by Anniel 7/23/14
Witness is a beautifully written book. It is indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the crisis of the western world and how men and women are seduced by communism or socialism in any form.
This book was originally published when I was 12 years old, and is available on Kindle in its 50th Anniversary Edition. I don’t remember now how I received a copy of it when I was so young, but I think it was because I read the FOREWORD IN THE FORM OF A LETTER TO MY CHILDREN first published in The Saturday Evening Post and expressed a desire to read the whole book. I can say that this book was the most powerful witness to me of God, the horrors of communism, and the peril our world faced. The imagery of Whittaker Chambers’ words was burned in my brain forever, and I resolved to read at least the Foreword to his book once a year.
When William F. Buckley, Jr., began his magazine National Review he met Whittaker Chambers and hired him as a Senior Editor. Buckley once sent a letter to Chambers with his starry-eyed view of what he hoped to accomplish with the magazine. Chambers quickly responded:
“It is idle,” he rebuked me, “to talk about preventing the wreck of western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury it secretly in some flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of love and truth.”
In his preface to the 50th Anniversary Edition, Buckley tells how he gave those words to Ronald Reagan who said he treasured them as one of the great calls to freedom. Obviously Reagan had more hope that the nation would survive than Chambers did
Mr. Buckley also said that when Chambers left the Communist Party he thought he was moving to the losing side, and he never changed his mind. Chambers said there were “two irreconcilable faiths of our time – Communism and God.” He believed that the west had willingly turned it’s back on God and unless men turned back to Him there was no hope for freedom and communism would win. Despite his pessimism about the west, Buckley swears that Chambers was a man of great good humor and cheer.
If people do no more than read Chambers’ Foreword to the book, they will be more than amply repaid. In that letter Chambers tells his children who he really was as a man, why he became a Communist and why it was a moral decision, why he left the party, and what he had done in testifying against the communist spies in the American government. He opens his soul for their sake, and for the sake of all generations to come. He bears firm witness of God in the happenings of his own life and knew we must return to strong faith as the only antidote to communism.
The main part of the book is autobiographical in nature, covering his parents troubled marriage and family life, and his perception of the world’s history from the time of his birth to his life following the Alger Hiss trials. He tells in great detail what he perceived to be the great conflict of our time, how it came about and where he stood on the matter until he found God.
He was a committed communist, not a dabbler. He was able to watch as Stalin purged the party, killing his friends and enemies alike, starving the Ukrainians and establishing the prison camps, and he still agreed that Stalin had done the right thing for the advancement of the party. From that standpoint all the killing and horror were correct. Chambers did not believe that there could possibly be a God and placed all of his faith in the party.
Two small items occurred that began a great change in his thinking. His wife became pregnant and he was overjoyed for he had always wanted a family. They decided to have the child, despite party opposition. One day he was feeding his daughter and saw the beauty of her ears, and for a few brief moments he realized what a miracle life is, that it could only come from God. He pushed those thoughts aside, but they stirred in his soul. Then he read a banned book entitled I Speak For The Silent – Prisoners of the Soviets by a Russian escapee named Vladimir Tchernavin (also available on Kindle). If anyone found he read the book it would have meant expulsion from the party and probably a death sentence. He was horrified at what he read and began to turn from the party. He tells of meeting a young woman who told him her father left the party when “one night he heard screams.” Chambers says he knew exactly what her father meant, for he also heard the screams.
Chambers says his final realization was that, yes, Stalin was evil, but he was only the manifestation of the real evil – communism itself, and the idea of man without God. And so he turned to prayer, which soon became as vital to him as breathing.
Because of his standing in the party, and the high level espionage he had engaged in, Chambers knew his break would be dangerous in the extreme to him and his family and he had to plan carefully for their escape. Many people he knew had been killed by the party over the years he had been a spy.
A large part of the book covers the years the Chambers family were in and out of hiding and then involved in testifying about the traitors in government. When Chambers finally decided to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, he knew he would be persecuted by the elite in government, particularly in the State and Justice Departments, but he was shocked at the hatred that persisted against him long after Hiss had been found absolutely guilty.
The accounts of the Hiss trials in the book are riveting, part of the time, and boring as all get out when pages and pages of Congressional and Court testimony are gone through in order to show how the cases against Hiss and the other traitors were slowly and carefully prepared. If a person can stick with the trials and the political machinations, it’s easy to see that not much has changed in Washington, D.C.
This book is also a philosophical treatise about truth, politics and liberalism. Even Harry Truman refused to believe that Chambers was telling the truth, and swore that Hiss had to be innocent because he came from a good family. Two Supreme Court Justices were character witnesses for Hiss at one of the trials. Even today, over 70 years later, there are those who laugh at the idea that Chambers could have been telling the truth. Chambers said he knew his testimony and truthfulness, his very life would be sneered at because of people who could never accept the reality of what communism does to people. He said, “I see in communism the concentrated focus of evil in our time.” The reemergence of the hydra in our day proves that socialism is just communism lite and must be defeated.
As an example of Chambers’ lovely writing I have decided to end my review with the last page of his book:
One of the tenderest of Greek fables tells how the gods decided to go down to earth as beggars to try the charity of men. The god Hermes, clad in rags, knocked at many prosperous doors and was driven from each. Toward evening he came to the meanest door of all, a mere hut, where two old people, Philemon and Baucis, his wife, tended a few vines and milked their goats. Hermes knocked there. Because his need touched them, the old people took him in. They shared their meal with him, and, at night, let him sleep on the floor before their fire, trusting to their poverty and their age to prevent any harm that the beggar might intend.
In the morning, Hermes asked each of the old people to name his most secret wish, supposing that it would be for longer life, gold or great flocks. The dearest wish of each turned out to be the same – that each might die, as they had lived, together, that neither might die first, for neither could endure what remained of a life that would be unendurable without the other.
The god, now gleaming through his rags, raised his staff – the caduceus with the twined snakes, interlacing good and evil. Where Philemon and Baucis had stood, two trees rustled up whose branches met and touched when the wind blew.
In a world grown older and colder, my wife and I have no dearer wish for ourselves – when our time shall come, when our children shall be grown, when the witness that was laid on us shall have lost its meaning because our whole world will have borne a more terrible witness or it will no longer exist.
After reading Witness, the French writer Andre Malraux wrote to Whittaker Chambers, “You have not come back from hell with empty hands.” • (9391 views)