Whenever I read a book that tells a story, I try to imagine it as a movie. Having just finished “Witness”, Whittaker Chambers’ autobiographical masterpiece, I thought it would be an ideal vehicle for a Hollywood production. Look at what it has to offer.
The book takes place in the cauldron of the first half of the twentieth century in the backdrop of two World Wars, The Great Depression and the beginning of the Cold War. It involves powerful and influential people in government, the media and the arts. Prominent actors include U.S. Presidents present and future. The story is a philosophical, psychological and intensely human journey . It has elements of history, philosophy, drama, humor, suspense, intrigue, courage and even murder. It’s part spy thriller, trial drama and love story. Its protagonist is overweight, disheveled, eccentric, has a bad heart and (for good measure) bad teeth. He’s also a brilliant student of language, the arts, philosophy and history, is a keen observer of the human condition, a skilled translator and a magnificent writer. Like his father, Chambers was bisexual, though this isn’t made clear in the book. Being a man of action, he’s not satisfied by merely holding deeply felt beliefs but by boldly working to advance them. For this he suffers greatly.
Born at the turn of the century Chambers grows up in a broken home in Long Island. His philandering father moves out, eventually moving back but remaining estranged to the family. The family takes in Chamber’s deranged grandmother who exhibits homicidal tendencies. Chambers’ brother is suicidal and eventually succeeds in killing himself. Chambers runs away from home and gets a menial, dangerous job in Washington, D.C. After losing his job he makes his way to New Orleans. There, he‘s unable to find work and lives in squalid surroundings with some colorful characters. He decides to return home and enrolls in Columbia University. On a trip to Europe, he sees firsthand the ravages of war. Convinced that mankind is headed inexorably towards its destruction, Chambers, seeking an alternative to what he sees as a failed society, quits school and joins the Communist party. After a few years in the open party, he’s recruited by Soviet intelligence and goes underground. He becomes a liaison between the Soviet military and Communists who have infiltrated high levels of the U.S. government including the Treasury and State Departments. He becomes involved in espionage. In 1937, disillusioned by Stalin’s murderous purge and convinced of the evil of Communism, he breaks with the underground, risking his life and that of his family in doing so. Only once in the next ten years does he attempt to inform on his former associates. When his entreaty to the State Department is ignored, he settles down, making a living as a Time magazine editor and as a farmer. Then in the summer of 1948 his world is thrown into turmoil as he’s subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Under oath, before a nationwide audience, he details the machinery of the Soviet underground apparatuses and its extensive level of infiltration in the U.S. government. In the process, Chambers implicates a highly respected State Department official, Alger Hiss. For the next year and a half Chambers is subjected to vilification from lawyers, the press and powerful political interests and is driven to the brink of suicide. He’s finally vindicated as Hiss is convicted of perjury following the “Trial Of The Century”.
Doesn’t this have the makings of a great film? Yes, but it won’t ever be made. Hollywood and the left have far too big an investment in the myth of the “Red Scare”. Political films in Hollywood mean anti-anti-Communism (“Citizen Cohn”, “The Way We Were”, “Hollywood on Trial”, “Point of Order”, “The Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist”, “Tail Gunner Joe”, “Good Night, and Good Luck”, “The Front”); Anti right wing dictatorships (“Missing”, “The Year of Living Dangerously”); and anti Nazi Germany (countless numbers); The heart rending tragedies of screenwriters having their names left off of 50s TV show credits have been explored to an infinitely greater extent than the stories of the tens of millions who’ve perished at the hands of humankind’s greatest scourge. Depicting the “Red Scare” more accurately as the “Red Threat” would deprive filmmakers’ and playwrights’ of one of their favorite themes. Who will want to watch yet another production of “The Crucible” if it’s just seen as an indictment of stupid pre-Revolution colonialists? How can a movie be released that doesn’t demonize Richard Nixon but actually casts him as a hero?
Yes, I know. McCarthy was a self-promoting demagogue who ignored civilized rules of the investigative process. Chambers himself deplored McCarthy’s tactics and felt that he severely damaged the cause of anti-Communism. But the fundamental idea that “McCarthyism” was merely an excuse for the persecution of innocent opponents of the right is grossly fallacious. The left has invoked the M-term for more than half a century to (successfully) disparage and demonize conservatism. The record of Communist infiltration of American institutions has been thoroughly documented, but a popular movie, especially if it’s well done and made interesting, would go a long way toward derailing the left’s disinformation campaign. Having the verbatim proceedings of the HUAC acted out onscreen, as Chambers presents them in his book, would show the committee not involved in a vindictive witch hunt, but pursuing a fair, thorough search for the truth.
Naturally, just as there is a sizable cohort that denies that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin that killed JFK, there are legions of left wing sympathizers that dispute the incontrovertible fact that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy, a secret agent of the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence.
A book written by New York Times Book Review editor, Sam Tanenhaus, “Whittaker Chambers, A Biography” concludes that Hiss was clearly guilty. Some reviewer comments.
For the American Left (never mind the European Left), the innocence of Alger Hiss was an article of faith. After all, if such a mainstream New Deal figure as Hiss had actually been part of a secret underground cabal, spying on the US for the Soviets, even as WWII was underway, then a whole battery of conservative attacks would gain legitimacy and the whole of FDR's legacy (both New Deal and Grand Alliance) would be called into question.
It is doubtful that even a confession on his (Hiss’) part would have made any difference to the cottage industry of professional Hiss defenders: as one Hiss partisan admitted, even if he heard that Hiss had confessed on his deathbed to being a Soviet agent, he "wouldn't believe it.”
You could tell where someone stood on the political spectrum simply by getting their answer to whether Chambers or Hiss had told the truth. Well, it's time for our entire society to face those questions and this celebrated Chambers biography by Sam Tanenhaus offers an excellent starting point. Despite the real greatness of this book, Tanenhaus can't clear up many of the mysteries of the story for us, but he does provide several valuable services. …by presenting the Hiss material in a simple declarative manner, he lays to rest any lingering doubts about whether Hiss was guilty of spying for the Soviet Union and then committing perjury about it later. It will be impossible for anyone to contest the mountain of evidence that he lays out so masterfully. …he shows that there were Reds to be uncovered during the Red Scares and when diligent men like Richard Nixon went after them, they hit pay dirt. But he also shows that Joe McCarthy, who alienated Chambers with his dilettantish behavior & was never really serious about the investigatory process, effectively discredited the whole anti-Communist movement. Finally, as the Cold War fades in our rearview mirror, Tanenhaus recaptures the mood & feeling of the time when it seemed likely to be our Gotterdammerung. Hopefully, folks who read this book will also seek out Witness and find, in it's dark and frightening world view, the lost emotional fervor that fueled the anti-Communists & brought us Barry Goldwater & Ronald Reagan and eventual victory over the USSR.
The Hiss case put the New Deal itself on trial, asking whether its leadership was pervaded with Communists; whether those leaders had followed the Communist Party line in shaping U.S. policy; whether they had tainted American war and China policy during and after World War II. And whether liberals were either so blind to these problems or so secretly sympathetic to them as to forever render them incapable of loving and protecting their homeland as it was.
Most of “Witness” is engrossing, but it becomes absolutely riveting with its narrative of the Hiss trial. The book is exceptionally well written. Chambers was above all else a brilliant writer. Here’s what a reviewer of the Tanenhaus book had to say.
…he (Tanenhaus) reclaims Chambers the writer. Witness is widely recognized as one of the great books of the Century, but Tanenhaus also demonstrates that his work for Time and National Review and even the stories that he wrote as a young man are the product of a gifted writer.
Witness does have a few shortcomings. First, there’s Chambers’ insistence on detailing his many contacts encountered during his time as a Communist. This tends to clutter the story with names of people who really aren’t essential to the narrative. This may have been necessary since Chambers wanted to present as detailed a record of his experiences as possible. Second, Chambers doesn’t spend much time describing the two Hiss perjury trials. I suspect that’s because his deeply personal (i.e. - sexual) life came up and he was reluctant to discuss it. Chambers also doesn't speculate on the political motives of the HUAC members. Reportedly, the Tanenhaus book covers these omissions and I look forward to reading it. Chambers also delves into the origins and meaning of his Christian faith and for me, such spiritual reflections always seem murky. That’s my failing, however.
There is much wisdom in this book and I could fill several hundred pages just citing sagacious passages. Here are three. First Chambers relates the torment that accompanied his decision to break with Communism.
I have reached the point in my narrative at which this book began – the point at which I repudiated Communism and violently broke away from the slaves of the Communist mill. So great an effort, quite apart from its physical and practical hazards, cannot occur without a profound upheaval of the spirit. No man lightly reverses the faith of an adult lifetime, held implacably to the point of criminality. He reverses it only with a violence greater than the force of the faith he is repudiating. It is not a matter of leaving one house and occupying another – especially when the second is manifestly in collapse and the caretakers largely witless. The faith is not worth holding which a man is not willing to reach, if necessary, through violence, and to hold through suffering.
Note Chambers' belief that Communism would ultimately prevail over freedom and he was thus joining the losing side.
Most people aren’t as deeply invested in an ideology as Chambers was with Communism. Even so, it takes some effort to overcome the inertia binding us to long held beliefs. Since a solid majority of young people are attracted by the rhetoric of the left, that mindset maintains a high degree of support just because of this natural intellectual laziness.
Here, Chambers astutely describes Lenin's "useful idiots", an enduring group, which today continues to urge accommodation with dictators and tyrants. (I find it very funny that the idiots have erected a statue of their denegrator in Seattle).
…the people who were implacably opposed to my editorial views (in Time magazine) on the Soviet Union and Communism were not Communists. Here and there, a concealed Communist may have been at work. But the overwhelming might of the opposition came from people who had never been Communists and never would be.
They were people who believed a number of things. Foremost among them was the belief that peace could be preserved, World War 3 could be averted only by conciliating the Soviet Union. For this no price was too hard to pay, including the price of willful self-delusion. Yet, they had just fiercely supported a war in which one of their ululant outcries had been against appeasement; and they were much too intelligent really to believe that Russia was a democracy or most of the other upside-down they said in defense of it. Hence like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched, and reacted with a violence that completely belied the openness of mind which they prescribed for others. Let me call their peculiar condition which sometimes had unconsciously deep, and sometimes very conscious, political motives that it would perhaps be unmannerly to pry into here – the Popular Front mind.
Nor can it be repeated too often that most of those who suffered from it were not Communists. Yet Communists, at a critical spin of history, had few more effective allies. The Popular Front mind dominated American life, at least from 1938 to 1948, and it is still grossly premature to count it out. Particularly, it dominated all avenues of communication between intellectuals and the nation. It told the nation what it should believe; it made up the nation’s mind for it. The Popular Fronters had made themselves the “experts.” They controlled the narrows of news and opinion. And though, to a practiced ear, they never ceased to speak as the scribes, the nation heard in their fatal errors the voice of those having authority. For the nation too, wanted peace above all things, and it simply could not grasp or believe that a conspiracy on the scale of Communism was possible or that it had already made so deep a penetration into their lives.
Chambers’ “Popular Front” never really did go away. It maintained its monopoly on ideas well into the eighties. Only with the development of talk radio and the internet was there made available a viable counter voice. Still, today, the Popular Front, now comprised of the mainstream media and most of academia, remains a powerful force determining the direction of popular thought. (For an egregious recent example, witness ABC News’ decision to move into the White House to help sell President Obama’s health care plan while refusing Republicans a similar platform).
Chambers recognized Communism as one of the twin pillars of fascism in our time.
World War 2, like the Spanish Civil War, would be fought to decide which of the great fascist systems – the Axis or Communism – was to survive and control Europe. In the end, the superiority of the Communist system was indicated by the fact that it was able to use the free nations to carry out its purposes, as indispensible allies in war, whose vital interests could easily be defeated in peace.
What Chambers did not foresee is that his writings would inspire a future President. And, ironically, it was Ronald Reagan’s policies which ensured that Chambers’ prophesy of Communism’s ultimate victory did not happen.
One last item - a good Trivial Pursuit question – Who translated “Bambi” from the original German? Answer – The author of “Witness”.