December 6, 2014


The Witness Still Stands (RON CAPSHAW, 12/04/14, Library of Law & Liberty)

In the Court of Public Opinion (1957), Hiss's post-prison memoir, sticks in a very technical way to the legal aspects of the case. This legalism, which gave off a decorous formality rather than a desperate need for exoneration, was characterized by radical, anti-Hiss journalist Dwight McDonald as "to the point of madness." And this cut-and-dried, confident tone never left Hiss. During the trial, it was displayed when he "directed" the government to look beyond the mounting evidence and compare reputation (Hiss's was stellar, and included words of support from two former Supreme Court justices). After the trial, he calmly pressed and pressed on the theory that he had been framed by a cabal composed of the FBI, anticommunists and big business. Sympathetic reviewers, expecting outrage or any human emotion, were disappointed and pronounced Hiss an enigma.

In stark contrast we have Chambers and his landmark personal statement, Witness, one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century. Penned in 1952, re-released this year in paperback from Regnery, it presented the world with a personality and mind that are unique, and not completely attractive to either liberals or conservatives. If there was a thesis to Witness, it was that the Cold War was really about communism's faith in man pitted against Christianity's faith in God. Chambers as much as said that it was only ex-communists who could effectively fight communism. His emphasis on this was and is off-putting to many.

Liberals, accepting that Hiss was guilty, nevertheless recoiled from Chambers' focus on born-agains. Sidney Hook, an anti-Stalinist who remained a man of the Left all his life, criticized Chambers for "recklessly" lumping atheistic anticommunists in with the communists. Conservatives, while agreeing with Chambers' view that the New Deal sought the same kind of revolution as the communists, nevertheless had trouble wrapping their head completely around Witness. William F. Buckley couldn't accept Chambers' view that anticommunists were on the losing side of History; nor were Buckley or some other activists on the Right happy with Whittaker Chambers' critical view of Joseph McCarthy as a "raven of disaster." Ronald Reagan, probably the most optimistic of conservatives, in awarding Chambers a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, had to cherry-pick passages from Witness that did not bear the book's signature pessimism.

Almost all, though, agreed that Witness was not the product of an American mind. Structuring the book around the Lazarus motif, Chambers exhibited, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. an "un-American . . . or at least un-Anglo-Saxon intensity." Chambers' biographer Sam Tanenhaus seconded this. When given the opportunity upon the re-release of his book to amend it, he chose the new subtitle of "An Un-American Life."

The Huguenot background of Chambers' maternal grandmother is described in Witness, and also this majestic woman's habit of "breaking into rippling French, in which she thought almost as easily as English." Teaching her grandson to read French, she launched the future translator of Felix Salten's Bambi -and the GRU courier who, having studied German, French, Spanish, and Italian, could also make himself sound Russian to disguise his identity from his underground associates--into a life that was, if not European, European-ish.

That belief in History made Chambers wrong as both a Communist and an anti-Communist.  But his misplaced pessimism ultimately served a great purpose.

Posted by at December 6, 2014 7:59 AM

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