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Whittaker Chambers: Ghosts and Phantoms

Published by on December 11, 2011

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by David Chambers

WHITTAKER CHAMBERS died 50 years ago 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 an 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.” 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 only 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, to whom would he talk? 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, his National Review article “Soviet Strategy in the Middle East” (October 26, 1957) speaks only of Anti-Colonialism (in regional terms of “Arab Nationalism”). 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?

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 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” (Witness, p. 6). 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 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.)

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.

David Chambers is a writer and publisher living in Reston, Virginia. He is the grandson of Whittaker Chambers.

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  1. David Chambers on December 20th, 2011 10:10 pm

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