In awarding the Medal of Freedom to Whittaker Chambers, President Reagan has shown loyalty and pugnacity that become him well. His loyalty in this instance is to one of the profoundest passions of American conservatism. His pugnacity is toward the cultural forces that disdained Chambers and rallied 'round his adversary, Alger Hiss.
Subsequent scholarship has vindicated the jury that convicted Hiss of perjury. (Hiss should have been tried for committing espionage when he was a diplomat and Chambers was a Soviet agent, but the statute of limitations had run out.) Nevertheless, Hiss--how he must taste ashes today--has led a life of enigmatic fanaticism: he has stuck to his shredded story.
And the life of the Hiss cause is a study in intellectual corruption. Never has so much ingenuity been invested in a cause as futile and often cynical as the campaign to assert Hiss's innocence. The investment has been made by people who rushed to judgment on his behalf, embracing him as an emblem of the innocence of any "idealism" on the left and regarding his "persecution" as vindication of their anti-anti-communism.
Chambers' life illustrated the axiom that all rising is by a winding staircase. His tortured journey was from left to right, from the most sectarian politics, communism, to a nondenominational Christianity; from the shadows of conspiracy to the spotlight of public controversy. He was a man of urbanity whose final years were spent with his wife in rural solitude.
It is a terrible thing to be treated as an abstraction. Both Hiss and Chambers were so treated when they came to be considered--by a narcissistic minority of a generation--as symbols of an entire generation's divisions.
Hiss was Harvard Law, aide to Justice Holmes, member of a Boston law firm with the name of Choate in its title, successful diplomat. At the time of his fall, when he swore he had never known Chambers, he was head of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. Tall, thin, well-tailored and elegant in manner, he was, to those who imprudently sprang to his defense, a symbol of cosmopolitanism under siege from Yahoos.
Portly and rumpled, with a disreputable past and too much intensity for a drawing room, Chambers' inelegance was complete. But he had two advantages: the truth, and Hiss's ruinous arrogance in a bluff that Chambers called. Chambers' victory was, however, costly. It has been said that an intellectual hatred is the most vicious. Torrents of it were directed against Chambers because discrediting him was considered useful to a political agenda--establishing America's paranoia and Russia's innocence.
As a young man, Chambers worshiped a god that failed, the myth of collective salvation through political action. His lasting legacy, indeed his triumph, was that most solitary of things, an act of sustained introspection. His extraordinary memoir "Witness" is, although the product of a quite different temperament, comparable in depth and power to the memoir of another American alienated from his times, "The Education of Henry Adams."
Chambers' magnificent prose is at times too charged with passion for contemporary sensibilities. Adams is less unsettling. His pain was a product of an incurable sense of emotional disconnection from his times. Chambers' prose of pain, almost rising to poetry, derived from the 20th-century disease of misplaced engagement.
"Witness" was published in 1952, when another American was beginning a political journey less dramatic but, in its outcome, momentous. Ronald Reagan read "Witness" and, 30 years later, could quote the passage describing an epiphany: Chambers contemplating the delicate convolutions of his daughter's ear and saying: No, this thing is not the result of a chance aggregation of atoms; it requires design, and that means God.
Chambers writes about another person's awakening from dogmatic slumbers. A German diplomat in Moscow had been well-disposed toward the communists, until one night. In what Chambers called five annihilating words, the diplomat's daughter said: "One night he heard screams." The great political literature of our time, from Orwell and Koestler and Chambers through Solzhenitsyn and beyond, makes us hear the screams.
Chambers' book is an unrivaled account of the costs of the totalitarian temptation. When he died, Arthur Koestler said, "The witness is gone, the testimony will stand."
Today the West is unevenly divided between those of us who are and most persons who are not preoccupied, even obsessed, by the fact that the stakes of politics were forever transformed by the eruption in our century of the radical evil of totalitarianism, and by the necessity to make anti-totalitarianism the touchstone of all politics. To us, Chambers, a graceless man touched in the end by the blinding grace of painful truthfulness, led a life worth honoring.