Conrad's Reviews > Witness

Witness by Whittaker Chambers
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Nov 18, 07

bookshelves: history

Witness, which treats the truth like a part-time mistress, is a masterpiece of evasion and embellishment, a perfect portrait of neurosis, and at the same time a hyperarticulate tale of religious conversion and helpless do-gooding. I suspect that some on the left still bother to revile Whitaker Chambers because they see him as a patsy for the Nixons and McCarthys of the world, an opportunistic imprisoner of innocents, and neglect the vortex of self-doubt and mystery that remains at the center of this, his autobiography.

Chambers was the man who fingered Alger Hiss and prompted a lot of the Red Scare by persuading The Powers That Be that the State Department was riddled with Communists. Not just any Communists, not just functionaries and toadies and fellow travelers, but malevolent pathological liars with a dirty secret desire to destroy the United States. The twist was that he could identify these people because he had been one of them! Whitaker's story goes that after serving for years as a loyal Red he suffered a crisis of conscience after hearing of Stalin's treaty with Hitler. He describes furtive meetings with the leaders of other sleeper cells; drop point procedures for communications with higher ups; procedures for smuggling NKVD agents into the U.S.; his guilt at finding real friendship with Government employees upon whom he spied under orders from Moscow. He describes Alger Hiss as a true believer who would have done anything to bring down the Republic, and who influenced Roosevelt to take it a little easier on Stalin than he should have.

There are a lot of things wrong with Chambers' story, but perhaps not so much as his detractors purport. Chambers was a closeted homosexual, a compulsive cruiser who conveniently omitted this aspect of his life from his own autobiography. Who can blame him, though? Alger Hiss's guilt or innocence does not hang on Chambers' sexual practices. Knowing this about Chambers does plant a seed of doubt in the reader's mind, since Chambers describes his marriage in such minute detail. Chambers spent the ass-end of his life insisting to anyone that would listen that Moscow had high-level plants in the American government. He also benefited personally and professionally from his denunciations. But the level of detail when Chambers describes how Stalin personally ordered the liquidation of Trotsky's supporters within the CPUSA is too exacting to have been invented out of thin air.

People will argue until the end of memory over whether Alger Hiss was really a Communist agent, though the newly uncovered evidence detailed in The Mitrokhin Archive would seem to indicate that he was. It is much to its detriment that the Left in America still has such trouble reconciling anti-Stalinism with its own criticisms of American capitalism, and it's likewise to our detriment that we liberals still dismiss Chambers out of hand. Personally, I think we should admire Chambers' early commitment to social justice as well as his rejection of Communism over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

But all that aside, Witness's literary qualities make it well worth reading, and Chambers is a textbook example of unreliable narration, no less than the narrators of Cheever's story "Goodbye, My Brother" or Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills. My heart broke when I read about the author's awful childhood, and I cheered him on as he found a measure of inner peace with the Quakers. When he praises Richard Nixon for his zeal and humility, the book left me wondering: don't good people sometimes ally themselves with bad people for good reasons? But isn't that exactly what Molotov probably told himself, too? There are no conclusive answers in this most slippery of stories. And however you feel about Hiss, McCarthyism, or Communism, no one doubts the eloquence or intelligence of this book's voice.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Charles (new) - added it

Charles Thanks for putting me on to this, Conrad. I look forward to reading it.

Conrad I'm so glad! Let me know what you think.

message 3: by Charles (new) - added it

Charles I certainly will!

message 4: by Richard (last edited Feb 16, 2008 10:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Richard you have either not read this book or are making some effort, which i honestly can't understand why, to smear the message contained therein. i agree the narrative is eloquent; and does touch on the relevant aspects of mr. chambers' religious beliefs. but there was never any 'conversion' as you put it. mr. chambers' never identified with communism. his leaving the 'party' was reconciliation with his own true nature. those who read the book would know this; and that mr. chambers piety is spiritual from the beginning. it was the allure of communism in the early twentieth century that was enticing to (the then very young) whittaker chambers. he, and many like him (proletarians; intellectuals), thought nat'l communism was a real possibility in the then depression-era US; with a new revolution always just a lay-off or stolen document away. it wasn't until it was too late, and he had loaned (not sold) his soul to the soviets, before he realized the game he was playing and what the stakes were. this is all clearly written. it's also unfortunate you so matter-of-factly call him a 'closeted homosexual', insinuating some kind of psychological neurosis. much like his detractors did then. although they never used your 'compulsive cruiser' alliteration. good one. not that it matters, but he addresses this very issue in his book. and that you allude to mr. chambers' as just some megalomaniacal wannabe-whistle-blower by saying his testimony to then-congressman nixon (himself a quaker - i see you also forgot to mention that) and company in trying to convince them, 'the powers that be' as you called them even though they were a maverick committee at best when his testimony began, that the 'state department was riddled with communists....with a dirty secret desire to destroy the US' is stupid. since we were allies with the USSR for decades before the end of WWII and the federal gov't had been hiring communists and was even encouraged to do so as a com-rel gesture in many cases. we were indeed 'riddled' with communists; this is not debatable. but the final insult is your statement that somehow mr. chambers benefited from ANY of these events. his life was torn apart; he couldn't find work, his name and his family were dragged through the mud... it wasn't until decades later, in a lifelong vindication, when he was awarded the presidential medal of freedom, that his name, albeit far past his best years, was finally given some retribution. anyone who doesn't believe senator mccarthy and the blacklists were justified (which is pretty much everyone - for reasons i won't go into here but are clearly alluded to in THIS book) HATED whittaker chambers. if you want to recommend a book or comment on a book you should actually read the book (or at least be intellectually honest about what it says).

Conrad Rich, I'd happily respond to your points as best I could if they weren't accompanied by so much namecalling. You're welcome to continue to do so, though, I suppose.

Is there some reason for you to be so combative beyond righteous indignation? Did I run over your dog, or steal your paycheck? If it's my sheer stupidity that insults you, then please rest assured it's an incurable condition, and feel free to continue to enjoy your superiority without my help!

message 6: by Richard (last edited Feb 16, 2008 07:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Richard conrad, i see now you are simply a person who sees what they want to see despite what they may or may not have read, since you accuse me of calling you names although i never once called you anything. READ what i said. and if my use of sarcasm is 'combative beyond righteous indignation' then i apologize even though i think it's called for. conrad, it's not your 'sheer stupidity' that 'insults' me, it's the fact that you must have a read a completely different book than this one and called it 'witness' and then wrote a review for it. not to mention you add your own addendum of facts to the biography. i fear you're anything but stupid. i only hope readers see my response.

message 7: by Kathy (last edited Jun 13, 2008 03:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kathy Conrad, I liked your review, and I liked your willingness to judge WITNESS on its literary merits. Like you, I believe it is one of the great works of American autobiography of the twentieth century.

I suspect that I approached the book from the opposite end of the political spectrum from you, and that Chambers' conversion tale (which is, as you suggest, *exactly* what it is) is more personal for me, if that makes any sense.

I understand why you were put off by the combative tone of Richard's comment, but I wanted to (gently) second one point that he made. I don't think it's fair to suggest that Chambers benefited either personally or professionally from his testimony -- except, perhaps, that he escaped prosecution himself. He resigned his job at Time; he attempted suicide; he was the victim of a whispering campaign; he was savaged by a liberal elite whose antipathy to him and sympathy for Hiss had a lot to do with the very class markers and divisions that they professed to despise. Yes, WITNESS was a success, but Chambers lived out the rest of his life as the proverbial broken man -- who died believing that he had abandoned the winning side for the losing side.

One more thing. The analogy you make between the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Chambers-Nixon relationship flirts with violating Godwin's law, don't you think? Whatever one may think of Nixon, he wasn't Hitler, and let's remember that this is the Nixon of 1948-1950 that we're talking about, and *that* Nixon is, in his way, as fascinating and complex a character as Chambers himself.

Conrad Hi Kathy, I was just rereading your comments on this review (three years later) and I should point out, I wasn't making the Molotov comparison to impugn Nixon, who I disagree with deeply on many issues, find utterly admirable on others, and is above all as fascinating and complex as you say. I wasn't calling him a Nazi, nor did I mean to imply that his crimes were tantamount to the Holocaust. Just to make that clear.

I just think that Chambers ignored some pretty obvious character defects on Nixon's part on the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend - in Witness, he seems all too willing to buy that the people who side with him are all great people because they're siding with him. It's particularly surprising given his history as a Commie spy. If I were a government functionary who secretly believed that everyone around me was a tool of a malevolent economic system, and that people powerful in that system's establishment practiced evil in proportion with their power, I like to think I would be similarly questioning of Nixon's motives when he took up my side.

In his early career, Nixon was in the habit of adopting whatever posture was required to fix the problems that he saw on his own terms, regardless of the danger to others, and there was more than a little grandstanding in his methodical destruction of the lives of artists, writers, black activists, whomever. I find it morally repugnant that Whittaker Chambers didn't recognize that.

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