Most people remember Whittaker Chambers for his 1948 testimony in the Alger Hiss spy case, exposing Soviet dirty work at the highest reaches of the U.S. government. After describing to the House Un-American Activities Committee his own message-running for the Communists during the Thirties, something the Time journalist, a convert to conservatism, deeply regretted, Chambers implicated his friend Hiss — a former State Department official and then-head of the Carnegie Endowment — as a fellow operative, passing state secrets to the Soviets. Hiss went to jail for perjury and became for the Left a presumptively innocent casualty of anti-Communist hysteria (in fact, he was as guilty as sin). Chambers wrote Witness, his 1952 classic chronicling his seduction by Marxism and later spiritual awakening as a Christian, retired to his farm in rural Maryland, and briefly became a contributor to William F. Buckley’s youthful National Review. He died of a heart attack in 1961.
This extraordinary political story, along with the earlier drama of Chambers’s life — including an unhappy upbringing and conflicted sexuality — has been covered masterfully by Sam Tanenhaus in his 1997 biography. Richard Reinsch’s brief study touches on the biographical but his real interest is in Chambers as a thinker. Drawing not just on Witness but on his subject’s journalism for Time and Life and extensive personal correspondence, including with Buckley, Reinsch reveals a Chambers who thought deeply about modernity, freedom, and the destiny of the West, which he saw as dark indeed.