Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, and the Dialogue of Liberty

The Watergate controversy and the collapse of the Nixon presidency led me to closely follow the 1976 presidential election, the first national election that I took seriously. The result of that research was a reasoned vote for Gerald Ford.

Ford, though, had not been my first choice for the Republican nomination. As it did for many others, the Reagan challenge had inspired me, and I was disappointed when Reagan fell short at the convention. By 1980, I was solidly in the Reagan camp, rejoicing in his stunning electoral victory over an incumbent president. I still remember the reaction of one of my professors the morning after the election. Clearly disturbed, he announced to the class that he could scarcely bring himself to realize that “that cowboy has been elected president.” His perspective was not unique; it was dominant on that campus—and most others.

During the Reagan presidency, I discovered that Reagan had read Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, a book many considered seminal to the conservative movement. Reagan credited the book with providing his understanding of the philosophy and workings of the communist mind, and I decided it was time to evaluate it myself.

I did not expect what I found. I expected a treatise on communism and how wrong it was. What I received was far more. Chambers had not written a political tract; instead, he wrote painfully of the weaknesses in his own life while detailing the tragic consequences of a philosophy that he believed dethroned God and the sources of the moral contents of life. It was not just a story. It was not simply an autobiography. It was a personal spiritual reflection and confession. One reading was not enough, even though it was 799 pages. I had to go through it again to see what I might have missed the first time. I believed the work to be so significant that later I developed an entire college course around the book and its author, “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers.”

My interest in Reagan also continued to grow. I have another course I teach entitled “Ronald Reagan and Modern American Conservatism,” which incorporates the development of modern conservatism along with the events of the Reagan years. One of the more fascinating debates about conservatism centers on the contrast between Chambers’s pessimism about the future of Western Civilization and Reagan’s sunny optimism that freedom would ultimately triumph. Conservatives who admire both men, it seems to me, have found Reagan’s perspective more to their liking. Who wouldn’t prefer optimism?

Reagan himself, at National Review’s Thirtieth Anniversary dinner in 1985, famously noted,

When he left Communism for the Western side, one editor of the magazine said he understood his defection meant he was joining the losers. I can think of no better way to pay tribute to his memory—and frankly nothing he would have liked better—than to say: We can affirm here tonight that Whittaker Chambers was wrong. That civilization will triumph. That freedom is the winning side.

Reagan’s optimism shines forth—this was four years prior to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and six years before the USSR ceased to exist. Yet he was supremely confident that the victory belonged to the West.

Bill Buckley, though, in his closing remarks that evening, sought to balance the president’s statement, offering a remembrance of a conversation he had with Chambers when he was trying to convince him to be one of the editors of National Review:

A year before National Review was founded, I spent an evening with Whittaker Chambers, and he asked me, half provocatively, half seriously, what exactly it was that my prospective journal would seek to save. I trotted out a few platitudes of the sort one might expect from a twenty-eight-year-old fogy, about the virtues of a free society. He wrestled with me by obtruding the dark historicism for which he had become renowned. Don’t you see? he said. The West is doomed, so that any effort to save it is correspondingly doomed to failure. I drop this ink stain on the bridal whiteness of this fleeted evening only to acknowledge soberly that we are still a long way from establishing for sure that Whittaker Chambers was wrong. But that night, challenged by his pessimism, I said to him that if it were so that providence had rung up our license on liberty, stamping it as expired, the Republic deserved a journal that would argue the historical and moral case that we ought to have survived: that, weighing the alternative, the culture of liberty deserves to survive. So that even if the worst were to happen, the journal in which I hoped he would collaborate might serve, so to speak, as the diaries of Anne Frank had served, as absolute, dispositive proof that she should have survived, in place of her tormentors—who ultimately perished. In due course that argument prevailed, and Chambers joined the staff.

In this passage, Buckley is more cautious than Reagan: he would not go as far as the president did in asserting that Chambers had been proven wrong. The final triumph over communism was not yet resolved.

Whittaker Chambers had no doubts with regard to the evil that resides within man. His affinity for writers and thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Reinhold Niebuhr, and his own experiences in his dysfunctional upbringing, his life within the communist underground, his writings as a senior editor at Time, and throughout the duress of the Alger Hiss case, leave little room for debate on that point of doctrine. Reagan, meanwhile, seemed to hold contradictory views with respect to the nature of man. As he himself noted, he tended to see the good in people. At the same time, he recognized evil in individuals and empires alike; most of his life after Hollywood was spent trying to expose and overthrow what he believed was an evil system. Chambers helped balance Reagan’s natural tendency to see primarily the good. Witness provided Reagan with a sobering reality. He said that Witness helped him learn the bitter truth “of that great socialist revolution which in the name of liberalism has been inching its icecap over the nation for two decades.”

Reagan’s optimism was based on his Christian understanding of redemption. He had experienced his own personal redemption, he spoke of Chambers’s redemption from his former life as a communist, and he fervently asserted that God was poised to redeem the world from totalitarian communism. Chambers, from the same basic Christian anthropology, could not express that degree of optimism. He believed, as Reagan did, that God redeems individuals, but had a much more pessimistic view of that redemption rippling throughout society. Chambers’s perspective can be likened to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who foretold disaster for ancient Judah because of its apostasy while simultaneously calling the people to repentance. Reagan and Chambers held to the same faith, the same basics truths about life, yet they differed in their predictions of the future of freedom.

Reagan correctly perceived the looming demise of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, freedom appeared to be on the march. When the USSR did eventually fall, some predicted that American-style freedoms would naturally follow as people shed the shackles of their communist rulers. The reality, though, hasn’t been so rosy. Today, Russian nationalism, in the person of Vladimir Putin, dominates that nation. Putin, and Russia as a whole, don’t embrace Western liberties. Then there is the emergence of radical Islam, which raises a new threat to Western Civilization. Many fear we don’t have the foundations anymore to resist this threat. Part of that is due to the loss of our religious culture in the West generally, and a religious/secular polarization within America specifically.

One of Chambers’s closest friends, Ralph de Toledano, noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.” In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man? As he wrote in Witness:

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …

… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

What is the conclusion then? Which of these conservative icons was more accurate in predicting the future of freedom? It is not a matter of either one being completely right or completely wrong. Ronald Reagan saw a reality in his day: communism robbed the people of their spirit; it denied the freedom for which a growing number was clamoring; it was teetering on the edge of financial ruin and something had to change. He took action, both in word and deed and in tandem with other like-minded leaders, that helped push the doddering old philosophy and its seed over the brink. He rightly rejoiced in the fall of the Soviet Union. Whittaker Chambers might have concluded the same as Reagan if he could have witnessed the march of events in the 1980s. Yet he would not have allowed the fall of communism in Russia to make him euphoric.

Alan Snyder

Dr. K. Alan Snyder is a professor of history at Southeastern University and is currently at work on a book analyzing the impact of Whittaker Chambers's writings on Ronald Reagan's statesmanship.

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Comments

  1. libertarian jerry says

    A very good article. If you look at history objectively and study Marxist ideology I think you’d find that all 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto ,in one form or other,have been woven into the fabric of America. The Income Tax,Inheritance Taxes,Public Education,Industrial Armies in the form of Social Security Numbers,Central Banking and Credit etc.etc. Whitaker Chambers was pessimistic with good reasons. He studied Marxist Doctrine and saw it coming to fruition during his lifetime. Ronald Reagan may have spoken and even believed like an Anti-Communist.But, in the end,his presidency was just a caretaker for the America that previous administrations had allowed or even encouraged to become Socialized. In real terms,the State grew when Reagan was President. What we have left in America is a Fascist form of Communism. Unfortunately, Whitaker Chamber’s worst nightmare has become reality.

    • says

      Heh, funny :-)things took a sharp dip in the period beofre the change candidate was elected. When, presumably, the change candidate was campaigning. [..] Look how high things were in 1991, and then blam.Hmm I think the sharp drop in Bush Sr’s ratings took place, or largely took place, beofre the Clinton and Perot campaigns took off. I remember it or at least think I do how drastic a phenomenon it was. One of the biggest roller coasters in a president’s fate in recent history I think. First Bush’s popularity was pumped up to record high levels during and directly after the first Gulf war. Then the economic crisis kicked in and the mood of the country just turned on a dime (if that’s the right expression), and crashed. I think it was very much the crisis-fuelled mood turn that made Clinton (and Perot especially!) possible, rather than the other way round.In general, but that may be my background, I’m firmly on the side that believes the systemic changes and long-term undercurrents produce the candidates, or at least the opportunities the candidates get to take advantage of, rather than that individual candidates, no matter how charismatic, shape or create these big turn-arounds.So that’s also very much the way I would have taken your post, and chart like, hmm, well: we tend to view everything through the person- and event-focused prism of political journalism etc. Explain changes in general public opinion by referring to this or that political event or the power of this or that candidate. And obviously those play a role. But to a large extent it’s also us looking at all the exciting glittery reflections on the water’s surface, when those only appear because of the currents far underneath. As in: at a time when there was no sense of impending economic doom, when there was no massively impopular President and little more confidence in Congress, when there was no such near-anonymous view of the country being off-track, a candidate like Obama would either not have gotten the chance to break through (and storm past Hillary, for example) in the first place, or not have had the chance to come out winning as he is now doing. No matter how admittedly brilliant or skilled or charismatic he is.Like, this year the Republicans’ culture war attacks are floundering. And part of that of course is that Obama is simply very skilled in deflecting them. But a larger part, I think, is the sheer predominance of economic anxiety and the yearning for change. Those now some of them are leaning to voting for Obama in spite of their racism. Or planning on staying home. But if the economy had been middling rather than bad, and if Bush and co had not thoroughly destroyed the Republican brand the way they did, things would have been different. No matter how good Obama is (and I agree he is something of a once-in-a-generation political talent), I dont think he would have survived the Wright and Ayers stuff, the militant-black-stranger-in-our-midst attacks, eight years ago. Or four years ago, even. Hell, he barely squeaked through the primaries now, and much of the closeness was rooted in that identity stuff. This year, the yearning for change and the existential concern about the economy are overriding the Rove-type politics of identity. And Obama’s justly getting kudos for his own mad skillz in deflecting those as well. But I think we shouldnt kid ourselves that this kind of politics is suddenly impotent, and might not well have proven sufficiently successful to block Obama in another, less perfect storm’ type year.

    • says

      Interesting I see what you’re saying.Part of what I was woreindng with this most evident in my title but I didn’t really expand on it in the blog post is that things took a sharp dip in the period before the change candidate was elected. When, presumably, the change candidate was campaigning. (Hard to tell for 1980.)Look how high things were in 1991, and then blam.Obviously, economy was an issue there. But I’m woreindng if there is some element of LOOKING at options knowing there are options (this seems to be related to what you were saying, too) is part of what makes people say hey, I don’t like how things are right now.I know there have been experiments where people are given more or less choice in a situation and they tend to (counterintuitively!) be happier when they have less choice. Like, photography students were told to hand over a certain photograph (it was something like that). One group just handed it over and that was that. Another group could ask for it back after a period of time. The group that didn’t have any choice about getting the photograph back were happier with their decision than the group that didn’t. (I can track this down, may have been from Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.)Anyway, I think much of the discussion in the 2000 campaign was not about the state of the country per se what people thought about their everyday lives but the state of the government, personified by Bill Clinton. Values. All that crap.I think if they were dissatisfied with Bill Clinton and his values (or lack thereof) that would be less likely to translate to saying that they were dissatisfied with their own lives.Whereas 1980 was are you better off now than you were four years ago? and 1992 was it’s the economy, stupid. This is all firmly in the category of woreindng vs. positing btw I’m kind of thinking aloud.Edit: Hmmm I’ll leave what I wrote because I don’t want to delete it but there are some glaring problems

  2. says

    Hhmmm I wonder if there’s a bredaor element to it.Like, if things are so bad you just cant bear it anymore, you’ll opt for change.As long as things seem to be going OK, to larger or smaller extent you’re managing or even managing well, but you’re still keenly aware of how easily it suddenly could go wrong, you’re likely to opt for stability. Steer the course.If things seem to be sailing through, life is good, no threat on the horizon, you might have the luxury to say, hey ok, we ensured the basic stuff how’s about what else we might want? Can we afford a change yet? Isnt it time to shift gears?This has long been a pet theory of mine. I even used a version of it for my thesis, which was about the political mobilisation of ethnic identity, basically (minority groups specifically, but by implication majority groups too).What I posited, simplified grossly, was that as long as circumstances were stable, social roles were set and uncontested, ethnic mobilisation was unlikely to happen. Regardless, mind, of whether things were stable in a bad way, up to where people just couldnt conceive of how things could be better, or in a good way, where the engine of society is just quietly humming along.However, as soon as drastic social change occurs and the roles and places of different people and groups are suddenly in a flux and contested, people are likely to mobilise on the basis of primary group identities. They suddenly see opportunities that they are eager to grab and anxious about missing out on. Or they see everything crumbling or outright falling apart and they’re desperate to hang on and not be pulled down. In both cases, there’s an existential insecurity, and people will look around for a basic, uncontestable group belonging to cluster around and hold on to like ethnic or religious belonging.Okay, where was I going with that? Hmm Oh yeah, so taking a step back again, you’ve got say people radicalising in the 30s, years of crisis and disintegration that makes people desperately reach for change. Then in the 50s, life wasnt easy, people buckled up and worked hard, rebuilding their countries after the war, but there was stability and steady progress, and so they kept voting their governments back in. Middle of the road straight through. Then by the 60s a whole new generation had grown up that had never known the bad times, and for whom regular security was a given, rather than something to be grateful for and secure by staying the course. Having grown up with basic prosperity, they were impatient for more and opted for change again.So maybe something like that too, on a different scale, if you compare ’80 and, to a lesser extent, ’92 (crisis) with ’88, ’96, ’04, when things were going middling and people opted to not rock the boat, and ’00, when drunk on the luxury of unprecedented good times, people thought they had the luxury of trying something else?Hmm, pretty simplistic really. Definitely not original. But a bit beyond just Monica.

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