John's Reviews > Witness

Witness by Whittaker Chambers
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Jun 03, 2011

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Witness is as much a personal testimony to the inner workings of the communist underground in America as it is an account of a shift in America's perception of the Soviet threat in America.

Chambers had a crisis of conscience early in life, realizing the West was in terminal decline and required radical steps to save itself. He, like all communists, he argues, joined the communists when he came to the belief that they offered the only hope to saving civilization.

Chambers immediately embraced the communist cause and sought ways to serve it. He ended up in the communist underground serving in New York and Washington. It isn't clear that Chambers and his subordinates had much direct success in espionage, but Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss both played major roles after World War II in international finance and diplomacy. Chambers had already left the party by this time, however.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is Chambers' account of his rejection by the establishment. In one of the most important sections of the book, he argues that the establishment was enraged by his accusations of Hiss' communism because it was an implicit accusation of the establishment.

Communists had become comfortable in the government during the Roosevelt administration because the New Deal was soft communism. The communists were indistinguishable from anyone else in the administration because they all had the same agenda. It is no wonder that Chambers first attempt to warn the government was rejected.

It is this reticence that fuels the tensions in the book. The nation was not prepared to deal with the Soviet threat because the nation had already been alarmingly compromised by communism in practice.

It was Chambers' accusations along with well-placed allies in government that kept the pressure on the establishment to heed Chambers' warnings and wake up to the threat the Soviets had become.

Chambers confesses to his wife, early on in his account, that in leaving the communist party he was leaving the winning side. This admission is a telling one. The Soviet menace at the time was truly frightening to those opposed to the communist vision. It is this very fear and crisis of conscience that fueled the Cold War. Americans, seemingly, were truly frightened that the Soviets could actually win.

In hindsight, it is clear this fear was unwarranted, and actually quite alarming. The communist threat was never as strong as it was perceived to be. The true threat was not communism, but the lack of Christian conviction and the despair evidenced in communist fear-mongering. The threat was not external, but internal.

Having said this, it is clear that Soviet agents like White and Hiss that were involved with Chambers, and later the Rosenbergs, were true threats to America. They undermined the government when they could and emboldened its enemies.

Chambers autobiography is frequently griping, but does get long toward the end. It is an important book written and has aged well.
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