Playwright David Mamet recently acknowledged that he had been profoundly influenced by Communist apostate Whittaker Chambers’s 1952 anti-Communist memoir, Witness. Mamet described how reading Chambers’s opus inspired “the wrenching experience” of forcibly reevaluating the way he thought, particularly his confessed leftist-herd co-dependence. Also, echoing the delusive herd mentality of the Left’s ad hominem attacks in the 1950s on Chambers — whose allegations of Communist conspiracies have been entirely vindicated with irrefragable documentation from the captured Soviet Venona cables — Congressman Peter King’s staid initial hearings of March 10, 2011, on American Muslim radicalization engendered similarly apoplectic, and equally unwarranted condemnation, even before getting underway.
Mamet’s invocation of Witness, and the repeated hysterical, if groundless, objections to the second round of hearings by Representative King’s Homeland Security Committee (June 15, 2011, on Muslim radicalization in U.S. prisons), are fitting reminders that today marks the 50th anniversary of Whittaker Chambers’s death.
Chambers was born April 1, 1901, in Philadelphia, and spent his childhood on the south shore of Long Island, in (then rural) Lynbrook. Upon graduating high school, Chambers left home and worked as a construction laborer replacing railroad tracks near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., before drifting to New Orleans, and then returning to attend Columbia University from 1920 to 1924. Under the tutelage of Columbia English professor Mark Van Doren (before Van Doren became an internationally known literary critic and poet), Chambers tried his hand at poetry, even completing a book of poems entitled “Defeat in the Village,” before realizing, “I never could write poetry good enough to be worth writing.”
This apprenticeship, however, helped teach Chambers “the difficult, humbling, exacting art of writing,” and he would go on to become an exceptionally gifted writer of prose. He joined the Communist party in 1925, experiencing great success as a writer at the Daily Worker and as an editor at The New Masses, both Communist-controlled publications. In 1932, Chambers was asked to join the underground movement of the Communist party, and he served in the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence. Recognizing Chambers’s intellectual prowess, the underground placed him with the Ware Group (a collection of Communist cells consisting of government officials and journalists) in Washington, D.C. It was here, among other promising New Deal civil servants, that he encountered Alger Hiss. Chambers and Hiss, along with their spouses, became close friends.
During late 1938, overwhelmed by the horrific actions of the Soviet Communist party, in particular the Stalinist purges and forced starvation of Ukrainian peasants, and having rejected Communism’s militant atheism, Chambers left the Communist movement. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was a watershed event for Chambers, who realized that much of the confidential information about the U.S. that he had forwarded to the Soviet Union could now be passed to Germany. Thus Chambers decided to divulge his prior activities for the Communist underground to the federal government. Shortly thereafter, Chambers was able to meet with the head of security at the State Department, A. A. Berle. Although Chambers revealed most of his activities, he withheld the facts of espionage conducted by his cell, largely to protect others, including, notably, Alger Hiss. Regardless, it was not until 1948 — nine years later — that the information he provided to Berle was acted upon by the government. Chambers was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to corroborate the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley — the so-called “blonde spy queen” — who alleged that Soviet espionage was occurring within the U.S. government. Chambers corroborated Bentley’s allegations, supplemented them with his own, and confronted Alger Hiss on the first day of his testimony. (Eventually, all 21 names that Chambers provided to HUAC were confirmed by subsequent Soviet archival research.) In 1950, Hiss was convicted of perjury after two federal trials.
A naturally gifted linguist, particularly fluent in German, Whittaker Chambers translated into English Bambi, Dunant: the Story of the Red Cross, and a number of children’s books over the years. Chambers joined Time magazine in 1939, initially as a book reviewer, later as a writer and editor. He wrote many of Time’s cover stories during his tenure, including profiles of historian Arnold Toynbee, vocalist Marian Anderson, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Pope Pius XII. Chambers, based upon his experience as a Communist and intuitive grasp of history, displayed a remarkably prescient understanding of the Cold War as an editor and writer for Time’s foreign-news section. He also contributed seven brilliant essays to Life’s 1947–1948 “Picture History of Western Civilization” series. Compelled to resign from Time during the tumultuous Hiss trials, Chambers became an editor and writer on the staff of National Review from the latter part of 1957 to the middle of 1959. Throughout most of his journalistic career, Chambers continued to operate a farm in Westminster, Md., maintaining a dairy herd, raising sheep and beef cattle, and producing various crops.