Marx und Engels in der Nähe des Berliner Doms
[Marx-Engels-Forum, Berlinerdom (February 8, 2007)]

[This article also appeared in The American Mercury.]

Whittaker Chambers died 50 years ago today at the age of 60. Much in the world has changed since then. What might he think about world affairs today, were he still alive?

Before commenting, he would catch up on history with books like Tony Judt‘s Postwar. Another would be Timothy Snyder‘s Bloodlands, which accounts for millions of deaths during Chambers’ most active years. During the same period covered in Bloodlands, he wrote his first major piece for The New Masses, entered and defected from the Soviet underground, and worked at TIME magazine. Always a historian, he would crave hindsight into his own times. Such books would also help explain the demise of Great Illegals he knew and occasionally admired, including Alexander Ulanovsky, Ignatz Reiss, and Walter Krivitsky.

Today’s map of the world might shock him. He would see no Soviet Bloc. Yet quickly he would find Vladimir Putin‘s Russia very familiar. He might revisit his TIME essay on Yalta, “The Ghosts on the Roof.” This time, he would add the Bolsheviks to the Romanovs, as they admire Putin. Or he might renew efforts on his follow-on to Witness, a book called The Third Rome (never completed, though portions appear in the posthumous Cold Friday). To do so, he would have to face the rise of China. How ironic that this strategic nation—once overseen by Alger Hiss in the State Department’s Far Eastern Affairs section—has survived as the last great bastion of Communism. More ironic, China has turned to Capitalism in the past few decades and come to rival America itself.

He wrote in Witness: “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.” 1 Today, with Soviet Communism dead and Chinese Communism alive but capitalist, would he conclude that the Chinese have also chosen the losing side?

Our Information Age would probably have limited interest for him—mostly in greater access to books. (Both his children remain avowed Luddites and live in quiet, remote places.) He might enjoy watching Ninotchka again on the small screen, with its many layered meanings that started in his own home: his wife’s family came from Old Russia. However, he would studiously avoid Facebook and Twitter as so much navel-gazing. (He may have sang like a bird when naming names before HUAC, but he probably could not bring himself to “tweet.”) Besides, whom would he talk to? All the “young men” who knew him in his later years are now dead, too: Henry Grunwald from TIME, Ralph de Toledano from Newsweek, Bill Buckley from National Review. (Veterans like Jeffrey Hart and Garry Wills came after him at NR.)

Changes in the world beyond the West might overwhelm him. So many new nations; so many realignments! Yet today’s map might also remind him of August 1914. No surprise would come from the decline of American empire (the “losing side.”)

Like any euro-centrist of his day, however, catching up with the “Rest of World” might escape him. For instance, a 1957 National Review article speaks only of Anti-Colonialism (in regional terms of “Arab Nationalism”). 2 What would he make of the Islamic aberration that has become “the basis” (a literal translation of al-Qa’ida) of strong anti-Western cultural reaction in this new millennium?

Assassination of Von Plehve by Egor Sazonov
[Assassination of Von Plehve by Sazonov (July 15, 1904)]

He would soon come to know that American spies since the Hiss and Rosenberg cases have diminished to mere mercenaries (another sign of decline?). Therefore, the return of non-mercenary spies outside the West would very likely catch his eye. Today’s suicide bombers would recall his own earlier models: Felix Djerjinsky, Eugen Levine, and Egor Sazonov. Of Sazonov, he had written that to protest the mistreatment of fellow prisoners, he had “drenched himself in kerosene, set himself on fire, and burned himself to death.” 3 Why would people of today blow themselves up to harm others, as Sazonov, Stepan Balmashov, Ivan Kalyayev, and other Terrorist Brigade members had, a century ago in Old Russia?

As a grizzled veteran of an earlier form of terror, no doubt he would worry: have Americans learned nothing about the motives for treason? If we have not understood the experience of the McCarthy Era and the Cold War, how can we possibly hope to understand challenges from the “Rest of World”—like al-Qa’ida? Yet, what can we hope to understand of challenges like al-Qa’ida when so many of today’s “experts” lazily to compare for us philosophically mismatched apples and oranges—and avoid a recount of history from “Arab eyes” (to use a phrase from writer Amin Maalouf)?

At this point, old glooms might rise up again. Despite publishing the confessional Witness (1952), many Americans, he had felt before, have not understood first why he has served as a Communist spy and then why he defected. Today, he would find many of his (few) admirers appreciate him except for his one-time conversion to Christianity. Most refuse to explore earlier influences, despite the nexus traced in Witness back to the Christian Pacifist movement of the early 20th Century. Nor do many seem to understand his tactical move as an anti-Communist in aligning with Conservatives: they do not see this as political opportunism.

Partly, his old-school Marxist discipline silenced him during the hey-day of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Partly, his early death helped opportunists in the rising Conservative and Neo-Conservative moments to cast about post mortem for intellectual saints like Chambers and Lionel Trilling.

We have missed the chance to hear him grapple with Daniel Ellsberg‘s Pentagon Papers or today’s USA Patriot Act—speaking as a defector from Joseph Stalin‘s totalitarian policies. (Here you will find no speculation: their circumstances are too specific and too complicated for even the simplest surmise.)

Dwight Eisenhower during farewell speech on January 17, 1961
[President Eisenhower at farewell speech (January 17, 1961)]

In closing, lurking in Whittaker Chambers’ mind on this day, 50 years after his death, would likely be one of the last major political events of his own time: the farewell address of President Dwight Eisenhower on January 17, 1961:

As we peer into society’s future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow. (text-PDF/audio/video)

The farmer, the intellectual, the revolutionary, the spiritualist in him all agreed wholeheartedly back then—and would agree now. Just as great doubts would continue to gnaw at his mind about the losing side.

(Whittaker Chambers was born in Philadelphia, PA, on April 1, 1901; he died in Westminster, MD, on July 9, 1961.)

Notes:

  1. Witness, p. 541
  2. Whittaker Chambers, “Soviet Strategy in the Middle East,” National Review – October 26, 1957
  3. Witness, p. 6

26 Responses to Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961): Ghosts and Phantoms

  1. […] magazine and to him (in addition to our own observations made the same day and published here as Ghosts and Phantoms): July 9, […]

  2. Sandwichman says:

    David,

    I have a question about Ralph de Toledano and his authorship of what would presumably be his last book, Cry Havoc!. Your tribute to him portrays him as an erudite intellectual with wide-ranging cultural tastes. You cite the recording of the Garcia-Lorca poem and connect it to your interest in Neruda, Brecht and Kurt Weill.

    I have been investigating the proliferation of what can at best be described as a “conspiracy theory” focusing on the Institute for Social Research or Frankfurt School. It might be more accurate to describe it as a preposterous fabrication and calumny along the lines of the infamous forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The origin of this fabricated conspiracy theory would appear to be in Lyndon Larouche’s paranoid cult in the early 1990s.

    The confessed Oslo mass murderer, Anders Breivik plagiarized extensively from one version of the tale, published in 2004 by the Free Congress Foundation and edited by William S. Lind. Patrick J. Buchanan replicated the story in chapter four of his 2002 book The Death of the West, in which Buchanan acknowledges the editorial advice of his friend, Bill Lind. I have checked footnotes in Buchanan’s book and found them to be bogus, indicating only a more sophisticated variety of intellectual dishonesty than Breivik’s inept plagiarism.

    I have been unable to locate a copy of Toledano’s book at a nearby library but the promotional blurb from the publisher presents a lurid recapitulation of the Larouchite/Lind slander. So I am curious about what kind of documentation the book contains or if it is yet another raucous production of the vast, resonant right-wing echo chamber — apparently even crediting the Frankfurt School with the rise of the Nazis. Here is an excerpt from the publishers’ blurb:

    Cry Havoc! is Ralph de Toledano’s most ambitious work. Its modest length (254 pages) belies a volume jam-packed with information. One hardly knows where to begin. Anyone seriously absorbing it will end up with a heavily underlined book that connects the dots and timeline of the planned decline of Western Civilization.

    Those dots lead ultimately to the Institute of Social Research planted in prestigious Frankfurt University in Germany in the Twenties. The “Frankfurt School,” as it was called, was “dedicated to neo-Marxism — contributing to the corrupt miasma of Weimar Germany and the victory of Adolph Hitler’s National Socialists.”

    Ultimately, the “school” moved to America where it was accepted by Columbia University in New York. This was accomplished by John Dewey, the educator credited (or blamed) by many with leading to the corruption of America’s education system. Dewey, as Toledano notes, was in league with “a crypto-communist professorial cabal — and a conspiracy and a war so vast and so cunning that it went unnoticed.”

    A few — unfortunately very few others — have written about the Frankfurt school. Toledano takes one more step toward laying the conspiracy directly on the doorstep of the Comintern. As with Soviet funding of the Communist Party USA, it takes no great leap of imagination to surmise as much. Again, the question lies in “the smoking gun.” Toledano makes the case that it is there in writings or words of V.I. Lenin and other original Bolsheviks.

    Cry Havoc! traces the Frankfurt school plot to 1922 and to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow and to Karl Radek — a power in the Politburo — and to other key players in the then-new Bolshevik revolution. Among them was Muenzenberg, who openly boasted, “We will take over the intellectuals. We will make America stink.”

    • Apologies for the late reply.

      I have read only early works by Ralph de Toledano: Frontiers of Jazz (1947), Seeds of Treason (1950), and Spies, Dupes, and Diplomats (1952).

      I am looking for a copy of Lament for a Generation (1960).

      His later work I holds no particular interest for me personally, including his final book, Cry Havoc.

  3. Curt Schroder says:

    To: LH

    And your point is??? It is just as possible that Adolph Berle was in CYA mode at having been told things earlier that in retrospect he should have acted on. Could also be that Chambers was conflicted in going to him in the first place and was only ready to reveal what he knew in increments.

    Regarding Venona, are you suggesting that ALES was not Alger Hiss? If so, who was he?

    Furthermore, I have not read the originaal Venona documents. I am only relying on reports of those who have and have written about it. And from what I can tell, the prevailing view is that ALES was Hiss. You have not offered anything yet to contradict this view.

  4. Thank you. Important reflections, especially of the truly transforming influence of The One, who died and rose indeed for Whittaker.

    Critical is this Chambers’ noting of the union of the Bolsheviks and Romanovs behind Putin’s Marxofascist Russia — also the similarities with Marxofascist China, Europe, Brazil — and America. Intramural rivalries have been assuaged in favor of the global insurrection.

    Also, the words of Ike shout forward, however…

    Would either of these two understand the full extend of the subversion of the followers and comrades of Gramsci, Trotsky, Alinsky and Cloward-Piven?

    If so, I think both Chambers and Eisenhower would be compelled to point out the intentional sabotage in the current Soft War against Sovereignty and Freedom, in America and throughout the world. And yes, the central bank complex is behind it all, or the Rothschilds would not have financed both Maurice Strong and George Soros (among others).

    With that in mind, I think Whittaker Chambers would have tipped his big fedora to Robert Welch, if Ike wouldn’t.

    Let us understand what is being subtly but very forcefully done, in the here and now, thank you.

  5. Curt Schroder says:

    To: LH

    You state that Whittaker Chambers was incapable of telling the truth. Do you agree or disagree that the Venona Transcripts speak to the veracity of Chambers statements? IF you disagree, how do you explain your position which goes against the grain of current historical understanding?

    • LH says:

      Venona #1822 can scarcely be considered reliable evidence but I’ll get to that later.
      But first, look at the grand jury testimonies of Whittaker Chambers and his enabler Isaac Don Levine.
      Levine appeared in Feb. 1949 — after Hiss had been indicted. He testified about his presence at the meeting with Adolf Berle and Chambers in Sept. 1939:

      GRAND JURY: You made it rather clear, I think, and it can be presumed that there could have been no mistake on the part of Mr. Berle that Chambers was talking about espionage, is that correct?

      LEVINE: Yes, sir.

      GRAND JURY: In other words, you say that he mentioned documents, obtaining documents and microfilms and things of that sort?

      LEVINE: Yes, sir.

      GRAND JURY: So there could be no mistake that Mr. Berle knew there was espionage and it was beyond a doubt a fact that these were Communists?

      LEVINE: Not to the best of my recollection except for the fact that Mr. Berle was a very tired man that night, but he did make some notes. I never saw them.

      GRAND JURY: Was there any question at that time, Mr. Levine, about immunity for Chambers?

      LEVINE: Not in Chambers’ presence. But the question was raised between Mr. Berle and myself when the arrangements were made for dinner.

      GRAND JURY: With reference to the name of Alger Hiss in that conversation in Mr. Berle’s home, did Whittaker Chambers indicate in that conversation that Alger Hiss was actually taking material out of the State Department for the purpose of photographing it?

      LEVINE: To the best of my recollection, Mr. Chambers indicated that material was being taken out of the State Department. I cannot tie up Mr. Alger Hiss with that operation.

      Levine jotted down the names he could recall from the Berle meeting after he left. “My notes,” he informed the grand jury, “I want to emphasize here, dealt only with names, not with circumstances or operations….”

      Now for Chambers’s grand jury testimony:

      GRAND JURY: Now, in the course of the Grand Jury questioning, Mr. Chambers, you were asked whether this was an espionage group back there, and you said it was not an espionage group; is that correct?

      CHAMBERS: Probably yes, that’s correct.

      GRAND JURY: Mr. Chambers, at the time you talked to Mr. Berle, or at the time you talked to any other individuals with reference to this apparatus, did you tell anybody that you yourself were engaged in espionage, and that you had transmitted information…?

      CHAMBERS: I did not, but it was so strongly implied that I need scarcely have added much more.

      GRAND JURY: [Y]ou did not tell him [Berle] anything about espionage – is that correct?

      CHAMBERS: The word was never used.

      GRAND JURY: And … nothing was said about the transmittal of documents?

      CHAMBERS: That is technically true, also.

      GRAND JURY: Did you tell Mr. Isaac Levine that you had confidential State Department documents in your possession?

      CHAMBERS: I am not sure at this date whether I did or not. I may have implied it strongly, but I am not sure whether I told him.

      GRAND JURY: You have testified previously, I think, with reference to these matters, but [we] would like to have any testimony you have on these points repeated, particularly with reference to whether any statements were made by you to Mr. Berle in that meeting at his home in 1939, that documents had been taken out of the State Department and that microfilms had been made and that espionage activities had been going on in the State Department.

      CHAMBERS: I … told Mr. Berle the nature of the underground apparatus … and gave him, I believe, a complete list of the people involved in that apparatus. Now, the sum total of what I told Mr. Berle of course added up to a picture of espionage. Now, that word, I’m sure, was never used during the conversation. I’m equally sure that everyone present understood, of course, what was implied.

      GRAND JURY: Now, was there any discussion about microfilms?

      CHAMBERS: I do not recall that we talked about microfilms.

      GRAND JURY: Was there any mention of the transmission of documents?

      CHAMBERS: I don’t recall that there was.

      GRAND JURY: Wouldn’t you have to explain something about the transmission of documents and the photographing of them, in explaining the nature of the apparatus? I mean, it wouldn’t be in general terms but it would have to be rather specific, wouldn’t it?

      CHAMBERS: We did not use the word “espionage” as nearly as I can recall, and therefore —

      GRAND JURY: No, I don’t mean that you described what happened; what you did.

      CHAMBERS: I did not describe, as far as I can recall, describe the transmission of documents.

      GRAND JURY: Was there any reference to Alger Hiss in the conversation?

      CHAMBERS: Yes.

      GRAND JURY: [I]n connection with his taking documents out of the State Department and giving them to you?

      CHAMBERS: I do not believe so.

      This is a brief excerpt of Berle’s testimony:

      GRAND JURY: When Chambers talked to you did he indicate that he had any tangible evidence to back it up with?

      BERLE: Not a thing. Not a thing. That was one of the difficulties. There was always the fair possibility this was a straight screwball. Mr. Chambers gave evidence of having been through some deep emotional strain, and that could have been his separation from the Communist Party or it could have been merely mental disturbance.

      GRAND JURY: Did Mr. Chambers tell you he had come from the underground or [was he] just a Communist? Did he tell you he was from the underground? Because if such was the case, all of these things would be done underground; they wouldn’t be done aboveboard.

      BERLE: Mr. Chambers’ story was that he had been a Communist and, as I recall it, that he had been in a position to see certain of the underground reports, that he in New York was in a position to see certain reports coming from Washington. He did not make himself out in any sense a principal.

      GRAND JURY: But by the same token, he was talking about people in your department who were in this cell or in this apparatus and they probably, by his word, were working in the underground with him. By deduction you could get that.

      BERLE: Well, as he told it to me, this would be hearsay on hearsay. The one thing that he did not indicate was his own connection with what was going on.

      GRAND JURY: I say, if he hadn’t mentioned any names, I could understand that. But actually naming the people for you to be on guard against was something like a sort of red light.

      BERLE: Well, of course, you could get into the position of the police state where people stick communications into the mouth of the lion and something happens, but you are apt to be in trouble if you do.

      As for Venona, perhaps you should actually read up on it instead of taking it for granted that it is some sort of smoking gun. If you think this constitutes proof, well…

      MGB
      From: WASHINGTON
      To: MOSCOW
      No: 1822

      30 March 1945

      Further to our telegram No. 283 [a.]. As a result of “[D% A. ‘s]” [i] chat with “ALES” [ii] the following has been ascertained:

      1. ALES has been working with the NEIGHBORS [SOSEDI] [iii] continuously since 1935.
      2. For some years past he has been the leader of a small group of the NEIGHBORS’ probationers [STAZhERY], for the most part consisting of his relations.
      3. The group and ALES himself work on obtaining military information only. Materials on the “BANK” [iv] allegedly interest the NEIGHBORS very little and he does not produce them regularly.
      4. All the last few years ALES has been working with “POL’” [v] who also meets other members of the group occasionally.
      5. Recently ALES and his whole group were awarded Soviet decorations.
      6. After the YaLTA Conference, when he had gone on to MOSCOW, a Soviet personage in a very responsible position (ALES gave to understand that it was Comrade VYShINSKIJ) allegedly got in touch with ALES and at the behest of the Military NEIGHBORS passed on to him their gratitude and so on.

      No. 431 VADIM [vi]

      Notes: [a] Not available.
      Comments:
      [i] A.: “A.” seems the most likely garble here although “A.” has not been confirmed elsewhere in the WASHINGTON traffic.
      [ii] ALES: Probably Alger HISS.
      [iii] SOSEDI: Members of another Soviet Intelligence organization, here probably the GRU.
      [iv] BANK: The U.S. State Department.
      [v] POL’: i.e. “PAUL,” unidentified cover-name.
      [vi] VADIM: Anatolij Borisovich GROMOV, MGB resident in WASHINGTON.

      8 August 1969

  6. LH says:

    THE REAL WHITTAKER CHAMBERS [a snippet from a forthcoming book]

    As an unwavering Stalinist in 1936 Whittaker Chambers “resolved to obey absolutely its harshest, most fantastic and irrational demands … provided only that Communism would let me collaborate in its central effort. For I found in Communism a rational and dedicated purpose.” He acclaimed “terror [as] an instrument of policy, right if the Communist vision is right, justified by history….” Moreover, Chambers celebrated Stalinism as “the least hypocritical in announcing its purpose and forcibly removing the obstacles to it.” He chose the party line and its cult of personality and discipline even over the pleading emotional objections of his wife.
    However, after only a few years of “intensive Communist experience,” Chambers wrote, “inflamed by the great Russian Purge and Show-trials,” in addition to a religious re-awakening, “compelled me to make a rigorous re-examination of Communist belief.” Leaving aside for a moment the matter of his renewed faith in God, it is questionable just how “Communist” or even “intensive” Chambers’s underground experience actually was. His activities were never political, only conspiratorial, and by his own admission he often did not “do” anything. And the Soviet purges and show trials initially compelled Chambers to stridently defend Stalin, not to re-examine his Communist belief.
    As recounted by Allen Weinstein in Perjury, Chambers paid a visit to his close friend Meyer Schapiro (whom Weinstein interviewed) in December 1936. In the early 1930s Schapiro was sympathetic to the CP but now was an anti-Stalinist opponent and actively supported the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. The first Moscow Trials had begun a few months earlier. They were Stalin’s treacherous means of eliminating potential challenges to his authority. The ghastly outcomes were predetermined; confessions extracted by way of torture. Yet many Western observers who attended the show trials believed they had been conducted fairly, the defendants justly convicted. In the United States, hardcore Stalinists such as Chambers denounced criticism of the sham verdicts. At their December meeting, Weinstein wrote, Chambers and Schapiro “argued over the question of Stalinist repression.” Chambers “castigated Schapiro as a Trotskyite and an enemy of the … revolution,” and “stormed out of Schapiro’s home.” The two men did not meet again for months.
    In April 1937, a “Commission of Inquiry,” led by philosopher-educator John Dewey, held a series of hearings at the Mexico home of Leon Trotsky to investigate the charges of the Moscow Trials against Trotsky and others. The Commission’s findings were published the following September, clearing those accused and exposing the vast fraudulence of the trials. By then Chambers was compelled – mostly by the prodding of his old Columbia friends, particularly Schapiro and Herbert Solow – to face the facts of Stalin’s brutality. But there was no “rigorous re-examination” of Communism on Chambers’s part, just a second round of “intellectual pulverization” by a few of his former classmates – one of whom best summed up Chambers’s mind as: “though certainly not without force, … easily seduced into equating portentous utterance with truth.”

    • Your antipathy, documented in copious HOAC postings, seems to run unabated and unchanged over the past 10 years — but that does not quell interest in any new facts and arguments that you may make in your book. Who is publishing it, and when does the publisher plan to issue it?

      Please note that, as of 2007, I have offered fact-checking for any MSSs near publication that contain references to Whittaker Chambers — and I would welcome yours as I have books like John Fleming’s Anti-Communist Manifestos.

      Also, I hope your introduction will include some background on yourself, some insight into your long-term passion for this subject, and a clear statement about your objective(s). What is your connection to the Hiss Case? (Also, are you the Lewis Hartshorn of Sugar Land, TX, currently or formerly associated with Shaw Stone + Webster and currently or formerly associated with Bechtel? One would think the interest comes from something other than recent professional occupations.)

      From your support for Svetlana Chervonnaya’s website that was until recently funded by Victor Navasky’s Nation Foundation, one might suspect some tendency toward prejudice–but I for one look forward to any new light with open mind.

      Please keep us posted.

      • LH says:

        I have no emotional or political or professional stake in the Hiss-Chambers controversy. My interest in the story began in the early 1980s after reading Witness, Jowitt’s The Strange Case of Alger Hiss, and Zeligs’s analysis of Hiss and Chambers, a book with perhaps an irrelevant Freudian slant but nonetheless well-researched. For now I will say this about my own book. It’s titled Capturing Alger Hiss, The Case That Ignited McCarthyism. The manuscript is completed and I worked on this project for 10 years. The narrative promotes no conspiracy theories or outrageous interpretations. I freely admit that I’m an observing (not activist) leftist, though I believe the left is completely spent and discredited as a political force. In other words, I have a point of view but I’m confident I’ve written an honest book. Empathy and compassion are important to me, especially when writing about others. But I’m convinced Whittaker Chambers was dishonest through and through, incapable of telling the unvarnished truth about anything. I’ve been unable to find any radicalism in the life of Alger Hiss, a Wall Street lawyer who joined the New Deal at the behest of a former law professor, a technical advisor only at Yalta who was a last minute replacement for another official. Scholarly accounts of Yalta rarely mention his name. At the UN he served basically as a facilitator, and was chosen as president of the Carnegie Endowment by no less a conservative than John Foster Dulles.
        My book focuses on the early months of the case, from August to December 1948. The essential story unfolds and the truth emerges during this time. My book will be the first to extensively employ the once secret grand jury records which do not reflect well on the veracity of Chambers and his enabler Isaac Don Levine. Without Levine there would have been no Hiss-Chambers case, rest assured. I also discovered at the FDR library the original notes of the September 1939 meeting between Chambers and Adolf Berle, which show that the term “underground espionage agent” did not apply to Chambers but to someone else. Yet the FBI copy of those notes were altered so as to appear that it applied to Chambers.
        I explain why Chambers hid papers and films in 1938 implicating Hiss and others and HOW he obtained those papers and films.
        Few people know that in November and December 1948 the Justice Dept. initially sought a perjury indictment of Chambers, not Hiss. They went after Hiss almost at the last minute because Chambers was their star witness, their only witness. Had Hiss’s legal appeals reached the supreme court his guilty verdict would certainly have been overturned because the law requires TWO witnesses in a perjury case or one witness and INDEPENDENT corroborating evidence. But Chambers was of course the only witness and he provided the evidence, suspect as it was.
        In brief, to quote George Kennan, “It is the greatest error to suppose that historical myths cannot be actually created by design.”

        • LH says:

          I should add that I think Whittaker Chambers was a powerful and fantastic writer, truly incapable of crafting a bad sentence. One of my favorite passages of his is from a letter he wrote to Ralph and Nora de Toledano on Dec. 27, 1955:
          “It occurred during the first Hiss trial, when it looked as if we should be borne down and destroyed, and could not dream of leaving our children in a world where such things were possible. We used to get up before dawn, in those days, to milk. One morning, my wife and I sat together, drinking coffee in the pre-dawn, and, somehow, I explained to her that it might be necessary for us soon to kill, first our children, and then ourselves. Somehow, she told me that she had reached the same conclusion. Then she placed on my hand her own hand which was as cold as if she were already dead. That is the kind of woman I am married to. That is the kind of people we are: we plan to kill our children, but not to let them fall to the mercy of the enemy world.”

          • And your interpretation of that passage?

          • LH says:

            My interpretation of that passage is that the couple’s conversation perhaps never occurred yet the truth of the matter is that Chambers would rather have died than hear testimony about his homosexual encounters. He had confessed to the FBI (but never to anyone else and certainly not in his autobiography) weeks before the first Hiss trial to numerous homosexual encounters over a 5 year period in the 1930s (coinciding exactly with his purported years in the Communist underground)and ending when he broke from communism. “I tell it now,” Chambers told the FBI, “only because in this case I stand for truth. Having testified mercilessly against others, it has become my function to testify mercilessly against myself.” “I have said before that I am consciously destroying myself. This is not from love of self-destruction, but because only if we are consciously prepared to destroy ourselves, in the struggle … can the thing we are fighting be destroyed.”
            But Chambers was “telling it now” only because, as he told the FBI, Hiss “obviously intends to press the charge that I have had homosexual relations with certain individuals.” Chambers had learned that a man whom he’d had a sexual encounter with in the 1930s had recently told his story to Hiss invesitgators. But Hiss pressed no such charges against Chambers in court, perhaps because his stepson was a homosexual and he was afraid the young man would be exposed if he testified as a witness for Hiss. Such was the sexual politics of the time. The Hiss-Chambers case was mostly about chance and error. Chambers had most of the luck and Hiss made most of the mistakes.

          • Yes, I have the FBI’s photostatic copy of the letter to which you refer.

            The original of this incontrovertible evidence has gone quite missing at the FBI. I have gone beyond petition there and have received active support, but the answer from the FBI remains a dead-end. Would you like to add your weight to that request?

            The offer to fact check vis-a-vis Whittaker Chambers still stands.

        • Ideology can contribute to most discussions so long as it, first, receives acknowledgment and, second, relies on evidence. If you are clearly admitting your viewpoint in the book, then it should serve to organize and present your findings clearly.

          Honesty, empathy, and compassion are also strong ingredients, but frankly your HOAC and other postings have exhibited such strong wording (e.g., “Whittaker Chambers was dishonest through and through,” above) that I am curious to see where and how you demonstrate these convincingly to readers.

          Will you make your new sources (e.g., Berle Notes at the FDR Library) publicly available, if documentary, and how?

          My offer to fact-check the MSS still stands.

          • LH says:

            I don’t think “dishonest through and through” is all that heavy. But I don’t mean to be offensive. I’ve looked for the truth and believe I’ve found it, so obviously judgments must be made. You’ve chosen to defend your grandfather in ways similar to Tony Hiss defending his father. Chambers and Hiss have each been vilified beyond belief. Yet the case remains surrounded by misconceptions, factual errors, chauvinism and triumphalism. Granted, the historical consensus at the moment favors Chambers. My goal is to illustrate that in a case long considered closed and picked clean, history may not always be what we so confidently believe.

          • no offense taken — the hiss case should make any family member thicker skinned than that. still, “dishonest through and through” probably passes for “heavy” (as in accusation or even summary of another person) in pretty much anyone’s book.

            the “truth,” well, for me that’s a higher plane i contemplate and strive for but am loath to say i’ve ever found. however, you would indeed tend to fast judgement indeed if you think i’ve set out to defend my grandfather or if you think to compare our family’s approach to the hiss case with any counterpart in that family. (comments and replies on a recent nr article bear me out on this, i hope. also, my assessment of the majority of books related to the case is on record in the us and australia, including the new criterion.) me, i’m looking for facts and understanding — both rare commodities if judging by the books and articles written on the topic. so, regardless of how or even what you present, i’ll be interested to read your book.

            — and my offer to fact check the MSS still stands.

    • slumlord says:

      What’s Chambers homosexuality got to do with Hiss’s guilt? The issue isn’t whether Chambers was gay, bisexual, communist, etc. The issue was did Hiss spy for the Soviets?

      As for the Moscow show trials, anyone with half a brain knew that they were a sham. The Dewey commission may have exonerated the victims with regard to the trumped up charges by Stalin but that misses the bigger picture, all the Leftists, including Trotsky, were bloodthirsty murderers who had no compunction at stopping at anything to promote the Leftist world view. By any sober measure of morality, Trotsky warranted the death penalty for his actions (approved by Lenin) well before Stalin came to power. Trotsky’s crimes were as ghastly as any of the Nazi’s, who were justly given death sentences at Nuremberg

      The Moscow show trials were the manifestation of the power struggle between two viscous bands of leftist thugs. The only good thing Stalin ever did was assassinate his fellow leftist enablers.

      Your charge against Chambers seems to be based on the assumption, that being a flawed man he was incapable of good. No one suspected the Cambridge five, they had impeccable backgrounds, and yet they betrayed.

  7. Handy says:

    Slumlord made a good connection: Whittaker as Solzenhitzyn. Both told the hard, cold truth about their preferred systems without really apologizing or condemning.

    Neither actually could bring themselves to reject the underlying evils of Communism, however. It just needed to be perfected, don’t you see?

    • I don’t quite understand — but am most willing to listen further.

    • slumlord says:

      One of my pet intellectual curiosities is trying to understand why the Left was so successful during the 20th Century.

      It’s my opinion, that traditional conservative society contained many structural “faults” which were exploited by the left. The allure of Communism in the early 20th Century was in part motivated by the social problems of that time, social problems that were intrinsic to traditional conceptions of society.

      Chambers is clearly on the record as stating that communism was the embodiment of evil, he wanted no perfection of it. Anyone who claims that he wanted its perfection has no understanding of Chambers whatsoever.

      However Chambers was not some Aspergy libertarian either. Chambers clearly saw that some of the social problems could only be solved by “socialistic type actions”. His analysis of the cost vs benefits of government support to farmers in Cold Friday showed that he understood the problems at a deeper level than most of his detractors.

      Chambers understood that technological innovation impacted on social structure and as such, the old solutions would not work anymore. His genius was in seeing the big picture, his critics were always small picture men.

    • Tim Fikse says:

      My goodness, did you even read Witness? If his condemnation of the spiritual vacuum which animates the ideology isn’t a rejection of the underlying evil of communism what else is it?

  8. slumlord says:

    If your grandfather were alive today he would be affirmed in his assumption that he was on the losing side, and that all hope was lost.

    Your grandfather has been on my mind a lot these last few days, as I had the chance to read Cold Friday. This book has unsettled me in a way that very few books ever have.

    I think of him as America’s Solzhenitsyn. You need to understand that the American Gulag operates differently to the Soviet one, yet in the end the aim is the same, the political obliteration of its opponent. In many some ways the American version is worse. Had he been persecuted by the soviets he would have been killed and made a martyr for truth. The soviets in hating the truth at least in some way acknowledged it in fear.

    The modern Western man has no such fear, for him there is no absolute truth and hence your grandfather is not a threat as much as he is irrelevant to western man. The communists feared his message, the western man doesn’t care at all. Your grandfather is not a witness anymore, just a historical curiosity. I understand him completely when he remarked of how he “heard the screams in the night”

    Still his diagnosis of the spiritual problem of the West is as pertinent now as it was then and of more practical relevance, he was quite on the ball with regard to the failure of conservatism as a political force.

    Should the world ever emerge from this dark age future generations will see him for what he was, one of the intellectual giants of the 20th Century, a prophet in the wilderness.

    • fyi, a national review commentator saw your comment and wrote:

      07/11/11 08:34
      My favorite thing in the link offered by David Chambers is the response by slumlord

      kudos

  9. […] began reading Whittaker Chambers book, Witness. Here is a blogpost by his grandson. I have no use for Communists, and I am sure they are still active today in US […]

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