Kengor Writes . . .
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and the executive director of The Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pennsylvania. These essays are republished from The Institute for Faith and Freedom, an online publication of Grove City College, and The American Spectator. Paul Kengor is the author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004); The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007); The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007); and The Communist — Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor (Threshold Editions / Mercury Ink 2012).
Remember the Cold War’s Witness
It was 70 years ago, 1952, that Whittaker Chambers published his memoir, Witness. It was a bestseller with a major impact, including on a future president who, more than any other figure, defeated the country that Chambers once served, winning the Cold War.
Chambers exploded onto the national scene courtesy of his dramatic 1948 trial, when he squared off with Alger Hiss in one of the most important cases of the 20th century. Americans were riveted, given the gravity of the charges: espionage. The memoir that followed (published by Random House) was a gripping, beautifully written work in which Chambers not only recounted the high stakes, but also the captivating and often sordid details of his most unusual life. His autobiography made clear, too, that he was a witness, not just in the Hiss trial and this Cold War epic, but to much more.
Whittaker Chambers was born April 1, 1901 and given the odd name “Jay Vivian” by a very unstable mother. An awkward boy and man, he nevertheless grew up to become a witness to many historical events, often unwittingly. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. observed that Chambers “seemed at once to enjoy and to resent the burdens of history.”
One burden of history that Chambers bore was a perilous one. At Columbia University, in the early 1920s, he took up the torch of Karl Marx and became a hardcore Communist. Sam Tanenhaus, in his superb 1997 biography, said that in joining the Communist cause, Chambers “had at last found his church.” The Marxist faith gave Chambers purpose and meaning.
But it was a dangerous and perverse purpose and meaning, and Chambers made it worse by joining the dark side in a deep way. From 1932 to 1938, Chambers became a Soviet spy, conspiring with (among other characters) a high-level State Department official with whom he helped pilfer documents for Moscow: Alger Hiss (1904–1997). Hiss was in many ways everything Chambers was not — charming, smooth, socially connected. He was a darling of the Eastern liberal elite, with sterling credentials among the foreign policy establishment, at one point heading up the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes, attended Yalta with FDR’s delegation, and was present at the creation of the United Nations.
In dramatic exchanges during the 1948 trial, Chambers identified Hiss as “the concealed enemy” that all freedom-loving Americans were fighting against. Hiss denied everything, including even knowing Chambers. Hiss nonetheless was unanimously convicted of perjury and spent 44 months in federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Hiss later quipped that his nearly four years in prison was a good corrective to four years at Harvard. Until the day he died, Hiss claimed innocence. But he was certainly guilty, as Chambers showed in his testimony and his memoir.
In Witness Chambers shared details of the Hiss trial and the larger trials of his tormented life in Witness. The book made it clear that he was learned, highly intellectual, and a deep thinker, and often anguished. Chambers for a long time was unhealthy, physically and emotionally, suffering several heart attacks and still dealing with scars going back to childhood, having grown up in a big-city home of severe family dysfunction.
The succinct title, Witness, is clever. Yes, Chambers became famous as a witness in the Hiss trial, but he was in fact a witness to much more. Chambers showed that he had served as another kind of witness — as Christians understand the word “witness.” The Greek word for witness is “martyr.” Chambers ultimately saw himself as a kind of martyr as well. “I only knew that I had promised God my life, even, if it were His will, to death,” he wrote solemnly in Witness. “This is my ultimate witness.”
Chambers hooked readers right away with a fascinating opening essay, which he titled, “Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children.” The foreword can stand on its own, and often does when reprinted in various edited collections of classic conservative anthologies. Here, Chambers stated it was his “fate” to be a “witness” to each of the “two great faiths of our time.” He wrote:
“For in this century, within the next decades, will be decided for generations whether all mankind is to become Communist, whether the whole world is to become free, or whether, in the struggle, civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyed or completely changed. . . . It is our fate to live upon that turning point in history.”
It was a turning point that hinged on the battle of good vs. evil.
Chambers went on to state candidly that “I see in Communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time.” This is hauntingly similar to President Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech given some 30 years later, during which Reagan called the USSR “the focus of evil in the modern world.” That is no surprise, given that no other book (with the exception of the Bible) influenced Reagan as much as Witness did. The 40th president kept an extra copy of Witness on a bookshelf at his ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains, in addition to a copy at his home in Los Angeles.
Like Reagan, Chambers frequently employed the word “evil” to describe Soviet Communism.
“Communism is absolutely evil,” he declared in Witness. “It was Communism that was evil, and the more truly a man acted in its spirit and interest, the more certainly he perpetuated evil.”
As a Communist, he had to come to grips with this. “I denied the very existence of a soul,” he shared. “Communism denies the soul.” At one point, he finally acknowledged to himself: “This is evil, absolute evil. Of this evil I am a part.”
It is here that Chambers rightly saw that the battle against Communism was not merely about politics and economics. He liked the quote from Dostoyevsky:
“The problem of Communism is not an economic problem. The problem of Communism is the problem of atheism.”
(Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted insightfully that Chambers seemed to see himself as a character out of Dostoyevsky.)
Regarding Communism, Chambers continued:
“It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second-oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’”
He affirmed that “the Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.”
Chambers ended his foreword by evoking Golgotha, the “place of skulls.” But later he speaks of redemption, his own, by evoking Lazarus. “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.”
Chambers gave 1938 as the year of his break, when he “freely made the choice — the decision to die, if necessary, rather than live under Communism.” Writing almost like a mystic, he recalled being struck one day by almost audible words spoken to him: “If you will fight for freedom, all will be well with you.” He conceded that he was not sure if he heard those actual words, but he certainly felt them. “What was there,” recalled Chambers,
“. . . was the sense that, like me, time and the world stood still, an awareness of God as an envelopment, holding me in silent assurance and untroubled peace.”
He made his commitment:
“There was a sense that in that moment I gave my promise, not with the mind, but with my whole being, and that this was a covenant that I might not break.”
Henceforth, he began to feel a sense of peace and strength. It is only in God’s will, wrote Dante, that we can find our purpose and our peace. That was where Chambers had at last arrived. He told readers:
“I did not seek to know God’s will. I did not suppose that anyone could know God’s will. I only sought prayerfully to know and to do God’s purpose with me.”
There is so much more that one could say about the stirring content in the pages of Witness, but space here limits us. I will share one particularly moving passage that also hit Ronald Reagan and remained with him. Reagan could quote it off the top of his head. Reagan speechwriters have told me about Reagan doing so, and they and he included the passage in his speeches. Here is the passage in Chambers’ memoirs:
“I date my break [from Communism] from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. . . . My daughter was in her highchair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear — those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.’ The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.”
If readers will further indulge me as a Reagan biographer, I would like to conclude with a final point of comparison between Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan, because it gets to the crux of how the Cold War was won by the latter. It also underscores why Chambers’ dramatic message in Witness was so stirring and enduring.
If there was one monumental difference between Chambers and Reagan, it was this: Chambers was a pessimist, whereas Reagan was the quintessential optimist. Reagan was imbued with an intense sense of divine providence and an unwavering conviction that he could work according to God’s “Divine Plan” (as Reagan put it) to change the world for the better.
Chambers somberly feared that, although he had joined the right side by rejecting Soviet Communism, he had left “the winning side for the losing side.” He feared that the side of freedom — America — would lose. Ronald Reagan believed precisely the opposite. He felt the United States would win. As he told one of his advisers (Richard Allen), “We win, they lose.” Reagan was so sure of it that, as president, he sought precisely to achieve that goal. And what happened? We won, they lost.
Reagan was right, and Chambers was wrong. If only the morose martyr, who passed away on July 9, 1961 from yet another heart attack, had lived long enough to witness it.
Mikhail Gorbachev Meets His Maker
When I heard about the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, I sighed. He was one of the final remaining pivotal figures in the end of the Cold War: Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel, Boris Yeltsin, and Lech Walesa. Only Walesa remains. Gorbachev was 91 years old, living much longer than many expected. It’s a historic loss.
I sighed for an added reason. I have written so much about Gorbachev, in so many articles and books, that it’s just impossible to try to sum up the man’s life and legacy. Where to begin?
It’s a daunting task, but I think I can add two worthwhile things that others will ignore or get wrong in their tributes to Gorbachev.
First, most of the world will focus on Gorbachev’s role in the collapse of the USSR and invoke him as the hero of Soviet disintegration. The truth is not so tidy. In reality, Gorbachev’s goal all along was to preserve the USSR. Unlike Ronald Reagan, whose goal was to break up the Soviet Union, Gorbachev tried to keep it together, so much so that he repeatedly used force in several Soviet republics (including the Baltic states) in his final years in power.
To his credit, Gorbachev wanted a kinder, gentler, non-totalitarian Soviet Union, even a politically pluralistic one. In February 1990, he formally stripped the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of its sole monopoly on political power when he repudiated Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution. That was a huge positive change, and only he had the power to enact it. But still, he strove to keep the union together. He said so publicly until the very end.
That end came, providentially, on December 25, 1991, Christmas day — a celebration that the Bolsheviks banned in the USSR. That day, Gorbachev called President George H. W. Bush to say: “You can have a very quiet Christmas evening. I am saying good-bye and shaking your hand.” He informed Bush of the inevitable, namely: He was resigning his position as head of the USSR, a country that by then effectively no longer existed because every single republic had declared independence in 1990 and 1991.
That evening, Gorbachev went on Soviet television to announce he was resigning his post. He began his December 25 resignation speech by noting that he had stood
“. . . firmly . . . for the preservation of the union state, the unity of the country. Events went a different way. The policy prevailed of dismembering this country and disuniting the state, with which I cannot agree.”
He lamented the “breakup” of Soviet “statehood” and “the loss” of, curiously, “a great country.”
Gorbachev would reiterate that position over and over in the years ahead. In April 2006, he told USA Today that, “The Soviet Union could have been preserved and should have been preserved.”
No, it should not have. As Ronald Reagan said, it was an Evil Empire and “it was time to shut it down.” Gorbachev helped shut it down, but the way it unraveled was not what he intended. Still, he deserves credit for helping to peacefully end a Cold War that few of us would have expected to end peacefully. If you had told any of us in 1981 that by 1991 the USSR would cease to exist, we might have assumed it was annihilated in nuclear Armageddon. That nuclear nightmare never occurred, and that was a credit to Gorbachev, Reagan, John Paul II, Thatcher, and the other great leaders of the day.
Great leaders, I must add emphatically, that do not exist on the world stage right now. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis are plainly not Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II. We are impoverished today. We suffer badly for lack of statesmen.
The second thing that I can and must add to the matter of the life of Gorbachev is the one that matters most at this time of death: his faith. And that, too, is very complicated.
Born in March 1931, Gorbachev was secretly baptized as an infant by his mother, Maria. He later told Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli that his mother would surreptitiously remove an icon from the wall and bless him with it. Three of his grandparents were Christians.
When Reagan first met Gorbachev at Geneva in November 1985, he was immediately taken by Gorbachev’s religious references, which were plainly remarkable coming from the leader of what Reagan rightly called an “Evil Empire.” Reagan became deeply intrigued at the possibility that Gorbachev might be (in Reagan’s words) a “closet Christian.”
When he arrived home from Geneva, Reagan immediately called Michael Deaver. He said of the new current leader of Lenin’s and Stalin’s atheistic state: “He believes.” An incredulous Deaver responded to his president and longtime friend: “Are you saying the general secretary of the Soviet Union believes in God?” Reagan walked his statement back, but only a tiny bit:
“I don’t know, Mike, but I honestly think he believes in a higher power.”
Gorbachev proceeded to suggest that with his stunning overtures on behalf of religious freedom, rolling back his predecessors’ brutal “wholesale war on religion,” as Gorbachev described it. “Atheism took rather savage forms in our country,” he lamented.
It did indeed, and Gorbachev called off the war on religion.
Pope John Paul II most certainly noticed, and appreciated Gorbachev’s glasnost. The two men respected one another and reached out to each other. In December 1989, Gorbachev became the first and only Soviet leader to visit the Vatican. Like Reagan, John Paul II was cautious, not knowing for sure if Gorbachev was privately a closet Christian. Nonetheless, the pope considered the general secretary to be a “Providential man.” He believed that God was surely working through this very different Soviet leader. “I’m sure that Providence paved the way for this meeting,” he told Gorbachev.
But did Mikhail Gorbachev believe in God?
That is a subject that not only perplexed Reagan and John Paul II but also Reagan’s son, Michael, and Reagan’s closest aide, Bill Clark. I was Clark’s biographer, and he and I and Michael Reagan many times discussed the subject of Gorbachev’s faith. We all tried to get answers. Michael once asked Gorbachev directly to his face if he believed in God, and was frustrated that he couldn’t get an answer. I tried to interview Gorbachev for my 2004 book God and Ronald Reagan, where I first wrote about Gorbachev’s faith. The old Leninist wanted a minimum of $10,000 for the interview (yes, seriously). Mike Reagan advised me not to pay up, given that Gorbachev was not going to tell me what I wanted to know, and given that I didn’t have that sort of cash.
A more productive outreach was initiated by Bill Clark. Clark learned of Gorbachev’s quite intriguing fascination with St. Francis of Assisi, which the London Telegraph reported in March 2008 when a British reporter very unexpectedly happened upon the figure of Mikhail Gorbachev in apparent prayer on his knees at the tomb of St. Francis. I read the Telegraph piece and quickly emailed it to and called Clark and Mike Reagan. I immediately drafted an op-ed for Mike to review and co-author. No sooner did we finish a draft to send to Christianity Today than did Gorbachev publicly step forward to insist that he had not become Christian, declaring the Telegraph’s reports to be false, or at least premature.
Our op-ed was dead, but the story of Mikhail Gorbachev’s evolving faith was not. Bill Clark had been Ronald Reagan’s most important aide in seeking to win the Cold War and undermine the Evil Empire. He was a very devout Catholic. Now, post-Cold War, Clark turned his attention to the soul of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Clark immediately began working the phone and his diplomatic contacts, as he had 25 years earlier as Ronald Reagan’s top aide in foreign policy. He told me that he had heard from informed “religious friends” who knew Gorbachev that “the word is that he has converted but doesn’t quite know how to talk about it or deal with it publicly.”
The reasons for Gorbachev’s reluctance would always remain a mystery. Clark, however, didn’t give up.
Clark labored with friends in Russia, notably a friar who wanted to remain anonymous and had the connections to get to Gorbachev a rare Russian translation of the works of Saint Francis. Clark arranged to have the collection hand-delivered to the former general secretary.
Clark’s outreach proved quickly fruitful. Two weeks later, Clark called me and told me that Gorbachev wanted to meet with him to talk about St. Francis and the Christian faith generally, a process which, said Clark, “is in the process of being arranged.”
Clark and I worked together to arrange that meeting, but alas, it never happened. Geography and health limitations made it overwhelming.
So, did Mikhail Gorbachev ever become a Christian? We never found out. Gorbachev took the answer to that question to the grave.
In the end, that’s the question that matters most. What Mikhail Gorbachev did in this world had huge consequences. But the consequences that matter most are eternal ones.
Hey, Gorbachev knew. And God knows. *