I have been visiting the past in my reading, as usual, by learning about the life and career of a guy named Whittaker Chambers.
If you are wondering who Whittaker Chambers is, and why someone wrote a book about him, you probably aren’t alone. Many of you probably do remember the controversy that surrounded this man 70 years ago, but, to tell the truth, the man is quite easily forgotten. However, while the role he played in our history is small, it was significant.
Chambers came from a family that struggled economically, a struggle made worse by the Great Depression. In that world, he, like many young people at the time, became enamored with communism as a solution. He became a member of the Communist Party, and used his knowledge of languages and exceptional talent for writing in the party’s service for several years. He also came in contact with several party members and sympathizers who had been appointed to jobs in the government bureaucracy that had grown with the demands of the New Deal and later World War II.
Among those new bureaucrats was Alger Hiss, a Harvard-educated man in his 30s. Hiss had clerked for a Supreme Court justice and served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration — and later President Harry Truman’s — in important positions. Chambers thought of Hiss and his wife as good friends.
Eventually, Chambers became involved in a more serious activity as a courier, picking up papers from individuals in government who had access to secret information and transporting those papers to New York, where others would transmit them to the Soviets. One of his contacts in the government was Hiss.
Chambers had a problem, though. American Communists had begun to fracture as they learned of Josef Stalin’s atrocities — and especially after Stalin signed a peace agreement with Adolf Hitler. Chambers began to doubt his devotion to Communism and, after taking numerous steps to make sure he wouldn’t be assassinated for abandoning the party, he ended his membership. He was then able to get a job with Time magazine, and decided he would begin warning Americans about Communism and the espionage they were conducting.
For a while, Chambers tried to protect his old friends. He revealed what he knew about Communist espionage, but didn’t identify people he did not want to hurt. Eventually, though, he found that he was unable to do that. Chambers began naming people he knew were or had been Communists — including Alger Hiss — to a grand jury in New York. He also revealed them to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating the loyalty of people they believed were Communists — especially those who were working in the government. By naming these people, however, Chambers also revealed that he himself was one of the spies, which caused some to question whether he was to be trusted.
Hiss, for his part, emphatically denied that he had ever known Chambers or engaged in espionage, even in the face of evidence Chambers provided to a grand jury and the House Committee.
By the time these accusations were made, neither Chambers nor Hiss could be prosecuted for espionage, because too much time had passed since the acts Chambers admitted to had occurred. Hiss, however, was charged with perjury for lying to a grand jury about his activities. One trial ended with a hung jury, but after a second trial, he was convicted and served a relatively short prison term.
Chambers’ admission of his activities as a Communist cost him his job at Time. A few years later he wrote “Witness” about why he left communism. The book was popular among conservatives and Ronald Reagan, who awarded Chambers a posthumous Medal of Freedom, once said the book was a reason he became a conservative.
Hiss continued denying that he had been a Communist and that he had known Chambers until his death. The case is still the subject of debate, as there are many who still believe Hiss was innocent.
The investigation of Chambers and Hiss benefitted a young Congressman, Richard Nixon, by raising his profile as a strong anti-Communist. He was elected to the Senate during the investigation, and four years later, Dwight Eisenhower selected him to be his vice president.
Americans came through the divisions of the late 1940s without serious damage to our freedom or our strength as a nation. Today, though, we may be much more divided than we were back then. Immigration, racial discrimination and social divisions over moral and religious values seem to be making our politics more hateful and damaging than they were back then.
I wonder if we can resolve those conflicts without doing serious damage to our nation. Seventy years ago, our parents and grandparents managed to do so, but I’m a little afraid we may fail this time.
I hope I’m wrong.