A Narodnik from Lynbrook

Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961

by Whittaker Chambers, edited with Notes by William F. Buckley Jr., Foreword by Ralph De Toledano
The National Review, Inc., in association with Putnam, 303 pp., $6.95

These are the letters Whittaker Chambers wrote to his last and his best—that is, his most respectful—employer. The compliment is less than Mr. Buckley’s kindness of nature deserves, since his most conspicuous fellows in the company of Chambers’s former employers happen to be Colonel Bykov of the Soviet Secret Police, the late Henry Luce, and John F. X. McGohey, “then United States Attorney” for the Southern District of New York. These documents will come as a surprise to those persons who think of Chambers as simple and evil, since they begin in 1954 with a warning to Buckley against Senator Joe McCarthy and approach their end in 1959, with Chambers complaining, like any other sensitive American traveling abroad, about the embarrassments inflicted upon the home country by the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Internal Security and by the Strategic Air Command.

They also provide as much as we can know of Chambers’s last endeavor at factional agitation: he seems to have been Vice President Nixon’s man on the Board of Editors of National Review. This operation was anything but covert: Chambers indeed held back from joining National Review at its outset largely because its other editors so distrusted Mr. Nixon for being a centrist. “I am an org man,” he once wrote Buckley. Mr. Nixon was General Secretary of the last org he had; his faith in the Vice President remained a major point of difference with those of his colleagues whose conservative principles were so much superior to those of Mr. Nixon that they had vaulted to the higher level of those of Senator Joe McCarthy.

“Something…in your letter,” he writes to Willi Schlamm in December, 1954, “leaves the impression that there is an affinity between the National Review and a third party movement…a third party will be Senator McCarthy and his rally. I shall not be blaming him or them exclusively, if I say that such a move seems to me to be completing by suicide the wreck of the Republican party…”

Four years later, when he is abroad, he explains to Buckley:

The masses must be won by the Republican Left while keeping the Republican Right within the family. Once I hoped that Mr. Nixon could perform this healing bond, holding the Right in line, while a Republican Left formed about him a core. …The Republican Party will win the masses, or history will find for it a quiet, uncrowded spot in the potter’s field…”

That Mr. Nixon occasionally took counsel with Chambers was no secret; if it had been, Chambers would certainly have broken it, because, if the connection amused Buckley, it also impressed him. Perhaps it was Chambers’s loneliness, the experience of having to begin life again so often as a stranger in new surroundings, which explains his need always to carry the aura of an ambassador from some Other Shore: the Hisses, he says, were drawn to him because they thought him a Russian, which, to the extent that the…

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