In late 1988, when I set out to write a life of Whittaker Chambers,the cold war had reached its ceremonial endgame: Mikhail Gorbachevacknowledging the autonomy of peoples long after they had liberatedthemselves, valiant students halting tank columns in TiananmenSquare. It was an impressive, if occasionally hollow, spectacle,and it inspired a chorus of sweeping pronouncements in the UnitedStates. "'Peace' seems to be breaking out in many regions of theworld," Francis Fukuyama exulted in The End of History, thesignature manifesto of the moment, published in the summer of 1989,six months before the Berlin Wall came down. In those euphoric daysit was still possible to think, with Fukuyama, that "the developedworld," having writhed through a century-long "paroxysm ofideological violence, as liberalism contended first with theremnants of absolutism, then bolshevism and fascism, and finally anupdated Marxism that threatened to lead to the ultimate apocalypseof nuclear war," had suddenly achieved "an unabashed victory ofeconomic and political liberalism."
It did not take long for the gyre to wobble back onto its dependablyblood- soaked course, pushed along by fresh gusts of ideologicalviolence and absolutism.?Yet for a brief period it really did seemthat history, if it had not actually ended, had at least paused,particularly for people born in the 1950s. The cold war was theonly geopolitical reality that we knew, or could seriouslycontemplate, raised as we were on the eschatology of the nuclear"option," with its expert mathematical formulas that explained howmany cities we could afford to have vaporized, and which ones, inthe event of a "showdown. " Every child knew the "ultimateapocalypse" was thinkable. We all had watched footage of blossomingmushroom clouds and fictive images of a finger pushing a button.And it was thinkable for a more literal reason: it had alreadyhappened, twice, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And we knew who haddropped the bombs.
In such a climate, politics unfolded as a constant low-gradeemergency, with occasional oscillations and pulse-quickeningalarms: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the planes shotout of the sky. We were calmly assured, after each bleak episode,that all was being efficiently managed. And perhaps it was. But thestresses showed, most obviously in the near normalization ofviolence in the 1960s, much of it televised: racial battles in cityafter city, armed militants storming campus buildings. The firstpresidential election I followed closely--in 1968, when I was aboy--included two assassinations and a police riot.
This was the steep cost of "the twilight struggle," in John F.Kennedy's lugubrious phrase, the contest between the planet's onlyremaining great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union,lethally well-matched colossi--each geographically vast, eachprimed, after many years on the sidelines, to dominate the globalgame. Each also espoused a purifying doctrine, the Soviets' derivedfrom Marx by way of Lenin, the Americans' derived from ? whatexactly? Here was the trouble. A nation so new and so devout in itspluralism could offer no theology but itself, the miracle of itsexistence, in all its superabundance, the same theology our leadersoffer today. During the cold war, our presidents, each in his turnthe "leader of the free world," told us we were innocent ofimperial ambition and desired only that other peoples be free--free, that is, to become like us. This applied not only to the"captive nations" behind the Iron Curtain, but also to theleft-leaning social democracies of corrupt Europe. The battle wasmoral, for "hearts and minds." Of course, this was what the Sovietsalso claimed--in a different vocabulary, to be sure--about theirutopian project.
So my question was not why there had been a cold war, but rather howit had come to assume its curious shape. This led me immediately toGeorge Orwell, the truest prophet of the "twilight struggle," whose1984, published in the incubatory stage of the cold war, hadforetold much of what was to come: the all-seeing television eye,the creepy language (Orwell could easily have coined "balance ofterror," "limited nuclear war," and "mutually assureddestruction"), the proxy wars staged in distant regions of theglobe (Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Congo--the Congo?), theorchestrated paranoia. It was all the more persuasive becauseOrwell's strength, as everyone knows, was his literalism, hisEnglish "common sense." He was not an especially imaginative writer.Yet he had seen with matchless clarity where things were headed,and this in turn suggested his novel had been as much a feat ofreportorial study as of invention: his starting point had been aconcrete set of facts.
But which facts? Perhaps the time had come to write 1984 in reverse.You could begin, like Orwell, with the year 1948, but your accountwould be factual. It would describe what had actually happened thatyear. There was no shortage of events to choose from: the Berlinblockade, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the advances ofMao's Red Army, the formation of Korea's "Democratic Republic," thedisintegration of governments in Greece and Belgium, and all therest. Except that this history had to take place not abroad but inAmerica, where the cold war--one side of it, anyway--had sprung intobeing.
Who would figure in such a tale? Who would be the hero, or thevillain? I found myself examining the case of Alger Hiss, thesenior diplomat who, in the summer of 1948, was accused in hearingsheld by the House Committee on Un- American Activities (HUAC) ofbeing a Soviet agent, and then stood trial twice for lying aboutit. From the opening days of congressional testimony up throughHiss's perjury conviction, in January 1950, the event had attainedthe scope of a great political trial. There had been a clash ofideas and worldviews, moments of genuine surprise and reversal. Andthere had been?serious consequences. The case had initiated the Redhunts (or "witch hunts") of the early 1950s, which themselvesmirrored postwar purges in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, though theoutcome in America had been much milder. Political figures such asRudolf Slansk?FD and Laszlo Rajk were branded Titoist "spies" whenthey dared resist Stalin's clenching grip and were then rushedthrough mock trials and summarily executed. In the United Statesthe purge had been bloodless. Well, almost. The "atom spies" Juliusand Ethel Rosenberg, were killed--an appalling and unwarrantedfate, but one the defendants had consciously chosen, even when pleabargains were available. Still, the scent of blood had hung in the air.
But not in the Hiss case. There had been much posturing, along withnaked displays of opportunism, during the HUAC hearings, but thetrials had been models of restraint. Even Hiss's sentence wassurpassingly mild: five years in a minimum-security prison inPennsylvania. He was released sixteen months ahead of schedule,emerging a better man by his own account, and he lived to the ageof ninety-two. The very ordinariness of this outcome--and Hiss'scontinued presence as a hero-victim--felt right for the story thatI wanted to tell. It usefully showed that the case had beenabsorbed into the larger narrative of cold-war America.
There were complications, however. For one, there was strongevidence that Hiss, unlike Slansk?FD and Rajk, really had been aspy. This did not bother me very much. A guilty man is often moreinteresting than an innocent one. And I was drawn to the arc ofHiss's public life, the familiar tale of a rapid upward climb--triumph at Johns Hopkins University and then at Harvard Law, clerkto Supreme Court giant Oliver Wendell Holmes, State Departmentmandarin, president of the Carnegie Endowment for InternationalPeace at age forty-two-- followed by a terrible fall. This wasmatched by the suggestive data of a private life rich in misery andshame. Hiss had grown up in Baltimore in conditions of shabbygentility, his family well established but in decline. Therewere?two brutal suicides (Hiss's father and sister), plus hisbeloved older brother's lethal alcoholism (during the Prohibitionperiod). Hiss, the survivor, had borne this suffering stoically,but the wounds were deep. Though a gentle man, he did not whollysuppress the contempt he felt for the bluestockings among whom hehad been reared, the "horrible old women of Baltimore." Moretelling, at the peak of the Moscow show trials, when former heroesof the revolution had been sent to slaughter, Hiss had observed,coolly and admiringly, that Stalin "plays for keeps." Hiss's mostsalient trait, the one outward clue to the Bolshevik within, washis discipline. It had seen him through much.
Yet this same discipline ultimately made him uninteresting, as wasglaringly evident during the HUAC sessions. One could understandwhy he tenaciously maintained his innocence and wriggled out,insofar as he could, from under the mounting evidence. What rankledwas his refusal to bring even a hint of imagination to his role. Inthe tensest moments of the hearings--moments that came as close asany in an event so ritualized ever can to offering the prospect ofauthentic revelation--Hiss refused, time and again, to declarehimself, to say who he was and what he really stood for. Instead,retreating behind his boyish grin and well-tailored suits, he tookrefuge in hedged lawyerly answers, hair-splitting qualifications,and murky evasions. He was a "flat" rather than a "round"character, whose one idea of how to meet the signal crisis in hislife was to pose as a Gilbert and Sullivan parody of the civilservant.
This dismal performance stood in almost comical defiance of thetruth, for it was well known that Hiss had belonged to the mostradical faction of the New Deal in its first, experimental phase,when it had included burgeoning leftists enrolled in communist"study groups" and in secret "cells." So common was this knowledgethat when Hiss was girding for his first HUAC appearance, hissponsor at the Carnegie Endowment, John Foster Dulles, the mostconservative of men (later secretary of state under PresidentEisenhower), had suggested he might satisfy the committee if hesimply confessed that he had flirted with communism in the 1930slike so many others, but had since put it behind him. Hiss,rejecting this advice, instead claimed an improbably pristine past.Far from having been a communist, he asserted he had not even knownany communists; what was more, he seemed mystified by theaccusations being made against him, though he eventually owned thathe had been questioned closely on these same matters by FBI agentsa year or two before and had abruptly quit the State Department in1946 amid public speculation that he had a long record of "leftistactivity."
Hiss's denials offered a perverse symmetry to the abject confessionsof the "old Bolsheviks" whom Stalin had ruthlessly destroyed duringthe Moscow show trials in the late 1930s. Like those defendants,Hiss seemed to share his inquisitors' assumptions about the gravityof the offenses being imputed to him. But there the similaritiesended. Stalin's victims, resigned to imprisonment or death,submitted to the incontestable "logic" of the revolution in onelast demonstration of loyalty to it. The suspected Americancommunist, in contrast, had ample room to maneuver in 1948,particularly if he was a trained lawyer and accomplished careeristwho had risen swiftly through the government bureaucracy. Hiss'sagility had made him a good diplomat, an excellent spy, and,initially at least, a virtuosic witness, though in the end heoverdid it, ostentatiously pulling social rank on HUAC's yahoos andits staff of gumshoes.
What Hiss personified, finally, was a social and political typecommonly found within its favored class in mature democracies: thecovert enemy of the establishment who confidently trades onestablishment privileges--snobbery, social pride, "old school"ties, inveterate name-dropping. It is not just an Americanphenomenon. Hiss had a counterpart in the Cambridge spies, who likehim were at once audacious and self-serving and whose public embraceof the "proletariat" grew, like his, out of a private history ofhidden injuries and abasements. Orwell, again, grasped thisphenomenon at its root. "It was only after the Soviet regime becameunmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in largenumbers, began to show an interest in it," he had written in themid-1940s. That interest, he added, betrayed "a secret wish ? [to]usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at lastget his hands on the whip." It is no less true today. Theintellectual left, most conspicuously in its Ivy League, Manhattan,and Hollywood variants, still clings to its dream of the whiphandle, just as the educated right dreams of the day when theintelligentsia will be the first to feel the stinging cord.
So Alger Hiss disappointed; but his accuser did not. To rereadtranscripts and contemporary reportage of the hearings and thetrials is to be startled by the almost mesmeric force exerted byWhittaker Chambers, who was not only the prosecution's chief (and,on key matters, sole) witness, but also, in the language of theday, a "selfconfessed ex-communist," in this case, a former courierfor the Soviet spy network who still seemed morally trapped withinthe nimbus of his past crimes. That such a man existed in theflesh, and, what was more, had come tumbling into view from thegilded pinnacle of the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center,was itself a remarkable fact at a time when the home-grown"communist menace" still consisted, in the public mind, ofimmigrant Jews or shadowy figures such as the Comintern officialGerhart Eisler, who had sneaked out of the country, aboard a linerheaded for Poland, while awaiting trial in New York. WhittakerChambers was one of the few American communists his countrymen hadlaid eyes on.
And a curious specimen he was, with his risibly WASPy name, thetoad-like somnolence of his physical being, the cadaverous-lookingdark suit too long in the sleeves, the wry half-smile verging attimes on a smirk, hinting at arcane and hideous truths available tohim alone. Strange that such a man had been a communist spy, andstranger still that he was an "old-stock" American and also anintellectual--indeed, much more of one in the traditional humanisticsense than Hiss. A gifted literary man and a largely self-taughtlinguist, Chambers had been a published poet in his twenties, andtranslated Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel from the German, andmastered French sufficiently well to have been commissioned totranslate the last volume of Proust. When FBI interrogators showedhim the final report that they had written after grilling him formany months, Chambers had scrawled on the last of its many pagesthe concluding line of the Inferno: E quindi uscimmo a riveder lestelle, "and we came outside again to look at the stars."?"He spokeGypsy!" his longtime friend Meyer Schapiro, the great arthistorian, told me in 1990, the astonishment still fresh.
Not that this earned him much respect. Chambers-hatred stayed robustin American intellectual and political life for many decades afterthe Hiss verdict and after Chambers's death in 1961. Though fewremembered the details of the great case, many had a vivid pictureof "the witness"--that is, of the turncoat and snitch. They blamedhim for the rise both of Richard Nixon, who as athirtyfive-year-old freshman congressman ingeniously stage-managedthe HUAC hearings, and of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose firstcarnal bleats--"I have here in my hand" and so on--came fifteendays after Hiss's ?sentencing in the winter of 1950.
I had doubts about Whittaker Chambers, too. I was aware of himchiefly because of my longstanding interest in the intellectualworld of the 1930s to the 1950s. Chambers was known to many of theperiod's best writers, but few had anything good to say about him.Saul Bellow once wittily remarked that Chambers had done morepublic harm as the culture editor of Time than as the accuser ofAlger Hiss--a judgment colored, no doubt, by Chambers's havingrather hilariously dismissed Bellow one or two days into afilm-reviewing job at the magazine in 1943, when Bellow was apostulant freelancer recommended to Chambers by their mutual friendJames Agee. (In later years Bellow often related this incident withretrospective delight, and a version of it appears, in veiled form,in his novel The Victim.)
Chambers's relationship with another major figure, Lionel Trilling,was more complicated and ambiguous. The two had a history datingback many years, beginning with their days together at ColumbiaUniversity in the 1920s, when both were undergraduates andcontributors to the campus literary magazine. Chambers was the moremature writer (as Trilling readily conceded, and the mentor theyshared, the poet Mark Van Doren, agreed). But he also burned withextra-literary hungers. He was, Trilling later recalled, "the firstperson I ever knew whose commitment to radical politics was meantto be definitive of his whole moral being, the controlling elementof his existence." And there was a shocking physical emblem ofChambers's Otherness, his gruesomely decayed teeth. (They were notfixed until he got to Time, and this dental history would occasionsome absurdist byplay during the Hiss confrontation.) "Thatdesolated mouth was the perfect insigne of Chambers's moralauthority," Trilling wrote. "It annihilated the hygienic Americanpresent--only a serf could have such a mouth, or some student in avisored cap who sat in his Moscow garret and thought of nothingsave the moment when he would toss the fatal canister into thebarouche of the Grand Duke."
The two reconnected in the 1930s when Chambers, after some years inthe "open" Communist Party, joined its conspiratorial undergroundand was doing minor industrial espionage; Trilling, safely nestledin the outer orbit of fellow travelers, observed Chambers'srevolutionary escapades with mingled amusement and awe. The Middleof the Journey, Trilling's penetrating novel about the left of the1930s, published in 1947, includes a character modeled closely onChambers, a communist defector shunned in New York intellectualcircles when he re-emerges from the Soviet underground, exactly asChambers had been shunned when he quit the party in 1938. A decadelater, when the Hiss case went to trial, a defense lawyer, scouringliterary Manhattan for acquaintances of Chambers who might impugnhis character, approached Trilling but was sent away with theadmonition that "Whittaker Chambers is a man of honor."
In his last years Trilling seemed embarrassed by this remark andstudiously put distance between himself and Chambers, explainingthat, yes, he had known Chambers for many years, and yes, hebelieved Chambers had told the truth about Hiss, but hastening toadd that Chambers had not, of course, been his "friend." In fact,the two had been close enough for Chambers to sound out Trilling'swife, Diana, herself a formidable writer and critic, for "secretwork" in 1933. "I knew that I was not going to do what he asked ofme," Diana Trilling later wrote. "Yet I was enormously flatteredthat he thought me capable of such an assignment and I was ashamedto refuse him?. I felt greatly complimented."
Here, then, was the truth about the intellectuals and Chambers. Theyadmired him even as they recoiled from him. His moral authorityexceeded theirs: while they had clung to the movement's shallows,Chambers had pitched himself into its depths, as if preparing forthe moment when he would be summoned forth to play a historic role.This indeed happened, and while the role he was assigned-- aswitness, or scourge--was not one he ever expected to play, it wasone for which he was superbly cast, with his gravid air offatalism, of persecution and guilt, of tormented secrecy andpenitential disclosure. Even so, the charges he made against Hiss(and others) came forth reluctantly. Not only that: he perjuredhimself repeatedly on Hiss's behalf, until Hiss, in a fatalmiscalculation, dared him to produce evidence that wouldsubstantiate his charges.
That Chambers's disclosures were truthful we now know withcertainty, confirmed as they were by documents released from Sovietand American intelligence archives in the 1990s. Today very fewseriously maintain that Chambers's testimony was inaccurate in anymeaningful way, although periodically there are new attempts toexonerate Hiss. The latest came this spring, at a conference called"Alger Hiss and History" at New York University. Twoparticipants--Kai Bird, the biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer anda contributing editor at The Nation, and Svetlana Chernovonnaya, ahistorian based in Moscow--jointly argued that one important itemin the vast mosaic of archival evidence (an intercepted cable inthe "Venona" traffic, first released in 1995) possibly referred notto Hiss, as most scholars had thought, but to a diplomat namedWilder Foote, who had been Hiss's colleague in the StateDepartment.
It was a flimsy argument, as the historians John Haynes and HarveyKlehr have painstakingly demonstrated--not to mention a rathercavalier smearing of Foote. And Bird has subsequently conceded thathis reading of this single cable goes no distance toward refutingChambers's testimony. And yet this tiny filament was eagerly seizedby those determined to revive the familiar argument that theprosecution of Hiss--and with it the entire effort to investigatethe activities of the clandestine Soviet spy operations in theAmerican government-- is best understood as part of a broader,sinister campaign to purge American politics of the progressivelegacy of the 1930s and 1940s. The Hiss trials, Bird told TheWashington Post, raised a question about the future of Americanliberalism in the years when the cold war consensus was beginning toform: "Was it going to be the liberalism of the Franklin Rooseveltstripe, the New Deal vision of a communitarian society that takescare of its own and the poor, or was it going to be sort of aneo-liberalism that stood up to the communists and turned its backon the New Deal vision?" Or, as the organizers of the NYUconference put it, even more stridently, the Hiss case was a "majormoment in postwar America that reinforced cold war ideology andaccelerated America's late-1940s turn to the right."
It is instructive that this vague formulation, with its attempt toequate an ill-defined "cold war ideology " with a "turn to theright," should command the assent of professional historians whopresumably know the actual facts, including that Hiss wasprosecuted for perjury under Truman, whose administration sustainedalmost every facet of the New Deal program--and indeed expanded itinto the realm of civil rights--and that Truman's Republicansuccessor, Dwight Eisenhower, also kept New Deal programs in place,as did the next president, John F. Kennedy, who campaigned on astrongly anti-communist platform. All three subscribed to oneversion or another of "cold war ideology, " which is to say allthree opposed the consolidation of the Soviet empire.
More striking still is that Hiss's champions for six decades nowhave steadfastly excused the actions of liberals who wereconsistently sympathetic to the Soviet Union and its repressions.But hadn't those liberals also produced liberal values? This wasthe question that guided Orwell's observation about the Britishintelligentsia, and that led Sidney Hook, in an essay titled "TheFuture of Socialism," published eighteen months before the Hisscase, to note the contradictions of "totalitarian liberals" whobacked the third-party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace andits call, under the name of "progressivism," for a rapprochementwith the USSR. The Wallace-ites, Hook wrote, seemed wedded to "thesemantic confusion according to which Russia is a democracy ofanother kind." Stalin the democrat! It was this paradox thatinspired Trilling to declare Chambers a man of honor and thus implythat those intent on discrediting him were well on their way todishonoring themselves. Chambers, naturally, believed this as well,and in a distinctly personal way, having felt the wrath ofliberals, among them his colleagues at Time, who eagerlyparticipated in what John Dos Passos, in his review of Chambers'smemoir Witness in 1952, described as "the moral lynching ofWhittaker Chambers by the right-thinking people of this country."
By this time Chambers had assumed his second historic role, the onethat most compels our interest today. He had become a principalfounder of modern American conservatism. There were already hintsof it before the Hiss case--for example, in his historical fable"The Ghosts on the Roof," published in Time in March 1945, a monthafter the Yalta summit, when Chambers was the magazine's foreignnews editor. At the time the Big Three accord was almostuniversally praised, and an enfeebled Roosevelt, weeks away fromdeath, had gone before Congress to summarize all that had been won.Yet the clear victor was Stalin, still a wartime ally and a hero tomany. But he was not a hero in Chambers's analysis. His view,whimsically put in the mouths of the murdered royal "ghosts" of the1917 revolution, was that Stalin was the latest and most audaciousof the Russian czars, "greater than Rurik, greater than Peter! ForPeter conquered only in the name of a limited class. But Stalinembodies the international social revolution. That is the mighty,new device of power politics which he has developed for blowing upother countries from within."
Chambers the Cassandra could be heard also at key moments in theHiss case-- most memorably when he and Hiss were at last broughttogether publicly, and Chambers was asked (by Nixon) about rumorsthat his accusations arose from some obscure personal animus(involving, it was speculated, both mental illness andhomosexuality). Rather than attack his attackers, Chambers acceptedthe burden of moral guilt and recast it in the rhetoric of highsacrifice: "The story has spread that in testifying against Mr.Hiss I am working out some old grudge, or motives of revenge orhatred. I do not hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends, but we arecaught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealedenemy against which we all are fighting, and I am fighting. I havetestified against him with remorse and pity, but in a moment ofhistoric jeopardy in which this nation now stands, so help me God Icould not do otherwise."
It was classic Chambers, down to the echo of Martin Luther ("ichkann nicht anders"), fraught with suppressed melodrama. In onesense, he was not an intellectual at all. He was certainly not asystematic thinker in the manner, say, of his friend James Burnham,the ex-Trotskyist reborn as right-wing sage whose analysis ofmodern bureaucracy, The Managerial Revolution, had been crucial toOrwell's conception of the totalitarian world in 1984, and whoseaggressive "rollback" doctrine much later provided the theoreticalbasis for the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emption in the"war on terror." What Chambers had, instead, was imagination.?Noone ever spun cold war poetry as he did--reams of it, first in Timeand then in Witness. He was the first great technician of the newera's magnificent cant.
At the time very few saw this. Or, more precisely, they noticed thecant but not the magnificence, partly because Chambers's tone wasdistinctly old- fashioned. Though steeped in the Modernists, he wasuntouched by them. His models were Augustine, Hugo, and above allDostoevsky. His preferred contemporaries were Koestler (areciprocal admirer), Malraux (ditto), and Camus. Czesaw Miosz, whonever met Chambers, wrote to me in a letter that "I have alwaysfelt great sympathy for him and thought about his tragic life. Hesuffered much ? and was excluded from the circle of people worthy ofhaving their hands shaken." Chambers did not find full fellowshipuntil the spring of 1959, two years before his death, when hetraveled to Europe at the urging of Koestler, who arranged for himto meet Manes Sperber, the great Galician novelist (andex-communist), and also introduced him to Margarete Buber-Neumann,the daughter-in-law of Martin Buber and friend of Milena Jesenska,beloved of Kafka (the two women had been inmates together at theNazi death camp Ravensbruck). "So there we sat and talked,"Chambers wrote in a letter to William F. Buckley Jr. "Then, werealized that, of our particular breed, the old activists, we arealmost the only survivors." It is fitting that of all Chambers'sEnglish contemporaries it should have been Rebecca West, herselfdriven by ideological furies, who deemed Witness one of the greatmodern autobiographies, "so just and so massive in itsresuscitation of the past."
Written in the immediate aftermath of the Hiss case at the urging ofAgee, Witness is indeed a towering memoir, but it is more urgentlya spiritual manifesto, a call to moral arms. By the time hefinished the book, Chambers had completed the arc ofdisenchantment--his last shreds of patience with the left destroyedby the Hiss case--and now stood defiantly on the right. Done withthe socialist revolution, he was all for America, but he betrayedhimself in his prose, which, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted in areview, exuded "an un- American ? or at least un-Anglo-Saxonintensity." This did not lessen its impact on postwarconservatism--among the movement's writers, but also among itspolitical figures, keenly responsive as they were to Chambers'sdistillations of large ideas into quotable oratory and to his oddlysonorous invocations of the apocalypse.
World War II, Chambers wrote, "simplified the balance of forces inthe world by reducing them to two." This was more or less what mostAmericans, including American intellectuals, believed in 1952. ButChambers typically went further, embracing a Manichaean dualism,though even this had its Marxist angle. As a practicedrevolutionary, he knew--as did Lenin and Trotsky, for all theirfealty to "historical materialism"--that political movements rise topower not on the wings of theory but through the politics ofirreducible choice.
This was the lesson absorbed by American conservatives in theirprolonged moment of ascendancy, which looks now to be ending. Themovement's first national experiment with the politics ofpolarizing choice came in the presidential election of 1964, andthe results were disastrous. But four years later Richard Nixon,who until Chambers's death remained his friend and in some sensehis disciple, succeeded in shattering the postwar consensus byrallying a "silent majority" of God-fearing, law-abiding citizensto seize the whip from the unbelieving elite--the people who (inNixon's view, not entirely wrong) had never forgiven him forexposing Hiss. Another master of divisiveness, Ronald Reagan,posthumously awarded Chambers the Medal of Freedom, and more thanonce startled aides by reciting passages of Witness from memory.The book's tonalities are likewise audible in the scripts thatReagan wrote for his popular radio addresses in the 1970s, when hewas mounting his run at the presidency, and also in his notoriousformulation "the evil empire," derived from Chambers's descriptionof communism as "the focus of the concentrated evil of our time."
The epithet "evil empire" distressed many in the civilized worldwhen Reagan first uttered it in 1983. But?he was?speaking in termsthe Soviets themselves understood; he gave voice to the binarytheology that joined the two great powers in their death struggle.In the 1980s, when Chambersian absolutism was very much in vogue,the official view of the Reagan White House was that?the SovietUnion was?not only "permanently evil" but indestructible, growingin?reach and in charismatic might even as the evidence oppositelypointed to a dysfunctional economy, a political spoils systemrotten with corruption, republics seething with ethnic hatreds,satellite countries in rebellion. But when the collapse came, theManichaean belief that America had singly "won" the cold war seemedvindicated. Our theology had triumphed. Even a conservative such asFukuyama, updating the?dialectic along Hegelian rather than Marxianlines, credited the triumph to "the realm of consciousness or ideas,since consciousness will ultimately remake the material world inits image." Since then Fukuyama has acknowledged that he and otherneoconservatives were wrong.
Chambers, unburdened by intellectual discipline, also came torecognize the folly of the rigid dualism he had espoused sovividly. He was in fact among the first on the right to interpretthe death of Stalin in 1953, and the subsequent rise of Khrushchev,as signaling a new phase in the "twilight struggle." In yet anotherof his volte-faces, the most unexpected of all, Chambersrefashioned himself into a liberal in his last years. He became adefender of civil liberties (including Hiss's when he was denied apassport) and of the Keynesian policies promoted by John KennethGalbraith. He ardently opposed the arms race, which struck him as adangerous provocation. Most interestingly, he came to see that thetheology of Americanism was empty. Nations, in his evolving view,must scrub themselves before they sought to cleanse the souls oftheir enemies. "It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck ofWestern civilization," he wrote to Buckley in 1954. "It is alreadya wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more nowthan to snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handfulof ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flower potagainst the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare tobelieve that there was once something else, that something else isthinkable ? that there were those who, at the great nightfall, tookloving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth."
Meanwhile, the Manichaean Chambers remains a large presence on theright. In July 2001, the White House of George W. Bush, eager topolish its ideological credentials, paid homage to Chambers byholding an event in commemoration of his hundredth birthday. Thespeakers included William F. Buckley Jr. and Robert Novak. Thepresident did not attend, but two of his speechwriters, MichaelGerson and David Frum did, a fact that resonated some months laterwhen, following Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington onSeptember 11, Gerson and Frum composed the phrase "axis of evil,"which christened the new counter- jihad.
By then it was plain that "the war on terror" would be fought in theterms Chambers had spelled out in his bleakest phase, the lonelyperiod following the Hiss case. His heirs had settled on animmovably absolutist course, inspired by the dark vision projectedin Witness: "In this century, within the next decades, will bedecided for generations whether all mankind is to become Communist,whether the whole world is to become free, or whether, in thestruggle, civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyedor completely changed. It is our fate to live upon that turningpoint in history." Substitute "Islamo- fascist" for "Communist" andit is depressingly clear how little has changed.
This is not to say that the lessons of the cold war are altogetherinapplicable to the current struggle. Quite the opposite, and notonly because we are now mired in a war that increasingly summons upall the worst memories of Vietnam. It is easy to overlook thatVietnam, horrific though the episode was, occurred within a broaderglobal struggle in which the Western democracies ultimatelyprevailed. And it is equally easy to overlook, amid the catastropheof Iraq, that the terrorist enemies we face are real--they are notfigments, nor simply legions of the rightfully aggrieved, norsimply the victims (or the creations) of American overreach. Topretend they are, and to see the Bush administration as the soleauthor of our present troubles, is to become unwittingly complicitin the fanatical simplifications of those who mean to harm to us.It is to abandon "moral realism," as Trilling described it in hisgreat book The Liberal Imagination. Trilling may not have venturedfar into the communist movement, but he knew a good deal about thederangements of doctrinaire politics. Ideology, he wrote, "is notacquired by thought but by breathing the haunted air.... To livethe life of ideology with its special form of unconsciousness is toexpose oneself to the risk of becoming an agent of what Kant called'the Radical Evil.'"
It is worth remembering, at this anxious moment, that the announced"war on terror" began with the acknowledgment, long overdue in ourpolitics, that radical evil really exists in the world, and thatthis acknowledgment was first made in language of surprisinggenerosity. In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001,Bush--not yet the divisive figure he soon would become-- spelledout our debt to other peoples: "Americans will never forget thesounds of our national anthem playing at Buckingham Palace, on thestreets of Paris, and at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate," Bush said. "Wewill not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside ourembassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque inCairo. We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourningin Australia and Africa and Latin America." To read these wordstoday--words that if anything seem too hopeful in their assumptionsabout the Muslim world--is to be reminded that in the aftermath of9/11 Bush gave us reason to believe he would draw on the mostmeasured strains of cold war policy.
But this capacious internationalism was short-lived. It was replacedwithin a year by the suffocating unilateralism of the "BushDoctrine" of "pre-emptive" license, with its promise, or threat,that henceforth the administration would "act, and act quickly,against danger," with armed forces "ready to strike at a moment'snotice in any dark corner of the world." In theory, this seemedreasonable: what great power can afford not to have a well-preparedmilitary? The problem began with the "haunted air" that Bush andcompany inhaled. They seemed to revel in reviving the panicky moodof the late 1950s and early 1960s-- only this time the low-gradeemergency has given us red and yellow "alerts," recklessannouncements of thwarted terrorist "plots," howeverinconsequential, the brutal mistreatment of "enemy combatants," theillegal surveillance of American citizens.
The result was that the actual dangers we faced from militant Islamwere blurred into a generalized atmosphere of apocalyptic crisis.Essential distinctions, and the wisdom with which they were made,was lost. Yes, we are now in conflict with a grim adversary, butnot with an opponent superpower, nor with anything resembling anempire, and it does no good to pretend otherwise. Not every goodfight is a millennial fight. George W. Bush's worldview isprecisely the one that Whittaker Chambers outgrew. It is a punishingirony, and one can imagine all too easily how Chambers himselfwould have greeted it: with the sly half-smile of a melancholy manwho knows better.