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Nixon and Chambers: Parting Ways By: Ron Capshaw
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Examinations of the relationship between Whitttaker Chambers and Richard Nixon are largely dependent upon one's political views.  Leftists portray them as partners in crime, with Nixon supplying the damaging data to Chambers about Hiss, and Chambers adjusting his testimony to fit it.  Conservatives characterize them as lone battlers against an upper class establishment either colluding with or refusing to believe that one of their own could be a Soviet spy.

Lost in all of this political footballing is the complexity of their relationship.  Chambers and Nixon began it as soldiers in the same cause, then became teacher and pupil, and then climaxed as strangers drifting away, the latter based solely on Chambers' evolving maturity away from monolithic positions. 

Alone among the congressman on those pivotal days in August 1948, Nixon saw the lawyerly evasiveness of Alger Hiss.  Visits to Westminster farm, the future site of the Pumpkin Papers, convinced Nixon that Chambers knew Hiss.  From this came their comradeship in battling an administration eager to shut off the investigation and indict Chambers on espionage.  The relationship was at times, a rocky one, with Nixon exasperated at Chambers' protective retience in releasing written proof.  In one telling incident, Nixon even joined with the doubters about Chambers, when a call came dating the microfilm from 1945, seven years after Chambers ended his courier relationship with the Soviets.  After the second call came, concluding that this type of film was manufactured both before and after the war, Nixon never again wavered in his belief in Chambers.

With Hiss in jail, the two retained their soldierly attitude about what Hiss represented, but the relationship added another dimension: that of teacher and pupil.  Nixon, so sensitive to caste issues, didn't mind making the trek to Westminister.  There he sat at Chambers' feet not only to learn about life in the underground but also to discuss the wreck of Western civilization.  For Chambers, Nixon became a life raft in a sea of pessimism.  During a heart attack episode in 1952, Chambers emerged from his stupor long enough to inquire about the outcome of the presidential race.  Assured that the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won, he lay back in bed. 


Chambers remained enough of a Nixon loyalist to keep his distance from National Review, whose staff dissatisfied with Eisenhower pragmatism, favored a third party candidate.  Chambers counseled them to accept the movement of history, which carried with it the New Deal, but it was to no avail in that decade when conservatives wanted history to stop.

Both men were uncomfortable with Senator Joseph McCarthy.  But here the politician in Nixon separated him from private citizen Chambers.  Both men viewed him in strategic terms, but for Chambers early on the senator represented ruin.  "He is a raven of disaster," he wrote William F. Buckley, and Chambers feared that McCarthy would one day wreck the cause of anticommunism irreparably.  He denied the senator the same aid he granted to Nixon but kept his criticisms largely within the Republican family.  Nixon, also kept his reservations private, but was willing to unleash McCarthy when it benefitted his side.  But by 1954, Nixon was one of those working behind the scenes to undermine McCarthy and his attacks on the administration.

By Nixon's second term as Vice President, the differences between him and Chambers were widening.  As noted by Sam Tannenhaus in his biography, Chambers never lost his Marxist lens on history as a long range project.  At times, Tannenhaus notes, he sounded a renegade note, favoring a New Dealish approach to economic matters and libertarian one on civil liberties.  He shunned Nixon's method of operation in the 1970s, the wiretap, and was principled enough to favor extending a passport to Alger Hiss.

Nixon, by this time, was hip-deep in deniable covert action to such tottering dominoes as Iran, Guatamela, Tibet and Vietnam and Cuba.  Nixon treated the power vacuum filled by the secret-speech wielding Kruschve with the same level of suspicion he exhibited when Stalin was around.  Chambers, on the other hand, saw the new leader as potentially representing a thaw.

Both men retained their emotional anticommunism, for Chambers based on "hearing the screams," and Nixon through study and experience.  But by now, the differences were too great.  Chambers, meeting with him during the 1960 campaign, realized they had very little to say to each other and now doubting the candidate was equal to the task of being president.

It's a shame though that Chambers didn't survive into Nixon's presidency, for there were features of maturity in it he would have appreciated.  By then, although retaining and intensifying the Orwellian approach to civil liberties, Nixon had shed the rollback doctrine of the Dulles' years and instead took the long range view of history, exploiting the nationalistic differences between communist nations and eventually separating China from the Soviet Union.

Chambers might have also appreciated the irony of Nixon being undone, like Hiss, by his own data.  He may have noted, albeit privately in correspondence within the Republican family, how both Nixon and Hiss behaved in similiar ways, as if there would never be a smoking gun.

Ron Capshaw has written for National Review, the New York Sun, Partisan Review and the Weekly Standard. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and is currently writing a biography of Alger Hiss.


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