2012 will mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of Whittaker Chambers's classic book Witness.
To understand the staggering power of Witness and why its message still maters, one only need consider that six decades later the left is still slandering its author.
And I do mean slander.
I'm working on a documentary about Chambers, the great journalist who became a communist in 1925 and then defected in 1938. Chambers would reveal that Alger Hiss, a prominent government official, was a communist spy and had passed State Department secrets to the Soviets.
He was convicted of perjury, and Soviet cables that were released in the 1990s validated everything Chambers said. Not that they were necessary: the amount of detail that Chambers gives about Hiss in Witness is so meticulous that it's hard to imagine who could disbelieve it.
At the time that Chambers made his accusations, the left threw everything they had at him. They called Chambers paranoid and psychotic, and claimed he was motivated because he was a homosexual who was in love with Alger Hiss. (Chambers was in fact bi-sexual, but that had little relevance to the case.)
You would think that as the decades passed and the evidence piled up against Alger Hiss, not to mention the other communists that Chambers exposed -- all of whom have proven to be guilty -- liberals would cease painting Chambers as a gay nutcase. When history proves you wrong, most decent people acknowledge it and apologize.
Strom Thurmond apologized for his resistance to civil rights. Tony Blair apologized the the Irish. Yet I was amazed while reading the 2008 book Nixonland, written by liberal journalist Ron Perlstein, and found that the left-wing slanders of Whittaker Chambers are alive and well. It's a disgrace for which Perlstein should be ashamed.
Nixonland is an 850-page screed claiming that everything bad that had ever befallen America can be traced back to the Richard Nixon, the 37th president. The book was given a starred review in Publisher's Weekly and was one of Amazon's "best books of the month" in August 2008. Perlstein only spends three pages of Nixonland on the crucial time in 1948 when Richard Nixon, then a freshman congressman from California, got involved with the Chambers-Hiss case.
In that time he defames Chambers and show that he, Perlstein, cannot be trusted as a journalist -- not that many journalists can.
Perlstein calls Chambers "a paranoid and an apocalyptic." He calls Chambers's initial testimony on August 3 "a mealymouthed reprise of information he had given the FBI ten years earlier, had little effect." Further, Chambers "was not an inspiring man." In addition, "Alger Hiss's name would likely have died in obscurity had Hiss taken the advice of friends and simply ignored the charge until it blew over."
After all, Hiss was a Supreme Court clerk who did "yeoman's service in the New Deal's First Hundred Days, "key player" at the founding of the United Nations. "On the other side, his accuser: this disheveled lump, Whittaker Chambers." In fact, Nixon, that raging mental case, was the only one on the House Un-american Activities Committee who wanted to proceed after Alger Hiss testified on August 4 and made monkeys out of the committee.
But here's the thing: the people Chambers named were, in fact, guilty.
They include Henry Collins, employed at National Recovery Administration and later the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA); Lee Pressman, assistant general counsel of the AAA. John Abt, chief of Litigation for the AAA from 1933 to 1935, assistant general counsel of the Works Progress Administration in 1935, chief counsel on Senator Robert La Follette, Jr.'s from 1936 to 1937, council to the Communist Party USA, and special assistant to the United States Attorney General, 1937 and 1938; Charles Kramer, employed at the Department of Labor National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); Nathan Witt, employed at the AAA and the NLRB. George Silverman, employed at the Railroad Retirement Board; Marion Bachrach, sister of John Abt; John Herrmann, who introduced Chambers to Hiss and was an author assistant to Harold Ware (who ran the communist cell in Washington) employed at the AAA; Nathaniel Weyl, Donald Hiss, and Victor Perlo of the War Production Board and later the Departments of Commerce and Treasury.
Either by their own admission or released records, all of these people were revealed to be communists acting against America.
For a queer, paranoid, disheveled lump, Chambers racked up quite a batting average.
The incredible thing about Perlstein's passage is that, if you follow its logic, it's clear that he regrets that these people were actually caught. He posits that if not for Whittaker Chambers -- and Nixon -- Alger Hiss would have faded into obscurity. In other words: had Chambers not come forward, one of the leaders of an international criminal conspiracy to bring down the United States would have gotten away with it.
Why do people like Perlstein continue to hold on to their defense of Hiss?
The best answer was probably provided by Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a great biography of Chambers. In 2007 a conference held by the Nation Institute held that, yes, Hiss was innocent. Tanenhaus took to the pages of the New Republic to perform an exorcism on the deathless faith that is belief in Alger Hiss and socialism.
In his piece,"The End of the Journey," Tanenhaus cited Orwell, who observed that the British intelligentsia became interested in the Soviet Union in 1946, after Russia had become irrefutably totalitarian. The intellectuals, wrote Orwell, had a "wish to destroy the old, egalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip." To Tanenhaus writing in 2007, not much had changed: "the intellectual left, most conspicuously in its Ivy League, Manhattan, and Hollywood variants, still clings to its dream of the whip handle, just as the educated right dreams of the day when the intelligentsia will be the first to feel the stinging cord."
The only thing wrong with that is the last part.
The educated right has admitted mistakes in the past. Further, it is anti-utopian. To the left, Hiss still represents the Future.
It's a faith that, to the Godless, won't ever die.