(Guest post by Greg Forster)
The Al does not go to people who are already widely recognized. However, I submit that today, in spite of the intense public attention he endured in 1948, Whittaker Chambers is not at all widely recognized. Since I read Witness for the first time early this year, I have begun mentioning him to people and am stunned to discover that almost nobody even knows his name today.
The first thing to understand about Whittaker Chambers is that he allowed his life to be destroyed rather than tell a small lie. He lost his job as senior editor of Time and never held another job in mainstream American journalism; he went home and became a full-time farmer, which is not a life that allows a man like Chambers to do what he was obviously made to do, which is journalism. He couldn’t even make the farm go – it failed.
He made this sacrifice in part to arouse the nation to face a totalitarian threat that its guilty conscience wouldn’t allow it to acknowledge (more about that in a moment) but at least as much to honor the dead whom he had helped kill. Unable to go back and undo his years of work building up Soviet communism, all he could do for its victims was tell the truth about what he had done, no matter what it cost him. And it cost him all.
The second thing to understand about Whittaker Chambers is that all the forces of American civilization were arrayed to destroy him. This is why his testimony cost him everything.
Before the Hiss Case in 1948, virtually no one with any position in American civilization viewed communism as totalitarianism. It is very difficult for us to recapture an awareness of this, in light of subsequent history. But in 1948, the consensus was that communism was illiberal or authoritarian, but not totalitarian. It was not genocidal. There were no gulags, no starving millions in Ukraine who were being put to death intentionally for the sake of the great project. (The New York Times still has not given back the Pulitzer it won for coverage of the glories of communist agriculture, or even run a correction, in spite of the fact that its reporter knew about the mass murder and covered it up intentionally.)
Chambers’ testimony about his work as a Soviet spy implicated high-ranking American leaders. Reading through Alger Hiss’ defense of himself, I’m amazed that it really does all boil down to this: “I helped build the New Deal, negotiate the Yalta agreement and design the United Nations. If even a man like me can be a traitor, American society must be so utterly bankrupt that its entire leadership class would be implicated in bottomless moral corruption. Therefore a man like me could not possibly be a communist spy – and every leading politician, journalist and professor had better get busy testifying in my defense, lest the bankruptcy of American leadership – and hence his own bankruptcy – be exposed.”
He did not put it in precisely those words, but close enough.
The president called Chambers a liar on campaign stops. Two justices of the Supreme Court testified as character witnesses for Hiss. Rumors flew around the Washington press corps that Chambers was a drunkard, that he was mentally ill, that he had slept with Hiss’ wife, that he had sexually abused his own brother as a child and had then abused Hiss’ stepson.
All baseless, of course – but a ruling class believes what it hears from its own. It will believe any lie, however outrageous, about a commoner before it believes any uncomfortable truth about itself.
If you doubt this, consider: James Reston, the legendary DC correspondent for the New York Times, had recommended Hiss for his job as head of the Carnegie Endowment. If Hiss was a traitor, what did that say about Reston? So naturally Reston did all in his power to destroy Chambers, including inventing lies about him.
When Chambers went on the radio show Meet the Press, Reston “moderated” the panel of journalists dedicated to destroying him. Obviously there was no acknowledgement of Reston’s conflict of interest. After the broadcast, Chambers’ son asked him: “Papa, why do those men hate you so?”
Chambers replied: “We are in a war, and they are on the other side.”
Nor was it only journalism that was corrupted. The chair of the Harvard psychiatry department testified in court that he had diagnosed Chambers as a dangerous lunatic, solely on the basis of reading his journalism in Time. Upon cross-examination, however, the good Harvard doctor recanted his testimony and admitted that he had in fact gone around to former co-workers with stories of Chambers’ depravity, and tried to wheedle them into affirming them. (Rules of evidence for “expert” testimony are a little tighter now than they were then.)
Chambers had indeed exposed the corruption and bankruptcy, not of Alger Hiss, but of the entire ruling class of the nation.
He had known this would be the effect of his testimony from the beginning. He had seen how the narrative of inevitable and government-led secular progress, to which the entire ruling class of the nation in both parties was wedded, was not very far removed from the totalitarianism of communism.
The issue was not safety-net programs. The issue was a society that had decided comfort and safety were the only really necessary elements of a good human life. This, not the role of government as such, is the deep corruption of the narrative of inevitable secular progress. It is this materialistic view of life that is the real cause of the endless creeping expansion of government.
As he put it in Witness, the great question in our time is “God or Man?” The communist east had answered “Man,” and embraced totalitarian mass murder because it had the courage of its conviction. The capitalist west has also answered “Man,” but it lacks the courage of this conviction. So far.
Communism is not immorality. Communism is morality without God. It is not a quest for injustice, it is a quest to achieve justice for all people – accomplished by purely human means. Its vision is that “the destiny of man is in the hands of man.” But “without God man cannot organize the world for man; without God man can only organize the world against man.”
Hence the hammer and sickle insignia on Antifa paraphanalia; hence Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on the t-shirts of so many well-meaning moral crusaders seeking justice for all. The neo-Nazis of the alt-right, meanwhile, are non-communist only because they do not strive toward justice for all, but only justice for their own people and causes. The difference between Antifa and the alt-right is that the former is universalistic and the latter parochial, and this is always the difference between communism and fascism.
And today, as in 1948, a morally sick society does not want to see what communism is.
Chambers is also famous for thinking that by defecting from communism to freedom, he was joining the losing side. What is less well known (I found it in his letters to William F. Buckley, published posthumously in Odyssey of a Friend) is the reason Chambers gave for his pessimism about the future of freedom.
There is, he said, no political remedy for spiritual decay in a society.
But to say there is no political remedy is not to say there is no remedy. One of the things we can do to remedy spiritual decay is honor those who do what Chambers did – sacrifice themselves so that others may enjoy freedom.
There is much more to his story, and if you want to know it, you can read the first chapter of Witness, entiteld “Introduction in the Form of a Letter to my Children.” If you read that and don’t then want to read the rest of the book, I don’t know what to tell you.
What matters most for The Al, I think, is the long-term impact of Chambers’ exposure of the threat of communism, which forced the nation for the first time to recognize communism as a totalitarian threat rather than merely just another variation on the old-fashioned authoritarian Great Power game. Without Chambers’ willingness to give up everything for the sake of telling the truth, there would have been no mass mobilization against communism until much later, by which time it may have been too late – or at least it would have been too late for millions who were saved because Chambers forced the nation to wake up when he did.
Yes, Chambers has been recognized in the past. But those recognitions (including the Medal of Freedom given him posthumously by Reagan) have been almost entirely on the political Right. The nation at large has never honored Chambers as it ought.
And now, even the Right forgets. Few of my friends even on the Right are familiar with Chambers’ name. And just recently, George Will blamed Chambers for the success of Donald Trump; one might just as easily blame the doctor who diagnoses a cancer with the madman who seeks to avoid dying of cancer by drinking poison.
Let’s give Chambers his due. Let’s give him The Al.