Book Write-Up: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers. Witness. Random House, 1952. See here to purchase the book.

Whittaker Chambers was an ex-Communist who testified in the late 1940’s that Alger Hiss was a Communist. This was significant because Hiss had served in influential positions of the U.S. Government, affecting U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Chambers was an editor of Time magazine and later wrote for National Review.

Here are some items:

A. Why did Chambers become a Communist? Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables had a formative impact on him, leading him towards Communism and, later, away from it. Chambers identified with Les Miserables on account of its sensitivity towards the plight of the poor. Chambers’s family of origin experienced economic hardship after his father left, and he had a positive relationship with the working class when workers helped him to get a job after he was rejected. These considerations probably led him to gravitate towards Communism’s claim to champion the poor. Chambers testified before Congress that, after World War I, the world looked like it was in the verge of chaos, and Communism appealed to him as a way to redress that. Chambers’s brother committed suicide due to a lack of hope, whereas Chambers felt that Communism gave him hope.

B. What did Chambers do for the Communist Party? For a while, he was the editor of the Daily Worker. This was apparently a volunteer position, which he put a lot of time into while performing whatever paying jobs he could find. He also worked in small U.S. Government positions and, when he was elevated to espionage status, passed on government documents to handlers, who in turn gave them to the Soviet Union.

C. Why did Chambers leave the Communist Party? He had a religious epiphany, that there was a God who designed the world, judged even the powerful (i.e., Stalin), and was with him. Stalin’s purging of the party deeply concerned him and put him on probation for a time. Stalin’s agreement with Hitler was the final straw, since Chambers did not want to use his espionage activities to help Hitler. Chambers attained an appreciation for the desire for freedom in the human spirit, which contradicted Communism’s disregard for the individual, and he became impressed by the economic mobility that existed in the United States.

D. Chambers states that the Communist Party sought to overthrow the U.S. Government. Yet, the picture he paints is one of the Communist Party trying to influence the U.S. Government. Communists in the government tried to give the U.S. a strategic global disadvantage in relation to the Soviet Union, resulting in the legacy of Yalta and the fall of China to Communism. On the domestic front, Communists helped shape the New Deal, which imposed socialistic collectivism on the United States. This is ironic to me, since U.S. Communists were critical of the New Deal and believed that it upheld and benefited Capitalism. Stalin, too, criticized the New Deal.

E. Chambers states that he did not want to expose the espionage activities of Hiss, since Hiss was his friend, and Chambers also had other friends in the party whom he did not want to hurt. Chambers simply wanted to expose that Hiss was a Communist, for the benefit of the United States and the world threatened by Communist tyranny. Chambers forgot about the documents that he would put into the pumpkin, which would expose Hiss’s espionage activities. Chambers decided to use them because he was being attacked. People were reluctant to believe that there were Communists in the U.S. Government. The urbane Hiss made a better impression than the quiet, overweight Chambers. And the Communist Party was seeking to undermine Chambers, spreading rumors about him that attacked his character and mental fitness.

F. Where the book is especially powerful is in its stories. Chambers initially comes across as a pretentious writer trying to be eloquent and profound. But he conveys an honesty, a melancholy, and a vulnerability that make one sympathize with him. His stories about his struggles to survive in journalism especially come to mind. Chambers also paints a realistic picture of people he knows, detailing what he believes made them tick. In my opinion, the book was a little thin on ideology. It did not intimately get into the intricacies of why people become Communists and leave the party. Chambers’s stories and character profiles, by contrast, were descriptive, well developed, and detailed.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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