Fifty years ago, on July 9, 1961, Whittaker Chambers died. His life had a profound impact on my life, and this was because, during Chambers’ career of brilliant achievement and sordid intrigue, God came to have a profound impact on his life. Along the way, Whittaker Chambers affected American life at two times, in two ways, not just in profound ways, but with profound implications.
Forty years ago, on the 10th anniversary of his death, I was a student at American University in Washington DC. I was active, locally and in the nearby national headquarters, in Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative campus youth group founded by William F Buckley. A small confraternity in DC that called itself the Whittaker Chambers Society wanted to meet in commemoration of their friend, and they contacted our chapter to see if we could provide a room at AU. It was not a large group, loosely organized but tightly knit, and this anniversary meeting bid to overflow a living room.
There were few in the group whom I recognized – the legendary writer Ralph deToledano chaired the evening, which largely consisted of reminiscences – however I knew that I was in presence of battle-scarred veterans and authentic heroes, each with a poignant story. And there was a ghostly echelon in attendance as well. The great battle of the 20th century, between Communism and freedom, still raged. In this room were former Communists, once so dedicated they were willing to die for the cause… and bring down America in the process. Also in the room – in fact, virtually the same people – were folks who knew what freedom was; what it cost; what it is worth; and that it, too, demands a willingness to die in its cause. They had all lived through what Arthur Koestler called “Darkness at Noon” in the erstwhile belief that Communism was mankind’s salvation.
Chambers was merely the most prominent of many similar intellectual warriors, a representative of types. His father Jay was a cartoonist and illustrator, drawing for the children’s magazine St Nicholas (I see innocent line-drawings in my collection of that magazine). Whittaker’s parents divorced; his grandmother went insane; his brother committed suicide. The troubled youth entered Columbia University, where he wrote a campus play of a blasphemous nature that was controversial beyond Morningside Heights, throughout New York City. He wrote essays and poetry that caught the eye of his instructor Mark Van Doren, and of fellow students Louis Zukofsky, Lionel Trilling, Clifton Fadiman, and Meyer Schapiro, all destined to be distinguished in the arts.
Chambers was attracted to radicalism; he became a Communist and, among his jobs, he served as editor of The New Masses. (The magazine’s cartoonist Jacob Burck, another eventual renegade from Stalinism, in later years told me stories of Chambers sleeping in his Union Square studio.) Behind the brutal polemicist and radical advocate, however, was, always, the sensitive artist. Chambers translated the gentle children’s classic Bambi into English – a tender masterpiece in itself.
During the 1920s he drifted further toward radicalism and radical associates, including Soviet spies. He was recruited to be a courier for Soviet spy rings in Washington. Many secret Communists held middle- and upper-level positions in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Chambers’ job was to protect false identities but coordinate the collection of government documents and deliver them to “handlers” in New York. These government officials were also “in place” to influence American policy during the New Deal and the War. Among the social (and Communist Party) friends of Chambers and his new wife Esther Shemitz was Alger Hiss, State Department official, and his wife Priscilla.
Gradually, despite the glamour of espionage, but also because of the danger of espionage, Chambers’ love affair with Communism waned. Additional factors included an introspective contemplation – stirrings of a spiritual awakening – of the miracle of his newborn baby’s ear; the Hitler-Stalin Pact; and the brutality of fellow operatives being murdered by Moscow for ideological “impurities.” Finally, instead of passing along all stolen documents, Chambers kept some that implicated spies, and hid them away as insurance so the Party would not harm him or his family. He blended back into society.
Chambers bought a farm in rural Maryland. He and his wife became Quakers (though not pacifists), and he lived close to the soil. But his talent could not be sublimated; his soaring intellect, far-ranging sympathies, and sensitive prose brought him to the attention of TIME Magazine’s publisher Henry Luce. Chambers eventually became a reviewer, staff writer, and editor. For TIME and LIFE he wrote cover stories and essays that were widely admired. He tempted fate as a former member of the Communist underground who “went public,” but that very fact became a sort of insulation too. In the 1940s he privately warned the Administration of the spy network permeating the New Deal, but FDR himself dismissed the information, and disciplined nobody, removed nobody.
After World War II, it became another matter. America’s former Soviet “ally” openly challenged the US across the globe; former “plants” in the government were rising to positions of prominence. Alger Hiss, in fact, was a visible and celebrated architect of the United Nations. Additionally, other former Communist spies and couriers, starting with Elizabeth Bentley, were “speaking.”
The next several years were the stuff of high drama, if not legend. Congressional committees called an array of former spies, accused spies, and “fellow travelers” who variously exposed or protected friends. Politicians like a young Richard Nixon established their careers (in Nixon’s case, on Chambers’ coattails); a young Joe McCarthy fueled his own, shorter, career spurt. The statute of limitations had expired on Hiss’s espionage, but he sued Chambers for libel. In two spectacular trials, a combination of Chambers’ memory, a telltale typewriter used to copy the stolen documents, and Alger Hiss’s self-incriminating slips, resulted in a perjury conviction that sent Hiss to prison for five years.
The Left has always made a cause of Hiss (“he was framed”; “he was persecuted as a progressive”) but documents released after the collapse of the Soviet Union uniformly confirmed the accounts of Chambers and other ex-Communists, the guilt of many embedded espionage agents, and the shame of politicians and journalists who covered for them. Similar to the Establishment’s canonization of Hiss despite the evidence against him, the same Establishment villified Chambers… and still does. It is a gross injustice. It is hardly the Left’s only blacklisting campaign.
In 1952 Whittaker Chambers was formally vindicated but impoverished by all of his legal bills. He wrote a book, Witness, that became a best-seller and placed the excellent publishing house Regnery on the map. It is one of the great autobiographies in American letters. As a political document, it traces Chambers’ life through anguish to righteous indignation over social injustice, to enlistment in the Communist cause that initially was idealistic. It sparkles with intrigue but spares none of the grunge of underground life. He describes the role of minor bureaucrats and no-name couriers in momentous international events. Fascinating.
But we are here to discuss the spiritual side of Whittaker Chambers, and Witness, as well. The book affected me deeply as a youngster: the confessions, the sensitivity, the simultaneous idealism and pessimism, the amazing literary style. What a writer! I was not alone, of course – this man, and his anguished journey including recantations and painful betrayals, changed the political creed of no less a reader than Ronald Reagan, former New Deal liberal.
Implicit in the second half of the Chambers story – after he literally was born again – is one of the greatest faith stories of the age. In characteristically brilliant fashion, he does not grab readers by the lapels to convince them of the Reality of God: he assumes it, he lives it; witnesses to it. That is enough. Not merely an adequate presentation of the role of faith, but supremely sufficient. After his autobiography was published, Chambers served briefly with National Review magazine, and, forever controversial despite his retiring nature, he died suddenly, 50 years ago.
Of the people who gathered at American University 40 years ago, as I looked across that room, most had known Whittaker Chambers. It was a privilege I missed, but it is special enough to know him from his work and his words; to have been inspired, and to try to live a life of faith and fidelity — and a larger patriotism than most people exercise — that he charted.
He was not a Republican: he knew both parties were complicit in treason, and always capable of it. He was not a conservative: he called himself a “man of the right.” He was not even an optimist: he believed that Communism (and the collectivist mentality) would barrel ahead, and that he, Chambers, was actually switching to the “losing side” of history. Of course he was speaking of worldly events, not the biblical perspective. History is not exactly contradicting him.
Having spoken of his eloquence, and his faith, I can do no better, on this anniversary of his passing, to finish with some quotations. America would do well to learn from them, still; Christians would do well to study them; and I wish everybody I knew would find a copy of Witness and read it.
Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies.
The Communist vision is the vision of man without God.
A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.
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.
For in this century, within the next decades, will be decided for generations whether all mankind is to become Communist, whether the whole world is to become free, or
whether, in the struggle, civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyed or completely changed.
It is popular to call it a crisis of the Western world. It is in fact a crisis of the whole world. Communism, which claims to be a solution of the crisis, is itself a symptom and an irritant of the crisis.
Political freedom is a political reading of the Bible.
The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit.
When you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wiser.
I see in Communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time.
Finally, excerpts from a cover story Chambers wrote for TIME magazine (can you imagine TIME running such words today???), the first Christmas after World War II ended:
Peace and homecoming, peace and homecoming rang like the clangor of Christmas bells in the heart of nearly every American last week….
Christmas 1945 lay deep in the long shadow of eternity. Beside every U.S. celebrant of Christmas, there watched, like the shepherds, three presences: the war’s dead, the wretched and The Bomb.
The war’s dead included not only those who died that Christians might celebrate Christmas in peace and freedom. They also included the millions who died in concentration camps, the children who perished from exhaustion, cold and fear, in flight from battling armies or in air raids, the children who have died by thousands from hunger and cold in Europe and Asia this year.
The wretched included not only war’s fugitives, the millions of displaced persons drifting in hunger, cold and anxiety over the hard face of the world; and those others, allies and enemies, who had been shattered in life and soul by defeat in war — and some by victory. They also included the wretched who by reason of man’s nature and destiny are always among us. The hollow eyes of the dead, who cannot speak, asked a question: What have you done? The beseeching eyes of the wretched, who cannot be heard, asked a question: What will you do?
The Bomb was itself a question. It was little to his credit that it stirred man’s ultimate despair more than all the rest of his calamitous handiwork because it seemed to transfer responsibility for his fate from God to man. Presumptuous man, who in all his pryings into matter below vision and into space beyond sight had never been able to answer the first question which the Voice from the Whirlwind put to Job: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
The practical aspects of these questions would be settled in time, in the world’s way, by able men, purposeful men, shrewd men, perhaps ruthless men, and always confused men. There would be Babels of planning and organization, pyramids of policy. But these would come to no more than all those that had gone before unless, as on this day of Nativity, 1945, man felt within himself a rebirth of what some have called “the Inner Light,” others “the Christ within.” They would fail like all the rest unless man achieved the ultimate humility and the power implied in one of the Bible’s most peremptory commandments:
Be still, and know that I am God.
Fitting to this day, it seems, is the brief Funeral March by Henry Purcell:
Click: Whittaker Chambers, rest in peace.