- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

My children, as long as you live, the shadow of the Hiss Case will brush you. In every pair of eyes that rests on you, you will see pass, like a cloud passing behind a woods in winter, the memory of your father — dissembled in friendly eyes, lurking in unfriendly eyes . … In time, therefore, when the sum of your experience of life gives you authority, you will ask yourselves the question: What was my father?

I will give you an answer: I was a witness. …

Whittaker Chambers, in the foreword to his book, “Witness”

It has been a long time now, more than 50 years, since Whittaker Chambers wrote the foreword to his great book and testament, “Witness,” in the form of a letter to his children.

The significance of the Hiss-Chambers case in the history of Cold War America would need to be explained to a younger generation, the way the importance of the Dreyfus Affair might have to be explained to students of modern French history. Passions fade.

Some historic divisions end, not with a bang but with an offhand reference. Almost in passing, a story about the National Archives in the New York Times notes that the nation’s chief archivist, Allen Weinstein, wrote a book in the mid-1970s “about Alger Hiss, the State Department official found to be a Soviet spy.” What once would have been heresy in a respectable liberal paper now has become just factual background. High courage and high drama have been transmuted into a footnote.

Whittaker Chambers wasn’t anyone a sharp lawyer would have put on the witness stand — a short, squat, disheveled editor, intellectual and admitted former communist trudging through the halls of Congress to give his strange testimony about having belonged to a Red spy ring along with one of the most respectable figures in the Washington establishment. Alger Hiss was a member of the American elite; his accuser had a checkered past at best.

But Whittaker Chambers had no choice. It’s a strange calling, being a witness, less a gift than a compulsion. And this witness would be sorely tested — scorned and ‘buked by some of the best people in the country. Who would take his word against Alger Hiss’?

I thought of Whittaker Chambers on reading the obituary of Jean-Francois Revel, 82, French socialist, intellectual, longtime America-watcher and another witness to history.

Americans long have been indebted to foreign observers, especially the French, for the keenest of insights into our national character. Alexis de Tocqueville was surely the greatest in that tradition, but Revel deserves a place in his train. Like de Tocqueville, he didn’t depend on interviews with politicians for insights; he traveled this country with his eyes open.

What he discovered, as he noted in the introduction to his book, “Anti-Americanism,” was “in complete contrast to the conventional portrayal then generally accepted in Europe.” Instead of accepting the caricature of an America that had brought the wrath of the world down on itself through its own mistaken policies, Revel struck back at America’s reflexive critics, hard: “Obsessed by their hatred and floundering in illogicality, these dupes forget that the United States, acting in her own self-interest, is also acting in the interest of us Europeans and in the interest of many other countries threatened, or already subverted and ruined, by terrorism.”

How does a French intellectual become so clear-eyed a witness despite all the fashionable anti-Americanism of his time and Continent? Maybe through an intimate knowledge of the society he would witness against.

Jean-Francois Revel was little more than a boy when he joined the Resistance, but he never forgot how the French establishment collaborated with the enemy. And he never let his countrymen forget it, either — despite all their efforts to edit the Vichy period out of history.

Revel would go on to witness against fascism no matter what form it took, including the Islamic kind. He never forgot the smell of collaboration, or ceased despising it. Maybe that is what makes someone a witness: an intense exposure to evil early on.

Whittaker Chambers had been a devoted communist; he knew the enemy inside out. When he left the party, he was convinced he was joining the losing side of history. But none of that mattered. He had to do it.

Jean-Francois Revel was 16 when France fell, and he would come to know firsthand the truth of Edmund Burke’s observation that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. He would speak out, however unfashionable his message.

Every age has its witnesses. But will we listen to them?

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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