I have finally made it through “Witness”, the book by Whittaker Chambers of his life, conversion to and from Communism, and the trial where Alger Hiss was eventually convicted of espionage. The book is perennially listed as a “must read” on conservative book lists, and the case was one of the touchstones of liberal / conservative disagreement until the declassified Verona tapes talked of an American with the codename “Ales” who had been with Roosevelt at Yalta, worked in the State Department, and otherwise fits the description of Hiss. Where the case was once an example of the “horrors of McCarthyism”, when it turns out that the guy was a communist, it is a case best forgotten.
The biggest message of the book to me was the direct, well written, and easy to understand connection between Communism, Socialism, and Liberalism, and the connection of atheism and the worship of man with all. Chambers does an exceptional job of pointing out the Christian Witness in relation to his witness against communism. While the media focused on his witness against Hiss, and tried to mold the story to be some sort of a vendetta by one misfit farmer against a Harvard trained lifetime public servant, the book gives the lie to that very well.
Chambers had left Communism 10 years before the trial. He was farming, and over the 10 year period had worked his way up the ladder at Time to be one of the seven Senior editors … making $30K a year in the late 40s, which was really good cabbage at that time. Even though he had what would be seen as a high salary, he was farming as a dairy farmer because he thought that was a better and more secure life for his family.
Hiss claimed that he didn’t know Chambers at all. He later relented and indicated he may have known him under an alias. Chambers testimony makes it very hard to believe that they did not know each other due to the details about Hiss that Chambers was able to testify to. To believe the Hiss story, one would have to decide that Chambers just “happened” to decide to try to destroy Hiss, randomly picked him, studied his life, and then decided to come out and accuse him of being a communist for no other reason than to destroy his life. Such things are “possible”, but it is a testament to the power of liberals in the media and government to have such a proposal taken seriously for 50 years when such at idea stretches the boundaries of credulity even without actual documentation.
Of course, there was documentation produced, the infamous “Pumpkin Papers”, which were a huge part of the case from the press and public viewpoint, but a small part of the case in actuality. Chambers produced a set of microfilms, typewritten, and handwritten papers of or related to secret State Department documents. Some of the microfilm was hidden in a hollowed pumpkin by Chambers for one day to prevent it being found by pro-Hiss investigators.
Part of the reason the story is so famous is of course the connection with Nixon, one of the people that the left loves to hate. Nixon worked hard to get a conviction of Hiss, and of course Hiss was a Roosevelt, pro-UN, lefty, and even if he WAS a “Communist”, most of the folks in the liberal establishment really had no problem with that. Some of them MAY have some problems with actual transfer of secret documents to the USSR, but even there, many folks on the left felt that better relations with “our friends the Soviets” probably required a little “friendly espionage”. It is easy to see how a guy like Nixon who no doubt felt that consignment of the evil empire to the ash heap of history was a better idea (even if he couldn’t say it as well as Reagan) seemed like an awful Neanderthal to the sophisticated liberals of the day.
I recommend the book, but it is a REAL tug … not hard to follow, just way too detailed and way too long. The sadness of Chambers youth is palpable; he is not some “privileged Republican”. He came to his Communism naturally, and he came to his “Grace and Conversion” by super-natural (hand of God) means. He felt he was leaving the winning side for the losing, but it was better to die serving the side that was right than to live serving the side of evil. Although he came to faith, it seems that he never came to the understanding of the real power of God. He may well have been correct in his prognostication of what side would win in human terms, but God can always decide which side wins, no matter what we might think the odds are.