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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/1/19

Whittaker Chambers or Alger Hiss: Who's the real traitor?

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Though #1 on the New York Times' bestseller list for 13 weeks in 1952, beloved of William Buckley and Ronald Reagan ("As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire"), despite being hailed as "one of the dozen or so indispensable books of the century" (George Will), Witness quickly disappeared from our collective consciousness. We remember its most famous victim, Alger Hiss, as a nice guy who was mercilessly hounded, the prelude to the McCarthy purges of the 1950s, a gruesome stain on US history.

Chambers was a talented writer, penning popular short stories in the New Masses in 1931, a full-time editor and journalist at Time. His autobiography is full of details of both sides of the so-called treachery of the times, and Chambers' own ruminations about love and death and the whole damn thing. It swings from over-the-top self-righteousness to self-abnegation, maniacal zeal as a communist, then as a spy, then as self-proclaimed Mr Right, and woe to anyone standing in the way of his mission to Save the World from Communism.

Like his closeted father, his uncle and brother, all of whom committed suicide, he was possessed by a demon, which drove him to an early grave, working 36-hour days at Time in the 1940s, first doing book reviews, then editing the foreign-news page (till he had his second heart attack), then back to books. His fellow journalists resented his new-found conservative attacks on their liberal New Dealer mindset, seeing them all as commie dupes. He immortalized himself destroying the careers of 'good guys', Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White among many others, for their idealistic sins. He became a born-again Quaker, though, like fellow Quaker Richard Nixon, he still believed in 'just wars' against commies.


His worldview was apocalyptic, first through pink lenses, then puritan. Evil is the central problem of human life. The two opposing worldviews: man as flawed/sinful (Christianity) vs man as good/perfectible (enlightenment, liberalism -> communism).

We remember only Alger Hiss as Chambers' victim, but Hiss got off lucky. Chambers exposed Harry Dexter White (1892-1948), the senior American official at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference that established the postwar economic order, as a spy. White died of a heart attack shortly after HUAC hearings in 1948.

Hiss was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in 1950 (for perjury, as his 'crimes' were from 1938), serving only three years and eight months. While in prison, Hiss acted as a volunteer attorney, adviser, and tutor for many of his fellow inmates. Disbarred, he served as a lowly clerk until in 1975, he was readmitted to the Massachusetts bar, the first time a convicted felon was reinstated. The contents of the 'pumpkin papers' were finally revealed as of no importance to state security.

Hiss insisted to the end he was innocent. Witness certainly reveals Chambers and Hiss as close friends for as long as Chambers remained in the party. What kind of spy was White? ... The economics White advocated were hardly Marxist. They were by this time what would be described as thoroughly Keynesian... As for White's domestic politics, these were mainstream New Deal progressive, and there is no evidence that he admired communism as a political ideology. White's daughters still strongly maintain his innocence.* Chambers crucified Hiss and White merely for wanting to treat the Soviets as what they were -- allies, friends.


Despite his protestations of fighting evil, what Chambers really was after was personal revenge. He had believed and found his faith was betrayed by Stalin's crimes, which he now believed included wanting WWIII and world conquest, though we must take his word, as there is no evidence of this in Chambers' Witness (or anywhere else, to my knowledge, beyond rhetorical flourishes). He quotes his own draft Time editorial 'Ghosts on the roof' about the Yalta conference in 1945, where he portrayed the Soviet Union and US as 'jet planes' flying towards each other, where one has to destroy other. This virtual declaration of war was removed before it was published, though the new Cold War theme remained.

His new Christian faith armed him for his heretical/saintly battle against communists, despite his Time colleagues, who were all New Dealers riding high on the crest of WWII, when the Soviets were our friends. He made the transition from communist militant to communist heretic to Christian saint, always the mantra: 'how could one man be right when so many say he's wrong?'. Always the self-proclaimed martyr, forced to resign from Time, driving himself to an early death.

His original name was Vivian, his father an artist, a father in name only, so of course he was bullied, a lonely child. He ran away from home and found work tearing up street-car tracks for a few months, his stint with the proletariat. Born in 1901, he was 16 when the Russian revolution electrified the capitalist world, and like idealistic youth at the time, he searched out those allied with it. He tried the Webbs, Fabian socialism, but 'there was no life there. The reek of life was missing.' To remake the world, socialism involved violent struggle to get and keep power.

If you just read the first 300 pages of Witness, you can come away believing, like he did (but in his case, later with horror), that communism will triumph, despite the many horrors perpetrated in the name of the revolution under Stalin.

He explains three influences on him in his testimony to the grand jury's question 'what does it mean to be a communist': the Cheka founder Dzerzhinsky, who cleaned latrines in his Warsaw prison as an example to those less developed, the German Jew Eugene Levine, leader of the 1918-9 Bavarian Soviet Republic, when sentenced to death, who told his executioner a communist is 'always under sentence of death', and the Russian Narodnik Kalyaev/Sazonov, who burned himself alive as protest against flogging.**

Witness is an indictment of both great faiths of our times, capitalism (sorry, 'freedom') and communism. Both are doomed. WWI led to the Russian revolution. WWII has led to the last stage of the crisis with the rise of communism as a world power. Here, war led to revolution. Now it's the reverse: revolution will lead to WWIII, launched by the communists to take control of the world. Wait a minute. Presumably capitalism/freedom led to WWI and WWII. so now it's communism leading to WWIII? Chambers sketched out the dubious scenario that would dominate the US zeitgeist for the next half century, and which continues today in the 'war on terror', now expanded to include Islam. It seems war is alive and well, sans communism, and is the result of capitalism/freedom.

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)

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