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Turn on Easy Mode at AppleVacations.com or call your local travel advisor to get started. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. The book Witness by author Whitaker Chambers was one of the biggest US bestsellers of the 20th century, yet it is almost unknown among Americans today. Here to tell the story of the book and its author is Greg Forster on behalf of the Acton Institute. Forster is a Whitaker Chambers expert who has earned a PhD with distinction in political philosophy from Yale University.
Let's take a listen. Chambers grew up in an unhappy home, a home full of emotional neediness, manipulation, petty jealousies. He had a younger brother named Richard who was really popular at school and he was able to take solace in his friends, but Chambers himself was awkward and socially inept. And he was tormented as much at school as he was at home. His only escape was into the woods. He spent long days walking alone in the woods near his home in the world of nature.
He said, nature gives peace to anyone who comes to see and to hear and not to change. As a teenager, he ran away from home. He got a job laying railways in the streets in Washington, D.C. On that job, he experienced the hopelessness and the cruel mistreatment of the impoverished workers.
On his very first day on the job, as one of the streetcars slowed down in order to move through the work site, a laughing passenger leaned his head out of the window and casually and deliberately spat tobacco juice all over him. But among those workers, Chambers also experienced the unique compassion and mutual assistance that the poor give to one another in their affliction. After he was forced to return home, Chambers went to Columbia University looking around at the chaos and the injustice of the world, watching the developments in and after World War I and also his own experience. He became convinced that society was sick, so sick that only surgery could save it, and he became convinced that communism was history's surgeon. He would later write, nobody becomes a communist because communism is intrinsically attractive.
People become communists because they confront the crisis of history in the modern world, and they are driven to desperation because they can't find any other answers, and also because the blurring of the lines between good and evil is part of that crisis of history. Well, his advisor at Columbia was Mark Vandoren, and Vandoren told him, go see the wave of the future, they're building it in the Soviet Union. In order to get over to the Soviet Union, Chambers joined a Quaker international relief team, and among the Quakers, he began to discover God, and he moved toward God. He was powerfully moved by the peace of the Quaker meeting, where they will sit in silence for long periods so that the Spirit of God can make his presence felt.
But then the Quakers discovered some atheistic writings that Chambers had published in the student paper. They kicked him off the relief team, and they cast him out of the meeting house. Chambers said that if even one person had taken him aside in that moment, and asked him, what is in your heart, he would never have become a Communist. But instead, he was left bitterly asking himself, where in Christendom is the Christian? So he began calling himself a Communist. Eventually, he dropped out of college in order to join the Communist Party. During this time, his brother Richard had also gone off to college, and Richard's life fell apart. Richard was not as popular at college as he had been at home, and without the friends and the popularity to prop him up, the inner emptiness of his life consumed him. He was reading pessimistic atheistic philosophy, and he came home declaring that life is meaningless, suffering, and folly. He said to his family, I'm not brave enough to kill myself yet, but I will be soon. He began drinking heavily, staying out all night. The parents saw what was happening, but they felt helpless to do anything about it.
So it fell to Chambers to try to convince his brother not to kill himself. They had endless arguments. Richard said, look around you, look at people, they're all hypocrites. Look at the world, it's hopeless. Look at religion, even the people who pretend to believe in it don't really. Look at marriage, it's a fraud. Look at family, look at our family. And children, it's a crime against nature to bring children into this world. Chambers told him it's not the world that's evil, it's what people have made of the world that's evil. The answer is to struggle against evil. He said communism has found the way out. Richard just spat at that.
The communists are just another fraud like all the others. And besides, what does it matter? We're all going to die. Nothing waiting for us but eternal oblivion.
There's no hope to build anything meaningful with death waiting for us all. After a prolonged period of agony for the entire family, Richard finally killed himself. Chambers began visiting Richard's grave every day before work and then again every day after work. Winter came and the graveyard was covered with snow. On New Year's Eve, Chambers was still there standing at his brother's grave when midnight came with the new year. And Chambers began to hear the sound of celebration.
Fireworks, bells, car horns, parties, the sound of glass smashing against the cemetery wall. And standing there, Chambers blamed those partiers and their whole world for Richard's death. This materialistic, shallow world that wallows in superficial pleasures and gave Richard nothing that was worth living for. And he thought that the only thing he had worth living for was the struggle to destroy that shallow and materialistic society. So standing there in the graveyard, he consecrated his life to the destruction of America. He would later write, At that point I had been a member of the Communist Party for some time, but it was not until that night that I truly became a communist. I became irreconcilable.
He walked out of the graveyard and he never went back there. And you've been listening to Greg Forster tell a heck of a story about Whitaker Chambers and particularly what drove him right into the arms of pure, unfettered communism and a deep anti-Americanism. When we return, more of the story of Whitaker Chambers here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.
But we can't do it without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love our stories and America like we do, please go to OurAmericanStories.com and click the donate button. Give a little.
Give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming. That's OurAmericanStories.com. All inclusive vacations make life easy with endless eats, bottomless drinks and never ending fun. So booking an all inclusive vacation should be easy too, right? That's where Apple Vacations comes in. Book your all inclusive getaway with Apple Vacations and receive exclusive perks at select resorts. You'll find the best deals to sun and sand destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. And enjoy a selection of exclusive nonstop vacation flights.
Turn on easy mode at AppleVacations.com or call your local travel advisor to get started. I love the freshness of spring. It means fun events like spring break and graduation and some new clothes to make those occasions extra special. My go to Lulu's. Lulu's has quality on trend items that feel as good as they look. There are so many styles to choose from for graduation and Lulu's has everything I need for spring break. Create an account at Lulu's dot com and use code Lulu's Fan 20 to save 20 percent off your first order. That's Lulu's Fan 20. Freshen up your wardrobe for spring at Lulu's dot com. Terms and conditions apply.
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Order now in the app for pickup or delivery. Chipotle, for real. And we return to our American stories. When we last left off, Whitaker Chambers had declared himself to be an irreconcilable communist and consecrated his life to the destruction of America.
Let's continue with our storyteller, Greg Forster. He worked in the open Communist Party for several years in a variety of roles. Then he was recruited into the Soviet underground and spent six years there as a spy. At first in New York he was part of a smuggling operation, shuttling messages and materials between the American underground and the European underground. Later he returned to Washington where he had laid rails. But now he had come to organize one of several Soviet apparatuses that penetrated the United States government.
Chambers was a go-between. He would bring the commands of the Soviet government to a number of highly placed American officials. And he would receive from them copies of state secret documents to be copied and passed on. In this period in the 1930s, shockingly large numbers of middle class intellectuals, the kind of people who populate the U.S. government, were becoming communists. It can be very difficult for us today to recapture that moment in the 1930s when so many people in that group became communists or were sympathetic enough to help them.
But at the time capitalism is going to fall not because we will break the locks but because all the men who have been trusted to hold the keys are joining the conspiracy. In order to live undercover Chambers had to adopt the lifestyle of a respectable bourgeois and blend in with the world around him. But there was one thing he refused to compromise on. In order to blend in he had to hire a black woman as a housekeeper because that was the prevailing practice in the neighborhood. But although it meant a risk of discovery he refused to pay her the lower negro wage that was the acceptable practice.
And even more risky than that he invited her to dine at the family dinner table with the family. As a communist Chambers refused to have segregated dining in his home. He would later write, By acting as a communist must, I acted as a Christian should. However he soon discovered that most communists were not as scrupulous as he was. At first he thought that by entering the underground he would be escaping the petty factional squabbling, the recriminations and the constant cycles of purges and recriminations that were ubiquitous in the open party.
But he soon found out that the underground had its own forms of destructive stupidity. The rise of communism to national power in Russia was producing a new kind of communist. Careerist, corrupt, cynical.
The party is nothing but a path to power for them. Chambers was forced to help the party to hurt people and even kill people in petty disputes that had nothing to do with the communist cause or advancing the world revolution. He went along with it he said because the only hope for a better world was communism. So if he disobeyed the communist party and was thrown out he would lose the whole purpose of his life. But doubts were beginning to grow in his mind.
Something else happened to Chambers as well. Into that world of death came the unexpected power of new life. And I'd like to share this with you. For one of us to have a child, my brother had said in his agony, would be a crime against nature. I longed for children but I agreed with my brother.
There had been enough misery in our line. What selfish right had I to perpetuate it? And what right had any man or woman to bring a child into the 20th century world? They could only suffer its inevitable revolutions or die in its inevitable wars. One extreme group among the communists held that it was morally wrong for a professional revolutionist to have children at all.
They could only hamper or distract his work. That was one of the penalties of being a communist. I did not belong to that group but in general I shared their views. As an underground communist I took it for granted that children were out of the question. Not only left-wing and underground communists took such matters for granted. Abortion was a commonplace of party life. There were communist doctors who rendered that service for a small fee.
Communists who were more choosy knew liberal doctors who would provide it for a larger fee. Abortion, which now fills me with physical horror, I then regarded, like all communists, as a mere physical manipulation. One day in early 1933 my wife told me that she believed she had conceived. No man can hear from his wife, especially for the first time, that she is carrying his child without a physical jolt of joy and pride.
I felt it. But so sunk were we in that life that it was only a passing joy and was succeeded by a merely momentary sadness that we would not have the child. We discussed the matter and my wife said she must go at once for a physical check and to arrange for the abortion. When my wife came back she was quiet and noncommittal. The doctor had said there was a child. My wife went about preparing supper. What else did she say, I asked. She said I'm in good physical shape to have the child. My wife went on working.
Very slowly the truth dawned on me. Do you mean, I asked, that you want to have the child? My wife came over to me, took my hands, and burst into tears. Dear heart, she said with a pleading voice, we couldn't do that awful thing to a little baby. Not to a little baby, dear heart. A wild joy swept over me. Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the 20th century crumbled at the touch of the child. Both of us simply wanted a child.
If the points on the long course of my break with communism could be retraced, that is probably one of them. Not at the level of conscious mind, but at the level of unconscious life. The child, even before her birth, had begun invisibly to lead us out of that darkness that we could not even realize toward that light, which we could not even see. As his daughter grew, Chambers used to love sitting there watching her in her tie chair, smearing porridge on her face or meditatively dropping it on the floor. One day, he noticed her ear, how intricate and complex the human ear was, and the thought came burning into his mind, that could not have happened by accident.
Only an immense design could have created that. The thought was unwanted and he shoved it aside, but it would return to haunt him. In 1937, Stalin's purges reached their peak. Chambers watched as people who he had known and cared about for years, dedicated communists who had given their lives to the cause and to the party, were brutally murdered for no good reason. And his superiors laughed and joked about it. They enjoyed the cruelty. His doubts growing, Chambers read a book by a man who had escaped from a Soviet labor camp. He began to be haunted by the screams of those whom he had helped to hurt and to kill. Chambers said, the vision of communism is the vision of the almighty mind of man, so no one ever really stops being a communist until they discover that there is something in man that is greater than the mind. Those screams of the people in agony were the cry of something inside human beings that is greater than mind, was the cry of the human soul. And they were crying out to the only thing that can hear a human soul, another human soul. Listening to the screams caused Chambers to realize that those people he was hurting had souls and that he had a soul too. And you've been listening to Greg Forster, and Forster is a Whitaker Chambers expert who has earned a PhD with distinction in political philosophy from Yale University. And that story about the pregnancy of Whitaker Chambers' bride and her willingness to sacrifice the child for the good of the party and for the good of mankind.
Because why on earth bring a child into this world that would suffer so? This was the beginning of the end of his flirtation and commitment to communism. He didn't know it yet, Whitaker Chambers, but this was the beginning of the end, this realization of the inhumanity of communism. When we come back, more of the story of Whitaker Chambers and the book Witness here on Our American Stories. And when we come back, more of the story of Whitaker Chambers and the book Witness here on Our American Stories. Looking forward to spring break, graduation, and girls' nights out? Get outfitted today at Lulus.
Lulus is all about providing on-trend looks for any occasion. We'll be right back. And we continue with Our American Stories and the story of Whitaker Chambers and the story of his remarkable book Witness.
I urge you to pick it up. Go to Amazon.com and read it. So much of what's happening today in the world was happening then, too.
And so many of the same arguments and so many of the same spiritual battles. In 1937, word of Stalin's torture and murder was becoming public knowledge in America. Whitaker Chambers, the American-turned-communist spy, struggled to reconcile his commitment with these truths.
Let's return to Greg Forster. He finally allowed himself to ask, what is it that we are missing that communism always goes so wrong? Could it be God? He had reached what he called the division point, the point where you have to choose one path or the other. He got down on his knees and prayed, and he began praying every day, and he came to need prayer like food and water. By turning to God, he was discovering who he really was. That illusion of the almighty mind of man began to fade away.
Chambers said, reason is good, but there is a flaw in humanity, a flaw that causes great evil and suffering, and it goes beyond the realm where reason can reach. As he put it, the death camps exist first in our minds. When he finally left the Communist Party in April 1938, he left absolutely everything that he had except his wife and children. He had no career, and the depression was on. He had no standing in any community, no relationships. He was a fugitive from both the American government and the Soviet government. He knew that the party's first instinct would be to kill him, possibly getting to him through his family.
So he got himself a car and a weapon. He took his last stash of stolen documents and he gave it to a cousin to hide to use as leverage against the party in case they kidnapped his wife or child. And then he fled into hiding for six months or so. After that, he emerged from hiding and he went back and contacted his former contacts in the underground, and he tried to persuade them to leave the party to defect from the Communist Party. And he threatened to denounce them to the authorities if they wouldn't.
In 1939 came the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. And Chambers knew that the Soviet underground in Washington would be put at Hitler's disposal to use against the U.S. So it had become his duty to become an informer. Becoming an informer was physically and spiritually repulsive to Chambers because it involved using people's trust in you to destroy them. It was a sort of slow-motion spiritual death for him, even though it was morally the right thing to do.
And the worst of it was he went to the government and he told them everything he knew and they didn't do anything about it. As a friend, Chambers got the opportunity to apply for a job at Time Magazine. He worked his way up from book reviews to senior editor. He became a Quaker.
He returned to the deep peace of the Quaker meeting from his college days. The Chamberses moved to a family farm, which they worked entirely themselves, on top of Chambers more than a full-time job as a senior editor of Time Magazine. The farm was their witness against the materialism of the modern world.
The farm said, we choose this life of great hardship and great satisfaction because the modern world has nothing better than this to offer us. Over the course of nine years at Time, Chambers watched as the people who had worked for him as Soviet spies moved their way up in the New Deal administration. Harry Dexter White led the creation of the World Bank and served as his first president. And a Harvard-trained lawyer named Alger Hiss, who had become the closest friend of Chambers' whole life during their service together in the Soviet underground, became a major architect of U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II period. Hiss, who was a Soviet spy, sat directly behind President Roosevelt across the table from Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Hiss was essential in the creation of the United Nations. He later became the president of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace.
And in the initiatives of the New Deal, which involved not only safety net programs but also massive central planning and quasi-nationalization of many industries, Chambers thought that he heard not communism but a milder and more liberal form of that destructive vision of the almighty mind of man. In 1948, ten years after he left the party and after nine years at Time, Chambers was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He still had a large mortgage. He knew that by testifying he could lose his job and the farm. He did, in fact, lose his job as a result of his testimony, although he did manage to keep the farm going until much later. He could have saved himself, saved his job, saved his position at the top of American society at Time Magazine by just pretending not to remember very much. But he decided to tell what he knew.
The nation did not understand either the extent or the totalitarian nature of the communist threat. Now, most of Chambers' contacts from his underground days by that time had either already admitted that they were communists or had left the country or had died or pled the fifth. But almost alone of the whole group, Alger Hiss, Chambers' closest friend in the whole world, stood up in public and denied everything. The public hearing at which Chambers and Hiss confronted one another was the first televised congressional hearing. In fact, you can actually see television footage of the hearings on YouTube. I'm going to play a quick clip here. This is a point where Alger Hiss has been listing a long list of highly respectable and powerful people that he's worked with and he's bragging about his credentials.
So let's roll that. Ask them if they ever found in me anything except the highest adherence to duty and honor. Then the committee can judge and the public can judge whether to believe a self-discredited accuser whose names and aliases are as numerous and as casual as his accusations. The other side of this question is the reliability of the allegations before this committee, the undocumented statements of the man who now calls himself Whitaker Chambers. Is he a man of consistent reliability, truthfulness and honor?
Clearly not. He admits it and the committee knows it. Chambers, who has already sworn that he pleaded with Hiss to join him in leaving the party, is recalled in the middle of the dramatic nine-hour session. Asked why he singled out Hiss, he replies, The story is spread in testimony against Mr. Hiss. I'm working out some old grudge for mortgage and revenge for hatred. I don't hate Mr. Hiss. We were close friends, but we are caught in a tragedy of hissing. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are all fighting and I am fighting. I've testified against him with remorse and pity.
And you're listening to Greg Forster tell the story of Whitaker Chambers and the story of Whitaker Chambers' best-selling book, Witness. And there's a terrific line in the beginning of this segment. The problem wasn't that Stalin subverted communism.
The problem was communism itself. And he began to get on his knees and pray. And ten years later, he's a senior editor at Time and he is a Quaker. And he's leading the charge to expose the communists in the highest ranks of American life. The story of Whitaker Chambers continues here on Our American Stories.
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Chipotle, for real. And we return to our American stories and to Greg Forster's story of Whittaker Chambers and Whittaker Chambers' book, Witness, which again I urge you to go on Amazon and buy. It is one of the best books you'll ever read and as relevant today is when it was written in the mid-20th century.
Let's pick up where we last left off. You can really see the contrast, can't you, hissed this beautiful man, well-spoken and accustomed to public speaking and close friends with half the people who run the institutions of American society. And Chambers, this overweight, awkward, shy, soft-spoken, halting man, the case became a national sensation. The confrontation was fascinating. After he testified, Chambers was shocked to discover that his fellow news reporters had no interest in gathering the facts. They all went and interviewed hiss, but none of them interviewed him. Throughout the case, the national media did its best to portray Chambers in the most negative light possible. Chambers went on Meet the Press, where the panel of reporters interviewing him was moderated by a reporter who had personally recommended Alger Hiss for his position as president of the Carnegie Endowment.
These supposedly neutral, objective reporters treated Chambers so shamefully that after the show, his son asked him, Papa, why do those men hate you so? As the testimony unfolded, it became clear that Hiss was lying. The evidence was all against him. Hiss started dodging questions.
He had to keep changing his story. That didn't affect the media coverage, however. On the contrary, the more clear it became that Hiss was in trouble, the more the media covered up for him and found ways to attack Chambers. So it was not until many years later that the nation at large fully realized how clearly and unambiguously the evidence had been against Hiss from the beginning. President Truman made the case into an election issue.
He denounced Whitaker Chambers at rallies in front of big, cheering crowds. The security official that Chambers had gone to in 1939 to tell all he knew lied about what Chambers had told him. And the lie would have stuck, but the man's notes were introduced into evidence and they contradicted his story.
In the trials that came out of the case, two sitting Supreme Court justices took the stand as character witnesses for Alger Hiss. Who do you think took the stand as a character witness for Whitaker Chambers? The housekeeper. The black woman he had hired and refused to pay the lower wage. He paid her a decent wage and he invited her to sit at the table and eat with the family. As Chambers put it, in our dining room, we gave her back her human dignity.
And on the witness stand, she gave me back my human dignity. Hiss's main strategy was to smear Chambers. In the courtroom, the chair of the Harvard psychiatry department took the stand and testified under oath that he had diagnosed Whitaker Chambers as a delusional and dangerous mentally ill man solely on the basis of reading his articles in Time magazine. At the trial, Chambers was questioned on the stand at great length by Hiss's attorneys about the suicide of his brother.
And at the time, he didn't understand why. It was because the Hiss forces were hoping that the jury had heard the rumors that they had been spreading. That Chambers had abused his brother and that that's why his brother committed suicide. These claims were widely believed.
No claim was too outrageous to be believed if it made the Harvard man, the respectable lawyer, the new dealer, the architect of the United Nations, and friend to half the people who run the institutions of the country as the hero and the fat weirdo Quaker as the villain. But then Hiss's lawyers made their fatal mistake. They demanded that Chambers turn over any documents from Hiss that he might have in his possession. They assumed, of course, that he would have nothing and that this would be embarrassing for him.
But Chambers remembered. He had taken that last parcel of stolen documents and handed it to his cousin to hide to use as leverage against the party in case his wife or child were kidnapped. He didn't remember what was in it. He went back to his cousin to get it.
It had sat in a dumbwaiter shaft for 10 years. It had 65 pages of handwritten documents and canisters of microfilm that, when they were developed, produced a stack of documents four feet high. Proved beyond a doubt that Hiss was lying. There were documents in Hiss's handwriting and typed on Hiss's typewriter. There were copies of secret documents that only Hiss could have acquired and that he had no legitimate reason to be making copies of. On the stand, Hiss actually said, under oath, I am amazed and to my dying day I will wonder how Whitaker Chambers got into my house to use my typewriter.
Hiss went to jail for perjury. More importantly, the nation was awakened to the real nature of communism. There would be no more cheap and easy talk about a peaceful and democratic Soviet Union or agrarian liberals in China. Chambers' description of communism, his powerful testimony to what it was, and his willingness to endure all suffering and sacrifice in order to oppose it, had exposed the true nature of the threat. In his retirement, Chambers was sought out by William F. Buckley, who at that time was building what would become the conservative movement, and the two of them became very close friends. For a short time, Chambers wrote for National Review, including a deconstruction of Ann Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which remains to this day one of the key documents of American intellectual life. Chambers' interaction with Buckley and with the other conservatives forced him to recognize something he had never been willing to admit before, that human freedom is inextricably linked to economic and technological development. This was a huge change for Chambers. He had spent his entire adult life denouncing the mechanization of the modern world, building that family farm, trying to get back to the land, to get back to the woods from his unhappy childhood, where nature offers peace to those who come to see and to hear and not to change.
But near the end of his life, he wrote to Buckley, I have decided that the machine is not the enemy. Chambers was critical in breaking through the wall of lies and forcing a public confrontation with the true nature of communism. And that's another meaning of the title, witness. But above all, Chambers bore witness that America had lost its way spiritually. He said the modern world is in crisis because technological progress and economic development have brought an end to older ways of life that were bound by traditions. In those older ways of life, traditions had dictated to people what the meaning and the purpose of their life was. But today, in the advanced modern world, we have to figure out the meaning of our lives for ourselves. We find ourselves facing a basic question, God or man? Do we believe that the human mind is the highest thing that there is? That the solution to our problems is the almighty mind of man remaking the world to eliminate war, poverty, and injustice?
Or do we believe that there is a power higher than the human mind? That the destiny of man is not in the hands of man? Chambers said without God, man cannot organize the world for man. Without God, sooner or later we are going to start lying, cheating, and stealing, and eventually torturing and murdering on a massive scale, in order to remake the world, believing that because our destiny is in our own hands, we have the power to set the world free, set the world free from war and poverty and injustice, if only we are willing to pay the price, if only we are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Chambers said the communist East has chosen man, and it practices totalitarianism and mass murder because it has the courage of that conviction.
The capitalist West, meanwhile, has also chosen man, but it does not practice mass murder because it is haunted by the specter of its Christian past. That's the highest meaning, I think, of the title, witness. Chambers had grown to love his country very dearly, and because he loved it so much, he bore witness against, a prophetic witness against our American version of this monstrous vision of the almighty mind of man that can remake the world. And a terrific job on the editing and production and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Greg Forster, who made this speech, gave this talk on behalf of the Acton Institute.
And what a story it is, the story of Whittaker Chambers. He had spent his entire life denouncing the machine. Near the end, he realized that the machine was not the enemy. And the basic question that haunted him was, does God reign supreme or man? Is it the almighty mind of man that is the higher power, or is there a power higher than the mighty mind? Without God, he said, man can't organize the world for man. The communist East has chosen man, Forster said, but the capitalist West chose man too. But America luckily was still haunted by its own Christian past, by its own Christian conscience. The story of Whittaker Chambers, the story of communism in the 20th century, and forces like it attacking the West today, here on Our American Story. and enjoy a selection of exclusive nonstop vacation flights.
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