Sunday, 1 December 2013

Whiitaker Chambers' 1952 autobiography, "Witness", is one of the greatest books of the 20th Century: why has it never been filmed?

Whittaker Chambers
There’s been an endless stream of films over the years bellyaching about the 1950s Hollywood “Blacklist”, which saw known communists barred from working in the movie industry. What’s genuinely astonishing is that – as far as I can tell – there have been no films at all about Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss whose initial friendship and subsequent enmity resulted in one of the most sensational trials of the 20th Century, and one its greatest autobiographies: their entwined stories – and the reaction to them – illuminate the great struggle between, on one side, Atheism, Communism and the fellow-travellers of the Liberal Left and, on the other, Christianity, Freedom and their conservative supporters.

Whittaker Chambers grew up the eldest of two sons in a dysfunctional, slightly bohemian, Long Island family in the early years of the last century. His emotionally frigid, bisexual father was a noted illustrator, his grandmother went raving mad, and his dypsomaniac younger brother took his own life after failing to involve his older brother in a suicide pact. After a friendless boyhood and a desultory stab at higher education, Chambers joined the Communist party in 1924 and went on to become the editor of the Daily Worker and New Masses before turning into a fully-fledged Soviet agent in 1932, working mainly in Washington and New York.

In 1938, sickened by Stalin’s purges, and - after having become a Christian - realising that Communism was pure evil, and having refused requests to visit Moscow (where he was sure he’d be murdered), Chambers went into hiding with his wife and two young children. Alarmed by the Stalin-Hitler pact, Chambers came out of hiding after a year to try to convince members of his old network – including his close friend, State Department official Alger Hiss - to give up the cause. Having failed, he approached a senior member of Roosevelt’s administration to warn that the government had been infiltrated by a large number of communists. Roosevelt dismissed the charges and no action was taken. Meanwhile, Chambers, who had barely kept body and soul together working as a translator (he was a gifted linguist), became a farmer in Maryland and a senior editor at Time, where, with the support of publisher Henry Luce, he wrote a series of attacks on the Soviet Union, Stalin and Communism.  

Alger Hiss
In 1948, Chambers appeared before the Housee Un-American Activities Committee and named names, including Alger Hiss, but made no mention of espionage. Hiss at first denied knowing Chambers, but later, forced into a corner, admitted to knowing him under another name. After Chambers finally confessed to espionage (and after admitting to the FBI that he had been a promiscuous bisexual during his spying days), he produced documents (which had been hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm) proving that Hiss had passed secret information to the Soviets in the ‘30s.

Alger Hiss, a patrician, elegant, glib-tongued Harvard lawyer and a key member of the Establishment in-crowd – he had been a prominent member of the US Yalta Conference negotiating team and an architect of the recently-formed United Nations – received a huge amount of support from the great and the good in government, academia and the media. President Truman followed in FDR’s footsteps by dismissing the charges against Hiss as a “red herring”, the Justice Department dragged its heels over pursuing the case, and Chambers – a ponderous, unprepossessing, gloomy, dumpy little man who, haunted by guilt,  would attempt suicide as the affair unfolded – was generally vilified as a weirdo (one psychiatrist dismissed him as a psychopathic liar).

Despite all that, and thanks, in part, to Richard Nixon, a key HUAC figure, Hiss was eventually put on trial for perjury. Astonishingly, the jury at the first trial was split, but Hiss was found guilty at his second trial in 1950 and sentenced to five years in prison.

Chambers, heavily in debt, set about writing his autobiography, which was published n 1952. Despite its un-American pessimism (Chambers was always convinced he had left the winning side for the losing one) it turned out to be one of the most influential conservative manifestos of the 20th Century. Ronald Reagan credited it with turning him from a Democrat liberal into a Republican conservative, and Chambers influenced the young William F. Buckley Jnr, working as a senior editor on Buckley's new conservative magazine, National Review, before ill health forced him to resign. Chambers - never a healthy man - died of a heart attack in 1961.

After his release from prison, Hiss spent the next 43 years maintaining his innocence, enthusiastically abetted by the left-liberal elite. I remember seeing documentaries on British television in the 70s and live interviews with Hiss which left me with the distinct impression that he was innocent of all charges, and that Chambers had been a deluded nutcase. To this day, many liberal leftists maintain that Hiss was innocent – if they honestly believe this, they are deluded nutcases.

Witness is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. As a right-wing Christian who has despised Communism, all its works, and all its supporters and fellow-travellers, for the past 40 years, I was always likely to be prejudiced in its favour. But I hadn’t expected the account of Chambers’ early years to be quite so rivetting – had the first part of the book, up to the suicide of his brother, been published separately, it would still have been a terrific read. Taken in its entirety, it must rank as one of the greatest American non-fiction works of the past century. The story it tells of the clash between two competing world-views - between freedom and slavery - could hardly be more significant.

One of the great mysteries at the heart of the Hiss-Chambers affair is why the American government and its agencies and so much of its media dragged their heels over bringing an unrepentant traitor to justice. Three factors will have played a part: embarrassment that the government had allowed itself to be so easily infiltrated by the agents of a foreign power; the proof that a country whose myriad sins had been whitewashed in order to convince the American people that it was somehow fighting for the same cause had all along been hell-bent on destroying the governmental system of the United States; and, of course, it suggested that conservative criticism of the New Deal as a quasi-communistic programme may not have been so far from the truth. But that reluctance to prosecute also no doubt had a lot to do with the fact that Hiss’s main accuser was a confessed traitor and – in the view then current – a sexual deviant. But, ultimately, it may simply have been Alger Hiss was one of the ruling elite’s own and his accuser was an outsider. Chambers addresses this very point towards the end of his book, in a section which seems as true now of America and Britain as it was in the middle of the 20th Century:
For the contrast between them and the glittering Hiss forces is about the same as between the glittering French cavalry and the tattered English bowmen who won at Agincourt. The inclusive fact about them is that, in contrast to the pro-Hiss rally, most of them, regardless of what they had made of themselves, came from the wrong side of the railroad tracks… For in America, most of us begin on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. The meaning of America, what made it the wonder of history and the hope of mankind, was that we were free not to stay on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. If within us there was something that empowered us to grow, we were free to grow and go where we could. Only, we were not free ever to forget, even to despise our origins. They were our roots. They made us a nation. 
No feature of the Hiss case is more obvious, or more troubling as history, than the jagged fissure, which it did not so much open as reveal, between the plain men and women of the nation and those who affected to act, think and speak for them. It was, not invariably, but in general, the “best people” who were for Alger Hiss and who were prepared to go to almost any length to defend him. It was the enlightened and the powerful, the clamorous proponents of the open mind and the common man, who snapped their minds shut in a pro-Hiss psychosis, of a kind which, in an individual patient, means the simple failure of the ability to distinguish between reality and unreality, and, in a nation, is a warning of the end. 
It was the great body of the nation, which, not invariably, but in general, kept open its mind in the Hiss case, waiting for the returns to come in. It was they who suspected what forces disastrous to the nation were at work in the Hiss case, and had suspected that they were at work long before the Hiss case, while most of the forces of enlightenment were poopoohing the Communist danger and calling every allusion to it a witch hunt. It was they who, when the battle was over, first caught its real meaning... But even when they did not understand, my people were always about me. I had only to look around me to see them – on the farms, on the streets, in homes, in shops, in the day coaches of trains. My people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness, in common forgiveness, because all felt bowed together under the common weight of life… 
On the afternoon of January 21, 1950, one of the wires services first telephoned me in Maryland to say that the jury in New York had found Alger Hiss guilty of perjury as charged on both counts. I had not turned away from the phone before it rang again. An excited voice, apparently that of an elderly man, asked if I were Whittaker Chambers. In turn, I asked who he was. “Nobody. It doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “But I knew that your telephoone will be ringing every minute now and I had to reach you first. I had to say ‘God bless you! God bless you! Oh, God bless you!’ He hung up. 
“What is the matter?” my wife called, seeing me turn away from the people who were already filling the kitchen, and walk quickly into another room. 
In the unlikely event that Hollywood's fellow-travellers ever manage to get round to making a film about the Hiss-Chambers case, I reckon Phillip Seymnour-Hoffman would be a shoe-in for the Chambers role, with somebody weaselly and horrible playing Hiss.


  1. A very interesting post.No wonder the liberals gave such a powerful writer the bums rush.It would be a surprise but a nice one if Hollywood brings him into the public domain.

    1. I can guarantee there'll never be a film, but it would make a terrific 8-part TV drama series - in which the Americans might take a look at the shamefully-underused Simon Russell Beale.