Roughly 100 students, alumni and government officials gathered in Linsly-Chittenden Hall Friday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of “Witness,” an anti-communist manifesto written by conservative columnist Whittaker Chambers.
The event, hosted by the William F. Buckley Program, aimed to examine “Witness” from both historical and present-day perspectives through three panels and a dinner with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Panelists such as John Gaddis, a history professor, and Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, discussed the book’s controversial history in sparking the beginning of the conservative movement.
Daniels said he agreed with the book’s message of freedom and anti-communism, but he criticized its pessimistic depiction of a Western world succumbing to communism. Instead of possessing a pessimistic view of modern-day Americans relying on the government, he said he thinks Americans can still become self-made people with economic freedom.
“Changes must come to welfare state policies, and we must trust in our fellow citizens,” Daniels said. “The government is designed to encourage and enable individual freedom — if we summon the best from Americans, we must assume the best about them. We must tell them, ‘We believe in you and your ability to decide for yourself.’”
During the first panel, Gaddis, journalist M. Stanton Evans and historian of the conservative movement Lee Edwards discussed the life of Chambers, a former Soviet spy who testified in the 1948 espionage trial of then-United Nations official Alger Hiss. Hiss was accused of spying for the Soviet Union, and Chambers denounced his Communist allegiances and testified against Hiss.
Edwards said “Witness,” which details Chambers’ story, was “the glue that held [the Republican Party] together” in the 1950s because it helped differing conservative factions unite against the common enemy of communism. Evans commended Chambers as a man who realized the dangers behind communism and defended his conservative beliefs despite living in an atmosphere predominantly sympathetic to the Soviets.
The second panel, led by Abrams, Max Boot, a military historian and fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor of the National Review, examined whether Chambers’ anti-communist message remains relevant in present-day matters of foreign policy. Nordlinger said communism still causes problems in the world today through human rights violations such as Chinese labor camps.
“It’s hard to find people left of center who are willing to take up the cause [against human rights violations],” he added. “George W. Bush paid a lot of attention to political prisoners. Obama’s more interested in having warm relations with these Communist regimes.”
Boot and Abrams said they think the communist threat has been replaced by the jihadist movement in the Middle East, and they advocated for increased U.S. political involvement in the region.
The third panel included Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary magazine, Alfred Regnery, the former publisher of The American Spectator, and Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University, who discussed ways that conservatives could define themselves without an immediate communist threat. Podhoretz said he thinks conservatism would remain united by a belief in economic freedom, while Regnery said the ideology is bound by its fundamental pillars, such as tradition and order. But Berkowitz said he believes in a new approach to conservatism that discourages politicians from seeking a smaller government in size and instead advocates for a government with limited abilities.
Buckley Program President Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13, a staff columnist for the News, said he enjoyed the third panel because it addressed confusion about the identity of the conservative movement after the 2012 election.
“The conservative movement doesn’t know how to define itself right now, and the whole panel focused on what the movement needed to become,” he said. “It’s something that’s necessary for the University and for the country.”
Ugonna Eze ’16 said he thought Gaddis, who discussed Cold War personalities in contrast to one another, portrayed the clash between Hiss and Chambers well.
Dimitri Halikias ’16 said he believed Berkowitz embodied the spirit of Buckley, who aimed to change the approach to the conservative movement without giving up on its core principles. Ken Bickford, who spoke at a Buckley Program event last February, said he disagreed with panelists on the final panel because he did not understand the distinction between a small government and one with limited powers.
The Buckley Program will host a lecture featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist George Will in January 2013.