Seventy years ago this month, Washington politicians were trying to sort out a case involving dodgy characters and Russian collusion. One man involved described it as “a tragedy of history” (Following Marx’s maxim, Paul Manafort’s trial would be the farce). Like today, it was a time of growing sympathy for harder leftist ideology, one that provides some clarity to our own socialist moment.
In early August 1948, a senior editor of Time magazine was subpoenaed for testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. That editor was Whittaker Chambers, a former member of the Communist underground who had coordinated the infiltration of various government agencies by Soviet sympathizers in the mid-1930s.
Among others, his testimony unmasked Alger Hiss, a former senior State Department official. Their subsequent legal showdown, recorded by Chambers in his 1952 memoir, “Witness,” would become a classic saga of the Cold War, a minor epic in the larger struggle between the United States and Soviet Russia.
At first glance, in the eyes of this millenial born six months after Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation dissolved the U.S.S.R., “Witness” appears dusty. On my copy, Regnery brands the book a “Cold War Classic,” a true, if limiting, title. Part of the appeal of “Witness” is undoubtedly historical: Chambers drops us into a world of fedoras and smoke-filled rooms. On cold nights, the oblivious drivers of Ford Model-Ts pass plotting Soviet agents tramping in the rain between Manhattan street lamps, and the voice of a relatively unknown congressman from California, 35-year-old Richard Nixon, crackles with mid-century professionalism in packed and sweltering D.C. court rooms.
Just barely predating Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Chambers’ story shows us 1930s Soviet espionage unpolluted by either cliche or nostalgia. Anyone who has seen the recent film “The Death of Stalin” will identify similar beats in the low-comedy of Communist infighting and bureaucratic power struggles, no less deadly for their pettiness and banality.
Chambers managed a small cell of Communists and fellow travelers working covertly in the United States government. Most notably, this group included Hiss, an assistant to the assistant secretary of state. Years after Chambers severed ties with Communism, Hiss joined the United States’ delegation at the Yalta Conference, a meeting between the Allied premiers that determined the international order after World War II. At first, the cell’s goal was simply infiltration and recruitment. Later, it began stealing secrets.
Hiss and the others would feed copies of government documents to Chambers, who forwarded them to his contact, who sent them to the Soviets. Disillusioned by Stalin’s purges (now known to history as “the Great Terror”), Chambers defected and took his family into hiding. He found a job at Time, bought a farm in Maryland, and lived with his family for the next nine years in relative peace — until he was summoned to Washington.
The battle between Chambers and Hiss is compelling not only as a political drama, but also as a personal one. As Chambers tells us, beyond Communist comrades-in-arms, he and Hiss were friends. “The story has spread,” Chambers said before the committee, “that in testifying against Mr. Hiss I am working out some old grudge or motives of revenge or hatred. I don’t hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends, but we are caught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are all fighting, and I am fighting. I have testified against him with remorse and pity.”
That little speech, which you can watch here, is a good example of the appeal of this story for modern readers, but also of its remote quality. “Witness” is a monument of great prose and dramatic storytelling. At the same time is there any group today that can be credibly referred to as “the enemy” outside the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien? (The current president’s preferred designation of the media notwithstanding).
But, of course, in his time, Chambers was not considered credible, and here we can see some of what is truly enduring about his story. Hiss, to the end of his life, maintained his innocence even as the evidence mounted against him long after he served 44 months for perjury (the statute of limitations prevented prosecution for espionage). Although Hiss died in 1996, some still defend him.
During the various hearings and trials pitting Chambers’ story against his, Hiss — attractive, well-spoken, well-liked — marshaled elites from across the government to testify on his behalf. Hiss’ team launched a national smear campaign against Chambers, even bringing in a psychiatrist to diagnose Chambers as a pathological liar, while at the same time suing Chambers for libel to the tune of $75,000 (roughly $800,000 in 2018 money). For two years, Chambers and his family went through hell.
In the end, truth prevailed, thanks to the fortitude of the Chambers family, prosecutor Thomas Murphy, and even Nixon. (An aside: One of the strange charms of reading “Witness” is its recasting of Nixon as unambiguous hero, a disorienting twist, considering most depictions of Tricky Dick never seem to rise above the moral complexity of a comic book villain.) In that sense, “Witness” is a quintessentially American tale. For Chambers, like his cowboy and hardboiled detective forbearers, perseverance, grit, and courage ultimately sustain him when all other virtues fail.
Chambers saw his fight — and, more broadly, the struggle of the entire 20th century — in black and white terms, not in the cracking cliches of contemporary political parlance (“socialism” or “progressivism” versus “capitalism” or “conservatism”), but between Communist materialism and God. Communism, for Chambers, was the inevitable conclusion of a world without God, whether through official party channels or not. He writes: “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism’s materialist vision, is so dazzled by the logic of materialist interpretations of history, politics and economics.”
For Chambers, the inevitable end of that materialist vision, no matter how well meaning, is not Utopia, but Stalin.
“Witness” is more than a relic of the Cold War. It is a testament — a witness, as the title’s double-meaning implies — against the siren song of secular totalitarianism, as alluring to Alger Hiss’ New Dealers as to believers in the platform of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Men who sincerely abhorred the word Communism,” Chambers writes of the New Dealers, “in the pursuit of common ends found that they were unable to distinguish Communists from themselves … For men who could not see that what they firmly believed was liberalism added up to socialism could scarcely be expected to see what added up to Communism.”
The current movement toward more hardcore leftism in American politics may not amount to anything more than a Bernie Sanders “moment” (polling among millennials, supposedly more sympathetic to socialism than generations past, projects mixed signals at best). Then again, maybe we are, as Bernie’s most ardent supporters insist, in the midst of a kind of revolution — one that should prompt people of faith to pause and consider its spiritual character (and, to be fair, the spiritual character of any political movement they support).
After they decided to defect from the Communist underground, Chambers told his wife: “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” Chambers was a pessimist, and historical events would seem to have proved him wrong. But it is important to note that the “winning world” was not just the Soviet Union and the “losing world” was not simply the United States.
Like Solzhenitsyn, Chambers does his fair share of railing against American materialism. Unlike William F. Buckley and his other friends from the right, Chambers rejected the label “conservative,” preferring instead “counter-revolutionist.” Journalist Robert Novak notes in his introduction to the book’s 50th anniversary edition: “While smashing away at the liberal consensus, [Chambers] does not even reassure conservative conventions.”
Almost paradoxically, Chambers’ great attack against Communism concludes in the pre-political. His real testament, as relevant now as it was in 1952, avoids easy classification as “right” or “left.” Instead, he clarifies the stakes of the game: Who has ultimate sovereignty over human life, Man or God? Communism chose “man,” thereby justifying the cold calculus of political terror: Liquidation of a few for the salvation of many. Chambers chose God, and so became a witness.