Nearly unknown today, this extraordinary book deserves to be a classic. A gifted writer, Chambers soars whether discussing the world crisis that led him to Communism, his life underground, the trials of the establishment turning against him, and the religious faith that saw him through. Chambers emerges as a profoundly conscience-driven man, one whose human feelings kept him ever so slightly out of step with Communism as a party member, and which caused him repeatedly to consider the humanity of former comrades he ended up having to attack in trying to save his nation.
Whittaker Chambers joined the American Communist Party in the 1920s. He was then recruited into the separate Soviet-run Communist underground. He helped form a secret ring of Communists among New Deal officials who then spied on their own country, passing documents to the Soviets. Chambers led the ring for about three years before his growing disillusion with Communism led him to risk his life by breaking with the party in 1937, at the height of Stalin's purges.
He grew personally close to Alger Hiss, a New Deal lawyer with sterling credentials - including Harvard Law and working as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hiss served in the Agriculture, State and Justice departments and later became president of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. He helped create the United Nations and advised Roosevelt at Yalta, where the ailing president ceded Eastern Europe to the Soviets, condemning it to half a century of Communist domination. Chambers' break with the party, and his later focus on Hiss in his accusations, is made poignant by the intensity of his friendship with Hiss.
Hiss's supporters defended him for decades. Conservatives, meanwhile, raised troubling questions about not only the UN and Yalta but about the nation's China policy leading up to the Communist takeover in 1949. They were labelled paranoid as a result. But decrypts of Soviet wartime cables called the Venona Files, kept secret until the 1990s, strongly suggested the guilt of Hiss and other officials suspected during the McCarthy era.
Chambers in 1939 told a high-ranking State Department official what he knew, but nothing was done. He went to work for Time magazine, becoming a star editor. In 1948, the House Un-American Activities Committee, spurred on by a young Richard Nixon, began hearings with Chambers as the main witness that Hiss had secretly been a Communist. The affair went on for nearly two years, including two trials of Hiss for perjury, ending in Hiss's conviction and three years in prison. Hiss also sued Chambers for slander, and a grand jury investigated Chambers' espionage charges. Another highly placed spy was Harry Dexter White, an assistant to FDR's treasury secretary. Long under suspicion, White died before being prosecuted. The affair saw dramatic twists and turns including Chambers' sensational production of long-hidden documents in Hiss's handwriting or typed on his typewriter - that Chambers stashed for safekeeping and briefly hid in a pumpkin before producing them as evidence.
The Hiss affair exposed a seamy underside to upbeat New Deal liberalism, suggesting its ranks were riddled with Communists loyal to a foreign government. Chambers saw the Russians succeed not only in spying but in shaping U.S. policy through their agents, furthering their efforts at world revolution and weakening this country.
In denial, the liberal establishment responded with the worst sort of personal attacks on Chambers, rather than support any honest efforts to get at the truth. The Republican HUAC worked at cross purposes with the Democratic Justice Department, one attempting to make Chambers' case and the other to discredit him. Reporters overwhelmingly sympathized with Hiss, an early instance of liberal press bias.
I was struck by parallels between Chambers' time and our own. Colleges then as now far more sympathetic to the left than society as a whole. A loose morality that was doctrinaire among Communists - marriage and childbirth both discouraged in favor of "party marriages" (shacking up) and abortion - and which later became de rigeur among Baby Boomers. (Were these promoted to strengthen this society, or weaken it?) An unwillingness on the left to consider the dubious provenance of many cherished ideals, or to consider whether and how much American activists were encouraged, guided, financed or directed from abroad - and to whose ultimate advantage.
The facts of his life are fascinating. His own insights make this book invaluable and his writing ensures it never drags. It is a testament to the application of religious ideals to public responsibilities. While believing the free world would lose its war with Communism, he stood up at great personal risk and with little or no support to warn the world of what it was refusing to face - one in which socialism led not to justice but to tyranny. Chambers was a hero for any age.
on August 1, 2005
I taught high-school history for a few years before switching to math then switching to a new career. I remember teaching about the Hiss-Chambers case, but could never remember who was who and like a sensationalist journalist, mostly just concentrated on the story of the microfilm Chambers had hidden in his pumpkin.
I'm glad I finally got around to reading the story, and will briefly share my impression here.
Firstly, Chambers was an excellent writer. The book flows well, is hard to put down, and Chambers led a fairly interesting life. Probably the least interesting was his time as a spy, and the second least interesting was the case itself.
The second thing I found impressive, and indeed the pivot on which the book turned, was the account of his metamorphisis from ardent communist true-believer to ardent anti-communist. From godless to God-filled is how one might sum it up, but the changes were subtle, and often described in a kind of echo. "I heard someone screaming in the night"- sums it up figuratively if not literally for him, knowing that the screams were due to the grinding of a soul under the gears of the communist-soviet machinery.
Thirdly the book has a quiet humor mixed in with the tragic melancholy of Chamber's ironic life. It's not laugh-out-loud funny by any stretch, no one has any hilarious Stalin anecdotes or anything, but the humor is there, and it provides an undercurrent to carry the reader through the drier places until the end.
Finally I was amazed at the similarity with the left-right struggle of today. I know every generation thinks their's is the most or best or worst- fill in the blank, but I really did think that the secular,liberal, pseudo-intellectual left and the conservative, religious, family-oriented right were relatively new camps, at least in the sharp focus they are in today. I knew that the "silent majority" had been around for a while, and that many of the fellow-travelers would by definition have strong leftist notions, but I'd forgotten just how powerful a sentiment that was in the depression/war era, and just how similar the struggle is to today. The Chambers/Hiss case was and is a metaphor for that struggle, and the story of one man and his stand to be a witness for Christ and good and to expose evil is a must read for today.
on May 21, 2004
It is sad but true that a large portion of young Americans--even many with college degrees--probably have no idea who Whitaker Chambers was. Indeed, numerous conservatives likely know the name only as belonging to someone who was anti-communist but would be unable to provide more than vague generalities on his life and accomplishments.
Ann Coulter helped rectify this unfortunate development last year with the publication of her mega-bestseller "Slander". Her trenchant exploration of twentieth century communism and the unbridled invective hurled against those who dared to oppose the murderous ideology introduced Chambers to a whole new generation. In interviews she has often stated that his autobiography Witness is one of the absolute-must reads for conservatives and an important title for all students of American history.
As someone whose knowledge of Alger Hiss' nemesis was lacking, I decide to follow the sapient blonde's advice and picked up a copy of the 800-page memoir. I now second Miss Coulter's call; Witness is a moving and educational read. The extent to which communists infiltrated the United States Government in pre-World War days is frightening both in its scope and in the fact that today few Americans appreciate just how serious actual security breaches were. Chambers was well-qualified to address the magnitude of the red threat because for more than a decade he was a part of the menace. As a committed fellow traveler, he hobnobbed in all the right (left?) circles. So powerful was the communist structure within our nation that when he eventually grew disillusioned and abandoned the atheistic dead end, he firmly believed that he was "leaving the wining world for the losing world."
Among the most striking features of the communist organization he exposed was its massive bureaucratic nature. Within the clandestine cabal there was an "underground" so completely sequestered from the regular communists that few committed adherents knew who was who in the parallel penumbras. Additionally, the labyrinthine steps taken to maintain secrecy are almost laughable. Chambers' talks about never learning addresses to places he regularly visited for years; rather he knew to get there by landmarks and neighborhoods. This was a precaution in case of capture--unknown information could not be provided to the authorities. Furthermore, Chambers relates cumbersome machinations for all his assignments; yet his endeavors to deliver "plans" or meet ever-changing, ephemeral "contacts" seem like little more than wheel-spinning busy work. It is no wonder that conspiracy theories abound among modern day leftists--the direct descendants of the very group that perfected the art.
Many of Chambers' observations are as suitable to the early 21st century as they were in the 1940s. A cavalier attitude toward abortion permeated communists. As soon as his first child was conceived Chambers and his wife readily conceded that abortion was their only option, but when faced with the reality of their circumstance, the innate bond of parenthood trumped the dictates of good communists. Mrs. Chambers informed her husband, "we couldn't do that awful thing to a little baby," a demand that he whole-heartedly accepted.
Considering that Chambers' communist days predated the formation of Israel, his asides on that issue truly show how much things have remained the same. He writes "Arab outrages were occurring in Palestine; the Communist International chose that moment to call for the formation of a "Soviet Arabism" to attack the Zionists." He also talks about how pure communism demanded its followers' ideologies remain and in an earlier incarnation of Hillary's Clinton's dreaded "right wing conspiracy," he sites numerous expulsions due to "rightwing deviationism." Even the problem of illegal immigration is shown to not be an entirely new phenomenon. At least one German communist contact is described as "probably in the United States illegally."
One situation that has changed radically concerns Chambers successful post-Communist career at Time. It is not newsmagazine today.
Beyond the important political tale Chambers tells, his personal story proves inspirational too. Born into a badly dysfunctional home (his only brother committed suicide, his parents lived in the same house without communicating for years), the lost soul was easy prey to the false promises of communist utopia. Marrying a left-leaner and starting a family as an avowed red forced him to confront reality, and his transformation to conservative Christian was painful and controversial but ultimately redemptive.
His celebrated accusations against Alger Hiss stripped away his family's privacy and provoked piles of scorn upon his name (think Linda Tripp, Ken Starr, Miquel Estrada, Clarence Thomas, etc.) With the release of KGB files a few years ago Alger Hiss' guilt was proven anew, yet some influential voices still argue the traitor's innocence. As quoted in Robert Novak's newly added introduction, upon Hiss' 1996 death liberals from President Clinton's National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to Peter Jennings spoke of the charges against Hiss as either false or unsubstantiated. The incontrovertible record tells a different story, and Witness lays out the facts in perhaps a more engrossing and chilling way than any other source. Ann Coulter's Slander makes for an engaging and stimulating read, but Whittaker Chambers eloquently gives the full story in his own words.
on May 18, 2006
Witness is the best autobiography I've ever read. It details the fascinating life of Whittaker Chambers, and the monumentally important Hiss-Chambers case. It is also first-rate prose.
What made Chambers's life so compelling? Two things: courage and redemption. Courage is the greatest of the virtues, because without it all the other virtues are merely pleasant thoughts that melt away at the first sign of adversity. Chambers needed that courage, because his devotion to the cause he would later repudiate, placed him in extreme danger.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Soviet handlers of the Communist underground dealt with defectors by killing them and anyone who assisted them. Starting in 1937, Chambers assisted numerous communists to escape from this network, and he in turn fled with his family in 1938. Chambers compounded the danger to himself by approaching each of his Washington sources, and pleading with them to also break ties with Communism and stop performing espionage.
Chambers was no Saint. He was probably bisexual (implying unfaithfulness to his devoted wife), he spied for a foreign government, and his communist duties required him to regularly practice deception.
Nonetheless, his courage allowed him to reject communism and seek redemption when its evil nature became apparent to him. At the age of 36 he started his life over; he renewed his faith in God, he used his position at Time magazine to relentlessly warn of the dangers of communism, and he risked everything (disclosure of his past, a civil libel suit, his job and professional reputation/relationships) to prove that the highly-placed State Department official Alger Hiss was a Communist spy.
The Hiss case was pivotal in warning the nation that communist spies were present at the highest levels of American policy-making. Hiss was a key figure at Yalta and Bretton Woods and other globe-shaping events, that rewarded the Soviets with more power than they had won during the war. Most Americans of my generation are unaware that prior to McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee was performing a genuine service for America, and removed numerous actual Communists from positions of influence. Hiss's conviction against the "immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts" is a testament to the greatness of this country, and this victory could not have been won without the undaunted courage of Whittaker Chambers.
I cannot conclude this review without attempting to describe the pleasure I received from reading each line of Chambers's prose. Every human is born with the ability to think, to feel, and to recognize or remember.....so is every animal. What separates humans from animals is an immortal soul. The immortal soul is what links humans with one another through the barriers of culture and time. This linkage is possible through a piece of God's eternity. This eternity allows for an accumulation of the shared conscience of man, and serves to help him recognize truth, recognize right from wrong, and recognize what is holy. But for most of us, when the soul speaks, it doesn't do so with a voice. It speaks to us in goose bumps, in dreams, or in familiar but unidentifiable melodies. At critical junctures in my life, I'm unable to say what I want to say; because my soul is saturated with feelings that defy articulate speech. Chambers was one of the special few born with the ability to communicate what his soul says to him. He was able to translate feelings charged with meaning into language charged with meaning.
No review I write can possibly do justice to this wonderful book. Please do not let my failure prevent you from reading this book and keeping the memory of Chambers's contributions to America alive
on January 16, 2006
I would rate this work among the greatest I have ever read, particularly as autobiography. With all politics aside, Chambers illuminates the human condition and the redemptive power of suffering in a deeply moving way. The plot is very engaging, the detail exhaustive. He had the full force of the Truman administration, the Communist underground and Party, and the mainstream press all bearing down on him to destroy and discredit him (all proven wrong in later years if you were blind to the clear truth then). As a battle between good and evil, truth and manipulation, this book is unmatched. If you want fatuous, insensitive manipulation of the truth and proof that the forces Chambers warned against are very much with us today, look no further than the one-star (non)review that precedes this one. Appalling. That's an unsophisticated example of the nonsense he dealt with in life.
This book will, quite simply, add to your life; Chambers' unique voice, unmatched in credibility, speaks for itself, as you will see. And as I have begun to do, you will want to seek out his other work. I am as yet a non-believer (religiously speaking) and am moved to say, "may God rest his soul."
It's unfortunate that the Left is so earnest and humorless, otherwise they might be able to enjoy the immense irony of the lofty position held by Whittaker Chambers in the Right's pantheon of 20th century heroes. I mean think about it for a second, Chambers, who spent half his life as a bisexual Communist spy, was also a leading light of TIME and the National Review, a friend of Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, and made many conservatives' end-of-century lists, both for this memoir and for his personal influence. That's a fairly interesting resume by anyone's standards.
Chambers would be a heroic figure to the Right even if he had done nothing else but to accuse Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy. This action, so divisive that it still echoes through our politics today, helped to define the Cold War era, forcing people to choose sides--between anti-Communists, on the one side and communists, communist sympathizers and fellow travelers, and Anti-Anti-Communists on the other--and in turn hardening the lines between the sides as the nation headed into a period of prolonged cultural civil war, from which we have still not truly emerged.
But Chambers did not merely attack one man. With his memoir Witness he declared war on Communism and the Soviet Union and explained in no uncertain terms just what the struggle was about--what was at stake, the methods that the other side was using, and the seriousness of purpose which would be required to defeat them--and at the same time he told a life story which somehow managed to unite nearly all of the themes of modernity in one gloriously messy tale of personal degradation and desperation, followed by political and religious redemption and salvation. And to top it all off, not only does the story have all of the elements of a thriller and a courtroom drama, the author just happens to write brilliantly.
Chambers starts the book out with a forward in the form of a letter to his children (available on-line and well worth checking out) which seeks to explain why the book is necessary and why their father gained such notoriety in the first place. It is worth quoting a largish chunk :
I am sitting in the kitchen of the little house at Medfield, our second farm which is cut off by the ridge and a quarter-mile across the fields from our home place, where you are. I am writing a book. In it I am speaking to you. But I am also speaking to the world. To both I owe an accounting.
It is a terrible book. It is terrible in what it tells about men. If anything, it is more terrible in what it tells about the world in which you live. It is about what the world calls the Hiss-Chambers Case, or even more simply, the Hiss Case. It is about a spy case. All the props of an espionage case are there--foreign agents, household traitors, stolen documents, microfilm, furtive meetings, secret hideaways, phony names, an informer, investigations, trials, official justice.
But if the Hiss Case were only this, it would not be worth my writing about or your reading about. It would be another fat folder in the sad files of the police, another crime drama in which the props would be mistaken for the play (as many people have consistently mistaken them). It would not be what alone gave it meaning, what the mass of men and women instinctively sensed it to be, often without quite knowing why. It would not be what, at the very beginning, I was moved to call it: "a tragedy of history."
For it was more than human tragedy. Much more than Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers was on trial in the trials of Alger Hiss. Two faiths were on trial. Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies. At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it. At issue was the question whether this man's faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another. At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts.
At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time--Communism and Freedom--came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men. Indeed, it would have been hard, in a world still only dimly aware of what the conflict is about, to find two other men who knew so clearly. Both had been schooled in the same view of history (the Marxist view). Both were trained by the same party in the same selfless, semisoldierly discipline. Neither would nor could yield without betraying, not himself, but his faith; and the different character of these faiths was shown by the different conduct of the two men toward each other throughout the struggle. For, with dark certitude, both knew, almost from the beginning, that the Great Case could end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending figures, just as the history of our times (both men had been taught) can end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending forces.
But this destruction is not the tragedy. The nature of tragedy is itself misunderstood. Part of the world supposes that the tragedy in the Hiss Case lies in the acts of disloyalty revealed. Part believes that the tragedy lies in the fact that an able, intelligent man, Alger Hiss, was cut short in the course of a brilliant public career. Some find it tragic that Whittaker Chambers, of his own will, gave up a $30,000-a-year job and a secure future to haunt for the rest of his days the ruins of his life. These are shocking facts, criminal facts, disturbing facts: they are not tragic.
Crime, violence, infamy are not tragedy. Tragedy occurs when a human soul awakes and seeks, in suffering and pain, to free itself from crime, violence, infamy, even at the cost of life. The struggle is the tragedy--not defeat or death. That is why the spectacle of tragedy has always filled men, not with despair, but with a sense of hope and exaltation. That is why this terrible book is also a book of hope For it is about the struggle of the human soul--of more than one human soul. It is in this sense that the Hiss Case is a tragedy. This is its meaning beyond the headlines, the revelations, the shame and suffering of the people involved. But this tragedy will have been for nothing unless men understand it rightly, and from it the world takes hope and heart to begin its own tragic struggle with the evil that besets it from within and from without, unless it faces the fact that the world, the whole world, is sick unto death and that, among other things, this Case has turned a finger of fierce light into the suddenly opened and reeking body of our time.
In 1952, when the book was published, we were only seven years removed from WWII, in which FDR and Churchill had allied the West to the Soviet Union in the fight against Nazism. The great service which Chambers provided in this book, in his journalism for TIME like the imaginative Ghosts on the Roof (1945), and in the Hiss Case, was--along with Winston Churchill in his Fulton, MO speech of 1946, declaring that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent"--to force home the realization that the war against Communism, though "Cold," was just as much a "twilight struggle" as the war against Nazism had been. For the next four decades the West, basically the United States, would pursue this war with various levels of determination and fecklessness, and would eventually win it, thanks, appropriately, to Ronald Reagan, a near contemporary of Chambers, who had been inspired by him, as reflected in that Medal of Freedom.
The problem for us looking back at Chambers, and it may make readers scoff a little at the heated rhetoric of his prose in Witness, is that the West's victory looks inevitable to us now. Several powerful institutions--like the media, the Democratic Party, and the academy--have a vested interest in portraying the Cold War as a battle in which everyone pitched in to help defeat an enemy which pretty much self-destructed anyway. The memory of the fierce opposition of the Left to the confrontation with the Soviet Union is being gradually erased from the historic memory, and along with it the acknowledgment that as late as the mid-1980's, mainstream intellectuals considered Communism to be a viable alternative to de
on August 5, 2000
A master of English prose, Chambers was a senior editor of Time magazine until he resigned, in 1948, to testify against a man he once considered his friend, Alger Hiss. Chambers testified that several years earlier, before World War II, he had been a member of the Communist Party of the United States, and that through the Party he had met Hiss, a fellow Party member and a State Department employee. What's more, Chambers charged that Hiss routinely delivered to him secret U.S. government papers to be given to the Soviets.
At the time of Chambers' testimony, Hiss was president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Chambers' charges shocked the liberal establishment. Hiss denied ever being a Communist and denied even knowing Whittaker Chambers. He made these denials in the wrong place, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Thanks in part to the efforts of a congressman from California named Richard Nixon, Hiss was eventually convicted of perjuring himself in his testimony before the House committee and went to jail.
Witness, Chambers' account of his ordeal, is powerful, wrenching book. Any conservative who reads the first section, Letter to My Children, should become a Chambers admirer for life.
on August 12, 2003
This book essentially revolves around the key social struggle of the Twentieth Century, Communism v. Capitalism. However, as I read this work I realized that the struggle, as Chambers saw it, was Modernity v. Christianity. Chambers paints himself as a man who is convinced that Modernity would reign supreme, and that the quientessential representative of Modernity is Communism.
Chambers also exposes Alger Hiss and brought the infiltration of Communism in US Government to the fore. This topic is a passionate one on both sides, but the Venona Papers (declassified KGB documents) bear witness to the accuracy of Chamber's accusations. In the end, Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury for lying about being a Soviet agent. The statute of limitations for the crime of being an agent had lapsed.
This is a powerful, emotional book. If a book can pursuade a lifelong Democrat to register Republican for the first time, and put him on a collision course with history, then the book is worth the read--even if you disagree with the thesis. From what I gather, this book led to Ronald Reagan running for President.
on December 12, 1998
I first read this book because of the recent former soviet Union documents that just came out proving once and for all Alger Hiss was agent for the soviet Union. I am only 22 and therefor didn't grow up during this episode. I was shocked after reading the book that any sane person would believe Alger Hiss wasn't a agent of the Soviet Union. It is trully sad that there are actually people living today that still think Hiss was innocent Altogether I found this book to be a brilliant story of one mans struggle against communism and the media bent on destroying him. Although He had all the evidence backing him up people still refused to believe the truth. This story shows that you should always keep an open mind and not just blindly follow people for pollitical reasons.
Eternal Vigilance is the Price of freedom. We can thank Whittaker Chambers for a small piece of the freedom we enjoy today. His courageous stand in the face of public condemnation makes him a true American Hero.
on January 31, 2004
Chambers, being a master wordsmith by trade, has put together a story that again confirms the aphorism, "truth is stranger than fiction." Any open minded reader who observes the facts of this first hand account cannot help but see the severity of the threat posed by communists in the mid 20th century. In the preface Robert Novak tells us he has read "Witness" three times (as of that date, perhaps more now) and reminds us "He (Chambers) views this struggle as inseparable from faith in God, asserting that 'man without mysticism is a monster.'"
In considering ideological warfare, listen to Chambers' analysis, "...in the war between capitalism and communism, books are weapons, and, like all serviceable weapons, loaded." In fact, it is through reading, he tells us, that his eyes were opened. Consider the challenge he lays out as he asks, "Why is it that thirty years after the greatest revolution in history, the communists have not produced one single inspired work of the mind?"
Chambers tells us he learned to pray by doing. It started as an awkward attempt, but led into a "daily need." Consider how he describes the providence of God in bringing the woman who would become his wife into his life as he writes, "Neither of us had much to do with the fact that we met again. Our meeting came about by what the world calls chance, but in which we now see the workings of a grace before which we feel reason to be reverent."
This is a classic for a reason, it's excellent! Historically it records an insider's account of a crossroads moment in American history. It is exceptionally well written. It has my highest recommendation.