When mentioned today, Whittaker Chambers is known solely for his testimony outing former State Department Official Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. Because this occurred during, arguably the height of the Cold War, 1948-1950, Chambers seems a dated figure, having little to tell us in an era where the enemy is not situated in one country.
One could argue for his relevance in that he, in his reduction of the Cold War down to a contest between those who have “faith in Man” (communists) and those who possess “faith in God,” was one of the founding members of social conservatism.
But it is in his role as a canny strategist who advised then-Vice President Richard Nixon (who was the chief hunter of Hiss during the hearings), and William F. Buckley that he is relevant for the age of Trump.
The chief topic between him and Buckley was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who, job descriptions aside, could be labeled the Donald Trump of the 1950s. Like Trump, McCarthy at times could urge violence in a Presidential campaign. During the 1952 campaign, he advocated someone taking a bat behind closed doors to Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson to teach him “Americanism.” Both were prone to exaggeration. McCarthy took a provable case against State Department adviser Owen Lattimore of being pro-Soviet, and instead elevated him to being the “top Russian agent” in the country. Both were bottled rage, and this expressed itself against any criticism. As Trump decries media bias and demands that Saturday Night Live be cancelled because of a Trump impersonation, McCarthy also denounced Edward R. Murrow’s devastating critique of him, and sought to get the broadcaster off the air. McCarthy did not have contend with women who accused Trump of sexual harassment, and hence, did not have to attack women specifically, and women-kind in general. But he did attack those who he saw as feminine, namely homosexuals in government positions.
At first glance, Chambers seemed to emulate those who today support an extremist for the good of the Republican Party. So wedded was he to the success of Republicans that he literally suffered a heart attack in the polling place where, moments before, he had cast a vote for the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket. Moreover, he gave private counsel to McCarthy in the early 50s, believing the attacks on the red-hunting Senator by Congressional Democrats paralleled Chambers’ own plight when the pro-Hiss forces went after him. His rare public speeches mirrored almost exactly the Senator’s attacks on those who “protected” communists within the government: those who did so, Chambers asserted, “formed an exclusive party–the party of betrayal. In the future, they will be the party of appeasement.” He even accused the same people as McCarthy such as General George Marshall who, in Chambers’ estimation, by abandoning Chian Kai Shek handed China over to the Communists.
But after witnessing McCarthy’s “reckless” behavior, he rethought his position on the Senator for the good of the Republican Party. When Buckley requested a blurb for his pro-McCarthy book, McCarthy and His Enemies, Chambers refused. His reason was that he was taking the long view for the Republican Party, something McCarthy, “a raven of disaster,” did not: “he continually, by reflex rather than calculation, sacrifices the long view for the short pull.” Prophetically, he predicted that McCarthy”s “blundering” would eventually harm the ant-communist cause and the Republican Party in general. Moreover, he even accepted the liberal analogy that McCarthy was comparable to Hitler. Hence, confronted by a fifties’ era version of Trump, he counseled abandonment.
As with Republicans today, specifically John Kasich, he urged the Republican to modernize. Unlike moderate Republicans today, the issues were different (Republicans today want the Party to welcome into the big tent minorities and homosexuals), but Chambers’s advice had the same goal. He wrote Buckley that for the Right “to preach reaction” and look toward the past as a guide (Buckley’s announcement in the first issue of National Review was “to stand athwart history” and yell “stop”) would be “suicide” for the GOP. Instead, he urged Republicans for the health of the Party to accept the permanency of the New Deal.
Indeed, by the late 50s, he embraced the Keysenian economics that was the basis of the New Deal and put these sentiments in an article for National Review:
“There will be no peace for the islands of relative plenty until the continents of proliferating poverty has been lifted to something like the general material level of islanders.”
He also opposed Republican support for the same devices used on communists then that are used on “terrorists” today. He did so out of a fear that conservatives championing these 1984-style methods would one day have this device turned against them.
The Republican hierarchy, perhaps unaware that there is a precedent for “ravens of disaster,” seems to have learned the lesson well in their abandonment of Trump for the health of the Party. But now the chickens have come home to roost, and people who should know better like Mitt Romney seem to be willing to work for this “raven of disaster.”