The Enduring Relevance of Whittaker Chambers’ Witness

- AMERICAN THINKER - Oct 24, 2020 -

David Gayvert -

First published nearly 70 years ago, Whittaker Chambers’ Witness provides relevant, instructive, and inspiring encouragement for those currently engaged in the fight against today’s ascendant Left.  Although there is a wealth of useful insights within its covers, two stand out as central.

First, Leftist ideologies are always and everywhere about acquiring power to wage an assault upon liberal (in the classical sense) values and institutions.  Second, individual redemption after falling under the sway of these or any other malign influence is indeed possible by dint of reason, faith in a transcendent power, and the courage to follow those lights.    


Witness is most well known as the firsthand account of Chambers’ exposure of and subsequent testimony against members of the communist Ware Group, which led to the 1949-50 espionage trials of Alger Hiss, then a high-ranking State Department official.  Hiss was ultimately found guilty of perjury and sentenced to prison.

But Witness is more than just that story.  It is a poignant autobiography of a young man born at the turn of the twentieth century, coming of age in the wake of the devastation of World War I.  He became obsessed, as did many contemporaries, with what they saw as “the crisis of history” in the 20th century.  It was despair generated by this fixation that drove Chambers to become a communist at the age of 24.  He first served in the open American Communist Party as a (mostly) unpaid writer and editor for various communist publications.  Later (1932-38), he was recruited into and served as an underground operative in the Soviet espionage network in New York and the federal government in Washington, D.C. 

Gradually learning of the ruthlessness of Stalin’s consolidation of power during the mid-1930s, and particularly the Great Purge of 1936, Chambers became increasingly disillusioned with communism, and eventually came to see it as the earthly manifestation of “absolute evil.”  After much soul-searching and careful preparation, he decided to break with the party and did so in 1938.  In fear for their lives, he and his family went into hiding.  They lived covertly for nearly a year, until the 1939 signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact convinced Chambers that he must combat materially the malevolence that led to such an alliance against the Allied Powers.  He decided he must inform upon the Soviet apparatus within which he had once worked. 

He did so via an arranged meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle where he described the depth of communist penetration into key U.S. institutions, including the departments of State and the Treasury.  Berle in turn quickly informed President Roosevelt on what Chambers had disclosed to him.  FDR however, dismissed Berle’s information and concerns.  Thus, for essentially a decade -- throughout World War II -- communist infiltration of American government institutions continued apace through the naivete, indifference, or political calculation of senior political elites. 

Serious investigation of Chambers’ allegations by congressional committees and eventually the Department of Justice did not take place until almost ten years after Chambers initially came forward.

Witness is an intelligent and compelling, if sometimes overwrought history of the early years of the Cold War and the decades running up to it, replete with names, places, and specific events.   More important are the central themes running through it, the first of which is the implacable war waged by the totalitarian Left upon the values, traditions, civil institutions and the people who hold them imperfect but dear. 


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