A decade ago, Regnery issued the 50th anniversary of Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, honoring its corporate motto that reads, “it is our purpose to publish good books where we find them.” Witness is not simply a good book, but one of the most profound studies of human nature published in at least the past hundred years. It rips apart the media and cultural narrative about the early Cold War in the United States. At a very basic and human level, the book also lays out Chambers’ own tortuous navigation of the spirit.
Chambers is one of the most complex and unremembered of important American historical figures. Like many other writers between the world wars, such as John Dos Passos, he embraced Communist leftism as the only possible savior of humanity. Most of these men and women flirted with the international Communist movement as fellow travelers.
Not ever content to flit at the periphery of events, Chambers slid into an even deeper ensnarement. He ended up managing part of a Moscow based spy network that used journalists, artists, and technocrats to extend its poisoned tentacles into the world’s most important capitals.
By 1937, however, Chambers made “the decision to die, if necessary, rather than to live under Communism.” Unlike the slow climb from Communism to conservatism made by some contemporaries, again, such as Dos Passos, Chambers moved quickly. First, he decided to mentally abandon Communism as a set of beliefs. That not being sufficient, he walked into the home of Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle in 1939 and gave a full confession. To him, the break was a “personal, intellectual, and religious act” that had much less potential consequence for himself and his family than deserting a Soviet spy apparatus. Time editor Henry Grunwald later related that Chambers told him that Communism equated “slavery and spiritual night.”
Witness does not read like John LeCarre or Ian Flemming. The works of neither of those men include tales of baby-sitting, paying bills, or the vital importance of the sale of one particular car. The story tortures the mind with the casualness by which intelligent Americans, including Chambers himself for a time, chose to betray their country. It gives the reader a view through the looking glass of treason.
The dramatic confrontation between Chambers and the system dominates the second half of the book. By now, a “pudgy, benign, if slightly mysterious editor,” Chambers did embrace his Christian faith during his several years at Time magazine. Although it was a relatively calm period in his life, Chambers was one of Henry Luce’s field commanders in the effort starting in 1944 to educate Americans about the evils of Soviet Communism.
Two protagonists dominate this autobiography. The rumpled and “heavy” Chambers first allies with and befriends Alger Hiss. They work closely together for most of the 1930s. Then, about ten years later, Chambers named Hiss to a congressional committee as a Soviet spy.
Hiss appeared to be a perfect example of the New Deal Sadducees who filed into the bureaucracy during the Great Depression and rose quickly to influence American policy at crucial periods such as the Yalta Conference. They expanded the bureaucratic grip on America’s economy and society with confident and pleasant public demeanors. Beneath the Johns Hopkins and Harvard educated, impeccably dressed, smiling visage of Hiss lay a man who continued to betray the secrets of his country even as the United States and the Soviet Union moved closer to conflict.
Chambers’ testimony that an entire network of malefactors had metastasized within the Franklin Roosevelt administration came at great personal cost. Every segment of liberal society rose to demonize him. Some even issued threats. Despite the mounting evidence Chambers produced, he could not put the establishment to silence. They closed their eyes and insisted that his record, which included clearly identifiable handwriting samples, was not true. Even President Truman, who usually derided men like Hiss as “the striped pants boys,” denounced him. Revelations in the 1990s from Soviet records and defectors have affirmed every major detail explained by Chambers.
Towards the end of the book, the double meaning of “witness” overtly intertwines. Chambers describes his experience testifying in front of Congress and at the Hiss trial, also recording the attacks on him and his reactions. Then he expands his scope and describes the Christian moral imperative that drives him to expose the truth. In the Book of Acts, comes the challenge to Saul, later St. Paul, that “for thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.” But, unlike in Job, there is no material reward at the end of suffering. St. Paul will only earn imprisonment and execution at the hands of Nero for his witness. Chambers loses his job, his health, his friends, and nearly is stripped of his beloved farm.
Chambers conceived a gloomy pessimism for the fate of the world, knowing that “God who is a God of Love is also the God of a world that includes the atom bomb and the virus.” Complete faith in the face of personal persecution and complete pessimism over the fate of civitas mundi is what inspired Robert Novak, among others, to work towards choosing a strong Christian faith. Belief in the Christian underpinning of free society thus became a guiding principle of mid to late 20th century American conservatism.
Despite his negative outlook on the future of civilization, Chambers considered himself fortunate at the time that he penned the book. Although he said that “the Hiss case has turned my wife and me into old people,” he appreciated the presence of family and simple country living. His days at the National Review and his titanic denouncing of Ayn Rand still lay in the future.
Since 1952, the media and most historians have tried to blackball the memory of Chambers while resurrecting the ghost of Joseph McCarthy at every opportunity. The Wisconsin Senator had holes in his allegations that a battleship could float through, but Chambers could back every assertion with details and evidence. What’s more, the former Time editor came from a media background. His speech and writing were simple and unadorned, but also clearly intellectual in ideas. Liberal America could not simply dismiss him as easily as McCarthy.
Yet Chambers’ role in history was far more dangerous to liberal designs. First, he inspired two of the guiding intellects of the postwar conservative movement, William F. Buckley and Novak. Most importantly, Chambers threw a punch in the gut to the New Deal coalition’s main philosophical pillar, that the American people should place more trust in Washington bureaucracy than any other institution. New Deal apparatchiks sought to reshape the nation, all the while promising Americans that they could place 100 percent trust in their federal government, as opposed to corrupt state systems, or “greedy” businessmen. The media was the Greek chorus that echoed the government line. Chambers explained how many Soviet spies started in social welfare agencies and moved up into positions where they could undermine and sabotage the nation. Witness reminds Americans that it is a civic duty to not completely trust the government and individuals working within it, but to remember Ronald Reagan’s important maxim of “trust, but verify.” Only God has earned the unquestioning trust of mankind.
Once again, we are asked to trust the federal government blindly and to ignore whatever man or men remain behind the curtains because they have good intentions. We are no longer supposed to even believe that an individual can succeed without the constant mothering of government. Witness reminds the American people and the media of the destructive potential born in too much trust placed in too much power.