Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961
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 will could conquer an origin in Lynbrook, L.I., he certainly was and remained. His colleagues at Time knew that he had been an agent of the G.P.U. so long before the fact became notorious that we have to conclude that he told them early and often. Mr. Nixon was then only the last of those princes and powers of the outer air the suggestion of whose portfolio he bore.
His enjoyment of the mystery which was his alone to understand comes up now and again in these letters as the hint of knowing more than he can say. Some gossip had said that the Vice President did not always speak kindly of President Eisenhower. “But in this area,” Chambers wrote, “I must have Mr. Nixon’s permission to write (and especially to quote); and if he should feel it better to let the matter die, I am afraid I should have to agree with him.” (October 8, 1957)
“There is some very big news in the making, which I am bound not to hint at…I think I can and must say this: the first stages of what I refer to have already taken place, and been widely discussed. Only no one sees what is implied. So look, if you are interested, at seemingly minor news of the past fortnight or so. …I guess I may say this too: the President’s news conference disclosure of an arrangement with No. 2 [Nixon] was not an accident, though the succession was not the big news.” (Buckley’s explanatory notes make no reference to whatever great event was there portended and subsequently revealed; the chances are that there was none, since the Eisenhower administration was as scrupulous in the avoidance of great events as it was in working up truly interesting secrets.)
Chambers seems to have been troubled early on by worry that Buckley might think he was using his National Review essays to reflect Mr. Nixon’s mind. “I should expect our (his and my) position to be loosely similar on most issues. Yet I shall never be speaking for him; while I, like him, reach my conclusions independently. Conclusions I reach that may be of any use or of any interest to him, I freely submit. His rejection or concurrence is not my affair.” (October, 1957)
Mr. Nixon, he went on to suggest, had consulted with him in 1952 over whether the cause might be better served by supporting General Eisenhower rather than Senator Taft for the Republican nomination. “We disagreed ‘sharply’… He was judging in political terms and, in those terms, was absolutely right.” Mr. Nixon’s disregard for Chambers’s advice made possible, of course, that happy betrayal of the Republican Right which earned him the vice presidential nomination and constitutes, along with his part in the Hiss-Chambers affair, the only substantial achievements of his career prior to his ascension to the presidency.
Still, the consultations endured at least into 1960, although the bond between the two seems, like so many of Chambers’s other commitments, to have been a domestic affection dressed up as the summons of history: he was always curiously sentimental about persons who from kindness had ruined his career—far from having any need to forgive he seems positively grateful to the old friend who liked him so much that he drafted him into the Communist underground—and Mr. Nixon, more than most other men of affairs, is sentimental about persons who have advanced his. They drifted apart not because Mr. Nixon was distracted by larger matters—he remained indeed most properly solicitous—but because Chambers in the end found that there was very little about Mr. Nixon which could sustain the historical imagination:
“My rule,” he finally tells Mr. Buckley, “is never to mention to anyone my contacts with him. I’m going to break it this once, for a reason, but I wish you not to mention what I shall say. Not long ago I had lunch with him. He asked us down one Sunday, and we had a long talk. What was said? Except for two minor points I could not say…I suppose the sum of it was: we have really nothing to say to each other. While we talked, I felt crushed by the sense of the awful burden he was inviting in the office he wants…If he were a great, vital man, bursting with energy, ideas (however malapropos), sweeping grasp of the crisis, and (even) intolerant convictions, I think I should have felt: Yes, he must have it; he must enact his fate, and ours. I did not have this feeling…So I came away with unhappiness for him, for all.” (March 10, 1960)
And yet, against all Chambers’s habits, how peaceful this last apostasy seems. In the first case, horror, terror, and guilt; in this one, only the moment of inconsequence, when the side of Nothing is left for no side whatsoever. Still, it could be one of Mr. Nixon’s better qualities that he makes so small a wrench for those who give up on him and that, in his case, there have always been so few illusions whose destruction might embitter the memory at the moment of parting. The emptiness of the terms of enlistment has at least the use of making peaceful its abandonment.
We have gone on about Chambers’s engagement with Mr. Nixon longer than it is worth. But then it has been Chambers’s general fate to have struggled to be an historical presence and to end up being treated merely as an historical object, to be offered for notice only when it can be presented as current. By now this object’s one remaining topical tag is no more than the accident of its place in the career of a sitting president and its last Witness just one among so many testaments to that president’s inadequacy.
And yet I think Chambers is worth more of our attention—indeed our sympathy—than that. There are, of course, barriers to that attention, let alone that sympathy. Richard Rovere said very early that he did not expect much market for books supporting the official verdict on the Hiss-Chambers case simply because people would rather be told about innocence than about guilt.
Then too there are the distasteful associations of the act for which he is best remembered, not the espionage but the naming of his partner in espionage. The second is a kind of betrayal far worse thought of by private men than the first. Afterwards Chambers’s society would seldom extend beyond persons like Mr. Nixon and Buckley, who revered him for his service to his country; yet they brought him no comfort. The harshest words of his enemies could hardly have exceeded the bleakness and the self-contempt of his own picture of himself during the performance of the deed which made him so notorious:
The informer is different, especially the ex-Communist informer. He risks little. He sits in security and uses his special knowledge to destroy others. He has that special information to give because he knows those others’ faces, voices and lives, because he once lived within their confidence, in a shared faith, trusted by them as one of themselves, accepting their friendship, feeling their pleasures and griefs, sitting in their houses, eating at their tables, accepting their kindness, knowing their wives and children. If he had none of these things, he would have no use as an informer.
Because he has that use, the police protect him. He is their creature. When they whistle, he fetches a soiled bone of information… He has surrendered his choice. To that extent, though he be free in every other way, the informer is a slave. He is no longer a free man….1
These are among the few sorts of feelings it is difficult to imagine any man attesting to insincerely. The gap between Chambers and the persons most outraged by him is that great: they condemn him to the degradation of having lied, while he writhes in the degradation of having told the truth. We can understand his persistence in regretting Buckley’s invitations to the occasional evangelical tentshows of the Right. He was a long way from being able to present himself as a Justified Sinner.
He is cut off from us last of all because, while few of his contemporaries were written about so extensively, almost none has been written about less persuasively. For the last ten years of his life, he engaged no subject without coming back very quickly to himself, and I think he tried to present himself as candidly as he could. But he could not overcome the habit of anointing himself as legate from some Other Shore; he had carried the Mystery too long to put it aside; one’s impression of him on stage is of someone perpetually explaining, and still as much a stranger as he was when he appeared. The flood of explanations by others, friendly or hostile, carry no more sense of our being brought closer. Indeed one of the various curiosities of Whittaker Chambers is that the only persuasive picture of him was published in 1947, a year before many Americans had ever heard of him.
Gifford Maxim, the focal figure of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey,2 is modeled on the Whittaker Chambers whom Trilling knew best, when Chambers was between the Communist Party and Time, on the transitory ground of the Menorah Journal, and more distinct than he could be under the historical disguises assumed or imposed upon him before or since.
Trilling had known Chambers as a Communist: the memory is both more compelling and purer than it would ever be again, and accords with the moral authority which Chambers tells us he exercised in those days:
For to Laskell [Trilling’s liberal hero], Maxim was never quite alone. Laskell saw him flanked by two great watching figures… On one side of Maxim stood the figure of the huge, sad, stern morality of all the suffering and exploited men in the world, all of them without distinction of color or creed. On the other side of Maxim stood the figure of power, noble, fierce, indomitable. Behind Maxim and his two great flanking figures were infinite dim vistas of History, which was not the past but the future.
Laskell’s first reaction, when Maxim tells him of his break, is “surprise…contempt…revulsion…It was one thing for a man to abandon his loyalty to the cause he had lived for; it was quite another thing, and far sadder, for him to spread foul and melodramatic stories about it, such terrible stories as were contained in Maxim’s silent stare, in his talk of ocean bottoms and pistols behind the ear.”
“But, although Maxim might have lost authority, he had not lost his skill.” Very soon, although he could not be trusted quite as he had been and the moments of revulsion recurred—“Perhaps only because Maxim spoke them and spoke them often, Laskell felt that never again could anyone say the words tragedy and love”—he retained some of his power to compel belief. For one thing, although those two invisible presences had departed from his side, he seemed otherwise so much what he had been; there was the same “ironic revolutionary eyebrow and the ready, almost maternal, look of solicitude with which he habitually gazed upon human suffering.”
It is a while before Laskell can define the difference:
“When you yourself were a member of the Party,” he says the last time he is really angry, “you tried to involve us all in your virtue. Now you try to implicate the whole world in your guilt…. You have a very fancy kind of mind, Maxim.”
That was the single great change; otherwise Maxim, the counter-revolutionary, was surprisingly like Maxim the revolutionary, even to that air of special access to the occult which had been useful to heighten his bearing as a representative of History and which he needed still for his protection as its victim: “He still pretended to his knowledge of hidden motives, but the hidden things he pretended now to see were different from the hidden things he had pretended to see before.”
Maxim had the trick of really good fortune-tellers and palmists of putting things so generally and so dramatically that what was said had to have some sort of relevant meaning, and then if you asked them what they meant, they looked at you with mockery and annoyance, as if you were being willfully stupid, you with your intelligence and sensitivity.
Trilling could, then, recognize the charlatan and still say in 1949, “Whittaker Chambers is a man of honor.” It is unlikely that we can ever get a fix on Chambers, but it is certain that we never can if we think there is a contradiction in those two assessments by the same observer. Chambers was not one or the other but both, man of honor and fraud together.
The habit of the general, dramatic statement which seems somehow relevant persists in these letters. For example, in 1954, Chambers tells Buckley what drew him to Communism, an image which, if its relevance is still not as vivid to him as ever, would hardly seem to have meaning at all:
In 1907, the Russian government instituted a policy of systematically beating its political prisoners. One night, a fashionably-dressed young woman called at the Central Prison in Petersburg and asked to speak with the commandant, Maximovsky. This was Ragozinikova, who had come to protest the government’s policy…. When Maximovsky appeared, she shot him with her revolver and killed him…. She was sentenced to be hanged. Awaiting execution, she wrote her family “Death itself is nothing…. How good it is to love people. How much strength one gains from such love.” When she was hanged, Ragozinikova was twenty years old.
Now this is an anecdote which might appear more calculated to unhinge than to strengthen Buckley in his commitment to the defense of established order. Still he seems to have drawn from it the inspiration to go on as he has, it being the nature of anecdotes to have one revelation for me and quite the opposite for thee. Their nature indeed is such that Chambers could take the historical tableaux which had explained to him why he was a Communist and trot them forth intact to explain why he was no longer a Communist. He did add a few more personages, of course, most notably Yurovsky, who shot the Romanovs, and Nechayev, “the nineteenth-century Russian who carried the logic of revolution to its limit, teaching (Lenin among others)…that all crimes are justified if they serve the socialist cause.” (Curiously enough, after twelve years in the Party, considerable immersion in the legends of nineteenth-century revolutionaries, and a term under commanders who had learned far more from Nechayev than from Ragozinikova, he had never heard of Nechayev until Colonel Bykov mentioned him in 1937, which is rather like serving the Papacy of Alexander VI while focusing all one’s attention on The Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great.) But, in essence, the tableaux remain what they were—the attitudes of the Narodniki.
The anecdote as revelation ought then to seem to us a pretty suspicious bit of goods. Still the trick is infectious; trying to understand Chambers, you clutch gratefully at Victor Serge’s quarrel with Miguel Almereyda, an old comrade he had begun to suspect of taking German money to arouse the French against the First World War:
I told him, “You’re just an opportunist.” …He answered, “As far as paris is concerned you are an ignoramus, my friend. You can purify yourself with Russian novels, but here the revolution needs cash.”
Those, of course, are the two points from which one set of revolutionaries has always quarreled with the other. And, if these letters seem to tell us more about Chambers than he was ever able otherwise to tell us, it is because they reveal him accommodating both points within himself; he was able to know himself at once purer and more worldly-wise than the others.
Whether the subject was the higher morality or practical affairs, he was a serious, although never malicious, snob. Buckley had established The National Review to shore up the present with various fragments of the ruins of the future; and, ahead of Chambers, he had assembled into his cadre William S. Schlamm, who had been wandering since he left the Austrian Communist Party in 1929; Frank Meyer, who had been educational director of the Chicago Communist Party in the Forties; and James Burnham. Chambers’s tone about them all seldom descends below affectionate condescension. “Willi [Schlamm] was heaved out of the Communist Party. I broke out…. But I have known a dozen minds of the same size and shape as Willi’s. He has no surprises whatever for me….” “If the Rep. Party cannot get some grip on the real world… [it] will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find at the back an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth (weave and design of 1850)…. You are only slightly surprised to see that the old man is Frank Meyer.” “Burnham is a man of honor…. He was a Trotskyist, precisely at the moment when Trotskyism was worn to a shadow by reality.”
Chambers explains what sets him apart from all such drabs: “Unlike most Western Communists…I remained under the spiritual influence of the Narodniki long after I became a Marxist. In fact I never threw it off. I never have.”
It is the assurance of purification by reading Russian novels which survives all changes; there is no spite in that assurance but just a degree of hauteur whose equivalent can be remembered only from the evening Malraux went to a working-class quarter to defend DeGaulle against his Socialist opponents and asked: “What do they know of the Left? Were they in Spain?”
Yet Chambers is no less snobbish about his superior sense of the practical, being in Buckley’s service first the former senior editor of Time and only after hours the counter-revolutionary. “I am for a magazine…if its first and steadfast purpose is to succeed…. Another crusade does not interest me at all.” In that key, whatever briskness he brought to his last assignment was devoted to the preachment that the first task of a magazine is to reach a market: one’s models for style ought not to be mixed up with one’s notions of sound public policy. Buckley passes on to him a complaint from Rebecca West about the New Statesman and Chambers gives back the cold reply: “If the New Statesman is a ‘muck heap’ I wish General Grant would tell me what whiskey he drinks so I could send the same brand to the other generals.” It ought to be odd to find that, having come to rest with a cadre of persons who shared his despair for the West, he should have written pieces for National Review rather more casual and less portentous than those he used to compose for Time at the dawn of the American Century. But the tone in both cases must have been commanded more by his impulse as a craftsman than by his inspiration as a prophet, his voices having told him that Time needed darkening with trombones to be rounded for the market and that National Review needed lightening with strings.
Yet he has not changed but simply come to rest; he is still so much the fortune-teller; he remains too mischievous to leave off the intimations of the occult. Even when he is the tipster, he pretends to be the seer:
I think I am obliged to tell you, if you are interested in a quick turnover, to have a thought to Phila. and Reading Coal Company. It stands at 27 and a fraction…. I have reason to believe that, within the next 12 days, it will make interesting gains…. I know, I know—we old revolutionists are peculiar birds. (January 23, 1957)
He departed after a while having lost hope of being able to teach Buckley but grateful for the affection. He had a history of serving his employers faithfully and being parted from them indifferently.
“Some time after the Hiss Case had formally closed, certain of my effects, including Kafka’s Parables,” he says, “were sent back to me from Time—somewhat as the effects found in the pockets of a man who has met a fatal accident—his wallet, driver’s license, social security stub—are mailed to his relicts.”3
Thinking of that cold parcel, we have to be glad that Chambers could this once part from an employer who cherished for him an affection and respect which amounted to reverence. Still what Buckley made of him otherwise is hard to say.
In May, 1959, Chambers made his last effort as Teacher before giving up. Could not the Right, he asked Buckley, begin to “examine and define with a special scrupulousness the civil liberties field.” Take the internal Communist peril: “…as of now, there seems to me a certain unreality about the Right’s general treatment of this subject as if no drastic change had occurred…. Why for example should we leave it to liberals to give tongue against the frightening developments in wiretapping? …The Right I feel more and more must find its conscience and make it explicit, first of all to the Right.”
Ten years later, National Review remains as alarmed by the Communists within, as if no change at all had occurred. Buckley has even joined Mr. Nixon as an advisor to his information service. Poor Chambers could not even teach him from genuine experience that Mr. Nixon is someone with whom everyone finds himself left eventually without anything to say. In this small case, as with the large one of Alger Hiss, Chambers’s ghost could say: “Scratch across my effort: Canceled.” Buckley worshipped and did not listen; the real affection aside, the Chambers of his vision is a saint whose ikon hangs in a Church where his message is never read.
The icon is not recognizable. Neither, to be sure is that mask of the goblin which survives in more general circulation. But perhaps the tricks of Maxim were the most important part of his nature; and so—the thought is not meant cruelly—may have been the masks of Whittaker Chambers. He always, except here, when so plainly what he really wants most is to rest, must have seemed to be so much larger than he really was. There was always an invisible other presence: He says Hiss thought him a Russian, which added the presence of Chapayev and the sailors of Kronstadt; at Time there were those sentences about his long nights at the window, adding the presence of the sword over the head. Chambers suggests that Alger Hiss did not understand him. That Buckley did not understand him either is strongly suggested by Buckley’s apparent deafness to any intrusion of common sense into the syllabus. Yet Chambers’s most intense recollection of his time with the Hisses was of rest and domestic tranquility; and it must have been very like that with Buckley also. We are glad to find him happy here at the last even though it was the curious happiness of the man to find peace of soul and comfort of spirit in The Friend Who Does Not Understand.