The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2017

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Was Whittaker Chambers Wrong?
K. Alan Snyder - 01/22/08

In 1985, speaking before an audience celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the conservative opinion journal National Review, President Ronald Reagan made reference to one of the journal’s first editors, Whittaker Chambers. Witness, Chambers’s highly personal 1952 autobiography of his descent into the Communist underground, his Lazarus-like resurrection back into the world of free men, and the turmoil of the Alger Hiss case,1 had served as a tutorial for Reagan in understanding why people would turn to communism. In 1984, he awarded Chambers posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom, commenting on Chambers’s “moving, majestic prose” and calling him “a witness to the truth” and “the focus of a momentous controversy in American history that symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism.” Yet, on this evening, he declared that his mentor was wrong on one crucial point:

When he left Communism for the Western side, one editor of the magazine said he understood his defection meant he was joining the losers. I can think of no better way to pay tribute to his memory—and frankly nothing he would have liked better—than to say: We can affirm here tonight that Whittaker Chambers was wrong. That civilization will triumph. That freedom is the winning side.2

Reagan made this statement six years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union; the Gorbachev era had barely begun. How could he be so optimistic that freedom ultimately would win? Chambers did not share this view. His comment that he was “leaving the winning world for the losing world” has often been used as a prime example of his overarching pessimism. He even went on to state, “Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since, has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast.”3 Yet the USSR did crumble. Is that, then, definitive proof that Ronald Reagan was correct to be so optimistic and Whittaker Chambers was wrong? In light of the current world political situation—the Islamic terrorist threat, renewed Russian belligerence, and the continuing dearth of Christian belief in most of the Western world—can we say for sure which of the two men was more prophetic? Was Chambers really wrong?

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