Whittaker Chambers was born on April 1, 1901. But he was nobody’s fool.
Chambers, the former American Communist who courageously exposed a network of high-level Soviet spies operating in the U.S. Government in the 1930s and later energized the American conservative movement in the 1950s, died in 1961. He would not be surprised, however, by the rapid moral, political, and economic collapse that we’ve experienced in the past year. In fact, he predicted it.
Chambers was a gifted writer and brilliant scholar, educated at Columbia. In the 1920s, he fell for Communism’s false promises to end the great suffering he saw on a trip to post-World War I Europe. His traumatic childhood made Marxism’s anti-family ideology more plausible.
The Bolshevik propagandists had succeeded in convincing Chambers and many of his generation that the Great War was caused by capitalism, and not by the collapse of the feudal European monarchy system.
The Party exploited his skills as a journalist, essayist, and playwright to create propaganda to recruit others. In the early 1930s, Soviet military intelligence hired Chambers to run its Washington spy network. Among the American traitors who funneled classified information through him to Moscow were senior U.S. government officials—people such as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White, one of the co-founders of the International Monetary Fund, and State Department official Alger Hiss.
By the late 1930s, though, Chambers was disillusioned. A recent convert to Christianity, his conscience tortured him for his role in abetting the inherent cruelty of Communism as shown by Stalin’s murderous purges, the Ukraine famine, and many other examples. His newfound Christian faith was simply incompatible with the rival religion of Communism.
Chambers quit his job with the USSR and resigned from the party. Hailed by many as the best writer of his generation, he soon landed a position at Henry Luce’s Time magazine.
His guilt after betraying his homeland plagued him, though, and he knew many Soviet spies were still operating. Chambers publicly exposed them, despite knowing that it would end his career at Time. His Congressional testimony in 1948 caused a nationwide sensation and sent Hiss to prison.
The Hiss trial and Chambers’ brilliant autobiography, Witness, sparked new life into the American conservative movement in the 1950s. Although wearied by their battle to defeat the twentieth-century’s other great leftist totalitarian ideology, Nazism/Fascism, Americans committed themselves to the defeat of Communism.
Witness was far more than a story of betrayal and redemption. In it, Chambers faulted not only Communism but also that other toxic product of the Enlightenment, secular and materialistic liberalism, as the twin enemies undermining a Western Civilization that had flourished on a foundation of Judeo-Christian values.
As Chambers foretold, the West’s post-modern break with Christianity was replaced by the growing materialistic secularism and demands for radical self-autonomy that has dominated American culture since the Cold War. In 1948, the year Chambers testified against Alger Hiss, Gallup reported three-quarters of Americans attending church. By 2019, that number was 50 percent, with many younger Americans answering “None” to the question of what religion they considered themselves a part of.
Their spiritual emptiness is reflected in increasing rates of deaths of despair and hopelessness—as well as the bitter polarization of American society.
Lacking a spiritual and philosophical firewall against it, America has become a rich target for the many new (and global) incarnations of leftist ideology—e.g. radical environmentalism, libertinism, and identity politics.
The spiritual void has also been filled by a social media increasingly dominated by a woke and leftist corporatist statism. The rapidly rising “Cancel Culture” of censorship, for example, seems to have an inordinate focus on faith-based and conservative policies.
These forces have also made Americans more vulnerable to assaults by the most powerful enemies of freedom on the world stage today, the Chinese Communist Party and, to a lesser extent, Vladimir Putin’s twenty-first-century Stalinism and the religious totalitarianism of Iran’s mullahs.
Challenging the conventional wisdom of the elites, in the 1950s and still in the 2020s, Chambers told them and tells Americans now that they cannot successfully define themselves and rearm the nation spiritually through Gnostic-inspired ideology or material progress. Ever-expanding socialist government and identity politics will not give Americans eternal life, nor will they save Americans from their manifold sins.
Chambers was a pessimist, yet the sacrifice he made to defeat godless communism revived the American spirit that won the Cold War. Ironically, that victory allowed millions behind the Iron Curtain to hear the Christian message. Today, the West faces a Silicon Curtain.
As the nation’s conservatives (and moderates) struggle against the current push to the hard left throughout American society, it musted be hoped that they ponder Chambers’ still-relevant warning. Americans today should search for and elevate men and women like Whittaker Chambers in the rising generation of leaders. The United States needs them to stand up for freedom in the twenty-first-century if America is to survive.
James M. Roberts is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.