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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 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.

  1. 1

    Witness, p. 454.

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