Whittaker Chambers (1901-61) was a Communist who left the party in 1938 to become one of its most determined enemies. He also became famous for his testimony against Alger Hiss, and was admired by many for Witness (1952), a compelling autobiographical account of his conversion/deconversion experience. In and of itself, a journey to and from Communism was not uncommon among American intellectuals; many toyed with it, fewer ended up as hard-core disciples, fewer still as operational agents under Soviet direction. In addition to having been a real spy, what made Chambers distinctive in this group, and what really fueled the controversy which dogged him, were the direction and distance of his migration.
His deconversion was one not of degree but of kind. He did not remain on the Left and replace his prior Stalinist allegiance with some softer substitute-Democratic socialism, Democratic liberalism, moderate Republicanism, or any such. Instead he embraced a religious faith which, in shorthand, was a de-facto Catholicism, theologically rigorous, personally demanding, politically tough-a fighting religion, seemingly at odds with the Quakerism he actually professed.
Chambers was a great admirer of St. Benedict (c.480-c.547) and, as such, he probably read Pope Gregory I’s (590-604) account of Benedict’s life. If he did, he probably also took to heart Gregory’s main point: “Benedict had a greater desire to endure the evils of this world than to receive its praises. He preferred to be worn out in toiling for God rather than lifted up by acclaim granted in this life.” For Chambers himself became one of the least acclaimed, most thoroughly reviled, figures in postwar American life. Nor has he been rehabilitated; despite the Medal of Freedom he was given posthumously by Ronald Reagan, there is still no sign of forgiving revisionism among the historians.
Now Terry Teachout, a member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News, has assembled 52 examples of what he calls Chambers’s forgotten career as a journalist.1 The anthology begins with four pieces published in 1931 in the Communist-party magazine New Masses, and ends with a dozen items that appeared in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review from 1957 through 1959. There are pieces from Commonweal and American Mercury in between.
But it is in a nine-year period in the middle, 1939-48, when Chambers wrote for Time and Life, that one can best read him as a professional journalist. During his career at Time, as the many examples of his articles show and as he recounts in Witness, he wrote and edited in every department except business, edited foreign news, and worked on special projects, the magazine’s section on religion, literature, and philosophy. He wrote the basic text for Life’s “History of Western Culture” (1947-48), a characteristically exuberant Time, Inc. project of the Henry Luce era. “At a critical moment, Time gave me back my life . . . my voice . . . sanctuary, professional respect, peace, and time to mature my changed view of the world,” Chambers later wrote. “I went to Time as a fugitive; I left it a citizen.”
To become a citizen under the aegis of Time—what should we take that to mean? Henry Luce had a vision for Time, not only as a publishing venture but as a civic undertaking. Though a mass-circulation magazine, Time was interested in raising the general level of the country’s understanding of philosophy, history, and culture, to give rounding to the society. Luce was not alone in this. It was a popular concept of the day and it led in time to publishing projects to bring the “best” to everybody—classics of literature and philosophy, the Great Books of the Western World, or Aristotle for Everyone, as one popular title had it. This was, in part, old-fashioned American boosterism of the sort that would motivate the city fathers of Omaha to seek a place on the Metropolitan Opera’s national tour. It was, in another part, a defensive response to the criticism of intellectuals at home and abroad that the country was uncouth. And, of course, it was part of Time‘s weekly business simply to report on what was going on.
If Teachout’s selections are adequately representative of Chambers’s work for the magazine, his role in this undertaking was striking. He wrote about Joyce, Kafka, Toynbee, Barth, Niebuhr, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Einstein, and Santayana. Interestingly, only one of them (Niebuhr, whose father emigrated from Germany) was an American, and not a one of them could be reckoned a man of sunny disposition. It is hard to imagine that Luce, in paying Chambers to make these thinkers more familiar to Americans, wanted Americans actually to think like them or to live and work like them. Yet it was clearly men like these, far more than Luce, who informed, shaped, and directed Chambers’s general sense of how one ought to go about the general tasks of thinking and living.
Indeed, Chambers was cerebral to the core. In one of many striking passages in Witness, he describes how reading Les Misßrables helped make him into a Communist and how, in 1937, he read three other books which helped ease him out of the party. And the Time pieces, taken together with other contemporaneous writings, underscore that he was cerebral in a 20th century way. He is gloomy. He is increasingly distressed by modern life; “. . . the more civilization calls itself civilized, the more imperturbably it shrugs at the death of millions.” He is interested in the medieval, the religious, the papal. His view of the West’s predicament becomes ever more grim. He writes in Commonweal of the West’s “spiritual despondency . . . intellectual confusion . . . moral chaos.”
And of course there is that memorable passage in Witness where Chambers recounts his conversation with his wife after he decided to break with the Communists: “I said, ‘We are leaving the winning world for the losing world.’ I meant that, in the revolutionary conflict of the 20th century, I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat.” In this, he was spectacularly at odds with his boss. Henry Luce proclaimed this the American Century; he said we were going to win-and he was right. Chambers said the Communists would win, but he was wrong. Why?
In the first place, Chambers was not alone in underestimating the stamina of the United States. The Nazis and the Japanese warlords thought the country fatally weak of will. The Communists thought the same. And while disdain for the United States is an established Old World tradition, many Americans have also aped it. There is a kind of stay-at-home expatriation in American thought and letters and Chambers shared in it. For despite the obvious power and conviction of his thought, there was little in it that we think of as familiarly “Amurrican.” He may well have understood the clash of cultures at its most sublime yet missed the essence of the United States at its most pedestrian.
For the men who organized and maintained our resistance to the Communists—Acheson, Eisenhower, Jackson, Marshall, Nitze, Truman—were neither monks nor knights of the sort Chambers imagined were needed to win the struggle. They were, if not “ordinary citizens,” then ordinary products of our society. In the end, their successes resulted from the stubborn application of America’s pedestrian civic virtues, not Europe’s capacity for compulsiveness.
Just as Chambers was not alone in failing to anticipate the resiliency of the American citizenry and its leadership, he overestimated the durability of Communism as an object of faith. Observing the universal, transnational appeal of Communism in his day, he quite naturally concluded that only a creed of comparable ecumenical potential could stand up against it. In his mind, this creed had to be a “pre-modern” one.
In retrospect, we now know that the American civic creed—buttressed, to be sure, by the capacity of the American economic system to deliver the goods—has had enormous transnational appeal. True, it is not a wholly secular creed; true, too, it became a more militant faith during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who, in George Will’s word, “remoralized” the cold war. But Reagan was hardly a religious militant, nor even very much of an ideologue. He was, plain and simple, the representative American citizen who, in due course, was adopted by the world as its representative citizen.
Although for some, Chambers’s way of looking at things will retain its powerful emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic appeal, his sensibility never did have a wide following in the country. Mega-concepts, whether home-grown or foreign-made, do not stand up very well to the relentless reality of America which somehow always manages to whittle them down. It turns out that Communism was no match for it, either.
1 Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959. Regnery, 361 pp., $24.95.