Conservative thoughts from the Anglosphere

Posted by Tory Historian Saturday, April 19, 2008 ,

Once again, Tory Historian is not travelling physically, but mentally. Reading matter for today (and the previous week or so) is Sam Tanenhous’s biography of one of the most important and enigmatic characters of the twentieth century, Whittaker Chambers.

The book that was published in the United States in 1998 finally made its way to this country last year, complete with an introduction by Mr Tanenhous that invokes some spurious parallels between events of the forties and the present. The introduction proves that Mr Tanenhous learnt nothing from his research into Chambers’s life.

One also wonders why it had to be retitled for the British reader. Instead of “Whittaker Chambers: A Biography”, it is now called “An Un-American Life: The Case of Whittaker Chambers”. Why “the case”? Do we in this country still believe that there is any doubt as to who spoke the truth in the famous Hiss-Chambers case? Or do we still credit those fraudulent charlatans who came up with ridiculous psychological explanations for Chambers’s behaviour that he explained very cogently?

Reading the biography naturally led Tory Historian back to “Witness”, that most elegiac of memoirs and discussions of the real twentieth century and a book that is indispensable reading for all who want to understand American conservatism, so much more sinewy than our own, “Odyssey of a friend”, Chambers’s letters to Bill Buckley, published by the latter in 1969.

Whittaker Chambers’s influence on Buckley and through him on the American conservative movement cannot be overestimated. This is not to say that Buckley did not have strongly held views, which he could probably argue through much better than Chambers could.

There were many disagreements between the two but they shared an almost apocalyptic vision of the struggle they felt they had to wage with Buckley, the optimist, often out in front gleefully attacking everyone in sight.

Chambers was a pessimist as all those who served the Communist cause well until they became so disillusioned that they broke their lives to escape thraldom. Other examples of this trend are Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone and Manés Sperber. The leading British anti-Communists had not been so strongly involved. Their opposition was more intellectual, less apocalyptic.

The battles of the late forties and early fifties; HUAC and the Senatorial hearings; the revelations of the widespread Communist conspiracy (since then proved by Soviet documents); and, most of all, the Hiss-Chambers case have all provided American conservatives with a toughness that has since weathered and triumphed over the set-backs of the sixties and seventies.

The future cannot be predicted but my guess is that Whittaker Chambers would have sounded Cassandra-like warnings during the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall and would not have been surprised by the battles we have to fight now.


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