Whittaker Chambers captured the essence of the intellectual appeal of communism better than anyone in the Cold War era. His 1954 book, Witness, had a powerful influence on me. The intellectual attraction of a utopian world is still strong in the left today, environmentalism, smart growth, sustainability. Thomas Sowell traces the 200 year history of the intellectual struggle the right and left in his excellent book The Conflict of Visions, but Cambers captures the emotional power of the ideas in Witness.
All young warriors on the right would benefit from reading about his journey from communism to the forces of light. If nothing else, they should read the foreword, “A Letter to My Children,” where Chambers explains to his children why he moved from the winning side, communism, to the losing side. The following is from a 1982 National Review article by Terry Teachout. It was impossible for any of us in 1982, with the exception of Reagan, to imagine that just seven years later the Soviet Empire would be in the dustbin of history.
In one of the book’s [Witness] most moving passages, Chambers reflects on why “men cease to be Communists.” He tells this story of a European girl whose father had defected from the Communist ranks.
“It was hard for her because, as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. ‘He was immensely pro-Soviet,’ she said, ‘and then — you will laugh at me — but you must not laugh at my father — and then — one night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams’ . . . She did not know that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the twentieth century, with five annihilating words: one night he heard screams.”
At a time when the ears of the West are so closely attuned to the screams coming out of Gdansk and Warsaw and Silesia, it is appropriate to pause for a moment and recall the thirty-year-old witness of Whittaker Chambers. One night he heard screams, and followed the dictates of his conscience; and the free world has been — however grudgingly — in his debt ever since.