by Francis P. Sempa
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.”