In his neglected mid-century essay “The Direct Glance” Whittaker Chambers sought to understand the smugness of the West and America regarding Soviet Communism. The struggle against it was marked, Chambers thought, by a “boundless complacency” rooted in the West’s belief in its material superiority. And this failure of understanding left the West, Chambers argued, listless and without appeal.
On Friday, National Review published a scathing editorial in opposition to Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President, followed by the statements of 22 prominent conservatives ranging from neocons like Bill Kristol, to social conservatives like Cal Thomas and Michael Medved, to radio/television personalities like Glenn Beck. The editorial slammed Trump as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” True to pugnacious form, Trump fired back, asserting that “the late, great William F. Buckley would have been ashamed of what happened to his prize.”…
Even for those who have not been through an undergraduate academic program, the figure of the biased historian is well known. In the hands of biased historians, the past morphs into an ideological axe to grind. Methodology is the tool that forces the facts to conform to their theory, and that jettisons any stray facts that don’t fit.
But this was not always so. Once upon a time, there were historians whose intellectual probity led them to follow the evidence no matter where it led, even if it damaged their own “side.” Professor Allen Weinstein belonged to this almost extinct group. Weinstein, who taught at Smith College, Georgetown, and Boston University, and who was for three years the National Archivist in Washington, died last week at 77.
In 1948, when confronted with a cache of damning documents in his handwriting and typescript collected a decade before by his then-comrade Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, a lawyer, State Department official, and a Soviet spy code-named ALES, responded in the following fashion: “I immediately directed that the papers be turned over to the Department of Justice, as it was evident that they were copies and summaries of State Department documents which warranted inquiry.”
Contrast this with Chambers’ response when the documents’ authenticity was challenged. His government benefactor, Rep. Richard Nixon (R-Cal.), submitted the microfilmed portions of the cache to a photographic expert to determine their date. Chambers’ claim that they were from the time, in the 1930s, when he and Hiss worked for Soviet military intelligence, was rejected by said expert, who determined that the kind of film used was a new product. In other words this particular evidence, at least, had to have been faked. When a worried Nixon threw that at Chambers, his response was that “God must be against me.” (It turned to be a temporary setback, for the expert had been wrong that such film wasn’t being manufactured in the 1930s.)
In 1935, the Bolsheviks thought up a great way to make friends and influence people. They created a Popular Front and invited anyone who was left-of-center to join. Capitalism was faltering at the time, as was liberal democracy in Continental countries. Quite a few Americans and Europeans responded to the Pop Front outreach by welcoming Soviet Russia into the family of nations, honoring it as the lead power opposing fascism, and even hoping their own troubled societies would move toward the Soviet model.
Cass Sunstein recently published two short essays-here and here-on the current political struggles between “tea-party” conservatives and progressives. In the first essay, Sunstein attempts to link our current political fracturing with the famous standoff between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. His second essay, which compares Whittaker Chambers and Ayn Rand’s divergent philosophies and then links their disagreements to various tendencies within present-day conservatism, is much better.
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.”