In 1952, Whittaker Chambers wrote “Witness”, an autobiographical account of his life, his break with the Communist Party, and the eventual trial of Alger Hiss after Chambers told the FBI there were Communists in high-level positions in the U.S. Government.
The book was recommended to me around 1994. I remember getting about halfway through it, and running out of steam. I just didn’t know enough of the history and politics of the 1930s and 40s to follow along. There were too many names to remember and I didn’t know which were most significant. The book sat on my shelf for years and I eventually gave it away. I always had it in my mind that I should finish it.
Last year I found “Witness” on audible.com. I loved it. In fact, I listened to it again and even bought a newer physical copy of the book to make notes in. What changed my experience? Being older and having seen more politics has helped. For example, my own experience allows me to see strong similarities between what is happening politically today and what was happening back when Chambers was a telling his story. While talk of actual “Communism” isn’t as common today, the ideas associated with Communism are still very much alive. As Chambers recounts his personal conflicts and his reasons for getting involved in Communism, I think of today’s conflicted protestors who seek peace through means that will bring only violence. I see compassion turned into vice as idealists seek a better world through the destruction of this one. Whittaker Chambers’ words have helped me to see what may be in the minds of those radicals, and what may be motivating them. He is not kind to Communism but he has empathy for those people with good intentions who choose to join it.
Additional understanding of the political context has come from my reading of books like Gary Allen’s “None Dare Call It Conspiracy” and from listening to old Gary Allen lectures on YouTube. I learned a lot about the Communist Russian purges and the duplicity of the U.S.S.R. from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”, and from Victor Herman’s “Coming Out of the Ice”. I’ve read about the roots of Fabian Socialism from various sources, including the Fabian Society’s website, and I’ve read about the early goals of the Society in books by George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Wells broke from the Fabian Society, but his book “The Open Conspiracy” shows his intentions. Jordan Peterson’s YouTube lectures on postmodernism have helped me understand more about the mindset of people who see the current world as hopeless and who seek to tear it down. I don’t know that reading these other books would be a requirement to understanding Chambers’ message, but they have helped me.
My favorite parts of “Witness” are not political. They are Chambers’ descriptions of his childhood, his relationships with family members, and the way he described the people he met and worked with. He painted wonderful pictures with words. He was a thoughtful and masterful writer, certainly expected from a former editor of Time, but very unexpected from an ex-Communist informer. Instead of a wild-eyed screaming radical, he is a kind man who speaks with disarming clarity and honesty.
For conservatives expecting Whittaker Chambers to preach the gospel of conservatism with the zeal of the Apostle Paul, they will be disappointed. He warns that Communism is evil, but he shows no faith in conservatives to combat it:
“It was the night when I faced the fact that, if Communism were evil, I could no longer serve it, and that that was true regardless of the fact that there might be nothing else to serve, that the alternative was a void.”
“It is not a matter of leaving one house and occupying another—especially when the second is manifestly in collapse and the caretakers largely witless. That faith is not worth holding which a man is not willing to reach, if necessary, through violence, and to hold through suffering.”
If I understand his meaning, Communists, though misguided, are more committed to their faith and are willing to make greater sacrifices than conservatives—conservatives are not revolutionaries. I don’t know if the will to fight is lacking so much as the inability to recognize an enemy and do what is necessary to eliminate it.
The most obvious significance of “Witness” is its revelation that Communists had risen to high levels in the U.S. Government—like the Treasury and the State Department—and that they were helping other Communists to do the same. The daily influence of embedded Communists on policy had the potential to be much more damaging than their espionage. Chambers had been in a unique position to know what had been happening in his apparatus, and to name names.
Chambers knew that Communists were embedded in the U.S. Government, but he seemed surprised at the “official apathy” in higher places. He was surprised that President Roosevelt did nothing after being warned at least 3 different times of Communist infiltration in the government. Chambers implies, without making an accusation, that FDR was part of that powerful force in the government that promoted Communists—the same force working to protect Hiss and silence Chambers.
After that, he took Roosevelt’s New Deal more seriously and saw how it was bringing those who supported it closer to socialism whether they realized it or not. He saw that “the New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and above all, the power relationships within the nation.” But, rather than a violent revolution, it was “made not by tanks and machine guns, but by acts of Congress and decisions of the Supreme Court”.
The hasty passage of Obamacare was the first thing that came to mind when I read those words. There was a strong force pushing Obamacare along and nobody even had a chance to read it before it passed. I also saw that strong force manifest in the failure of Republicans to stop Obamacare from passing and their failure to really fight for its repeal. It was obvious to me that their heart wasn’t in it. I remember telling a friend that Obamacare would not be repealed by the Republicans even if they got both houses and presidency. For 7 years Republicans in Washington talked about repeal, but when they got the opportunity to repeal it they balked—talking about “repeal and replace” instead. In fact, the Establishment Republican leadership directed its anger toward the handful of conservatives who still wanted full repeal. Even repeal and replace didn’t pass. Those Republicans had been lying. Now, instead of repeal, single-payer (full government control of healthcare) is being proposed as the solution and the creep of socialism continues unabated. Conservative voters continue to expect different results from their elected representatives. It does not occur to most of them that rhetoric and actions are 2 different things. It doesn’t occur to them that they are electing people who wear their jersey but don’t play for their team. Their elected representatives don’t want what they want. Official apathy is also in the universities. Students (and non-students) wouldn’t have the power to riot on campuses if they didn’t have the unspoken consent of the administration. The 5th column leaves the door open and the radicals rush through it. Okay, back to the book.
“Witness” includes quite a bit of testimony from the Hiss trial. It is amazing to see Alger Hiss evading, or giving vague answers to dance around even the most straightforward of questions. I found snippets of testimony from the Hiss trail on YouTube, but not as much as I wanted. I was hoping to find Alger Hiss giving the answer “to my best recollection” over and over. I did find an interview that Alger Hiss did around 1970. He had long since served his prison time and was much older. In the interview Hiss confidently stated his innocence, but the longer he spoke the less credibility he had. He began speculating about how a typewriter could have been modified to match the output of his own typewriter, and that he had proved this could be done. This was to explain how Chambers ended up with documents that looked like they came from Alger Hiss’s typewriter. The testimony of Chambers was much simpler and more convincing in my opinion.
Chambers had initially thought the FBI was his enemy but he found friends among the agents. He spoke very favorably of Richard Nixon. When I first listened to “Witness”, I was surprised to see Richard Nixon in such an anti-Communist role during the Hiss trial. Later, as president, Nixon would adopt (or reveal) more left-leaning views. He would accept Keynesian views of economics and he would reach out to the Communists in Russia and China. It is possible that the Establishment showed Nixon that he was on the losing side and that he would benefit more by crossing over.
I really enjoyed this book. I think it contains valuable information and I highly recommend it.