Conference on Whittaker Chambers' Witness

Tuesday, 08 Jan 2013 02:42 PM

By Robert Feinberg

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Three prominent conservative authors — Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation; John Lewis Gaddis, a history professor at Yale; and author and journalist M. Stanton Evans — marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Whittaker Chambers' “Witness” at the second annual Buckley Program conference at Yale recently.

Edwards began by recognizing a "paradox" that "Whittaker Chambers was a Soviet spy who became, in Bill Buckley's word, the most important American defector from communism." In 1948, Chambers identified Alger Hiss, whom Edwards called "a golden boy of the liberal establishment," as a fellow member of a spy cell in the 1930s. Hiss served as a senior aide to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Yalta conference during World War II, acting secretary-general at the founding conference of the United Nations and later as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hiss denied Chambers' allegation and sought to put then-Sen. Richard Nixon, R-Calif., and other anti-communists on trial in public opinion. This was a critical point in the context between left and right.

Edwards recalled that Czechoslovakia had fallen in 1948 and China in 1949. In 1950, Karl Fuchs was arrested as a British spy, and Hiss was convicted of perjury, because the statute of limitations on the crime of espionage had expired. In the same year, Harry Gold was arrested and identified Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as fellow spies who gave nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

In the same year, the Korean War began when the North invaded the South. Chambers' book presented the conflict as one of faith, and Edwards stated that the liberals have never forgiven or forgotten this act by Chambers.

Edwards quoted his father, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who covered the Hiss trial, as telling a student audience at Princeton, where Hiss had been invited to speak on foreign policy, that Hiss was "brilliant, adroit and charming," but one "convicted by a jury of willful perjury to conceal his role as a traitor and a spy."

In testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hiss had denied even having known Chambers, and he further denied that he was a communist. Secretary of State Dean Acheson had declared on the day Hiss was convicted that he "would never turn his back on Hiss." Liberals became obsessed with defending officials serving in the government up to the White House of being communists.

Edwards noted that the one ex-liberal who saw the connection that Chambers had drawn between liberalism and communism was President Ronald Reagan, who awarded the Medal of Freedom to Chambers posthumously in 1987. Chambers' book was instrumental in establishing anti-communism as a basis for launching the conservative movement, and Edwards declared that without this development, "there would have been no Barry Goldwater in 1964 and no President Reagan in 1980." He pronounced the book "an essential work of the conservative canon."

Gaddis began his presentation by confessing that he had only read the book in preparation for the conference. For him, reading the book left him with a sense of both admiration and exasperation that he had not read the book before. He found parallels with his own book on George Kennan, and Kennan had referred to Chambers and the Hiss case in his own book in 1972. He cited the evidence from Soviet sources that establish the guilt of Hiss.

Gaddis found that neither Chambers nor Kennan fit into pigeonholes, as both suffered family tragedies and had establishment educations, but neither identified with the establishment, and both were deeply pessimistic and sounded ineffective alarms about Soviet intentions. Both found themselves ostracized, and neither found satisfaction in vindication. Both doubted the ability of the United States to overcome the challenge the Soviets posed, and both took steps toward committing suicide. In addition, both experienced "great fears" late in life, Chambers of the New Deal and Kennan of nuclear weapons. And both were farmers who sought refuge in the labor of farming and were great writers "who produced classical works that will be read in the future."

Evans reported that he has read Witness many times and that as he wrote his recent book on Sen. Joe McCarthy, he unwittingly made Chambers a central character because "the more I looked into matters, the more I realized that Chambers was a critical figure in almost too many senses to list."

In contemplating Chambers' role as an authority on Soviet espionage, Evans formulated "Evans' Law of Inadequate Paranoia," which says, "No matter how bad you think something is, when you look into it, it's always worse." Evans found that this applied to the penetration of the U.S. government by communists, sympathizers and fellow travelers.

Evans offered the analysis that worse than espionage was the ability of these officials to tilt U.S. policies, including Operation Keelhaul, which turned thousands of refugees back to Russia. He ascribed Chambers' pessimism as due to frustration that he had named Hiss as long before as 1939, but no one would listen, but instead they listened to Hiss' misrepresentation. Therefore, Chambers concluded that the Free World was doomed.

The FBI had had the information by 1945 at the latest but did nothing. The authorities prepared instead to indict Chambers rather than Hiss. Evans concluded, "Hiss was far more important than is appreciated." Based on Yalta documents and the papers of Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, which were not available for decades, it has been shown that Stettinius was new in office and Roosevelt was dying, so this created a vacuum that favored Hiss.

Finally, Chambers concluded that when he switched sides, he was leaving the winning side for the losing side. Most of the conspirators were turned loose because the authorities decided not to call Chambers to corroborate the testimony of the chief witness, Elizabeth Bentley.

During the Q&A, Gaddis stated that Vice President Henry Wallace had been reporting to the Kremlin while he was serving in the FDR administration, and Gaddis questioned why Wallace was dumped from the ticket in 1944. Gaddis asked why more people don't ask what might have happened if Wallace had become president upon FDR's death.

For me, Witness was a seminal book in drawing the reader into the conservative movement as the story was championed by William F. Buckley, the founder of the New Right. Buckley also founded Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), which was designed, in part, to build a cadre of eager leaders for a future conservative administration, although this objective went largely unfulfilled, as later documented by The New York Times, when few YAF members were actually hired by the Reagan administration. Beside Witness, another pertinent book is Buckley and L. Brent Bozell’s McCarthy and His Enemies, and Evans has recently written his own book on McCarthy titled Blacklisted by History.

Evans is one of the great wits of conservatism. At the height of the McCarthy period, it became fashionable for commentators to say that they approved of the objective of McCarthy, but disapproved of his methods. Evans would hasten to state that he approved of McCarthy’s methods most of all.

Evans was also the author of Evan’s Law, which holds that whenever “our people” are elected to office, they immediately cease to be “our people.”

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