Editor’s Note: Ralph de Toledano passed away last Saturday, at the age of 90. Among his many endeavors in journalism and politics was assisting in the founding of National Review. Here we re-publish a piece by him, appearing in the August 1, 1986, issue of National Review, in which he remembers Whittaker Chambers on the 25th anniversary of the Chambers’s death.
Hardly a day has passed in the 25 years since Whittaker Chambers died that I have not thought of him, have not conjured up his face and those prescient laughing eyes. He has lived with me like lares and penates, as he has with a few others — and it is to our household gods that we must turn when the God Who made us seems too remote to touch the aorta of our being. The world remembers and forgets, forgets and remembers, but the world did not experience him as some of us did.
How he died, and in what straits of pain and relief, we will never know. Death is the ultimate privacy. But this can be said: In his last years, he implored God for a passage he welcomed. Always he wrote and spoke to me of his great weariness, though in that weariness, the courage that had sustained him still glimmered. He died in the old Westminster farmhouse, built of ballast brought here on sailing ships, the house where we had sat for so many long afternoons watching the kingfishers overhead and the sun settling behind the Maryland hills. In a poem, he confided to me
the monotony of the agony of its plea to die at once; and at the same time not to die . . .
I could offer only the words that end Dante’s Inferno, E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. Or I could repeat to him my father’s words, la vida es pena — life is pain — and when I read them in Witness I thought, “That is my contribution.” But he already knew that life is pain and pain is life, and that both are the meaning of Golgotha, the place of skulls.
I leave it to others of more acute wisdom to assess his impact on our contemporaneity. It is my simple belief that Whittaker Chambers was the catalyst that changed the chemistry of this nation. But for him, the Hiss case would have been one more dreary process of law, a police assault on treason. Through him it became a contest of faith, a confrontation of God and Man. At issue was not the declaration of Communism, not the twitchings of Marx or the cunning of Lenin, but an affirmation of what our civilization was and must once more be.
Few understood the Old Testament evocations of what he wrote in Witness. “Political freedom is a political reading of the Bible.” But the word when uttered takes flight and lodges in hearts that are otherwise occupied. He looked to a God of Mercy, but when the sword was brandished, it was to a God of Justice that he bent.
So much there is to remember of his tuition and intuition. I brought him to the poems of St. John of the Cross and the mystical iteration of Aunche es de noche. He led me to Rilke’s Marienleben and its injunction that we must make our God das Harte aus dem Harten — the hard from the hard. In the days before the first trial, he made my house a refuge after hours spent recalling what he would have preferred to forget, the detailed recital of what the courts require, extracted from him by FBI agents who by then were calling him Uncle Whit. In those evening hours, he would release the tension, parodying himself and the seriousness of both defense and prosecution — or simply letting his mind unfold. Once he came in, warm and a-chortle over a movie he had gone to as an escape from the probing — Shane, about a small boy and a tough cowboy.
The past is a bucket of self-deception in which the good grows better and the bad worse. But the recall of my first encounter with Whittaker Chambers is etched in metal. He had refused to see me — though I was writing the Newsweek stories on the case and working on a book about it — or any other newspapermen, for that matter. It required the intercession of Benjamin Stolberg, that warm-hearted curmudgeon, and Suzanne La Follette — old and tested friends — to convince him of my probity, and he reluctantly agreed to meet me. He arrived at my house at 7 P.M., a little nervous and ready to take flight, and he left at 2 A.M. Those hours were the beginning of our symbiotic friendship, a friendship that was the deepest in my life.
I had known several men who had come out of the dark world of the Communist underground, but what I learned from them was little more than names, dates, and places. What Whittaker Chambers imparted was a sense of meaning and dimension — a sense not of Good-and-Evil, but of Good-in-Evil. He gave the names, dates, and places, but he invested his account with their tragic reality. I understood, as he talked, what was at stake in the Hiss case — not only for him but for me as well. It is impossible to express why I was so moved and so involved. I was hearing of conspiracies and activities about which I knew, but they were set in the context of history and personal travail.
For Whittaker Chambers, history was a living tapestry in which past and present were interwoven with a lurking future. He would speak of the French Revolution, of the marching Kronstadt sailors, of Lenin and Stalin and the cellars of the Lubyanka, of the Cromwellian mobs and the shattering blow to Western civilization in the First World War, of Soviet spymasters and the Nazi-Soviet pact all in one voice — as if it were all happening now, an unwinding newsreel. He measured the conflict as one between men like himself and like the Communist who declared with equal determination, “Embrace the Butcher but change the world” — Bertolt Brecht’s searing line. And he separated both from those who dawdled with reason and escaped from commitment. He also accepted the terrible and humbling fact that the conflict had to be fought in grime and terror, leaving their taint on those who fought it.
“Is dirt nice? Is death nice? Above all is dying nice?” he wrote me much later. “And, in the end, we must ask, is God nice? I doubt it.” And again, “A man’s special truth is in the end all there is in him. And with that he must be content though life give him no more, though man give him nothing.” For he was convinced in his last years that his witness was “all for nothing, that nothing has been gained except the misery of others, that it was the tale of the end and not of the beginning. . . . You cannot save what cannot save itself.” He stood, in those days, like Jeremiah in the solitary city, his feet treading the scrolls. And yet to the very end, when he wrote and burned and burned and wrote again the pages of a book that was not to be finished, he never dismissed the imperatives of history that demanded the defeat of the pundits and the paleographers. It is an imperative of the heart, and his great heart knew it.