by Alan Snyder
Whittaker Chambers had a secret. He had worked in the American Communist underground for most of the 1930s. His break from that underground had been hazardous; he hid his family for quite some time before surfacing. When he did, his unique writing talent earned him a place at Time magazine, where he eventually rose to be one of its senior editors.
In 1939, with the outbreak of WWII, Chambers decided he needed to inform the FDR administration of what he knew about those currently working in the underground. Through an intermediary, he obtained an interview with Adolf Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of security. During his evening with Berle, Chambers disclosed a long list of individuals who could be threats to the country during a war that he sensed the U.S. would eventually have to enter.
Berle seemed alarmed by the revelations. Chambers was relieved that now the truth would come out. Yet when Berle took this information to FDR, he was rudely dismissed—FDR didn’t care.
When Chambers finally realized the administration was apathetic to the traitors in its midst, he had to reassess what he knew of FDR and his policies. In his classic autobiography, Witness, he describes how this rebuff affected him:
And with astonishment I took my first hard look at the New Deal. . . . All the New Dealers I had known were Communists or near-Communists. None of them took the New Deal seriously as an end in itself. They regarded it as an instrument for gaining their own revolutionary ends. I myself thought of the New Deal as a reform movement that, in social and labor legislation, was belatedly bringing the United States abreast of Britain or Scandinavia.
What shocked Chambers was that he recognized for the first time that the New Deal was far more than a reform movement. It was ”a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation.”
This “revolution” was not taking the same form as the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, but its effect was just as sinister:
It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking. In so far as it was successful, the power of politics had replaced the power of business. This is the basic power shift of all the revolutions of our time. This shift was the revolution.
Chambers was quite prescient in this analysis. American historians have long noted that in the last half of the nineteenth century, presidents played second fiddle to business leaders. This never sat well with progressives. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made strides in the shift to power politics, but they suffered a setback in the 1920s under Harding and Coolidge, who were ingrained with the principles of self-government and sanctity of private property.
Then came the Depression and all the wonders that government could perform to ease the plight of the American people. Chambers saw that even though the New Deal was not an overt socialist/communist ploy, it worked in tandem with that philosophy. New Dealers, most of whom would have never considered themselves either socialists or communists, were, due to their progressive policies, fellow-travelers. As Chambers explains,
Thus men who sincerely abhorred the word Communism, in the pursuit of common ends found that they were unable to distinguish Communists from themselves, except that it was just the Communists who were likely to be most forthright and most dedicated in the common cause.
Critics of Witness often howled at Chambers’s association of liberals with socialists and communists. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, they cried. Yet Chambers put his own reputation on the line giving his witness before Congress in 1948, as he testified in the landmark Alger Hiss case. He knew, from personal experience, that the difference between liberalism and communism was in degree only: both put their faith in man and rejected faith in God; therefore, they shared a common worldview.
Chambers summarized the symbiotic relationship quite nicely:
Every move against the Communists was felt by the liberals as a move against themselves. . . . The Communists were fully aware of their superior tactical position, and knew that they had only to shout their innocence and cry: “Witch hunt!” for the liberals to rally in all innocence to their defense.
Some things don’t change: we are still undergoing a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking, and we continue to hear the snarls of “witch hunt” whenever this revolution is challenged. What we need now is the same tenacity shown by Chambers. He completed his “witness.” What will we do?