HBO is planning a series, Confederate, whose premise is a dystopian America in which the South won the Civil War. Despite having not yet begun production, Confederate has been widely criticized, with critics such as Roxanne Gray calling the show “slavery fan fiction.”
The problem isn’t the show’s premise, however, it’s the historical period the producers are choosing to tackle. Instead, HBO should make a series about the history and influence of communism in the United States. The story of communism in America would provide everything a great series should: compelling history, action, suspense, fascinating characters, and a fresh storyline. There’s no shortage of films about Nazis, and Hollywood loves to go back in time and address racism and sexism. A series based not on perceived Russian meddling in an election but on the genuine attempts during the Cold War by the Soviet Union to destroy the United States, all the while abetted by traitors in America herself, would be something new. It would also remind audiences of some of the most compelling characters in American history – most of whom have never been dramatized on film.
Take Whittaker Chambers. Chambers was born in 1901 in Philadelphia and raised on Long Island. He was brought up in a household full of dysfunction, alcoholism, depression and personal pain, and at a time of great geopolitical struggle. His bi-sexual father was absent, his mother was a frustrated former actress, and his brother was an alcoholic who committed suicide. As a young man in 1919, Chambers traveled to Europe and witnessed the devastation caused by World War I. Between the trauma of his family life and what appeared to him to be the collapse of civilization, he reached out for a “totalizing” solution. He became a communist.
After years in the communist underground, however, Chambers had a change of heart and left the movement. On August 3, 1948, he testified before the U.S. House of Representatives that Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking official in the U.S. State Department and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a communist and a Soviet agent who had passed secrets to Moscow. Hiss denied the charge and sued Chambers for libel, and the resulting trials became a media sensation in America.
At the time and for decades afterwards, the left argued that Alger Hiss was innocent. It was the first confrontation in what would become our nation’s ongoing culture war. Like the left today, liberals back then tried to destroy a person who dared to disagree with them. Chambers was called crazy, a liar, a homosexual and a psychopath. Chambers himself understood the reaction: “The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.”
What makes Chambers doubly fascinating is that he was not just an anticommunist, but a spiritual mystic and an intellectual. His book, Witness, is a modern classic. It’s full of suspense, from narrow car escapes to the way Chambers would collect copied government documents and send them to Moscow, yet it also has a depth that would work well if given the proper treatment on film – the kind of time given to series dramas on HBO, Netflix or Hulu. One of the best examinations of Chambers can be found in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War by retired Princeton professor John V. Fleming. Fleming notes the irony of Chambers becoming a conservative icon in America when he had “a classical liberal education,” could speak other languages (including German fluently), and was heavily influenced by European literature. Chambers, notes Fleming, “was a genuine internationalist who worked for an international criminal conspiracy.” Fleming argues that four European classics “left formal traces” on Chambers’ own book: The Confessions of both Augustine and Rousseau, Goethe’s Wahrheit und Dichtung, and John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Ronald Reagan once said that “as long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire.”
This is not the imaginary hell of The Handmaid’s Tale, or the fantasy world of Game of Thrones, as great as both those series are. This was a genuine attempt to subvert the democracy of the United States. Communism in America is one of the greatest stories that Hollywood has largely neglected, and it deserves telling much more than a virtue-signaling drama about the Confederate States of America.