It is astonishing that even after the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, even after communism has been thoroughly discredited and the many evils committed in its name disclosed, the name of Whittaker Chambers remains controversial. This year marks the centennial of the birth of the man who exposed Alger Hiss. On Monday, the White House held a private memorial to the 40th anniversary of Chambers’ death, a tribute to an extraordinary man as William F. Buckley put it, “a singular figure in the 20th century.”
Predictably, the event managed to attract some criticism from the press over the notion that President Bush should find it appropriate for the White House to host such a tribute. According to the organizers, one reporter demanded to know “Why this meeting? The Cold War is over.” And The Washington Post’s Reliable Source reported yesterday that New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino had been denied access to the private event, in which, according to The Post, “the anti-communist icon’s fans and fellow Cold Warriors commemorated him as a man and a hero.” Sounds pretty sinister, right? All those hoary Cold Warriors huddled together in secrecy. Ms. Sciolino certainly thought so, but wrote her story anyway. “Thank God, I have covered enough totalitarian regimes in my life. I have had to report on a lot of secret meetings,” she hyperventilated to The Post. As though every government that ever held a closed meeting was totalitarian. Truth be told, the White House might as well have opened the event to the liberal press. They might actually have learned something.
At a time when espionage is again in the news, courtesy of confessed FBI spy Robert Hanssen, the tribute to Chambers was particularly thought-provoking. The motives of the mysterious, but immensely destructive Hanssen remain unclear, though greed that netted him $1.43 million from the Soviets for selling out his country along with a pathological penchant for secrecy were surely part of it. The ideological component that made Hiss and Chambers actors in the superpower struggle of the century seems to have been missing in more modern cases such as Hanssen’s 15- year-spying spree and in the case of CIA spy Aldrich Ames.
While personal greed may always be there as a motivation, for Soviet moles like Hiss who penetrated the U.S. government from top to bottom in the 1930s and 1940s (supported and directed by the Communist Party USA), there was at least an epic dimension as well. That is equally true for Chambers, who himself was drafted by the Soviets to set up a communist cell in Washington in the early 1930s. By 1938, he realized what kind of evil he had been drawn into and ceased his activities. But there was atonement to come. In 1948, Chambers denounced both himself and State Department official Hiss, a member of his cell, to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
Chambers, a top-flight writer for Time magazine, was well aware of the price he would be paying himself when he denounced Hiss. As his biographer Sam Tanenhaus noted on Monday, he knew the congressional hearing room would be the best place to fight communism. Here words amounted to deeds. At the climactic moment of the hearings, Chambers said, “Mr. Hiss represents the concealed evil against which we still fight. So help me God I cannot do otherwise.” Robert Novak called Chambers “a tragic and heroic figure, his life destroyed and distorted by the fight between communism and freedom.” The story of his personal struggle became Chambers’ book “Witness,” published in 1952.
Left-wing anti-communist Sidney Hook once remarked that he could understand Chambers’ fight against communism, “but why bring God into it?” At the most profound level, that was what the struggle was all about, God or man as the measure of all things. Although Soviet communism has disappeared, that choice still colors our cultural and political choices, and it still underlies perceptions of Hiss and Chambers.
One would think that the guilt of Hiss would be thoroughly established by now, half a century after his conviction and half a decade after the publication of the transcripts of the Venona documents the secret Soviet cable traffic of the 1940s intercepted and finally decrypted by the United States. These Soviet documents yet again confirmed Hiss’ actions and those of innumerable other moles. But there are still doubters, still people who see Chambers as the betrayer, not Hiss. As recently as 1997, Bill Clinton’s nominee for FBI director, Anthony Lake, managed to question Hiss’ guilt on national television. It contributed greatly to sending his nomination down in flames.
In political terms, humanity made some awful choices in the 20th century. That’s why events like Monday’s commemoration are important. We need to keep the memory alive of those who fought against “absolute evil” as Chambers called the ideology that once blinded him.