At first glance, the personal history of Whittaker Chambers does not suggest a conservative frame of mind. His favorite poet was Walt Whitman, the bard of unshackled emotion and free-verse effusions. The most influential novel in his life was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, with its profound pity for the downtrodden. His chosen religion was the wordless spirituality of Quakerism. He was as in love with the world of nature as any modern environmentalist. His early commitment to Communism was passionately sincere, and without any thought of personal advantage.
Chambers’ childhood was unsettled, and did not promise stability or moral certainty. His upbringing was tormented, with a semi-hysterical mother and a closeted gay father who at one point deserted the family for a lover in Manhattan. His younger brother fell victim to despair and suicide. Chambers himself wrestled with an uncertain sexuality, though he did eventually settle into a secure and deeply loving marriage. He finally chose the life of a dairy farmer, despite his world-class abilities as a writer, editor, and translator.
In view of this background, it would not have been surprising if Chambers had become just another lost soul of 20th-century deracination, searching for some elusive identity in ideology or modernist aesthetics. The man does not come across as a paragon of solid civic virtue. In 1948, American conservatives did not know what to make of this former communist spy who had ignited a political firestorm. They did not wholly trust him. Even today, pompous elitists like George F. Will find him distasteful, precisely because of Chambers’ explicit preference for the common man, popular feeling, and humble faith.
Yet in spite of it all, Whittaker Chambers is one of the most important figures in the history of American conservatism. Strangely enough, he saw the resurgent conservatism of the 1950s as doomed to ultimate defeat by the collectivist juggernaut. That belief seems ominously prescient today, in our increasingly totalitarian and repressive “woke” culture. Nevertheless, Chambers almost single-handedly dealt American left-liberalism its worst ideological beating of the last century. His place in our nation’s history is still savagely debated, with a ferocity that is white-hot even half a century after his death.
The left never forgets, and never forgives. Just mention the name of Chambers today at a faculty gathering, and you will set off explosions, with furious charges of witch hunts and blacklists and McCarthyism. Chambers had nothing to do with these things, but they are now routinely laid against him as a way to smear his name and to divert attention from the very real Communist spying his testimony made public. Meanwhile, that canonized Lochinvar of liberal martyrdom, Alger Hiss, will be talked about in tones of tearful reverence, as if he were some saintly hero rather than a Stalinist traitor. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true in spades for the Hiss case.
Chambers needs to be understood apart from the history-making events that brought him into the public eye. To do that we must understand what a deeply private and essentially shy man he was. He was uncomfortable with strangers and disliked having any visitors in his home. He was self-conscious about his appearance, even finding it difficult to eat in a public setting. He hated the notoriety and media frenzy that inevitably came to him from the Hiss trials. All publicity was unbearably upsetting to him, and he tolerated it solely out of a sense of duty to history. Chambers felt that he had been chosen (perhaps by God, or by history, or by his own destiny) to play the spectacular role that he did, but he never pretended to enjoy it.
Critics often dismiss as overblown and self-serving Chambers’ posture as a Christ-like figure suffering in atonement for his sinful contemporaries. In our terminally ironic world, this misperception comes naturally, but it is unfair. Chambers did not choose to be the center of a firestorm. It was bound to come after the war ended in 1945, and he was naturally positioned to be involved. As a highly placed Communist spy in a wide network of governmental traitors in the FDR administration, and later as a senior editor at Time magazine, Chambers had both the insider knowledge and the literary skill to detonate a major explosion. Thank God he had the courage to put aside his dislike of publicity and take the necessary steps to tell the truth.
Chambers’ career at Time produced some of his very best journalism. His 80 signed pieces at the magazine make up a stellar collection of cover stories, book and film reviews, and meditative essays. His most memorable piece was “The Ghosts on the Roof,” published as a jeu d’esprit of fantasy, just toward the close of World War II. It is an account of the ghosts of the murdered Romanovs talking with Clio, the muse of history, on the roof of the palace where the Yalta Conference had just been concluded. The Czar and his family are passionate converts to Communism, out of sheer Russian patriotism and admiration for Stalin’s political acumen in bamboozling America and Britain into a fatuous acceptance of Soviet world domination.
The essay generated a cyclone of criticism from readers who were still naïve enough to think of Stalin as “our noble ally.” There was even strong opposition to its publication from liberals on the Time staff, many of whom were leftist sympathizers despite Henry Luce’s basic conservatism. By the time HUAC subpoenaed Chambers in its investigation of Alger Hiss in 1948, Chambers was already a hated and marked man. When Hiss was finally convicted and jailed, the anger among left-liberals had reached a boiling point. After Witness came out in 1952 and climbed the bestseller lists, the fury turned into what today would be called derangement syndrome.
Witness became an indispensable text for American conservatism. It captures the entire sweep of intellectual ferment from World War I to the start of the 1950s, that tumultuous time from John Reed’s silly romanticism about “the future,” to the rise of Stalinism, to the postwar stirrings of the anticommunist reaction.
It is also a moving conversion narrative, in the Bunyanesque Protestant tradition of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666). Like all conversion narratives, it offers a vision of truth, a rejection of sin, a map of justification, and a final redemption. Chambers, with this one book, placed religion as a front-and-center element of American conservatism from the 1950s on. Atheists and secularists remained—James Burnham, Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Willi Schlamm, the Randians—but they never came close to exerting the kind of dynamic emotional force that Chambers did in Witness.
After the founding of National Review in 1955, Chambers took the position of a senior editor for William F. Buckley Jr.’s new magazine, but even there he was the unexpected conservative. Although he had fully rejected the horrors of totalitarian Communism and called himself “a man of the right,” Chambers was never ideologically committed to a rightist worldview. His political opinions tended to be eclectic and pragmatic, and predicated on what he considered sane, rational, and humane stances, regardless of whether the positions were “liberal” or “progressive.” His greatest moment at the magazine was surely his devastating review of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. The review’s title, “Big Sister Is Watching You”, set the tone immediately, and it tore Rand’s atheistic philosophy of capitalist selfishness to shreds. Because of that review, Rand refused for the rest of her life even to be in the same room with Buckley.
Whittaker Chambers died at his dairy farm in Maryland, sequestered in the quiet life he felt was the only escape from a world gone mad. He had done what he could to fight communism and, more importantly, to explain the personal motives and historical forces that gave that destructive creed its impetus. As one friend commented, “The witness is gone. The testimony remains.”