Whittaker Chambers: Witness to Corruption
On August 7, 1948, the testimony of a “portly, graying, rumpled magazine editor”1 shook the United States Congress. Their fears were proven true: Communists had infiltrated the highest levels of the American government.
When questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Whittaker Chambers said he had quit the Communist Party in 1938 and had lived in fear ever since—“hiding, sleeping by day and watching through the night with gun or revolver within easy reach.”2 He had worked to penetrate the U.S. government and place Communists in key roles. In speaking out, he knew he could become a target of Communist retaliation, but he did not waver in naming names: “For a number of years, I had myself served in the underground, chiefly in Washington, D.C. . . I knew it at its top level . . .”3 A member of this group was Alger Hiss.
Hiss was a former State Department official who advised President Roosevelt at the wartime Yalta Conference and was a key figure in the formation of the United Nations. A former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he was now the president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. If Chambers’ accusations were true, Hiss had been undermining his own country from a high position of public service.
The liberal establishment’s backlash against Chambers was formidable, but he stood firm. He was convinced that this was more than a story of two men, Hiss and himself. They represented two radically different views of the world and government. They could not coexist; one must win.
For Chambers, the issue was religious in nature—Communism was not simply another form of government like monarchy or oligarchy; it was a religion of oppression which would trample any freedom to maintain control. It was a false “paradise,” benefiting only the powerful few, even though it used the language of compassion for the needy. The Communist vision of the world was godless. The central government was designated sole provider for every need. The system was totalitarian, prescribing the details of life for every man, woman, and child. Complaints about its goals and tactics could mean death.
Chambers was shocked at Communism’s steady but largely undetected advance in America and was determined to sound the alarm. Even his colleagues at Time magazine were oblivious. He saw them as “basically kind and intensely well-meaning people,”4 but they were as “removed from reality as fish in a fish bowl”—“they seemed to know little about the forces that were shaping the history of our time . . . they seemed like little children, knowing and clever little children, but knowing and clever chiefly about trifling things while they were extremely resistant to finding out about anything else.”5 They failed to see the erosion of basic freedoms at the hands of legislators and bureaucrats. This was political evolution, not revolution. The U.S. would fall, not by bullets, but “by acts of Congress and decisions of the Supreme Court.”6
The Alger Hiss case ended on the evening of August 17, 1948, in room 1400 of the Commodore Hotel in New York City. Representatives Richard M. Nixon and John McDowell asked Chambers and Hiss to appear before the committee one last time. Hiss finally admitted he knew Chambers (a fact which he previously denied while under oath) and was later convicted of perjury. He served about 4 years in jail, but he continued to maintain that he was innocent of espionage.
In 1972, Hiss and his defenders played off President Nixon’s Watergate troubles, hoping to discredit their chief critic, but Allen Weinstein’s 1978 book Perjury rebutted them. Taking advantage of files freshly available under the Freedom of Information Act, Weinstein tried to exonerate Hiss, but he came to the opposite conclusion—Hiss was guilty. Then in 1996, the C.I.A. opened the Verona files, containing transcripts of intercepted messages from the 1930s and 1940s. These implicated Hiss as a Soviet spy. That same year, he died, his name synonymous with treason and mendacity.
Chambers had died of a heart attack in 1961. Relatively few remembered him, and of those who did, many (the left-leaning intellectual elite) despised him. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan acted to correct this injustice by posthumously awarding him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.
What was the turning point in Chambers’ life? By his account, it was spiritual conversion, prompted by a glimpse of his little daughter’s ear:
My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear—those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.7
Once Chambers allowed God into the equation, everything changed. He worked from a different worldview, coming to understand that the God it worships is what a nation is.8 Private devotion produces public virtue; the heart is the wellspring of civil order and liberty. Echoing Dostoevsky, Chambers argued that those who disbelieve in God believe that every evil thing is permitted to obtain their ends. However, those who believe in God see themselves accountable to the One who blesses individuals, societies, and governments.
1 Lee Edwards, The Conservative Revolution (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 33.
2 Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952; reprint, Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1987), 541.
3 Ibid., 542.
4 Ibid., 477.
5 Ibid., 478.
6 Ibid., 472.
7 Ibid., 16.
8 See, ibid. “But its view of God, its knowledge of God, its experience of God, is what alone gives character to a society or nation, and meaning to its destiny.”
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