VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #1
The Conspiratorial World View of Whittaker Chambers

November 1989By John Lukacs

John Lukacs is Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. Born in Budapest, he has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other periodicals. Among his many books are The Great Powers and Eastern Europe and 1945: Year Zero.

Ed. Note: With this issue we inaugurate a series of occasional articles, to be writ­ten by various writers, under the rubric of “Vital Works Reconsidered.” The idea is to select an old, seminal book (or arti­cle) and take a fresh look at it. The book (or article) may be a classic or near-clas­sic, or, alternately, something worth rescuing from obscurity. It has been selected, not necessarily because our writer agrees or disagrees with it, but because it is of enduring significance and worthy of further consideration.

Witness. By Whittaker Chambers.

About 40 years ago, at the time of the Hiss Trial, Alistair Cooke wrote a book with the title A Generation on Trial. I have not read the book, whereby I cannot say any­thing about the validity of its contents, but even then I sensed that the title was very appropriate. Indeed, in 1948 I had an in­stinctive feeling that Alger Hiss was guilty. I felt this not because of my then-so-strong and impatient anti-Communism; I thought that I recognized that Quaker inclination to the far Left; I thought I recognized his type. More important: Hiss was not an untypical example of a certain American bureaucrat who made his career in the Roosevelt Administration and who was attracted by the idea of international Communism — and, even more than by that idea, by the prospect of his being, or becoming, an important member of a future ruling elite. Later I found that the truest insight into such inclinations came not from historians or political scientists but from certain American writers. The inclination of certain liberal Protestants to the extreme Left was described by Santayana in The Last Puritan, and the ambitions of that bureaucratic would-be elite by Edmund Wilson in I Thought of Daisy.

Everything I read about Hiss since that trial, including his own memoirs and the (unwittingly) damaging revelations about his character by his son, confirm this view. To this I will add that — in some ways not unlike the “revolutionaries” of the 1960s — there was a fatal superficiality in the inclinations of this man. The former were, in reality, merely playing at revolution; Alger Hiss was, to me, playing at spying. When I read those State Department documents that Hiss gave to his blustering Soviet agent in 1938, I found that they contained information and secrets of minimal value. I am also inclined to think — but, of course, for this I have no evidence — that by 1945 Hiss, who had risen high in the government bureaucracy, may have ceased actively working for the Soviets, and that, had he not been caught, he may have gone on as a high and respected member of the American foreign-policy establishment, perhaps returning to government service in the 1960s, shedding not only his earlier Communist connections but all of his old notions about Communism and the Soviet Union. (He might even have become a neoconservative — who knows?)

I had, and still have, nothing but sympathy for Whittaker Chambers, who struck me as an unhappy and serious man, far more profound than Alger Hiss, and by this I do not only mean his conversion from Communism. I read his Witness with respect. Unlike some of his critics, I did not and do not hold it against him that in this searing personal confession he did not mention the homosexual relationship that, among other things, had bound him to Hiss in the 1930s. But: one’s sympathy for a tortured and decent man does not necessarily mean a trust in his view of the world.

As for Hiss, my irritation also arose because the revelation of his former Communist activities led to an extreme preoccupation with domestic Communism, because it was the Hiss case that led to the rise of Richard Nixon, and because the Hiss phenomenon led to a political atmosphere in which ideological anti-Communism became an even greater obstacle to the conduct of an intelligent foreign policy than the influence of pro-Communism in 1945 had been. In the case of Chambers I saw no dishonesty — but rather the, perhaps not easily avoidable or surpassable, inclination of a man to at­tribute most, if not all, of the evils and problems of the world to the wrong from which he had, after great inner troubles, escaped.


You have two options:

  1. Online subscription: Subscribe now to New Oxford Review for access to all web content at newoxfordreview.org AND the monthly print edition for as low as $38 per year.
  2. Single article purchase: Purchase this article for $1.95, for viewing and printing for 48 hours.

If you're already a subscriber log-in here.



Back to November 1989 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this story!