The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Was Whittaker Chambers Wrong?
K. Alan Snyder - 01/22/08
Chambers and Reagan: Who Was Right?

Reagan believed that the USSR would eventually fall. He often claimed that “the march of freedom and democracy” would leave Marxism-Leninism “on the ash-heap of history.”19 In the 1980s, freedom appeared to be on the rise in many nations. The emerging chaos within the USSR showed that freedom was gaining the upper hand. The ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev gave Reagan the opportunity to realize his hope. He was correct regarding the state of Soviet affairs. It was an opportune moment that no other president had witnessed. He took advantage of the situation, and the Cold War came to an end.

We must, however, examine what has since transpired. Expectations were high that Russia could be transformed into a liberal democracy. The reality is that Russian nationalism is on the rise and Vladimir Putin is attempting to reestablish Russian power. The Washington Post’s former correspondents in Moscow recently authored a book detailing the demise of freedom in Russia. They write of the “Putin Project,” which is an attempt to get rid of all challenges to his authority. The Post’s review of the book noted that the authors have provided “a powerful indictment of Putin's years as president. In his obsessive quest for control and a stronger Russian state, Putin is undermining Russia's long-term future just as Soviet leaders did in their own repressive days.”20

The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper tells of Russia’s new claim to the North Pole. It speaks of Putin’s “astonishing bid to grab a vast chunk of the Arctic—so he can tap its vast potential oil, gas and mineral wealth.” One British diplomatic source has warned, “‘Putin wants a strong Russia, and Western dependence on it for oil and gas supplies is a key part of his strategy. He no longer cares if it upsets the West.’”21 Meanwhile, the New Yorker, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, devoted an article to suspicious deaths of some of Putin’s critics.22 All nations want to be strong; that, in itself, is not the issue. A strong Russia as an ally of the United States would not be a problem. The question is whether Putin wants to be an ally or whether instead he seeks to re-create the Cold War. Many commentators fear the latter. If true, Reagan, of course, could not have foreseen this turnabout. This does not tarnish his victory, but it does remind us that although the times change, human nature remains unchanged.

Second, the loss of religious faith in the West continues. Although evangelical Christians have become a major political force, contemporary commentators often expound on the increasingly divided nature of American politics. “Polarization” is the word used most often these days when discussing the nation’s religious divide. The term “culture war” has become commonplace. Those who study election results highlight the great cultural split. One analysis of the 2004 elections demonstrates “the capacity of the electorate to surprise and confound political pundits, public opinion analysts, and even academics. The surprise not only stems from the closeness of the contests, but also from the country's apparent partisan polarization, geographic division, and social cleavages.”23

Third is the rise of militant Islam. The War on Terror and increasing concern over the “Islamization” of the West have become focal points of debates about the future of freedom. Two conservative political commentators have recently authored books with rather apocalyptic titles: The West’s Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations? and America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It.24 Whereas Reagan maintained hope that the West would meet the challenge, these books, in Chambers-like fashion, question the West’s willingness to combat an enemy that seeks to destroy its freedom.

Ralph de Toledano noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.” In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.”25 It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man?

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. . . .

There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.26

So, was Whittaker Chambers wrong?

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