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The Enigma of Whittaker Chambers

[1]

Whittaker Chambers, underground man.

2,070 words

(Written in the style, if not quite the spirit, of senior TIMEditor Chambers’ weekly newsmagazine.)

Rumpled, paunchy Whittaker Chambers (April 1, 1901-July 9, 1961) has long merited haughty sneers and raised eyebrows on America’s nationalist Right. Reasons: his shifting ideologies, his inscrutable motives.

Among the most compelling critiques of Chambers we may count those of Classics professor Revilo P. Oliver. Oliver observed that Chambers:

. . . had repudiated the Bolsheviks as monsters of utter evil, but he never emancipated himself from the idea that Communism is what he first thought it, a doctrine that is native to the West and was naturally engendered by the very scientific methodology that is the greatest achievement of the Western mind. Chambers continued to regard Marx as a serious thinker, not as an agent of conspiracy and an energumen animated by inveterate hatred.[1]

Prof. Oliver wrote that in 1966. Decades later, he cruelly and somewhat contradictorily belittled Chambers’ ideological odyssey as a hopeless quest for a True Faith: “Whittaker Chambers was only the best known of the Marxists who, when disillusioned, reverted to an earlier form of his ruling superstition [i.e., Christianity].”[2]

Conversely, in more conventional “conservative” eyes, Chambers has long been a secular saint. This is partly because he exposed Alger Hiss, a sometime friend and State Department official who posed as a “New Deal liberal,” as a Communist spy, and partly because Chambers was subjected to a level of abuse that excited sympathy and illuminated just how thoroughly Red-polluted were our press and political class. In the Hiss case, Chambers’ great cheerleader and ally was Congressman Richard M. Nixon. In its aftermath, his main champion was William F. Buckley, Jr., who brought Chambers aboard the nascent National Review. At NR, Chambers impressed the editorial staff with his knowledge of Evelyn Waugh,[3] but alienated Ayn Rand fans with a denunciatory review [2] of Atlas Shrugged [3], thereby triggering one of the first notable splits in the amorphous conservative movement.

The “Saint Whittaker” cult endures mainly as a relic of the 1950s. But it is one that does not stand up well to close examination.

Winding journey. Prof. Oliver, too, was soon “read out of” Buckley’s conservative fold, but his basic point about Chambers has never been satisfactorily answered. It has never been clear what Chambers did, and did not, believe in. He picked up and shed creeds, secular and religious, with suspicious abandon. His winding sectarian journey led through atheistic Communism to Episcopalianism and then to the Society of Friends – at least until his local Quaker meeting in Maryland shunned him for his anti-Communist activities, and his daughter was blackballed from Swarthmore, at which point Chambers lost interest in Quakerism.[4]

In the non-religious sphere, Chambers’ wanderings are even more curious. He began as a nihilist youth and collegiate symbolist poet, and then was enraptured by the Communist creed after being booted from Columbia. The University actually expelled him twice: once for literary magazine blasphemy, and later for the criminal theft of books from the main branch of the New York Public Library, where Chambers worked evenings as a clerk in the newspaper room. From card-carrying Red and acclaimed writer and editor (Daily Worker, New Masses) in the early 1930s, he descended into the cardless Communist underground where, equipped with aliases (“Bob,” “Carl,” “David Breen”), a funny Mitteleuropäische accent, and photographic darkrooms, he coordinated espionage activities among well-placed Reds in the State and Treasury departments (Alger Hiss, Noel Field, Harry Dexter White).

Breaking with the Party in 1938, Chambers hid out with his family in Daytona Beach, Florida. He did freelance translation for Oxford University Press at a college library and beach cottage, keeping a revolver at his side. Soon emerging into the non-Floridian sunshine, he found a job briefly with the Works Progress Administration, and finally arrived at Time, where he wrote about foreign news, books, and motion pictures.

[4]

Henry R. Luce. “Who reviewed Grapes of Wrath?”

His initial film review, for John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath [5], brought him to the attention of tycoon Henry R. Luce, who stammered exultantly at the weekly editorial meeting, “Who reviewed Grapes of Wrath? It’s the best cinema review ever in Time.”[5] Thereafter was Chambers the apple of Luce’s eye. His cover stories on Stalin, the Papacy, Arnold Toynbee, and James Joyce were much brainier and tastier than the usual Time fare. Chambers was a workhorse, putting in long hours with languid, alcoholic James Agee (a fellow cinema fan); and industrious, atherosclerotic Calvin Fixx, who worked himself into an early heart attack in 1942, age 36. Chambers’ all-night editing sessions soon gave him a coronary, too. Many months of rest at his Maryland farm followed.

Mysterious jump. The break with Soviet intelligence in 1938 is easily the most mysterious jump in the Chambers CV. The conservative-gospel explanation for this follows Chambers’ own testimony at the Hiss trials (1948-1949) and his ponderous memoir, Witness [6](1952). Boiled down to essentials: he had lost faith in the atheistic immorality of the Communist creed and was repelled by the Stalinist show trials, starvations, and mass executions. But a more likely reason was simple fear. His break with the Soviets came shortly after he was summoned to Moscow during the 1937 Purge period. He didn’t go. Although he had no outstanding marks against him in Soviet eyes, he knew this mattered not. Several of Chambers’ Red associates, equally simon-pure in Party discipline, had also been summoned to Stalin’s lair, thereupon disappearing without a trace. No doubt the safety of Chambers’ wife and small child was his primary concern, far more so than his own well-being.

It seems logical enough that he was also worried about the family of his good friend Alger Hiss. One of the great set-pieces in the Chambers saga has him visiting the Hiss house, toward Christmas 1938, begging Alger and Priscilla Hiss to follow his example and break with the Party. The pleas fell on deaf ears. (“Mental masturbation,” carped the genteel, Quaker, Priscilla Hiss, after enduring a Chambers jeremiad about the crimes of Stalin.) Perhaps the Hisses feared Soviet reprisals even more than Chambers. More likely they considered themselves safe from Stalin’s scythe. Alger was a young State Department official, flying high; his value to Moscow was appreciating every year. Chambers, conversely, was a woebegone go-between, a disheveled college dropout with little career network outside the ever-shifting players of the Communist underground.

[7]And finally, the Hisses were financially secure, relatively speaking. Alger had a steady job in Foggy Bottom, a gilt-edged resume, and a network of well-placed colleagues. If worse ever came to worst, he could always fall back upon his Harvard Law degree. Chambers had nothing to fall back on beyond a modicum of writing ability and long-ago success as a translator. Back in 1928, he had translated Felix Salten’s Bambi [8] from German; in English it became a bestseller and a classic. So he went back to translation for a little while, till he finally found his way to Time.

Safety and security were his constant spurs. After joining Time, Chambers made a point of confessing his Communist background to a sympathetic Henry Luce and to close friends at the magazine. He also told his story, or part of it, to FDR advisor and Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle (in 1939) and again to the FBI (1940). Chambers thereby created a firm backstop against being suddenly exposed or fired from Time – a distinct risk, as the magazine housed a number of fellow-traveling Leftist writers who had a line on Chambers’ history and were ready to do him ill.

Moral vacuity. One of the many paradoxes of the Chambers hagiography is that his Time years are always depicted as a period of unrestrained, rather truculent, anti-Communism. Supposedly this often led to friction and angry departures among other Time staffers, as for example Theodore White, who quit after Chambers rewrote his negative opinions about Chiang Kai-Shek.[6] But to judge from Chambers’ contributions, his anti-Communism per se was thin stuff indeed.

The classic example we are usually shown is the post-Yalta fantasia, “The Ghosts on the Roof [9],” from the March 5, 1945 issue. In this escapade, the ghosts of the murdered Czar and Czarina observe the Big Three Conference in the Crimea, along with Clio, the Muse of History. They are absolutely delighted with what they see. Czar Nicholas is so impressed with Stalin’s imperial expansion that he says he’s now a “Leninist-Stalinist”:

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!

[10]

Joseph Stalin cover story by Whittaker Chambers, Time, February 5, 1945.

Of course this is ludicrous, even as fantasy, but it tells us something about the Chambers mindset, because neither here nor in his pre-Yalta cover profile of Stalin (February 5, 1945) does he take a stand on the moral or ideological issues of Soviet expansion. He finds Stalin’s success regrettable – all that landmass being gobbled up by this master imperialist – but overall he approaches it as a study in Realpolitik, one that will have interesting diplomatic and military repercussions down the road. Not a tear is shed for brave little Poland or Hungary or Estonia, or what it means for them to become Soviet satrapies. The USSR has become big and dangerous; that’s the basic problem here.

So much for Chambers the anti-Communist at Time. The same moral vacuity may be found in Witness, his magnum opus memoir. In its nearly eight hundred pages, we learn that he longed to farm the land, to raise chicks, and milk cows; that he was a painfully sensitive child with an embarrassing family; that he lived in mortal terror when he broke with the OGPU (Soviet military intelligence); and that he was deeply offended when, at their last meeting, Alger Hiss tried to gift Chambers’ daughter with a five-cent toy. We are led painstakingly through a bewildering series of Communist Party hangers-on, intelligence cut-outs, operatives, and safe-houses. But never does Chambers clearly explain his attraction to Communist ideology. The picture we are given suggests only that when he was a young man he saw joining the Commies as a daring literary-bohemian romp. Likewise, he never offers any coherent reason for rejecting Communism – except that Stalinists were cruel, and they threatened him.

[11]

Reinhold Niebuhr cover story by Whittaker Chambers, Time, March 8, 1948.

A curious fact about Chambers’ writing for Time (and also Life) is that he spilled much more ink writing about “Christian” imagery and philosophy than he did in analyzing “Leninism-Stalinism.” He did cover stories about the Devil, Negro spirituals, “Peace and the Papacy,” “Christmas 1945,” and “Faith for a Lenten Age.” Always, however, he is far more focused on quasi-religious notions that are retained as artifacts in popular culture than he is in doctrine or belief itself. Modern culture, he is quite sure, is one of unbelief.

No doubt this is a common presumption among some people today, as it was seventy years ago. But it’s important here because it seems to be fundamental to Chambers’ whole outlook, and no doubt accounts for his inarticulateness when it comes to explaining his own ideological window-shopping. Here is Chambers in 1948, in a cover story on Reinhold Niebuhr and Protestant theology (Time, March 8, 1948):

Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more & more the measure of all things, achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption was subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th Century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign.

Chambers isn’t saying this is what people should believe or shouldn’t believe; he’s saying that it’s what most do believe, and this is why they believe it. People have easy consciences. They are smugly optimistic.

Obviously Chambers did not take a poll before writing this bizarre passage. He wrote it from his own self-centered assumptions: part Rousseau, part Marx, with a dash of H. G. Wells thrown in. All of which takes us back to Revilo Oliver’s criticism of Chambers: Chambers regarded the premises of Communism as native and natural to Western man. He honestly thought the progressivist claptrap of “scientific socialism” was pretty much what all intelligent people believe.

Or would believe, if they bothered to think about it. Wouldn’t they?

 

Notes

1. Revilo P. Oliver, America’s Decline [12] (London: Londinium Press, 1981), p. 386.

2.Revilo P. Oliver, “The Bear in the Bush [13],” Liberty Bell, September 1990.

3. The story goes that after delivering a long and convoluted monologue at an NR editorial meeting, editor Buckley looked around for support, finally asking Whittaker Chambers if he agreed. “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” replied Chambers, echoing the Daily Beast subeditor in Waugh’s Scoop [14].

4. Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers [15] (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 474.

5. Ibid., p. 164.

6. Ibid., pp. 184-185.