A Whittaker Chambers Dialogue

Last Saturday I published a post entitled “Whittaker Chambers: The New Deal as Revolution.” The main premise of the post was Chambers’s view of the New Deal as a revolution of bookkeeping and lawmaking, providing a shift in power from business to politics.

Chambers with Newspaper of Hiss Verdict

Chambers’s indictment of Alger Hiss as part of the New Deal revolution led to Hiss’s conviction on perjury. To me, Chambers’s view of the New Deal [as reflected in the lives of Hiss and others] is in line with reality.

I was surprised, but also pleased, to notice that one of the comments on my posting was from Chambers’s grandson David Chambers. I was intrigued, though, with the thrust of his comment: he disagreed with my major premise. We dialogued in the comments section, and he requested that his viewpoint be presented in a posting rather than relegated to the comments. I agreed. Herewith, I present Mr. Chambers’s comments and my responses. The comments were long enough that I had to edit, but I trust I’ve captured the essence of what Mr. Chambers was saying.

He began:

One of the strangest trends I’ve seen vis-a-vis my grandfather, Whittaker Chambers, is support for attacks on the New Deal by quoting him. The passage you cite is the most quoted. The citation omits, however, a very important sentence:

“It is surprising how little I knew about the New Deal, although it had been all around me during my years in Washington.” (Whittaker Chambers, Witness, p. 471) Clearly then, Whittaker Chambers spoke about the New Deal with the caveat that he “knew little” about it.

Why would those attacking the New Deal cite someone who has so clearly disqualified himself?

Much of the time, I see others quote the entire paragraph and then ignore that sentence in what they go on to write. In those instances, readers have at least some chance of catching my grandfather’s disclaimer and weighing it against the rest of the quotation. Sadly, your citation does not afford readers that opportunity.

I responded: “David, I in no way meant to quote out of context, and I don’t believe I did. That one sentence does not disqualify him from making a judgment on the New Deal. All he is saying is that up to that point in his life he had known little about it. Writing after the Hiss case, he certainly had plenty of time to learn more. In fact, that’s what the rest of that section of Witness is all about–his newfound understanding of the New Deal. Consequently, I don’t really agree with the point you are making, but please know that I have the utmost respect for your grandfather.”

He then further elaborated:

I appreciate your respect for my grandfather. May we then agree to disagree, respectfully? I do not equate taking a “first hard look” by someone who knew “little” about the New Deal as making for an expert, worthy of citation.

I disagree, too, with your assumption. Just because “he certainly had plenty of time to learn more” does not prove that he did in fact use that time to learn more. In fact, I would argue, he spent his time otherwise. . . .

In 1951, as he was writing Witness, he believed that “the Popular Front mind dominated American life, at least from 1938 to 1948, and it is still grossly premature to count it out” (Witness, p. 499).

I disagree with such statements. The power of the Popular Front and the Communist Party among American intellectuals waxed in the early 1930s due mostly to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and rise of Nazism. Coming just behind these major events were the Great Purges, the Spanish Civil War, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which caused great numbers of those same people to desert the cause — including him. . . .

[Whittaker’s] viewpoint arises from the peculiar, isolated perspective of a former Soviet underground operative, not a student of American politics. . . . He could not see the New Deal as an American response. The New Deal “accepted” Capitalism, seeking rather to ameliorate Capitalism’s self-cannibalizing nature, after decades of boom-bust. . . .

In sum (and in my opinion), you have fallen into a trap set long ago by Bill Buckley and other early admirers. You have put Whittaker Chambers on a pedestal. This has led . . . you . . . to take his writings at face value. You have not acknowledged his own self-disqualification, nor examined why he said it. You have not examined when and why he railed against the New Deal as he did.

My response: “I wish to give Whittaker more credit. . . . From everything I’ve read of his (which is everything, I believe), it is obvious he was a thinker/analyzer who would have little trouble identifying what was behind the New Deal. I still don’t see his statement as a self-disqualification.

“I’m also aware of the danger of hagiography. . . . I don’t put him on a pedestal; I appreciate what he offered in a deep way, but recognize that all men are fallen creatures.

“The basic problem may be our views of the New Deal. You take the position that it was compatible with capitalism. I look at the same program and come to an opposite conclusion. I don’t believe the boom-bust cycle of capitalism was the engine that created the Depression. I’m more attuned to the view that Federal Reserve actions were the key factor. FDR’s policies did not “save” capitalism from itself or ameliorate the problems. I believe he created greater problems than an unfettered capitalism ever created.”

I’m glad to have given Mr. Chambers this opportunity to present his view. I have to say, though, that I am of the same opinion still. I do take Whittaker Chambers at his word because I believe he was a keen observer of the times.

What should come of this dialogue? If it leads anyone to read Witness for the first time, I will consider this worthwhile. You can then make your own determination as to which position is more accurate . . . and you’ll also experience one of the best books of the twentieth century.