For some reason the cab driver let us out at the entrance to the drive and, as we straggled up to the house, I realized that we were only four or five blocks from the apartment on 28th Street where I had first talked to Alger Hiss. With a wince, I thought of his remark when I told him that
I had taken a job in the Government: "I suppose that you'll turn up next in the State Department."
The Berles were having cocktails. Then he asked, with a touch of crossness, if I were responsible for Time's rough handling of him. I was not aware that Time had handled him roughly.
At supper, Mrs. But I was also thinking that it would take more than modulated voices, graciousness and candle-light to save a world that prized those things.
After the coffee, Mrs. Berle left us. Berle, Levine and I went out on the lawn. Three anticipatory chairs were waiting for us, like a mushroom ring in a pasture. The trees laid down islands of shadow, and about us washed the ocean of warm, sweet, southern air whose basic scent is honeysuckle. From beyond, came the rumor of the city, the softened rumble of traffic on Connecticut Avenue.
We had scarcely sat down when a Negro serving man brought drinks. I was intensely grateful. I drank mine quickly. I knew that two or three glasses of Scotch and soda would give me a liberating exhilaration. For what I had to do, I welcomed any aid that would loosen my tongue.
Levine made some prefatory statement about my special information, which, of course, they had already discussed before. Berle was extremely agitated. "We may be in this war within forty-eight hours," he said, "and we cannot go into it without clean services." He said this not once, but several times. I was astonished to hear from an Assistant Secretary of State that the Government considered it possible that the United States might go into the war at once.
Gratefully, I felt the alcohol take hold. It was my turn to speak. I remember only that I said that I was about to give very serious information touching certain people in the Government, but that I had no malice against those people. I believed that they constituted a danger to the country in this crisis. I begged, if possible, that they might merely be dismissed from their posts and not otherwise prosecuted. Even while I said it, I supposed that it was a waste of breath. But it was such a waste of breath as a man must make. I did not realize that it was also supremely ironic. "I am a lawyer, Mr. Chambers," said Mr. Berle, "not a policeman."
It was a rambling talk. I do not recall any special order in it. Nor do I recall many details. I recall chiefly the general picture I drew of Communist infiltration of the Government and one particular point. In view of the war danger, and the secrecy of the bombsight, I more than once stressed to Berle the importance of getting Reno as quickly as possible out of the Aberdeen Proving Ground. (When the F.B.I. looked for him in 1948, he was still employed there.)
We sat on the lawn for two or three hours. Almost all of that time I was talking. I supposed, later on, that I had given Berle the names of Bykov and the head of the steel experimental laboratory. They do not appear in the typed notes. Levine remembers that we discussed micro film. I have no independent recollection of that. But, while we must have covered a good deal of ground in two or three hours, it is scarcely strange that none of us should have remembered too clearly just what he said on the lawn, for most of the time we were holding glasses in our hands.
Around midnight, we went into the house. I assumed that they were an exploratory skeleton on which further conversations and investigation would be based.
After midnight, Levine and I left. As we went out, I could see that Mrs. Berle had fallen asleep on a couch in a room to my right. Adolf Berle, in great excitement, was on the telephone even before we were out the door. I supposed that he was calling the White House.
In August, 1948, Adolf A. Berle testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities not long after my original testimony about Alger Hiss and the Ware Group. The former Assistant Secretary of State could no longer clearly recall my conversation with him almost a decade before. His memory had grown dim on a number of points. He believed, for example, that I had described to him a Marxist study group whose members were not Communists. In any case, he had been unable to take seriously, in 1939, any "idea that the Hiss boys and Nat Witt were going to take over the Government."
At no time in our conversation can I remember anyone's mentioning the ugly word espionage. But how well we understood what we were talking about, Berle was to make a matter of record. For when, four years after that memorable conversation, his notes were finally taken out of a secret file and turned over to the F.B.I., it was found that Adolf Berle himself had headed them: Underground Espionage Agent.
(1) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 182
(2) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) page 46
(3) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) pages 28-29
(4) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 31
(5) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) pages 56-60
(6) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) pages 26-27
(7) Nathaniel Weyl, interview with US News & World Report (9th January, 1953)
(8) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 31
(9) Susan Jacoby, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009) pages 79-80
(10) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) page 108
(11) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 37
(12) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 76-77
(13) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 43
(14) House of Un-American Activities Committee (6th December, 1948)
(15) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) page 108
(16) Julian Wadleigh, Why I Spied for the Communists, New York Post (14th July, 1949)
(17) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) page 111
(18) G. Edward White, Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars (2004) page 42
(19) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 425-429
(20) Roy A. Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971) pages 157-159
(21) Benjamin Gitlow, The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America (1948) pages 333-334
(22) Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twenty-Century America (2003) page 158
(23) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 36
(24) The New York Times (8th February, 1938)
(25) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 17
(26) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 439
(27) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) pages 540-541
(28) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 457
(29) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 459
(30) Gary Kern, A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (2004) page 193
(31) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) pages 462-463
(32) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 464
(33) John V. Fleming, The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) page 320
(34) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) page 246
Whittaker Chambers: A Centenary Reflection
The author reviews briefly the career and influence of Whittaker Chambers, an American writer and editor who renounced communism more than fifty years ago and warned about subversives in the U. S. Government. His last published work (1964) presciently foretold that a revolt in Eastern Europe would bring down world communism. —Ed.
April 1, 2001, marked one hundred years since the birth of Jay Vivian “Whittaker” Chambers, one of the most interesting Americans of the twentieth century. Chambers was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but spent most of his early youth in Brooklyn and Long Island, New York. He attended Union Avenue Grammar School and South Side High School, where he excelled at English and languages. After graduating high school in 1919, Chambers worked as a bank clerk and a laborer until enrolling in college at Columbia University in 1921. At Columbia, Chambers participated in the school’s literary activities, which included writing for the undergraduate magazine Varsity, and editing The Morningside, a literary journal. Mark Van Doren, the legendary English instructor, considered Chambers the best of his undergraduate students in the 1920s. But Chambers’ attendance record was poor, and prior to graduating he simply stopped going to class. As Sam Tanenhaus explains in Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, Chambers “had found a new intellectual passion, bolshevism.”
Thus began Whittaker Chambers’ long, torturous journey: from Communist Party member and activist—to underground espionage agent—to hunted ex-comrade—to Time magazine writer and editor—to reluctant informer—to vilified government witness—to conservative, anticommunist icon. During that journey Chambers also found religion and developed an insight into the competing visions that fueled the titanic struggle between communism and the West.
On August 3, 1948, Chambers, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), identified several members of an underground communist network that had infiltrated the United States government in the 1930s and 1940s.
Chambers named Alger Hiss on that occasion. A former high level Department of State official who had advised President Roosevelt at the wartime Yalta Conference, Hiss was a key figure in the negotiations that led to the formation of the United Nations and was at the time president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He had been a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and counted among his acquaintances and supporters Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, John Foster Dulles, Francis Sayre, Judge Jerome Frank, and Edward Stettinius. Chambers subsequently charged that Hiss had been involved in passing classified documents to the Soviets. Hiss denied to the committee and to a grand jury that he had been a communist and that he had engaged in espionage on behalf of the Soviets. For those denials, Hiss was charged with perjury (the three-year statute of limitations of the day prevented espionage charges from being filed). In a dramatic moment, Chambers produced confidential State Department documents, including notes in Hiss’ handwriting, which Chambers had kept hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. These were documents that Hiss had provided to Chambers (who acted as a courier) for transfer to his Soviet handlers. Hiss was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison (he actually served forty-four months at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania). Though Hiss partisans and many on the ideological Left for many years hotly disputed the jury’s verdict in the case, most interested people were finally persuaded that justice had been done by Allen Weinstein’s painstakingly researched book, Perjury, published in 1978.
After the trial, Chambers retreated to his Maryland farm to write Witness, his masterful autobiography and one of the more interesting books of the twentieth century. In it, he characterized communism as “the focus of the concentrated evil of our time” (words that President Ronald Reagan would repeat thirty years later) he defined the Cold War as a struggle between “two irreconcilable faiths,” that is, faith in man and faith in God. Chambers described the utopian vision that forms the basis of communism and all other totalitarian movements:
The communist vision is the vision of man without God. It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals.
Chambers understood the communist vision from 1925 to 1937 it was his vision. That vision was so strong that when he broke with communism he told his wife that they were joining the “losing side” in the great struggle of the twentieth century. Two years after his break with communism, Chambers attempted to warn the Roosevelt Administration about communist infiltration of the government (the same information that he revealed to HUAC in 1948). Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle ’ brought Chambers’ information directly to Roosevelt, but the president refused to believe it. FDR’s response to Chambers’ information typified his administration’s lax attitude about the threat of communist subversion.
We now understand that communist infiltration of the U. S. government during the 1930s and 1940s was real and damaging. The opening of some Soviet archives and the release of the Venona Project files (intercepted wartime and postwar messages between Moscow and communist agents in the United States) confirmed much of what Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and other ex-communists told HUAC and other congressional committees. Three recent books on the subject — The Haunted Wood, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, and The Venona Secrets — provide evidence that American communists successfully infiltrated the State Department, Treasury Department, Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Justice Department, Agricultural Department, Commerce Department, the Office of War Information, the War Production Board, the Board of Economic Warfare, the Civil Service Commission, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the army, the navy, Congress, the Manhattan Project, the United Nations, and the White House. The highest ranking Soviet agents included Harry Dexter White, the number two man at Treasury Alger Hiss, a key State Department official Duncan Lee, a chief assistant to OSS Director William Donovan Congressman Samuel Dickstein and Launchlin Currie, special assistant to FDR. The authors of The Venona Secrets go so far as to identify Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s most trusted advisers, as a Soviet agent. If that is true, then the Soviet Union had in place an agent of influence who had the ear of President Roosevelt on every significant issue and policy.
When Chambers’ attempt to warn FDR’s administration about communist infiltration of the government failed, he used his position as a writer and editor at Time magazine to try to warn the American people that Stalin’s regime was every bit as dangerous to American interests as Nazi Germany. As Time’s foreign news editor in 1944-45, Chambers often rewrote articles that he believed were too slanted in favor of communist causes, much to the consternation of Time reporters. Some of Chambers’ best writings of that period are included in a collection of Chambers’ journalism edited by Terry Teachout entitled Ghosts on the Roof. The book’s title is taken from one of Chambers’ more brilliant and controversial Time essays that imagines a pro-Stalin dialogue among the ghosts of the slain Russian royal family and the Muse of History situated on the roof of the Livadia Palace at Yalta. Chambers has the ghost of Nicholas II praise Stalin’s diplomacy at Yalta by saying: “What statesmanship! What vision! What power! We have known nothing like it since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic States in the 18th century. Stalin has made Russia great again!” This appeared in March 1945, when it was not fashionable to criticize America’s Soviet allies.
After writing Witness, Chambers’ health slowly deteriorated. He began a correspondence with the young William F. Buckley, Jr., and briefly served as a senior editor of Buckley’s National Review in the late 1950s. Chambers also corresponded with Ralph de Toledano, who covered the Hiss Case for Newsweek and later wrote a book about the case titled Seeds of Treason. Buckley’s correspondence with Chambers was published in book form in 1969 as Odyssey of a Friend. The Chambers-Toledano letters were published in 1997 as Notes from the Underground.
In Chambers’ last published work, Cold Friday (which appeared in 1964, three years after his death), prophetically he envisioned that a “satellite revolution” in Eastern Europe would result in the transformation of the communist dictatorship. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan, who encouraged and assisted that “satellite revolution” which resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, awarded Chambers (posthumously) the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal’s citation reads:
At a critical moment in our Nation’s history, Whittaker Chambers stood alone against the brooding terrors of our age. Consummate intellectual, writer of moving majestic prose, and witness to the truth, he became the focus of a momentous controversy in American history that symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, a controversy in which the solitary figure of Whittaker Chambers personified the mystery of human redemption in the face of evil and suffering. As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire. The words of Arthur Koestler are his epitaph: “The witness is gone the testimony will stand.”
In American History
Chambers’s single most significant act was to testify at length against his former friend, prominent State Department official Alger Hiss. He also appeared frequently before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to corroborate the accusations of fellow anticommunist witnesses such as Elizabeth Bentley, Benjamin Gitlow, Louis Budenz, and Hede Massing.
From Communist to Anticommunist
Chambers was born in Brooklyn in 1901. Chambers’s parents (a commercial artist and cartoonist) did not enjoy a happy marriage. Not long after his father’s early death (and his brother’s suicide), Chambers ran away to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a laborer on the railways.
A gifted but erratic student, he would eventually enter Columbia University and study under the celebrated English instructor Mark Van Doren, but it was his experience during the earlier period, and his reading of Marx and Lenin, that brought Chambers into contact with several key members of the Communist Party (CPUSA), including future general secretary William Foster, James Cannon, and Joseph Freeman.
Looking back on his decision to join the party in 1925 from the perspective of his compelling 1953 autobiography, Witness, Chambers claimed that he had found in Marxism a “practical program, a vision, and a faith” with which to answer the “crises of history” unfolding around him. Throughout the “red decade” (late 1920ss), Chambers enjoyed swift progress up the ranks first of the open party and then the underground Soviet espionage apparatus that coordinated and directed its actions.
In 1935, he was appointed to the prestigious position of chief editor of the CPUSA’s Daily Worker. Ironically, it was from this privileged perspective that Chambers began to discern the corruption of Communist ideals that would finally lead to his apostasy from the movement in 1937.
In common with contemporaries and fellow McCarthyites like Gitlow, Bentley, and Austrian expatriate Arthur Koestler, Chambers’s faith in the Left was destroyed as a result of the Stalinist purges in the USSR, the Nazi–Soviet pact, and the resulting internecine warfare among members of the U.S. Left.
|Whittaker Chambers sits during the HUAC investigation of Alger Hiss.|
Although the exact date of his disengagement from the movement remains uncertain, it is clear that, from the late 1930s, Chambers had begun secreting microfilms and documents that he would eventually use to expose the treachery of former Communist comrades embedded within various branches of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.
Throughout the 1940s, Chambers, as a former highly placed member of the Communist underground, was increasingly called on by the FBI to corroborate the charges of other defectors. As a result of this process, he came to believe that Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal program (and its successor, Truman’s “Fair Deal”) had been thoroughly compromised by the penetration of Communist ideas and personnel.
Like other proponents of McCarthyism such as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, future president Richard Nixon, Senator Patrick McCarran, and McCarthy himself, Chambers viewed the New Deal as little more than a covert socialist revolution led by an elite of leftist intellectuals masquerading as liberals.
Together with the written and verbal pronouncements of these and other figures, Chambers’s testimony, in Witness and before numerous grand juries and congressional committees, and his many articles for magazines like Time, were instrumental in identifying the formative influence of Communist thought on the drift of pre-war public policy and the threat of Communist conspiracy in the cold war public consciousness.
The Hiss-Chambers Trials
Chambers’s single most crucial act, however, was to detail Alger Hiss’s activities on behalf of the Soviet intelligence apparatus during his appointment in the State Department and his participation at the pivotal superpower conference in Yalta at the end of World War II. From his first appearance before HUAC in August 1948 when Hiss was accused of membership in the CPUSA, Chambers maintained the pressure on his former friend.
From 1948, he doggedly continued the campaign in spite of Hiss’s denial that he had ever known his accuser, and the charges of slander Hiss brought against him. Indeed, it was in his pretrial deposition during the latter case that Chambers unexpectedly broadened his allegations, accusing Hiss of stealing State Department documents and passing them to him for transmission to Moscow.
It was these documents, stored by Chambers among the produce at his Maryland farm, which became popularly known as the “Pumpkin Papers.” Although this first trial ended in a hung jury, a conviction was finally secured when professional ex-communist witness Hede Massing appeared at the retrial the following year to corroborate Chambers’s claim. Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison.
Coinciding with the 1949 trial of the CPUSA leadership by HUAC, the Hiss–Chambers case captivated the public imagination and occupied far more column inches than any other in the years before the Rosenberg scandal (1952).
This was undoubtedly due in part to the impressive and apparently unimpeachable record of the accused and the entire network of officials whom he seemed to represent—in the words of one contemporary commentator, the case effectively put the New Deal generation on trial. No less important was the fact that several of the key hearings were televised nationwide, something unprecedented in the 1950s.
For the most part, Chambers appeared temperamentally ill-suited to such widespread exposure, as his retreat to a solitary life on the remote Maryland farm proved. Nevertheless, after the furor died down, he continued to work as an editor and staff writer for Time and Life magazines and the National Review examples of his provocative, always opinionated reflections on cold war politics were recently anthologized in Ghosts on the Roof (1996).
Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961, having renewed his pledge to the Quaker faith of his childhood. As Witness makes clear, it was this return of the spiritual dimension to his life that offered a sustaining counterweight to the trauma of his apostasy from the Communist movement.
Continuing Controversy over Chambers’s Legacy
By the time of his death Chambers’s life and its legacy were already the subject of bitter debate. For the cold war conservative constituency, many of whom, like Philip Rahv and Leslie Fiedler, shared their hero’s leftist past, Chambers represented the acceptable, literate face of uncompromising anticommunism, without any of McCarthy’s demagoguery. (It is worth noting that Chambers privately condemned McCarthy’s bullying courtroom tactics.)
Richard Nixon, another powerful conservative supporter and key prosecutor in the Hiss trials, would later admit that his close involvement in the development of Chambers’s case helped secure the broad base of support for his presidential campaigns against John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Indeed, the very principles of the so-called New Right that began to surface during the 1950s were premised on the same rejection of the reformist social agenda advocated by the liberal establishment under Roosevelt and Truman that had actuated Chambers’s assault on Hiss.
Another beneficiary of this growing tide of right-wing sentiment was Californian Republican Ronald Reagan, who, as president, awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 1984, citing him as a bastion of “virtue and freedom” against the “brooding terrors of [the] age.” Both Reagan and Nixon, as well as National Review founder William Buckley, were all at one time members of the so-called Pumpkin Papers Irregulars, a group formed with the sole aim of maintaining Chambers’s esteemed reputation in conservative political and cultural circles.
No less significant in this regard was Allen Weinstein’s much-lauded (and recently republished) study of the case, Perjury (1978 1997), in which, after a judicious inquiry into all available sources, and starting from his strong belief in Hiss’s innocence, the author concluded that the vast majority of Chambers’s accusations were true. The support of these prominent figures seemed justified when, in the late 1990s, Soviet archives were opened and many files from the Venona Project were declassified.
Suddenly, there was an abundance of evidence apparently proving that Chambers had been correct both in his assertion that Hiss was a Soviet agent and that a Communist conspiracy had successfully penetrated many departments of the Roosevelt administration and continued unimpeded during Truman’s presidency.
In the face of this torrent of hostility and accusation, Hiss continued to maintain his innocence. In this, he had many powerful supporters among liberals and former government officials who were not prepared to see the very real political and social gains made during the Roosevelt era tainted and compromised by the accusation of Communist infiltration.
In fact, the backlash against Chambers had already begun during the trials when Hiss and various sections of the media joined forces to portray Chambers as a psychopath and habitual liar. Whatever the truth of this diagnosis, for someone like future Kennedy special advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or a liberal commentator like Granville Hicks, Chambers’s rigid view of the irreconcilable conflict between left and right was far too absolute, leaving at the center a dangerous breeding ground for intolerance and extremism.
For those further to the left, including the CPUSA and the Socialist Workers’ Party, the growing convergence of interests among figures like Chambers, Nixon, and McCarthy began to resemble a neoconservative conspiracy whose aim was to discredit the New Deal establishment and those who came under the banner of its Popular Front during the 1930s. In their view, Hiss, like the Rosenbergs a few years later, came to represent a scapegoat used to legitimize the ascendancy of the New Right.
The validity of this argument seemed finally to have been borne out when Soviet intelligence archivist General Dmitri Volkogonov claimed in 1992 that he had found no evidence in the KGB’s cold war files to prove Chambers’s allegations against Hiss. However, more revelations from the archives and the Venona files have further complicated the issue and once again tipped the balance in favor of Chambers’s account.
In recent years, The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based right-wing think tank, celebrated the centenary of Chambers’s birth with a glowing tribute to a “man of courage and faith,” while the conservative-inclined Regnery Publishing house has continued its long-term project to bring his huge body of political and cultural journalism to a wider public.
What this proves is that Chambers’s contested legacy continues toof the significance of the threat of Communist subversion and conspiracy during the cold war. reflect the shifts of public and political estimation
Why Did Whittaker Chambers Leave the Communist Party?
In the fall of 1936, Whittaker Chambers came across a brief newspaper account of the execution, by the Soviet regime, of a former Soviet general. Though he’d never heard of the man, he was unsettled by the idea of such a man—a former hero of the Soviet state—being executed. He approached one of his superiors in the underground and asked him whether there was something going on in the Soviet Union that he should know about.
The response was disturbing: Yes, something was going on, and no, he shouldn’t know about it, talk about it, or ask anything further about it.
It was Chambers’s first intimation of the avalanche of terror and death that was in the process of cleansing the Soviet Union not just of anyone who might plausibly threaten Stalin’s supremacy, but of hundreds of thousands of people who looked vaguely like the kind of people who might perhaps threaten Stalin’s supremacy, and a few hundred thousand other people thrown in for good measure.
Between 1935 and 1938, in what became known as the Great Purge (or the Great Terror), millions of Soviet citizens were executed or sent away to prison camps for no reason other than Stalin’s will to power and the inner logic of the purge itself, which, with each new arrest and conviction, produced further false allegations of conspiracy.
For Chambers, as for many other party members around the world, the Great Purge was striking not so much for its scale, which wasn’t widely known until much later, as for its targets. Stalin’s aggression was directed not at genuine conspirators or counterrevolutionaries, of whom there were no more than a few left by the mid-1930s, but at the heart of the Soviet system.
The primary targets were the army, the secret police, the technical classes, the intellectuals, and, most startlingly of all, the old guard of the Bolshevik party. Some of the very men whom Chambers had joined the party to emulate, his paragons of courage and brilliance fused, were hauled in front of the world and forced to confess (falsely, Chambers could only assume) to being enemies of the Soviet Union.
“To the Western world,” wrote Chambers, “those strange names—Rykov, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Piatakov, Rakovsky, Krylenko, Latsis, Tukhachevsky, Muralov, Smirnov, Karakhan, Mrachovsky—were merely tongue twisters. To a Communist, they were the men who had made one of the great transformations in human history—the Russian Revolution. The charge, on which they were one and all destroyed, the charge that they had betrayed their handiwork, was incredible.They were the Communist Party.”
That the Soviet regime could be brutal wasn’t news to Chambers. He’d long believed that a new world wasn’t likely to emerge without a great deal of destruction of the old, and he’d been drawn to the writings of Lenin in no small part because of Lenin’s frankness about the necessity of violence. But Chambers’s conception of the regime’s violence, until 1936 or so, had remained conveniently romantic. It was storybook violence, redemptive and thrilling and only incidentally wrought upon the innocent.When Stalin started killing characters in the storybook—its heroes, no less—it shook Chambers.
In his autobiography Witness, Chambers pauses at a few moments to consider what it was that ultimately caused his break from communism. Why, after so much sacrifice and love and loyalty paid to the party, did he leave? He arrived at two kinds of answers. One was metaphysical: It was the spark of the divine in his soul, the ineradicable immanence of God, that enabled him to eventually recognize that communism wasn’t a solution to the crisis of modernity, but in fact its most terrible manifestation.
Chambers’s other answer was more contingent. There was no one event, person, epiphany, or betrayal that detached him from the cause to which he had devoted so much of his adult life. There were, instead, many small shocks that over the course of years dissolved his faith from below. There was the accumulated tedium of years of underground work, and how little there was to show for it. There were the sappingly antisocial patterns of underground life, all the dislocations and secrecy and lying. There was the call of the countryside, and his long-deferred dream of putting down roots. There were his children, to whom he could never give a full life if he stayed underground. There was the menagerie of grotesque characters he’d met in the underground, people whose vulgarity and mediocrity made him wonder, despite himself, at the worth of a cause that could hand authority to such types. And there were the astounding facts of Soviet cruelty, which were lying in wait for him, in plain sight, if ever he proved unflinching enough to look at them.
Against all of these reasons to break away was the leviathan fact of his communist faith, which had been his gravitational center for more than a decade. The modern world was sick, and only communism, he’d concluded, contained the possibility of a cure. To abandon communism, for Chambers, would be to abandon any hope of living in a just world. To reject it, also, would be to reject everything of personal importance he’d enmeshed in its web of meaning.
He had vowed to his dead brother to avenge him through communism. Under the umbrella of communist purpose, he had formed extraordinarily close bonds with friends (the Hisses, in particular). He’d allowed himself to neglect for years the immediate needs of his family with the understanding that only a communist revolution would enable them, in the long run, to live truly fulfilled lives.
To leave the party wouldn’t simply entail a change of political ideas and loyalties it would render meaningless all the sacrifices he’d made in communism’s name. And it would, if he proved unable to replace communism with a new and equally substantial belief system, leave him bereft of purpose in the world, an intolerable condition for Chambers.
By the end of 1936, the balance began to tip. The purge, the strain, the secrecy, the danger, the life. It was all too much. It would be another year or so before he was able to say to himself, definitively, that he intended to leave the party. Once the angle of his interpretive lens had shifted, however, he saw evidence against communism everywhere, and he began seeking it out as well.
In 1937, Chambers finally decided to read an anti-Soviet book. The one he found, I Speak for the Silent, couldn’t have been better chosen to erode what was left of his faith. Its author, Vladimir Tchernavin, was a former scientist with the Soviets’ state fishing agency—a man of hard facts and clear-eyed reason—and the book was an unrelenting, unsentimental account not just of Tchernavin’s own descent into the Soviet prison system, but of the absolute corruption and almost comic folly of the Soviet government.
It was as if Lenin, fifteen years after The Soviets at Work, had returned from the dead to survey the dry facts of the government he created, only to discover that everything was the inverse of what he’d promised. Not justice but crass opportunism was the logic of the system. Not the best but the worst were in charge. Not efficiency but disorder reigned.
Chambers had never been impressed with the quality of the people in the American party, or with the wisdom of the party’s strategies, but he had consoled himself with the assumption that in the Soviet Union things were better. And even if it wasn’t perfect over there, it was at least an imperfect system guided by high-minded leaders and a vision of justice. The Soviet government of I Speak for the Silent was devoid of anything resembling high-mindedness.
There were decent, intelligent souls in Tchernavin’s Soviet Union, but almost without exception they were being shaken down, jailed, or executed. They were the victims of the idiots, thugs, manipulators, and sociopaths who were in charge (who were in turn always victimizing each other).
Just as devastating to Chambers’s faith was the story that Tchernavin told of the ruin of the fishing industry by the government’s attempt to centralize economic planning. At every level, from the fishing trawlers to the docks to the refineries to the administrative offices in Murmansk to the headquarters in Moscow, incompetence, corruption, and brutality were rewarded while honesty, intelligence, integrity, and efficiency were extinguished.
In less than two years, from 1930 to 1931, the secret police (the GPU) and the Soviet central planners took what had been a growing, highly efficient operation—proof, indeed, that a communist economy could prosper—and ran it full speed into the ground. Then, when it became apparent what a mess they’d made, they accused the people like Tchernavin, whose advice they’d ignored, of intentionally sabotaging the operation. Then they killed them or sent them to prison.
“No disaster, no epidemic, no war could destroy with such selection the cream of experienced and active workers in the industries which the GPU attacked,” wrote Tchernavin. “This wholesale destruction of specialists could not fail to have fatal results for the fishing business. . . . The same conditions prevailed, in general, in all the industries of the U.S.S.R. . . . The Bolsheviks for the second time were leading a rich and prosperous country into terrible poverty and dreadful famine.”
If one believed what Tchernavin wrote, and by this point Chambers did, there could be nothing left of the communist dream. Cruel necessity was something that Chambers could tolerate, as long as he didn’t look at it too closely, but if Tchernavin was right, then there was nothing at all in the Soviet Union to justify any of the cruelty. The whole thing was a fraud. It was the corruption of the modern world distilled into a putrid essence. It didn’t ennoble people it debased them. It didn’t dissolve alienation it exacerbated it. Neither Tchernavin nor Chambers knew, at the time, how many millions of people had died of starvation and disease as a result of the economic policies and practices of the regime, or how many millions more would die in the prison system from which Tchernavin and his family managed to escape. Such possibilities were implicit, however, in what Tchernavin described: a system that had gone insane.
There were other blows to Chambers’s faith in communism. An old friend of his, someone who’d helped recruit him into the underground, returned from a trip to Moscow terrified for his life. “I will not work one more hour for those murderers!” he told Chambers. Another old acquaintance, a woman who’d been in the first party unit that Chambers had joined, was abducted and murdered by the Soviet secret police after she’d deserted the underground. People Chambers knew kept being sent to Moscow and then disappearing. Others whom he knew only by reputation were killed by the GPU as they tried to escape.
That his own underground story could end similarly was brought home to him, most directly, when he was assigned a new boss in the fall of 1936 (after his previous boss was recalled to Russia, never to be heard from again).
Colonel Boris Bykov—“Peter,” as Chambers knew him— was a petty, paranoid, vulgar Stalinoid type who distrusted Chambers from the first and who subjected him, for the next year and a half, to a running stream of accusation and interrogation. Bykov was the threat of the purge in person, always questioning Chambers about his loyalty, half-ordering him (daring him, really) to go to Russia to prove his commitment, and taunting him with snippets of information about the latest old Bolshevik who’d been forced to confess to treason before being shot.
“‘Where is Bukharin?’ Bykov asked me slyly some weeks after the Communist Party’s leading theoretician had been sentenced to death for high treason.
“‘You are right,’ said Bykov in a cooing voice, ‘you are right. You can be absolutely sure that our Bukharin is dead.’ ”
Whittaker Chambers on Atheism and Communism
This Easter weekend might be a good time to share some of Whittaker Chambers’ insights on the central role of atheism in the Communist Party.
I’ve just been reading Whittaker Chambers’ autobiographical book Witness. Chambers joined the Communist Party in 1925. When he left the Party in 1938 he had to go into hiding for several years to keep from being killed. Years later his testimony put Soviet agent Alger Hiss in prison.
In the book, Chambers talks at length about Communist antipathy toward religion. “The Communist vision,” says Chambers, “is the vision of man without God. It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world.”
The “Communist challenge,” he says, is “Faith in God or faith in Man?”
Chambers says that the America of his generation was “at grips with an enemy having no moral viewpoint in common with itself,” because “two irreconcilable viewpoints and standards of judgement, two irreconcilable moralities, proceeding from two irreconcilable readings of man’s fate and future are involved.” He was making reference to Lenin’s statements about morality. Lenin in 1920 said that Communists rejected any moral code based in a belief in God, and that the Communist definition of morality is anything that would further the cause of world Communism.
In the book, Chambers points out that Communist hostility to religion was not specific to Christianity. Members of his espionage group were just as hostile to Judaism. He describes the attitude of his boss in the Underground, an ethnically Jewish Russian named Boris Bykov: “Bykov was Jewish, but he was a violent anti-Semite. His hatred of rabbis was pathological. If we passed a rabbi on the street, Bykov, who was otherwise so careful, would stop dead and stare while his face worked with anger.”
Chambers’ journey from Communism to anti-Communism started one day when he was watching his firstborn child sitting in her high chair eating. “She was the most miraculous thing,” said Chambers, “that had ever happened in my life.” “…My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by an immense design’.”
These thoughts were heresy to a Communist, and were the start of his conversion.
Remembering Whittaker Chambers
At first glance, the personal history of Whittaker Chambers does not suggest a conservative frame of mind. His favorite poet was Walt Whitman, the bard of unshackled emotion and free-verse effusions. The most influential novel in his life was Victor Hugo&rsquos Les Misérables, with its profound pity for the downtrodden. His chosen religion was the wordless spirituality of Quakerism. He was as in love with the world of nature as any modern environmentalist. His early commitment to Communism was passionately sincere, and without any thought of personal advantage.
Chambers&rsquo childhood was unsettled, and did not promise stability or moral certainty. His upbringing was tormented, with a semi-hysterical mother and a closeted gay father who at one point deserted the family for a lover in Manhattan. His younger brother fell victim to despair and suicide. Chambers himself wrestled with an uncertain sexuality, though he did eventually settle into a secure and deeply loving marriage. He finally chose the life of a dairy farmer, despite his world-class abilities as a writer, editor, and translator.
In view of this background, it would not have been surprising if Chambers had become just another lost soul of 20th-century deracination, searching for some elusive identity in ideology or modernist aesthetics. The man does not come across as a paragon of solid civic virtue. In 1948, American conservatives did not know what to make of this former communist spy who had ignited a political firestorm. They did not wholly trust him. Even today, pompous elitists like George F. Will find him distasteful, precisely because of Chambers&rsquo explicit preference for the common man, popular feeling, and humble faith.
Yet in spite of it all, Whittaker Chambers is one of the most important figures in the history of American conservatism. Strangely enough, he saw the resurgent conservatism of the 1950s as doomed to ultimate defeat by the collectivist juggernaut. That belief seems ominously prescient today, in our increasingly totalitarian and repressive &ldquowoke&rdquo culture. Nevertheless, Chambers almost single-handedly dealt American left-liberalism its worst ideological beating of the last century. His place in our nation&rsquos history is still savagely debated, with a ferocity that is white-hot even half a century after his death.
The left never forgets, and never forgives. Just mention the name of Chambers today at a faculty gathering, and you will set off explosions, with furious charges of witch hunts and blacklists and McCarthyism. Chambers had nothing to do with these things, but they are now routinely laid against him as a way to smear his name and to divert attention from the very real Communist spying his testimony made public. Meanwhile, that canonized Lochinvar of liberal martyrdom, Alger Hiss, will be talked about in tones of tearful reverence, as if he were some saintly hero rather than a Stalinist traitor. As William Faulkner said, &ldquoThe past is never dead. It&rsquos not even past.&rdquo This is true in spades for the Hiss case.
Chambers needs to be understood apart from the history-making events that brought him into the public eye. To do that we must understand what a deeply private and essentially shy man he was. He was uncomfortable with strangers and disliked having any visitors in his home. He was self-conscious about his appearance, even finding it difficult to eat in a public setting. He hated the notoriety and media frenzy that inevitably came to him from the Hiss trials. All publicity was unbearably upsetting to him, and he tolerated it solely out of a sense of duty to history. Chambers felt that he had been chosen (perhaps by God, or by history, or by his own destiny) to play the spectacular role that he did, but he never pretended to enjoy it.
Critics often dismiss as overblown and self-serving Chambers&rsquo posture as a Christ-like figure suffering in atonement for his sinful contemporaries. In our terminally ironic world, this misperception comes naturally, but it is unfair. Chambers did not choose to be the center of a firestorm. It was bound to come after the war ended in 1945, and he was naturally positioned to be involved. As a highly placed Communist spy in a wide network of governmental traitors in the FDR administration, and later as a senior editor at Time magazine, Chambers had both the insider knowledge and the literary skill to detonate a major explosion. Thank God he had the courage to put aside his dislike of publicity and take the necessary steps to tell the truth.
Chambers&rsquo career at Time produced some of his very best journalism. His 80 signed pieces at the magazine make up a stellar collection of cover stories, book and film reviews, and meditative essays. His most memorable piece was &ldquoThe Ghosts on the Roof,&rdquo published as a jeu d&rsquoesprit of fantasy, just toward the close of World War II. It is an account of the ghosts of the murdered Romanovs talking with Clio, the muse of history, on the roof of the palace where the Yalta Conference had just been concluded. The Czar and his family are passionate converts to Communism, out of sheer Russian patriotism and admiration for Stalin&rsquos political acumen in bamboozling America and Britain into a fatuous acceptance of Soviet world domination.
The essay generated a cyclone of criticism from readers who were still naïve enough to think of Stalin as &ldquoour noble ally.&rdquo There was even strong opposition to its publication from liberals on the Time staff, many of whom were leftist sympathizers despite Henry Luce&rsquos basic conservatism. By the time HUAC subpoenaed Chambers in its investigation of Alger Hiss in 1948, Chambers was already a hated and marked man. When Hiss was finally convicted and jailed, the anger among left-liberals had reached a boiling point. After Witness came out in 1952 and climbed the bestseller lists, the fury turned into what today would be called derangement syndrome.
Witness became an indispensable text for American conservatism. It captures the entire sweep of intellectual ferment from World War I to the start of the 1950s, that tumultuous time from John Reed&rsquos silly romanticism about &ldquothe future,&rdquo to the rise of Stalinism, to the postwar stirrings of the anticommunist reaction.
It is also a moving conversion narrative, in the Bunyanesque Protestant tradition of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666). Like all conversion narratives, it offers a vision of truth, a rejection of sin, a map of justification, and a final redemption. Chambers, with this one book, placed religion as a front-and-center element of American conservatism from the 1950s on. Atheists and secularists remained&mdashJames Burnham, Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Willi Schlamm, the Randians&mdashbut they never came close to exerting the kind of dynamic emotional force that Chambers did in Witness.
After the founding of National Review in 1955, Chambers took the position of a senior editor for William F. Buckley Jr.&rsquos new magazine, but even there he was the unexpected conservative. Although he had fully rejected the horrors of totalitarian Communism and called himself &ldquoa man of the right,&rdquo Chambers was never ideologically committed to a rightist worldview. His political opinions tended to be eclectic and pragmatic, and predicated on what he considered sane, rational, and humane stances, regardless of whether the positions were &ldquoliberal&rdquo or &ldquoprogressive.&rdquo His greatest moment at the magazine was surely his devastating review of Ayn Rand&rsquos novel Atlas Shrugged. The review&rsquos title, &ldquoBig Sister Is Watching You&rdquo, set the tone immediately, and it tore Rand&rsquos atheistic philosophy of capitalist selfishness to shreds. Because of that review, Rand refused for the rest of her life even to be in the same room with Buckley.
Whittaker Chambers died at his dairy farm in Maryland, sequestered in the quiet life he felt was the only escape from a world gone mad. He had done what he could to fight communism and, more importantly, to explain the personal motives and historical forces that gave that destructive creed its impetus. As one friend commented, &ldquoThe witness is gone. The testimony remains.&rdquo
Why the “Witness” of Whittaker Chambers Is Still Relevant
One might wonder why an almost 800-page book written 67 years ago (1952) by an author who died in 1961 would still have any relevance today. The book is Witness by Whittaker Chambers. It is both an autobiography and a “tell-all” book of a complicated life, of espionage, of a notorious court case, and, finally, of a complete conversion. Perhaps the answer lies with the famous phrase attributed to Winston Churchill: “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” There is an entire generation or perhaps two generations of people who have never heard the story and sadly are repeating those errors. At the time of its publication, the book was a New York Times best seller in spite of its forbidding length. This is not another review, as many have already been written, but it intends to be a reminder to the unknowing that the “past is prologue.”
Chambers described himself as “a heavy man,” that is, someone whom most people would rather not be around. Yes, he was “heavy” in the same sense that Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn are “heavy.” So would anyone be deemed as such who was writing about the “tragedy of history”—as Chambers himself describes it. In the “Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children,” he wrote: “At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts.”
Jay Vivian Chambers was born on April 1, 1901—the irony of which most likely did not escape him. The dislike of his given name caused him to change it to his mother’s maiden name of Whittaker. His parents, he, and a younger brother, Richard, moved from Philadelphia to Lynbrook, Long Island, when he was four years old. (This was not far from where Thomas Merton spent part of his early childhood some thirteen years later.) He was born into a somewhat cultured but imperfect family. His father was an artist and his mother a former actress. The parents separated for a time but later were tenuously reconciled. Upon graduating from high school, Chambers left home and spent time “on the road” as an itinerant laborer working on railroad construction. Here he befriended and found camaraderie with the poor and semi-literate, mostly foreign workers. Upon returning home he attended Columbia University but left in his junior year. However, this was not before becoming a student and protégé of Mark van Doren. He said that when he entered Columbia he was a “conservative in my view of life and politics and I was undergoing a religious experience. By the time I left … I was no longer a conservative and I had no religion.”
In the interim between Columbia and his Communist party membership Chambers’s life became openly tragic. After several attempts, his brother succeeded in taking his own life his paternal grandmother while living with the family began to suffer from schizophrenia, forcing the family to keep night watches and his father died suddenly and unexpectedly. The only meaning he had to his life he found in the philosophy of Marxism. He wrote: “It [the Communist Party] offered me what nothing else in the dying world had power to offer at the same intensity—faith and a vision, something for which to live and something for which to die.”
Chambers joined the Party in 1931. He was both a gifted linguist and a gifted writer. He was fluent not only in Romance and Slavic languages but also had some knowledge of the languages of the Middle and Far East. After writing for The Daily Worker newspaper, his talent led him to become the editor of The New Masses—a Communist-controlled literary magazine. (Several years later, Joy Davidman, the future wife of C.S. Lewis, also began writing for The New Masses.) In order to earn some extra money, Chambers accepted an offer from Simon & Schuster to translate Bambi by Felix Salten from the German. Eventually his translating experience and talent helped him support his family when he finally broke from the Party.
Chambers began working for the Party Underground in 1932 in and around Washington, DC. A number of incidents converged to make him rethink his position. He met, fell in love with, and married Esther Shemitz, an artist and illustrator. They had a daughter in 1933 and a son three years later. The Party considered children a hindrance to the cause and therefore encouraged abortion. This was something neither he nor his wife would ever have considered. Another incident concerned his infant daughter sometimes the simplest things lead to the deepest thoughts. Chambers wrote: “My daughter was in her high chair…. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life… My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear‒those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. They could have been created only by immense design….’ Design presupposes God. I did not then know that at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.” These insights, coupled with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and stories of the purges taking place in the Soviet Union, caused Chambers to rethink his Party affiliations. He broke with the party in 1938 but knew that no one who had reached the level he had ever escapes the Party’s revenge. His life was in danger as was that of his wife and children. He wrote: “I decided to do the only thing I could do. I had decided to become an informer…. Men shrink from that word and what it stands for as something lurking and poisonous.”
Chambers’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee made and broke many careers. Alger Hiss and Richard Nixon come to mind. The Hiss-Chambers trial that followed is not like any spy novel. Chambers exposed Hiss as an active Communist while working in high governmental positions in FDR’s Administration. This was an unheard-of accusation and Chambers became the “poster child” of the politics of personal destruction. The complete description of this phase of his life is for another time. It suffices to say that we should be ever vigilant of corruption in high places and the personal sacrifice that is often required to expose it. Those who have suffered vicious attacks merely for seeking public service—certain nominees to the Supreme Court come to mind—would be totally empathetic.
Chambers’s vindication rested on two very simple things: a typewriter and the Pumpkin Papers. Hiss denied that he ever knew Chambers, but the secret government documents in Chambers’s possession were proven to have been written on Hiss’s typewriter. Chambers felt he needed an insurance policy in the event of a Party raid on his home, and, therefore, he had hidden some official government papers and microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm—thus the name Pumpkin Papers. Years later when the Venona Files were made public, Chambers was further exonerated.
In the dark days of all the negative publicity and heart-wrenching exposure of attacks on his character, his personal life, and his family throughout the United States and the world, in every newspaper and magazine, Chambers reached his darkest moment. As the vitriol against him increased, he analyzed how people could be so motivated : “…like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched…” He left his job at Time to spare them the negativity of his presence.
Somewhere he wrote that he received a letter from a Catholic priest that was the sole encouragement and ray of hope that ever came his way. I do not think he ever identified the priest, but he expressed his gratitude for having been given a small light in the ever darkening tunnel. Chambers turned to the Society of Friends for his religious solace. As a child, he had first heard of the Quakers from his grandmother. “She talked about the meeting houses—how they were usually built on hilltops, were built of stone, with little white porches and green shutters. ‘What was inside?’ I asked. She paused for a moment. Then she said: ‘Peace’.” This scene burned into his memory and, when, in adulthood, he once again came upon some Quakers, he wrote: “A new and enormously tranquilizing spirit enveloped me. It emanated from those quiet presences … or simply from the sound of the plain language, as voices asked me: ‘How is thee, Whittaker Chambers?’ The 17th-century form was still touched with the sweetness of the Middle Ages. This is my natural home, I thought. I wanted nothing so much as to remain in it.”
Whittaker Chambers died in 1961 having suffered his final heart attack. Most certainly the spectacle of his life as played out in the hostile press exacerbated his illness. If all anyone gleans from his life is a story of spies, intrigue, and a youthful dalliance with radicalism, then read spy novels instead. They at least are not soul-wrenching. If you are thinking that that was then, and this is now, think again. To destroy your opponent by all means necessary is the new old mantra. We are being told that he is not your opponent, he is your enemy. The best way to destroy someone is to “rush to judgment.” Or, more accurately, to make a rash judgment. The names and the incidents may have changed but the method has not. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” God said to Moses.
Robert Novak, the Catholic convert known for his career in journalism, wrote of Witness: “It changed my worldview, my philosophical perceptions, and, without exaggeration, my life.” Being a witness can mean varied things, but for Christians it should mean what was written in Acts 1:6-8: “Those who were gathered asked him this question: ‘Lord, is it at this time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Jesus said to them, ‘It is not yours to know the times or seasons which the Father has appointed in his own authority. But you will receive your authority when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, then in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”
(Apr 1, 1901 &ndash July 9, 1961) His autobiography Witness, published in 1952, details his life as an agent in the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence from 1932 to 1938, where he coordinated espionage activities with high-ranking United States government officials. Witness also movingly explains Chambers&rsquo departure from Communism and his conversion to Christianity. From his conversion, Chambers grasped that revolutionary ideology lied about the nature of man and the source of his being. Chambers&rsquo conversion inspired him to atone for his past betrayal of his country. He divulged to the federal government information about the Soviet espionage cell he had organized during the 1930s in Washington, its membership, and his complicity in its operation.
Of those officials in Chambers&rsquo Soviet-allied cell, Alger Hiss, Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs in the Department of State and Chambers&rsquo close friend, would prove to be the most consequential. Hiss formally denied any involvement in Communist activities and insisted that he had never even met &ldquothat man named Whittaker Chambers.&rdquo The truth was that Hiss and Chambers had been close friends in their subversive activities, and even their wives and children had frequently socialized together.
Alger Hiss had regularly passed State Department documents to Chambers during the 1930s in turn, Chambers carried them to various handlers, who then sent them to Soviet authorities. &hellip READ ENTIRETY (Two Faiths: The Witness of Whittaker Chambers By Richard M. Reinsch Acton Institute Volume 22, Number 1 &ndash Winter 2012)
In William F. Buckley Jr.&rsquos words, Chambers was &ldquothe most important American defector from Communism.&rdquo
Chambers carried on his espionage activities from 1932 until 1937 or 1938 even while his faith in Communism was waning. He became increasingly disturbed by Joseph Stalin&rsquos Great Purge, which began in 1936. He was also fearful for his own life, having noted the murder in Switzerland of Ignace Reiss, a high-ranking Soviet spy who had broken with Stalin, and the disappearance of Chambers&rsquos friend and fellow spy Juliet Stuart Poyntz in the United States. Poyntz had vanished in 1937, shortly after she had visited Moscow and returned disillusioned with the Communist cause due to the Stalinist Purges.
Chambers ignored several orders that he travel to Moscow, worried that he might be &ldquopurged.&rdquo He also started concealing some of the documents he collected from his sources. He planned to use these, along with several rolls of microfilm photographs of documents, as a &ldquolife preserver&rdquo to prevent the Soviets from killing him and his family. In 1938, Chambers broke with Communism and took his family into hiding, storing the &ldquolife preserver&rdquo at the home of his nephew and his parents. Initially, he had no plans to give information on his espionage activities to the U.S. government. His espionage contacts were his friends, and he had no desire to inform on them.
In his examination of Chambers&rsquos conversion from the political left to the right, author Daniel Oppenheimer noted that Chambers substituted his passion for communism for a passion for God. Chambers saw the world in black and white terms both before his defection and after. In his autobiography, he presented his devotion to communism as a reason for living, but after defecting saw his actions as being part of an &ldquoabsolute evil.&rdquo
(Wikipedia) In 1924, Chambers read Vladimir Lenin&rsquos Soviets at Work and was deeply affected by it. He now saw the dysfunctional nature of his family, he would write, as &ldquoin miniature the whole crisis of the middle class&rdquo a malaise from which Communism promised liberation. Chambers&rsquos biographer Sam Tanenhaus wrote that Lenin&rsquos authoritarianism was &ldquoprecisely what attracts Chambers&hellip He had at last found his church&rdquo that is, he became a Marxist. In 1925, Chambers joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) (then known as the Workers Party of America). Chambers wrote and edited for Communist publications, including The Daily Worker newspaper and The New Masses magazine. Chambers combined his literary talents with his devotion to Communism, writing four short stories in 1931 about proletarian hardship and revolt, including Can You Make Out Their Voices?, considered by critics as one of the best fiction from the American Communist movement. Hallie Flanagan co-adapted and produced it as a play entitled Can You Hear Their Voices? (see Writings by Chambers, below), staged across America and in many other countries. Chambers also worked as a translator during this period among his works was the English version of Felix Salten&rsquos 1923 novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods.
In 1978, Allen Weinstein&rsquos Perjury revealed that the FBI has a copy of a letter in which Chambers described homosexual liaisons during the 1930s. The letter copy states that Chambers gave up these practices in 1938 when he left the underground, attributed to newfound Christianity. The letter has remained controversial from many perspectives.
Chambers was recruited to join the &ldquoCommunist underground&rdquo and began his career as a spy, working for a GRU apparatus headed by Alexander Ulanovsky (aka Ulrich). Later, his main controller in the underground was Josef Peters (whom CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder later replaced with Rudy Baker). Chambers claimed Peters introduced him to Harold Ware (although he later denied he had ever been introduced to Ware), and that he was head of a Communist underground cell in Washington that reportedly included:
- Henry Collins, employed at the National Recovery Administration and later the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).
- Lee Pressman, assistant general counsel of the AAA.
- Alger Hiss, attorney for the AAA and the Nye Committee he moved to the Department of State in 1936, where he became an increasingly prominent figure.
- John Abt, chief of Litigation for the AAA from 1933 to 1935, assistant general counsel of the Works Progress Administration in 1935, chief counsel on Senator Robert La Follette, Jr.&rsquos LaFollette Committee from 1936 to 1937 and special assistant to the United States Attorney General, 1937 and 1938.
- Charles Kramer, employed at the Department of Labor National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
- Nathan Witt, employed at the AAA later moved to the NLRB.
- George Silverman, employed at the Railroad Retirement Board later worked with the Federal Coordinator of Transport, the United States Tariff Commission and the Labor Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration.
- Marion Bachrach, sister of John Abt office manager to Representative John Bernard of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
- John Herrmann, author assistant to Harold Ware employed at the AAA courier and document photographer for the Ware group introduced Chambers to Hiss.
- Nathaniel Weyl, author would later defect from Communism himself and give evidence against party members.
- Donald Hiss, brother to Alger Hiss employed at the Department of State.
- Victor Perlo, chief of the Aviation Section of the War Production Board, later joined the Office of Price Administration Department of Commerce and the Division of Monetary Research at the Department of Treasury.
Apart from Marion Bachrach, these people were all members of Franklin D. Roosevelt&rsquos New Deal administration. Chambers worked in Washington as an organizer among Communists in the city and as a courier between New York and Washington for stolen documents which were delivered to Boris Bykov, the GRU station chief.
Using the codename &ldquoKarl&rdquo or &ldquoCarl&rdquo, Chambers served during the mid-1930s as a courier between various covert sources and Soviet intelligence. In addition to the Ware group mentioned above, other sources that Chambers dealt with allegedly included:
- &ndash Director of Division of Monetary Research at Treasury
- Harold Glasser &ndash Assistant Director, Division of Monetary Research, Treasury
- Noel Field &ndash Employed at Department of State
- Julian Wadleigh &ndash Economist with Agriculture later, Trade Agreements section of Department of State
- Vincent Reno &ndash Mathematician at U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground
- Ward Pigman &ndash Employed at National Bureau of Standards, then Labor and Public Welfare Committee
A great deal more than the reputations of the two men was at stake. If Hiss was innocent, anti-Communism&ndashand the careers of those closely associated with it, like Richard Nixon, a prominent member of the congressional investigating committee&ndashwould 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.In 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&rsquo allegation.
It 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&ndashand 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.
In 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 &ldquoism&rdquo of the day, was a watered-down version of Communist ideology. The New Deal, Chambers insisted, was not liberal democratic but &ldquorevolutionary&rdquo 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&rsquo uncompromising assessment was a future California governor and U.S. President&ndashRonald 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 Novak.
The 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.
The book is not easy reading but is permeated with what Bill Buckley called &ldquoSpenglerian gloom.&rdquo 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&ndashthe powerful establishment, the hostile press, the skeptical public, the calumnies of the Hiss partisans&ndashand seriously considered suicide. But when his young son John came looking for him crying, &ldquoPapa! Papa! Don&rsquot ever go away,&rdquo he replied, &ldquoNo, no, I won&rsquot ever go away.&rdquo
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&rsquos The Conservative Mind to Chambers, who immediately urged the editor of Time to devote the entire book section to a review of &ldquoone of the most important&rdquo books he had read &ldquoin some time.&rdquo Regnery never forgot his &ldquosense of exultation&rdquo when the long, laudatory Time review arrived.
Chambers was a close friend and mentor of Bill Buckley. Invited to join National Review&lsquos masthead, he at first demurred, pessimistic about its chances of success. But he was persuaded to come aboard by Buckley&rsquos argument that &ldquothe culture of liberty deserves to survive&rdquo and to have its own journal. One of Chambers&rsquo more memorable contributions to the magazine was his evisceration of Ayn Rand&rsquos Atlas Shrugged. He called its plot &ldquopreposterous,&rdquo its characterization &ldquoprimitive,&rdquo and much of its effect &ldquosophomoric.&rdquo In a lifetime of reading, he concluded, &ldquoI can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained.&rdquo His review, &ldquoBig Sister Is Watching You,&rdquo helped bar conservatism&rsquos door to Rand&rsquos godless technocratic ideas.
Chambers was also a private critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy (proven right with the Venona intercepts). He told Buckley that McCarthy was &ldquoa slugger and a rabble-rouser&rdquo who &ldquosimply knows that somebody threw a tomato and the general direction from which it came.&rdquo
Chambers was &ldquoone of the great men of our time,&rdquo wrote Henry Regnery, who had known many great men during his decades-long publishing career. As a witness to God&rsquos grace and the fortifying power of faith, Chambers &ldquoput all of us immeasurably in his debt.&rdquo For countless conservatives, Whittaker Chambers has never gone away.
Lee Edwards, 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 Whittaker Chambers
I 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 Communism. &ndash Statement before the House Un-American Activities Committee, August 3, 1948
A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something. &ndash&ldquoForeword in the Form of a Letter to my Children,&rdquo Witness, 1952
Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. &ndash Ibid.
The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God. &ndashIbid.
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. &ndashIbid.
The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. &ndashIbid.
Communism is the central experience of the first half of the 20th century, and may be its final experience&ndashwill 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&rsquos mind, at the same intensity, with the same two certainties: a reason to live and a reason to die. &ndashIbid.
That [haunting fear of being wrong] is the fate of those who break without knowing clearly that Communism is wrong because something else is right, because to the challenge: God or Man?, they continue to give the answer: Man.… They are witnesses against something they have ceased to be witnesses for anything. (13)
External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.… Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience. (16)
There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died. (17)
I associated God with ill-ventilated vestries and ill-ventilated minds. (82)
What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step. (83)
The dying world of 1925 was without faith, hope, character, understanding of its malady or will to overcome it. It was dying but it laughed. And this laughter was not the defiance of a vigor that refuses to know when it is whipped. It was the loss, by the mind of a whole civilization, of the power to distinguish between reality and unreality, because, ultimately, though I did not know it, it had lost the power to distinguish between good and evil.… The dying world had no answer at all to the crisis of the 20th century, and, when it was mentioned, and every moral voice in the Western world was shrilling crisis, it cocked an ear of complacent deafness and smiled a smile of blank senility—throughout history, the smile of those for whom the executioner waits. (195)
For while Communists make full use of liberals and their solicitudes, and sometimes flatter them to their faces, in private they treat them with that sneering contempt that the strong and predatory almost invariably feel for victims who volunteer to help in their own victimization. (202)
No matter how favorable his opinion had been to an individual or his political role, if that person fell from grace in the Communist Party, Harry Freeman changed his opinion about him instantly. That was not strange that was a commonplace of Communist behavior. What was strange was that Harry seemed to change without any effort or embarrassment. There seemed to vanish from his mind any recollection that he had ever held any opinion other than the approved one. If you taxed him with his former views, he would show surprise, and that surprise would be authentic. He would then demonstrate to you, in a series of mental acrobatics so flexible that the shifts were all but untraceable, that he had never thought anything else. More adroitly and more completely than any other Communist I knew, Harry Freeman possessed the conviction that the party line is always right. (217-218)
About both brief, tidy men [Heinrich Himmler and Max Bedacht] there was a disturbing quality of secret power mantling insignificance—what might be called the ominousness of nonentity, which is peculiar to the terrible little figures of our time. (275)
He [one of Chambers’s landlords] was one of those valiantly and vaguely unhappy middle-aging intellectuals who had spent years not writing the book he had planned to write as a younger man. (289)
Abortion, which now fills me with physical horror, I then regarded, like all Communists, as a mere physical manipulation. (325)
Out of that vision of Almighty Man that we call Communism and that agony of souls and bodies that we call the revolution of the 20th century was left that pinch of irreducible dust: “Who pays is boss, and who takes money must also give something.” It might stand as the motto of every welfare philosophy. (414-415)
It is part of the failure of the West to understand that it is at grips with an enemy having no moral viewpoint in common with itself, that two irreconcilable viewpoints and standards of judgment, two irreconcilable moralities, proceeding from two irreconcilable readings of man’s fate and future are involved, and, hence, their conflict is irrepressible. (420)
Counterrevolution and conservatism have little in common. In the struggle against Communism the conservative is all but helpless. For that struggle cannot be fought, much less won, or even understood, except in terms of total sacrifice. And the conservative is suspicious of sacrifice he wishes first to conserve, above all what he is and what he has. You cannot fight against revolutions so. (462)
It is surprising how little I knew about the New Deal, although it had been all around me during my years in Washington. But all the New Dealers I had known were Communists or near-Communists. None of them took the New Deal seriously as an end in itself. They regarded it as an instrument for gaining their own revolutionary ends. (471)
The New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation. It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking. In so far as it was successful, the power of politics had replaced the power of business. This is the basic power shift of all the revolutions of our time. This shift was the revolution. (472)
To me many of my colleagues at Time, basically kind and intensely well-meaning people, seemed to me as charming and as removed from reality as fish in a fish bowl. To me they seemed to know little about the forces that were shaping the history of our time. To me they seemed like little children, knowing and clever little children, but knowing and clever chiefly about trifling things while they were extremely resistant to finding out about anything else. (477-478)
I remembered the saying: “Any fool can commit a murder, but it takes an artist to commit a good natural death.” (485)
They [liberal newsmen] were people who believed a number of things. Foremost among them was the belief that peace could be preserved, World War III could be averted only by conciliating the Soviet Union. For this no price was too high to pay, including the price of wilful historical self-delusion.… Hence like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched, and reacted with a violence that completely belied the openness of mind which they prescribed for others. (499)
Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world. (506)
What I felt [as he was about to testify before the Congressional committee] was what we see in the eye of a bird or an animal that we are about to kill, which knows that it is about to be killed, and whose torment is not the certainty of death or pain, but the horror of the interval before death comes in which it knows that it has lost light and freedom forever. It is not yet dead. But it is no longer alive. (532)
Experience had taught me that innocence seldom utters outraged shrieks. Guilt does. Innocence is a mighty shield, and the man or woman covered by it, is much more likely to answer calmly: “My life is blameless. Look into it, if you like, for you will find nothing.” That is the tone of innocence. (537)
As I struggled to control my feeling, slowly and deliberately, I heard myself saying, rather than said: “The story has spread that in testifying against Mr. Hiss I am working out some old grudge, or motives of revenge or hatred. I do not hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends, but we are caught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are all fighting, and I am fighting. I have testified against him with remorse and pity, but in a moment of history in which this Nation now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise.” In the completely silent room, I fought to control my voice. (694-695)
I am a man who, reluctantly, grudgingly, step by step, is destroying himself that this country and the faith by which it lives may continue to exist. (715)
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. (741)
To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract. It submits that that something is the soul. Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope. For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth. (762-763)
From “Problem of the Century,” Time, 25 February 1946:
Professor Frederick L. Schuman’s book [Soviet Politics] is probably the ablest apology for Russia ever written by an American. It is like a brilliant brief by a very clever lawyer who is fortified rather than handicapped by knowing that his client did commit the murder, and even where the body is buried.
From “The Devil,” Life, 2 February 1948:
The pessimist stared at his visitor. He had never talked with the Devil before. But he had read descriptions of him by people who had and who remembered Satan as a goat, a bull, a dog, a cat, a big black man with horns, claws and a tail. The presence beside him looked distinguished, relaxed, urbane. Except for a face too characterful to be contemporary, the Devil might have been a movie magnate, an airline executive, a college president, a great surgeon or a grain speculator. “And yet,” thought the pessimist, “those are certainly not the eyes of a Yale man.”
[The Devil said:] Hell is a conspiracy. Like all good conspiracies, its first requirement is that nobody shall believe in it. Well, we have succeeded so well that for centuries there has been no Hell, and there is scarcely a rational man in the world today who, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believes that the Devil exists.
[The Devil said:] It seems but yesterday that I launched Hell’s Five Hundred Year Plan.… I saw that Hell had to move with the tide and leave the rest to rationalism, liberalism and universal compulsory education.… At first there was some opposition in Hell. Baal, Beelzebub and a handful of almost aboriginal demons who are still living in the 10th Century B.C. and have not had an idea since the Fall, naturally opposed the New Deal.
From “Is Academic Freedom in Danger?” Life, 22 June 1953:
Re: Congressional inquiries into Communist influence:
The mass of Americans, who vehemently made known their views in (and during) a recent general election, know perfectly well that they are not living in a reign of terror and that they seldom look behind a door for anything more frightening than an umbrella.
From “Big Sister is Watching You,” National Review, 28 December 1957:
Review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:
For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question become chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?
Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.… From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding, “To a gas chamber—go!”
Selected by Dr. Alan Snyder
Welcome to My BlogI'm Dr. Alan Snyder,
Professor of History. Ideas expressed in my books, articles, and online posts are my own opinions.
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The Witness & The PresidentCelebrating and contrasting the unique contributions of two great American conservative leaders—Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan—to the future of freedom.
The Devil’s Distractions: Whittaker Chambers on Satan in the Age of Reason
New York magazine’s fascinating interview with Justice Antonin Scalia offers much to enjoy, and as Joe Carter has already pointed out, one of the more striking exchanges centers on the existence of the Devil.
When asked whether he has “seen evidence of the Devil lately,” Scalia offers the following:
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore…What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.
As my friend Irene Switzer kindly reminded me, Whittaker Chambers set forth a similar hypothesis in an elegantly written essay for Life magazine in 1948. “When the Age of Reason began,” the sub-head begins, “the Devil went ‘underground,'” his strategy being “to make men think he doesn’t exist.”
Setting the scene at a New Year’s party in “Manhattan’s swank Hotel Nineveh & Tyre,” Chambers constructs a fanciful conversation between the Devil and a “pessimist” — a Modern Man what-have-you, who exhibits familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr and C.S. Lewis (an indication of rejection over ignorance, no doubt).
After meandering a bit, Satan outlines the origins and aim of his present scheme, a portion well worth excerpting at length:
“It seems but yesterday that I launched Hell’s Five Hundred Year Plan. I still remember when the inspiration struck me. I still remember the disdainful laughter with which Hell and its reactionaries heard the plan—the most luminous plan, perhaps, that ever lit the darkened mind of fallen angel. I had had a look at the record—thousands and thousands of years of tempting stubborn saints and seducing all too willing mortals, pandering to the grossest vices of a breed already depraved by original sin years of frightening dim-witted peasants with horns and hoofs and tricks that a side-show conjuror would be ashamed of years of making theatrical blood pacts and mixing obscene love potions for senescent scholars whose libidos had outlasted their wits years of dancing on drafty mountaintops with bevies of bearded hags who wanted to be Rockettes for a night years of tormenting damned souls until the mouth of Hell smelled like the open door of a cafeteria kitchen. And where had it got us? In all those years Hell had not advanced one inch. It was all just leftism, infantile leftism. A new revolutionary strategy was in order in keeping with the progressive nature of the times we were living in.
“It was the 18th Century. The Enlightenment had begun. As I read Voltaire and Diderot, Locke and Helvetius, and pored over the Principia Mathematica of Sir Isaac Newton, I saw that mankind had reached one of the decisive turning points in its history. The Middle Ages were liquidated. Faith in the human mind had supplanted faith in God. I saw that Hell must write Progress on its banners and Science in its methods.”
“What’s wrong with Progress and Science?” asked the pessimist.
“Absolutely nothing,” said the Devil. “Only the most primitive mind would suppose there was. They are, in fact, positively good. That was the nub of my inspiration. Hitherto Hell had tried to destroy man by seducing him to evil. My revolutionary thought was to destroy man by seducing him through good. Intellectual pride has always been my specific sin and, like most sinners, I have always felt secretly a little proud of my fault. Now, I perceived, all mankind had sinned the same sin. I saw that Hell had only to move with the tide and leave the rest to rationalism, liberalism and universal compulsory education…Only Hell must be careful not to show its hand. That is why Hell went underground. That is why for 250 years I have ceased to exist. It was even easier than I anticipated.”
All of this, we go on to learn, is driven by Satan’s desire to pervert the goodness of creation. “Not to know goodness is not to understand creation,” he says. “In no way is my mark more clearly on the modern world than in the death of the creative imagination.”
As the Devil notes, such distortions stretch into all areas of life, even when driven by the diversions of our own intellectual pride: the “inhuman industrial oppression of men,” the materialistic back-filling of “secular man’s” inner emptiness, the “inhuman horrors of communism, socialism and anarchism,” the “world wars with millions of men dying by all the horrors contrived by secular genius.”
Indeed, belief in the Devil is about much more than checking off some box on a quirky dogma checklist, and its implications merit much more discussion, inspection, and critique than armchair ponderings by journalists about whether we might be so presumptuous as to think that they might be going to that place. What we believe about the origins and forms of evil matters, for ourselves and the world around us, in this life and the next. How we understand the sources and dynamics of order and chaos will inevitably feed into how and whether we respond.
In Witness, Chambers’s stunning memoir, he explains how many of his former comrades converted away from communism’s “rational faith in man” due to what began as the quiet cry of the “logic of the soul.” In the “Devil” essay, written four years prior, Chambers seems to believe that Satan duly acknowledges this threat.
“And yet it is at this very point that man, the monstrous midget, still has the edge on the Devil: he suffers. For at the heart of all human suffering is the anguish of the chance that the creative seed of goodness…may not perpetuate itself, that a man can leave this life, this light, without communicating that one cell of himself which is real. Not one man, however base, quite lacks the capacity for this specific suffering, which is the seal of his divine commitment…
“…It still lies with man to make the choice: a skeleton beside a broken wall on a dead planet purged of all suffering because purged of all life or Him, with all that that entails.”
The conversation concludes with the pessimist cutting off old Satan with a brief but pleasant, “Happy New Year,” after which we can only assume that he walks away with a shrug. Let us not be so content.
is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.