World Magazine Top 100 of the Century
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle
It's unfortunate that the Left is so earnest and humorless, otherwise they might be able to enjoy the immense irony of the lofty position held by Whittaker Chambers in the Right's pantheon of 20th century heroes. I mean think about it for a second, Chambers, who spent half his life as a bisexual Communist spy, was also a leading light of TIME and the National Review, a friend of Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, and made many conservatives' end-of-century lists, both for this memoir and for his personal influence. That's a fairly interesting resume by anyone's standards.
Chambers would be a heroic figure to the Right even if he had done nothing else but to accuse Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy. This action, so divisive that it still echoes through our politics today, helped to define the Cold War era, forcing people to choose sides--between anti-Communists, on the one side and communists, communist sympathizers and fellow travelers, and Anti-Anti-Communists on the other--and in turn hardening the lines between the sides as the nation headed into a period of prolonged cultural civil war, from which we have still not truly emerged.
But Chambers did not merely attack one man. With his memoir Witness he declared war on Communism and the Soviet Union and explained in no uncertain terms just what the struggle was about--what was at stake, the methods that the other side was using, and the seriousness of purpose which would be required to defeat them--and at the same time he told a life story which somehow managed to unite nearly all of the themes of modernity in one gloriously messy tale of personal degradation and desperation, followed by political and religious redemption and salvation. And to top it all off, not only does the story have all of the elements of a thriller and a courtroom drama, the author just happens to write brilliantly.
Chambers starts the book out with a forward in the form of a letter to his children (available on-line and well worth checking out) which seeks to explain why the book is necessary and why their father gained such notoriety in the first place. It is worth quoting a largish chunk :
I am sitting in the kitchen of the little house at
Medfield, our second farm which is cut off by the
It is a terrible book. It is terrible in what it
tells about men. If anything, it is more terrible in what it
But if the Hiss Case were only this, it would not
be worth my writing about or your reading about.
For it was more than human tragedy. Much more than
Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers was on
At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict
of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale
But this destruction is not the tragedy. The nature
of tragedy is itself misunderstood. Part of the
Crime, violence, infamy are not tragedy. Tragedy
occurs when a human soul awakes and seeks, in
In 1952, when the book was published, we were only seven years removed from WWII, in which FDR and Churchill had allied the West to the Soviet Union in the fight against Nazism. The great service which Chambers provided in this book, in his journalism for TIME like the imaginative Ghosts on the Roof (1945), and in the Hiss Case, was--along with Winston Churchill in his Fulton, MO speech of 1946, declaring that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent"--to force home the realization that the war against Communism, though "Cold," was just as much a "twilight struggle" as the war against Nazism had been. For the next four decades the West, basically the United States, would pursue this war with various levels of determination and fecklessness, and would eventually win it, thanks, appropriately, to Ronald Reagan, a near contemporary of Chambers, who had been inspired by him, as reflected in that Medal of Freedom.
The problem for us looking back at Chambers, and it may make readers scoff a little at the heated rhetoric of his prose in Witness, is that the West's victory looks inevitable to us now. Several powerful institutions--like the media, the Democratic Party, and the academy--have a vested interest in portraying the Cold War as a battle in which everyone pitched in to help defeat an enemy which pretty much self-destructed anyway. The memory of the fierce opposition of the Left to the confrontation with the Soviet Union is being gradually erased from the historic memory, and along with it the acknowledgment that as late as the mid-1980's, mainstream intellectuals considered Communism to be a viable alternative to democracy, with which we would have to co-exist for the foreseeable future. But this is, of course, the reality that existed at the time. As Andrew Sullivan has recently written in a stirring 90th birthday tribute to Ronald Reagan, there's something perverse about the spectacle of two nuclear freeze advocates, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, basking in the economic and political afterglow of the defeat of Communism, a defeat for which they manifestly deserve no credit. There is no doubt that Communism is a failure, but it is important to realize that its final defeat was not preordained. Socialism too is a failure but the countries of Western Europe continue to cling to it and much of the Democratic Party continues to aspire to it. Had the advocates of Détente, appeasement, and coexistence prevailed we might easily have found ourselves today in a situation where the entire world lay prostrate under the weight of various forms of statism, and, though the Cold War would technically be over, the peoples of Eastern Europe would still reside in what were essentially police states.
This is the context that must be recaptured in order to really appreciate Witness. In fact, one must go further; Chambers genuinely believed, as did many at that time, that western capitalist democracy was doomed :
I wanted my wife to realize clearly one long-term
penalty, for herself and for the children, of the
A more recent memoir by an apostate from the Left, David Horowitz's Radical Son, was frequently compared by the critics to Witness. But there was one huge difference; Horowitz knew when he moved to the Right that he was deserting the losing side and switching to the winners. The power of Witness, on the other hand, derives in great measure from the author's discomforting sense of pessimism about the prospects of his new team.
And so in his book Chambers sought to warn the West about the dangers in its midst, in particular the fact that, for really the first time, the West faced a conflict in which significant segments of its own population were working for the other side. Chambers drew upon his own insider's knowledge of Communist espionage to sound the warning that there were enemies in our midst :
The deeper meaning of the Soviet underground apparatus,
and all the apparatuses that clustered
The men and women Communists and fellow travelers
who staffed this Fifth Column were
That his warnings, and the proof he served up in the Hiss case, would eventually be warped into McCarthyism was unfortunate, but not for the generally accepted reasons, nor from the presumed causes.
What was truly unfortunate about McCarthyism was not the fact of the Red Hunt itself, but that it was left to such an incompetent as Joe McCarthy. If, instead of circling the wagons to protect their own, responsible members of the Left had joined with the Right to root out men and women in government, academia, and the media who were actively trying to subvert democracy, the entire process might have been salutary, rather than turning into one of the more divisive episodes in our domestic political history. But the Left, as a general rule, which had been untroubled by FDR's decision to imprison every American of Japanese descent on the West Coast during WWII, reacted viscerally to the idea of exposing and removing genuine agents of an enemy government from positions of power.
To a great, and unacknowledged, degree, this reaction was dictated by class animosity. For the bitter truth is that Communism, particularly in America, was an ethos of the upper classes and the intelligentsia. The middle classes, for obvious reasons, and the lower classes, for more complex reasons, never subscribed to the ideals of Communism. And so, when the time came to destroy the Fifth Column, the destruction was led by men like McCarthy and Nixon, men with the stink of the common on them, and opposed by those who, like Hiss, had gone to the best Eastern schools and moved in the best social circles :
No feature of the Hiss Case is more obvious, or more
troubling as history, than the jagged fissure,
Those seeking to understand the passions stirred up by the Hiss Case need look no farther than the condescending aside of Hiss to Nixon : "My college was Harvard, I understand yours was Whittier." There, in a sentence, is expressed the contempt and animosity between classes which would soon turn a simple espionage case into the cause which separated a generation of Americans. So while it was common to blame Chambers and his supporters for McCarthyism, most of the blame should really fall upon the Anti-Anti-Communists, those who, though they did oppose communism, could not bear to see their peers brought down by commoners, no matter what crimes those peers may have committed in the putative name of those very commoners.
The further time removes us from the events of the Hiss case and the more information is revealed from the secret archives of both the U. S. government and the old Soviet Union, the less ambiguous the legacy of Whittaker Chambers becomes. No one outside of the most irrational Left wing circles will any longer argue that Hiss was innocent; at most they try to impugn the character of Chambers, hinting darkly at elements of psychosexual drama in the case. And the files further reveal that throughout the Cold War, many of the groups on the Left (like those disarmament groups that Clinton and Blair supported) were, either wittingly or unwittingly, funded and controlled by the Soviet Union. The scope and effectiveness of Soviet subversion in the West is continually being revised upwards and those who warned about it and opposed it look better and better in retrospect. No one looks better than Whittaker Chambers, whose life's journey from darkness into light so closely parallels that of the West as to serve as an allegory for the age. Witness, his testimony to that journey and his statement of faith, stands as one of the great books of any age and perhaps the best book of the 20th century.
See also:Whittaker Chambers (2 books reviewed)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction
Intercollegiate Studies Institute Fifty BEST Books of the Century
National Review's List of the Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century
Orrin's All-Time Top Ten List - Non-Fiction / Conservative Thought
World Magazine Top 100 of the Century
-WIKIPEDIA: Whittaker Chambers
-ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers’ Lenten Faith (Michael Lucchese, March 24, 2023, Providence)
-ESSAY: Two Faiths: The Witness of Whittaker Chambers (Richard M. Reinsch, Religion & Liberty)
-ESSAY: Witness to a Crisis: The spiritual testimony of Whittaker Chambers holds up after seventy years. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 8/08/22, American Mind)
-ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers’ Spiritual Journey (Thomas Hubert, July 12th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
-ESSAY: Exposing evil: ‘Witness’ has its 60th anniversary (Stephen Smoot, Jul. 31st, 2012, Human Events)
-ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness”: A Story for the Ages (Chuck Chalberg, June 1st, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
-ESSAY: Whittaker Chambers through the Eyes of Rebecca West (PETER BAEHR, April 2, 2020, National Review)
Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "whittaker chambers"
-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Chambers, Whittaker
-BOOKNOTES : Author: Sam Tanenhaus Title: Whittaker Chambers: A Biography Air Date: February 23, 1997 (C-SPAN)
-Presidential Medal of Freedom
-OBIT : Chambers Is Dead; Hiss Case Witness (WILLIAM FITZGIBBON, NY Times, July 12, 1961)
-EXCERPT : Foreward in the Form of a Letter to my Children from Witness by Whittaker Chambers
-ESSAY : St. Benedict (Whittaker Chambers, Catholic Encyclopaedia)
-REVIEW : of Atlas Shrugged (Whittaker Chambers, National Review, December 28, 1957)
-Whittaker Chambers (Spartacus)
-ARTICLE : Hiss and Chambers: Strange Story of Two Men (ROBERT G. WHALEN, Sunday, December 12, 1948, NY Times)
-ESSAY : Whittaker Chambers: The judgment of history. (Hilton Kramer, New Criterion, Feb97)
-ESSAY : The Alger Hiss Spy Case : Fifty years later people still ask the question about Alger Hiss: Was he or wasn't he a Communist spy? (James Thomas Gay , History Net)
-ESSAY : Ye Shall Be as Gods : Honoring Whittaker Chambers, a deeply religious man. (ROGER KIMBALL, July 20, 2001 , Wall Street Journal)
-UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK : IN RE PETITION OF BRUCE CRAIG FOR ORDER DIRECTING RELEASE OF GRAND JURY MINUTES : AFFIDAVIT OF BRUCE CRAIG
-ARCHIVES : More on Whittaker Chambers : From the Archives of The New York Times
-ARCHIVES : "whittaker chambers" (NY Review of Books)
-ARCHIVES : "whittaker chambers" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of Witness by Whittaker Chambers (Les Sillars , World)
-REVIEW : of Witness by Whittaker Chambers (Lane Dolly, NeoPolitique)
-REVIEW : Jan 29, 1970 Murray Kempton: A Narodnik from Lynbrook, NY Review of Books
Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 by
Whittaker Chambers, edited with Notes by William F. Buckley, Jr., and
Foreword by Ralph De Toledano
-REVIEW : Nov 19, 1964 Conor Cruise OÃBrien: The Perjured Saint, NY Review of Books
Cold Friday by Whittaker Chambers
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (William F. Buckley, Jr., First Things)
-REVIEW : of WHITTAKER CHAMBERS A Biography By Sam Tanenhaus (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of WHITTAKER CHAMBERS A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : Theodore Draper: The Case of Cases, NY Review of Books
Whittaker Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus
Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (updated edition) by Allen Weinstein
-REVIEW : Theodore Draper: The Drama of Whittaker Chambers, NY Review of Books
Whittaker Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus
Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (updated edition) by Allen Weinstein
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Mark Falcoff, Commentary)
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (LANCE MORROW, TIME)
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Elinor Langer, The Nation)
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers : A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Jude Wanniski, Polyconomics)
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (PAUL JACKSON, Calgary Sun)
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Roger Miller, Book Page)
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (John C. Chalberg , Crisis)
-REVIEW : of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus (Mindszenty Report)
-REVIEW : Apr 20, 1978 Garry Wills: The Honor of Alger Hiss, NY Review of Books
Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case by Allen Weinstein
-REVIEW : of THE LAST PUMPKIN PAPER By Bob Oeste (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
ALGER HISS :
Reading the comments on the divide between the common man and the leftist elites, as embodied in the anti-communists and the anti-anti-communists, is certainly striking in these days of the anti-terrorists vs. anti-anti-terrorists.
- Brian Jones
- Apr-02-2004, 13:39
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