advertisement 1
Monday, October 24th, 2016                                                 SUBSCRIBE TO OUR RSS FEEDrss feed

Whittaker Chambers: Ghosts and Phantoms

Published by on December 11, 2011

Whittaker Chambers:  Ghosts and Phantoms thumbnail

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.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on VKTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on TumblrShare on RedditPrint this page

Related Articles:

Readers' Comments

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

    This article also appeared on

  • media mogul
  • US News »

    The American Mercury Endorses Donald Trump for President

    June 1, 2016

    <em>The American Mercury</em> Endorses Donald Trump for President thumbnail

    by Gideon Dene Editor, The American Mercury DONALD TRUMP is the obvious choice for President in 2016. It could even be argued that he is the only real choice Americans have had for a century or more. All of the other candidates have been, and are now, obvious shills for Wall Street and Zionist extremism. […]

    Africa, History »

    ‘The Choice of Achilles’: John Alan Coey Against the New World Order

    January 3, 2013

    ‘The Choice of Achilles’: John Alan Coey Against the New World Order thumbnail

    by T.R. Bennington AS EVER, BUT ESPECIALLY in our present state of civilizational malaise, there is a need for figures with the power to inspire — men who in less confused and cynical times would have been unabashedly described as heroic. One such figure is Corporal John Alan Coey, a young soldier who has perhaps […]

    Science »

    Quarter of Americans Convinced Sun Revolves Around Earth

    March 2, 2015

    Quarter of Americans Convinced Sun Revolves Around Earth thumbnail

    “DOES the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” If you answered the latter, you’re among a quarter of Americans who also got it wrong, according to a new report by the National Science Foundation. A survey of 2,200 people that was released Friday revealed some alarming truths about […]

  • Reader’s Comments

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Login / Register / RSS

  • Classic Essays »

    Concerning Inflation

    July 23, 2015

    Concerning Inflation thumbnail

    by Garet Garrett NO ONE WOULD be so absurd as to propose that you might restore a nation’s prosperity by changing its weights and measures. Suppose the Government should say, on behalf of the wheat farmer, to increase his income, “Hereafter the half bushel shall be the legal full bushel”; and on behalf of the […]

    Opinion, Reports »

    What’s Wrong with the Real Right? – part 1

    October 19, 2014

    What’s Wrong with the Real Right? – part 1 thumbnail

    by T.R. Bennington FOR ANY political movement that seeks eventual ascendancy, it is incumbent to engage in regular bouts of self-analysis. As a casual but sympathetic observer of the so-called far-right, I have compiled a list of what I believe to be some of the tactical errors and misconceptions made and held respectively by many […]

    Arts, Film, Literature »

    Pauline Kael: One Against the Herd

    May 6, 2012

    Pauline Kael: One Against the Herd thumbnail

    Selected Writings of Pauline Kael; Library of America, 2011 Pauline Kael: Alone in the Dark; Brian Kellow, Viking Adult, 2011 by Ron Capshaw FOR CONSERVATIVES, PAULINE KAEL IS notorious for her much-quoted comment about her astonishment that Nixon won the 1972 election since “everyone I know voted for McGovern.” Despite this prime example of the liberal […]

  • Names and Topics


    History »

    Tom Watson: The Official Record in the Case of Leo Frank, a Jew Pervert

    March 19, 2014

    Tom Watson: The Official Record in the Case of Leo Frank, a Jew Pervert thumbnail

    by Thomas E. Watson (pictured), Watson’s Magazine, Volume 21 Number 5, September 1915 IN NEW YORK, there lived a fashionable architect, whose work commanded high prices. He was robust, full of manly vigor, and so erotic that he neglected a handsome and refined young wife to run after little girls. As reported in the papers […]

    History »

    Tom Watson: The Celebrated Case of The State of Georgia vs. Leo Frank

    March 19, 2014

    Tom Watson: The Celebrated Case of The State of Georgia vs. Leo Frank thumbnail

    by Thomas E. Watson (pictured), Watson’s Magazine, Volume 21 Number 4, August 1915 THE LAWS OF Georgia are extraordinarily favorable to a person accused of crime. He is not only protected in all of his rights under the Constitution of the United States, but he enjoys privileges far beyond those limits. No indictment against him […]

    History »

    Tom Watson: A Full Review of the Leo Frank Case

    March 19, 2014

    Tom Watson: A Full Review of the Leo Frank Case thumbnail

    by Thomas E. Watson, Watson’s Magazine, Volume 20 Number 5, March 1915 ON THE 23rd page of Puck, for the week ending January 16, 1915, there is, in the smallest possible type, in the smallest possible space, at the bottom of the page, the notice of ownership, required by law. Mankind are informed that Puck […]

    History »

    Tom Watson: The Leo Frank Case

    March 19, 2014

    Tom Watson: The Leo Frank Case thumbnail

    by Thomas E. Watson (pictured), Watson’s Magazine, Volume 20 Number 3, January 1915 AN AGED MILLIONAIRE of New York had a lawyer named Patrick, and this lawyer poisoned his old client, forged a will in his own favor; was tried, convicted and sentenced—and is now at liberty, a pardoned man. Through the falling out among Wall […]

    History »

    The Leo Frank Trial: Closing Arguments, Solicitor Dorsey

    December 5, 2013

    The Leo Frank Trial: Closing Arguments, Solicitor Dorsey thumbnail

    by Bradford L. Huie THE AMERICAN MERCURY now presents the final closing arguments by Solicitor Hugh Dorsey (pictured) in the trial of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan — a powerful summary of the case and a persuasive argument that played a large part in the decision of the jury to find Frank […]

    History »

    ADL: 100 Years of Hate

    October 20, 2013

    ADL: 100 Years of Hate thumbnail

    by Valdis Bell TODAY MARKS THE 100th anniversary of the largest and most-well funded hate and defamation group in the history of mankind: the Anti-Defamation League, or “ADL.” The organization was originally called the “Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith” after its parent group, the Jewish fraternal order B’nai B’rith (meaning “Sons of the Covenant,” or, […]

    History »

    The Leo Frank Trial: Closing Arguments of Hooper, Arnold, and Rosser

    October 18, 2013

    The Leo Frank Trial: Closing Arguments of Hooper, Arnold, and Rosser thumbnail

    The American Mercury continues its centenary coverage of the trial of Leo Frank for the slaying of Mary Phagan with the closing arguments presented by the prosecution and defense. by Bradford L. Huie IT’S A LONG READ — but an essential one for everyone who wants to consider himself well-informed on the Leo Frank case: […]

    History »

    The Leo Frank Trial: Week Four

    September 14, 2013

    The Leo Frank Trial: Week Four thumbnail

    Join The American Mercury as we recount the events of the final week of the trial of Leo Frank (pictured) for the slaying of Mary Phagan. by Bradford L. Huie ON THE HEELS of Leo Frank’s astounding unsworn statement to the court, the defense called a number of women who stated that they had never […]

    History »

    The Leo Frank Trial: Week Three

    August 26, 2013

    The Leo Frank Trial: Week Three thumbnail

    The trial of Leo Frank (pictured) for the murder of Mary Phagan ended its third week 100 years ago today. Join us as we break through the myths surrounding the case and investigate what really happened. by Bradford L. Huie AS THE THIRD WEEK of the trial dawned, the prosecution had just made its case […]

    History »

    100 Years Ago Today: Leo Frank Takes the Stand

    August 18, 2013

    100 Years Ago Today: Leo Frank Takes the Stand thumbnail

    In a few days the Mercury will present Week Three of the trial of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan. Today, on the 100th anniversary of Leo Frank taking the stand in his own defense, we present a digest of opinion and contemporary sources on his statement. AT THE CLIMAX of the Leo […]