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First published in 1952, Witness was at once a literary effort, a philosophical treatise, and a bestseller. Whittaker Chambers had just participated in America's trial of the century in which Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss, a full-standing member of the political establishment, was a spy for the Soviet Union. This poetic autobiography recounts the famous case, but also reveals much more. Chambers' worldview--e.g. "man without mysticism is a monster"--went on to help make political conservatism a national force.

808 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1952

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About the author

Whittaker Chambers

26 books44 followers
Whittaker Chambers born Jay Vivian Chambers and also known as David Whittaker, was an American writer and editor. A Communist party member and Soviet spy, he later renounced communism and became an outspoken opponent. He is best known for his testimony about the perjury and espionage of Alger Hiss.

In 1952, Chambers's book Witness was published to widespread acclaim. The book was a combination of autobiography, an account of his role in the Hiss case and a warning about the dangers of Communism and liberalism. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called it one of the greatest of all American autobiographies, and Ronald Reagan credited the book as the inspiration behind his conversion from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican. Witness was a bestseller for more than a year and helped pay off Chambers' legal debts.

Chambers's book Witness is on the reading lists of the Heritage Foundation, The Weekly Standard, and the Russell Kirk Center. He is regularly cited by conservative writers such as Heritage's president Edwin Feulner.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his contribution to "the century's epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism." In 1988, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel granted national landmark status to the Pipe Creek Farm. In 2001, members of the George W. Bush Administration held a private ceremony to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Chambers's birth. Speakers included William F. Buckley Jr.

In 2007, John Chambers revealed that a library containing his father's papers should open in 2008 on the Chambers farm in Maryland. He indicated that the facility will be available to all scholars and that a separate library, rather than one within an established university, is needed to guarantee open access.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 283 reviews
Profile Image for Kristen.
264 reviews11 followers
May 3, 2016
Witness is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who grew up on Long Island, joined the communist party in 1925, and later worked as an agent in the underground in Washington DC. He defected from the party in 1937, due to a mixture of factors including his spiritual conversion to Christianity, his horror at Stalin's purges, and the night he "heard the screams echoing from Moscow." He realized that communism "is evil, absolute evil. Of this evil I am a part." He immediately went into hiding with his family, fearing for his life.

Ten years later, Chambers testified in the now famous Alger Hiss trials in an attempt to expose the infiltration of communism into the US government.

This book was complex and overwhelming in ideas and heart. I highly recommend it. Although a page turner, some of the book is tedious. It is clear that Chambers wanted to present his case as thoroughly and as detailed as possible. He wrote the book right on the heels of the Hiss trial where he had been demonized by the press. (Some things never change.)

The poignant foreword of the book is in the form of a letter to his two children. The very existence of these children might be seen as a miracle. The communist party viewed children as a distraction at best and a hindrance at worst. Abortion was commonplace in party life. But when Chamber's wife became pregnant she could not go through with it. She explained, "we couldn't do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart." Chambers wrote that a wild joy swept over him.

In the foreword, Chambers describes this book as "a terrible book. It is terrible in what it tells about men. If anything, it is more terrible in what it tells about the world in which you live." The purpose of writing the book, he continued, was to try to make clear to his children and to the world the true nature of Communism and the source of its power. In 800 pages, I think Chambers pretty much covers it.

What I learned from this book:
1. Communism appeals to the human mind when people believe it's necessary to change the world. They want to fix the injustices and rid the world of sorrow. This, of course, is impossible and only destroys the agency of man. Therefore, it undermines the purpose of this life. This might explain why various siblings of communist thought continue to gain traction today. Personally for Chambers, it was the schoolyard bullies, his strange neglectful father, and his brother's suicide that led him to embrace communism.

2. The problem with communism (and socialism) is the principle of forced virtue. Like I mentioned before, it limits the agency of man. Furthermore, the Communist vision is the vision of Man without God. However, God alone is the guarantor of freedom, not man therefore communism is against the laws of God.

3. Communism is evil at its core. Once a friend of mine expressed the often prevailing idea that the principles of communism at the basic level were good, righteous even, but men, in their fallacy and desire for power, could never execute (no pun intended) the principles correctly. Chambers refutes this idea forcefully. He writes that the fascist, murderous character of communism is inherent from the beginning and the fruits of mass starvation etc. only discloses its real character. Once again the reason is the rejection of God. Because of this, communism can justify any means for the end.

4. History has been warped and rewritten to undervalue the fact that communism forces had penetrated the US government to an alarming degree. In school, I remember the focus on McCarthyism and the "witch hunts." Only later did I understand the infiltration at the highest levels of our government. They did pose a great threat to our country. In that regard, McCarthy was correct.

Chambers is a flawed character but his gift for language and the terrible insights infused with hope are some of the most powerful ideas I've read in a long time. Chambers leaves this for his kids: "True wisdom comes from the overcoming of suffering and sin. All true wisdom is therefore touched with sadness."

Profile Image for Ben.
14 reviews197 followers
October 23, 2007
If you hate politics, if you loathe old Cold War battles, if you have no interest in any of such things, you should still pick up this book. It is more eloquent and moving than anything you will ever read on the subject. And if you still do not believe me, then pick it up, and read the chapter entitled "The Child."

My wife ran over to me, took my hands, and burst into tears. ���Dear heart,��� she said in a pleading voice, ���we couldn���t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart.��� A wild joy swept me. Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, crumbled at the touch of the child.
Profile Image for Conrad.
200 reviews291 followers
November 19, 2007
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.
Profile Image for G.M. Burrow.
Author 1 book103 followers
February 17, 2014
My mom told me for years that I would love this book. She also said that, as a writer, I would be underlining every other word. Whittaker Chambers doesn't simply have an astounding story to tell (ex-Communist turned Quaker turned Time editor turned key witness in the earthquaking Alger Hiss case), but he has the gift to tell it profoundly well. It's almost impossible to overrate this 800-page monster. It does exactly what Chambers wanted it to do:

"In this book... I am leading you... up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha--the place of skulls."
158 reviews6 followers
March 16, 2009
I usually do not finish an 800-page book and wish it were longer. I usually don't even read 800-page books (especially these days!), but I devoured Witness. I've heard that some conservatives have found Witness very influential in the development of their own beliefs, and it articulately and persuasively denounces Communism -- just as important, though, it's also a fascinating read. (World magazine put it in its top 10 most influential books of the 20th century re: Christian worldview.)

Witness is a true-life spy story, detailing Chambers' work for the US Communist party and on behalf of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. I was amazed to learn that Communists had infiltrated the US govt at a high level -- State Dept and other federal agencies -- and not only committed espionage but also influenced US domestic policy such as the New Deal. Hmm, I remember learning only that the Red Scare was overblown and mostly affected harmless intellectual Communists like writers and Hollywood types. This book showed me that one of the successes of the Communist movement here was to seem harmless (and for its opponents to look like cranks).

Witness also shows, through its detailed account of Chambers' experience as a Communist, how evil Communism is -- anti-life, anti-love, anti-truth, etc. I knew Communism was evil, but the story Chambers tells puts flesh on this truth. Chambers rightly feared for his life (and his wife and children) when he quit working for the Communists.

Witness describes Chambers' journey from darkness to light -- first, his disillusionment with Communism; then, his becoming a Christian. Chambers includes autobiographical background info, including his childhood, so he is a fleshed-out character in the book. His integrity, willingness to suffer for the truth, and moral fiber make him an attractive figure.

All these aspects support the book's theme, i.e. how Chambers was a witness -- a witness to the truth of the Christian faith; the witness whose testimony led to Alger Hiss's imprisonment; a prophetic witness too, whose experience warns us now of the dangers of the socialist drift our government policies are taking. I started reading this book thinking it would be historically interesting -- didn't realize how relevant its message would be to current affairs. I could go on but this is long enough!
18 reviews3 followers
February 9, 2017
the most poetic, eloquent and compelling book i've ever read. a must read. a narrative on human nature, strength, weakness, vulnerability, and what may or may not be inevitable. but also exciting. a biography written in the first-person by a man of incredible humility, wisdom, compassion and love for his family, mankind and the world. i am lucky to have read this book. it's not religious at all but for me a religious experience no doubt. eye-opening. and i'm not easily stirred. can't recommend enough.
Profile Image for Paul.
40 reviews1 follower
October 11, 2007
Perhaps the greatest work of political biography of the 20th century. Chambers spent many years in the Communist underground in Baltimore, supporting a cell of spies and subversives. Eventually he came to the Cross and escaped the despair of the Communist enterprise. His testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities exposed the depth of the Communist penetration of American institutions, and led eventually to the perjury conviction of Alger Hiss, then a respected diplomat, once the founding Secretary General of the UN.

Chambers was a haunted man. He was also a writer of extraordinary brilliance. His autobiography will move you as much as it will inform you. No man can speak competently about the Cold War and the terrible blackness at the heart of Communist who has not confronted this book.
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews113 followers
July 19, 2018
Whittaker Chambers was an American original. Surely this author, journalist and reformed Soviet spy is the only person to have received both the Order of the Red Star from Moscow (1931) and, in 1984, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. Few observers have been exposed to the Twentieth Century in all its raw vicissitudes the way Chambers was: the shift from rural to urban living, the sharp left turn among privileged American undergraduates from complacency to Bolshevism, the miring of the American economy in steady depression in the 1930s -- the realization to Chambers that he must not only quit the Communist Party but later bear witness to its shocking inroads into the corridors of American power.

Badly in debt to the various attorneys who helped steer him through two lengthy federal Grand Jury sessions having largely to do with his relation to the well-placed (and undoubtedly) Communist Alger Hiss, Chambers’ wrote this autobiography Witness (1952). It became a best-seller that year and even now, despite its occasional lapses into stridency and self-pity, deserves a sincere read. For while few observers were exposed to (or exposed themselves to) so many political, social and religious extremes, probably none other has written about the experience so eloquently as Chambers.

In his entire life, did Chambers ever have an easy day? Born in 1901, Chambers and his younger brother grew up on Eastern Long Island when it was still an assemblage of rural villages and tidal flats, not the sprawling polyglot suburb it is today. Chambers’ parents, both eccentrics, were more would-be artists than true artists; his aloof father, according to later evidence, was a closeted homosexual who kept his Down Low down in Lower Manhattan and traveled only grudgingly to his wife and sons on Long Island several times a week. Chambers attended Columbia University, majored in History and specialized in writing, but in the mid-Twenties pledged himself to the American Communist Party as the only way he knew to combat the “decay” of Western Civilization. He began as an open C.P. member, then went underground, for a while actually spying for Moscow. It took the terror of Stalinist show trials to lure him out of the Party in 1938, a decision nailed down by the hypocritical Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement of 1939.

Among his generation, Chambers was an early convert to Bolshevism, but he left the Communist Party fairly early, too, having reasoned that Communists and “fellow travelers” were forced to believe

a number of [ludicrous] things: Foremost among them was the belief that peace could be preserved, World War III could be averted only by conciliating the Soviet Union. For this no price was too high to pay, including the price of wilful historical self-delusion.

Not one to do things by halves, in the 1938-1948 period Chambers endured a grueling train-bus-car commute between his job as Editor for TIME magazine in Rockefeller Center and the working “dirt farm” he had bought in central Maryland. (Note the outright rejection of urbanity.) For anyone else, calling this section “The Tranquil Years” would seem an irony, but for Chambers this time of open ownership and gradually increasing income did indeed seem a relief after his underground past. Life on the farm triggers rhapsodic descriptions of rural life, birdsong and dawn and enraptured children watching foxes and foals at play. Two saving graces: Chambers does not succumb to mere sentiment among these descriptions of country life, and he makes us aware of how much work and upkeep even a medium-sized family farm requires.

It’s not until the last third of this lengthy book that Chambers is free to take on the two massive federal Grand Jury investigations in 1948 that got jack-of-all-trades and Washington insider Alger Hiss indicted, and eventually sent to prison. Hiss was at the core of a group of friends, generally of upper-middle-class birth, who attended elite universities (prominently Harvard) and wound up in the federal government during its period of great expansion in the New Deal years. This very loyal group came to occupy vital positions of some influence, usually assistant-to-the-assistant Secretary of cabinet agencies. He and Chambers were also good friends in the middle Thirties, before the author’s break with Communism. Prior to that, he and Hiss had collaborated on the kind of projects specifically crafted to leave no paper trail -- foreign espionage.

When subpoenaed, what could Hiss do under oath except lie vociferously about ever knowing this Whittaker Chambers, whom he tried to portray as an unstable near-failure while he himself traded on his apparently sterling background? It took quite a while, and a very dogged bunch of Senators, to chip away at this myth. But Chambers’ implacable connection to Hiss was nailed just in such small items: the sighting of a prothonotary warbler, the disposition of a beat-up Ford roadster. This section of the book contains not only such apparent minutiae but also large sections of transcript testimony -- it’s a tribute to Chambers’ skill as an editor that none of it sags.

Witness is fascinating, but not flawless. At times and despite Chambers’ best efforts at exculpation, it reads like ’Diary of a Turncoat’. It seems a brusque editorial accretion in so generally well-written a book to knock a Communist youth group’s khaki blouses as “sleazy” -- what fabric did he think Boy Scouts wear? Somewhere in the book’s final third he should really have reminded us that the U.S.S.R. was only the avowed enemy of the U.S.A. for only about the last two years of the 1921-1949 period. This would have given his readers a bit more sympathy into the thinking of a man who had worked so well with his fellow traitors for nearly twenty years. Perhaps he does not because we might then be tempted to give Alger Hiss a break, too. But nobody cuts his nemesis a break.

Even today, literary reception for Witness is mixed, and cannot be adequately assessed without at least looking at the critic’s own political background. In the 1980s columnist George Will compared the book favorably to The Education of Henry Adams, yet in 2016 the same George Will complained in the pages of the Washington Post that:

Witness became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing [William F.] Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture. Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” . . .

Indeed, one sees many of the themes of Reagan-era “movement” conservatism in embryo in this 1952 work, the tropes that result when the Liberal Sees the Light: the populist streak that prefers humbly educated folk to the output of certain (allegedly “subversive”) Ivy League colleges, the insistence on adherence to orthodoxy of (usually Christian) religion, the elusive political paranoia that darts about such writings like a silent blue flame. (One tough Commie remarked to Chambers during his Bolshevik years: “Any fool can commit a murder, but it takes an artist to create a good natural death.”) But George Will protests too much: late in his life Chambers was a good friend and colleague of William F. Buckley, and any writer with Chambers’ breadth of culture and ability to employ fancy words like “ullulate” as well as the master, should be respected.

Readers of all political persuasions are well advised to read Witness, not only for its stunning recollection of a singular American life but also for its insight into how close a European-born, and stridently atheist, ideology came to corrupting the center corridors of American state power. I know of no autobiography that fills the place of Witness or could take its place. And its prose style is a joy.

Whittaker Chambers died at age 60, in 1961, of a heart attack. Alger Hiss served three years of a five-year prison term, but survived until 1996, when he died at age 92. In the early 21st Century Chambers’ son John announced plans to turn the old family farmhouse into a museum of his father’s life and work, but two years later a freak electrical fire burned most of the building down. This is far from the largest of the ironies that propelled and plagued Whittaker Chambers' life.
Profile Image for Brian Albrecht.
30 reviews24 followers
April 9, 2012
Is a book that is over 50 years old worth reviewing? Yes. Because it is timeless and if this review provokes one person to read it, I will have done something good.

Whittaker Chambers was called to be a witness, both for something and against something. Early in his life, he was called to be a witness against the modern world and for communism.Here is a man who was desperate to fix the problems of the modern age. For a while in Chambers’ life, Marxism/Leninism/Communism was his answer and he devoted his life to the communist party. Luckily, there was a major change in the middle of his life. After years of working in the open party and then the underground espionage part of the party, Chambers left and found Christ. At that point, he became a witness against communism and for God.

In Witness, a beautifully written autobiographical narrative, Chambers recounts his life up until shortly after the Hiss case, that was to bring him fame. Here is a man whose life was completely devoted to a cause and in middle age abandoned it. It takes humility and strength to do that Readers follow the danger and struggle necessary for Chambers to depart from the party. Luckily for the reader, Chambers is a top-notch writer who worked for years as an editor at Time and then a writer for National Review (I’d take either spot).

This is not just a book about the perils of communism. It’s about the tragedy of life and the beauty of God. It delves into the wonder of nature and the power one can develop from a good woman. At times the details of the Hiss case are too exhaustive. But this is a huge part of the era which is rarely discussed in classrooms. I’ve never felt so much emotion in a writing and this is non-fiction. Quite a stretch from the typical economics books I read, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in 20th century American history, the perils of communism, and faith. 5 of 5 stars.
Profile Image for Vivian.
2,397 reviews
July 8, 2016
I have to rate this five stars because of its power to change minds and thus change lives. I began "reading" it by asking my library to obtain the audio edition through inter-library loan. I got half-way through before having to return it. I then picked up my library's re-bound copy and found myself scribbling notes and page numbers on both sides of two bookmarks. I am glad the audio got me through the background and the book got the ideas through me.

Chambers is an apt and intelligent writer. He was good friends with James Agee (who I put among the most genius of American writers)and other key thinkers of his time, which helped place him at Time Magazine during its years with Henry Luce at the helm.

Chambers was a Communist by conscience during the turbulent 1920's and 1930's and then conscientiously abandoned Communism in the mid 1930's with his wife and children. He later became a key witness under subpeona for the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1940's. He had met ten years earlier with a fairly high-ranking government official and disclosed to him all the information he had at the time relating to espionage. He expected to be arrested but nothing ever came of it. Years later he learned the information had been disclosed privately to FDR who chose not to take any action.

Chambers' work in court and with typewriter was to witness FOR Christianity rather than against Communism. At one point he relates a conversation he had with another defector. This man said something to the effect that one is either a Revolutionary or a Counter-revolutionary. He meant by "revolutionary" one who is on the side of Communism and by "counter-revolutionary" one who is not. In other words, if you are not actively engaged in the counter-revolution you are actually in the camp of the revolutionary.

I had to think of this in terms of the war that is now taking place-- the war of Cosmic Humanist, Secular Humanist, and Judeo-Christian ideology in the minds and lives of the inhabitants of this planet. The revolutionary is the Secular Humanist and the counter-revolutionary is the Judeo-Christian. Cosmic Humanism, no doubt, has always been somewhat of a sub-current (as I understand it).

Chambers is most well-known as the person who informed on Alger Hiss, citing and providing evidence that Hiss was engaged in espionage (for which he could not now be tried due to the statute of limitations). Hiss, on his part, was a key player at Yalta and at the inception of the United Nations and very deeply imbedded in many departments of government. He had all the "friends", legal counsel, money, reputation, intelligencia, media, and public opinion on his side. Chambers had no money, initially no legal counsel, very little media and public, etc. on his side. And yet the legal battle stretched over several years, with even Pres. Truman calling Chambers a "red herring".

When Chambers broke with Communism he attempted to persuade Hiss to break as well. His former friendship with Hiss and his family made him reluctant to publicly cite Hiss's and other's espionage involvement.

Wikipedia articles on Chambers and on Hiss contain discrepancies and also expose disturbing flaws in Chambers' days with Communism and assert that Hiss claims to the end of his long life to have been innocent of all charges.

Profile Image for Jason.
Author 1 book21 followers
August 28, 2011
This is a heavy book. (Having read the Kindle version, I don't mean physically, though the physical book would be that as well.) Whittaker Chambers is a serious man who lived by choice through serious events. He powerfully wrote about them in 1951 shortly after his part in them concluded. In this autobiography, Chambers recounted his unhappy childhood, his search for meaning in the "crisis of history" that led him to communism, his underground work for the Communist Party, the confrontation between God-less communism and Christianity, his break from the Communist Party, his efforts to protect his family from the Communist Party after his break, his work at Time Magazine, and his essential decision to become a "witness" against the Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. That decision came to be played out in the very public battle with Alger Hiss. Chambers wrote so well about so many topics affecting his life and his nation that the recounting of his underground Communist activities ends up being the least interesting part of the book (though interesting nonetheless). His telling of his confrontations with Alger Hiss and Hiss's representatives ten years after his break -- with actual hearing transcripts -- is absolutely fascinating. Just as well as Chambers tells of the events, he explains their meaning. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Its universal themes ensure its enduring relevance.
Profile Image for D.M. Dutcher .
Author 1 book49 followers
May 6, 2012
Amazing biography of a man who lead a pretty bleak childhood and fell in with the Communist Party in the 1930s. Eventually he couldn't stand it any more, and not only fled it, he was willing to testify against it.

I don't think any work of fiction could do the same subject justice. Just the record of purges, people just up and disappearing, ending up dead, or being spirited away to the USSR are sobering, but the quiet psychological moments are even worse. Paranoia, pettiness, private pain, blind zealotry, and worse in the service of an ideology whose brutality the world never has seen. His thoughts too on the mindset add another dimension to it. These are men with good sides as well as bad, just warped and twisted by their belief.

When he testifies the book slows down, but in a way that works too, just to show how mind-numbing and really limited our justice system is. That the prosecution had to focus on Hiss owning a car to break his defense is something I'm not sure is humorous or sad.

There's a lot of crap written by revisionists about the Red Scare and Mccarthyism, but this book reminds us that the Communist really were an organized menace that attracted our best and brightest, and had serious support and no shortage of fellow travelers among the intelligentsia. We really should be thankful for his witness, and the actions of many others who prevented an ideology which once had massive support among our educated classes from flourishing.
136 reviews7 followers
March 20, 2016
ooh boy - what I hunk of junk this thing is.

790 pages of Chambers's pathetic mewling makes it easy to understand, even for those of us who weren't there, why so many people assumed he was dishonest. My copy includes rave reviews from Ronald Reagan, Robert Novak, George Will...that's about right.

Chambers is a true believer in every sense and at every point. He is obsessed with belief, with giving himself completely to a cause or a truth. he was driven to communism not by any reasoned interpretation or close textual reading, but by a disgust with modernity, and a desperate need to belong and to be a part of the true faith - grown from his youthful religiosity. He did not break with Soviet Communism until well after the expulsion of Trotsky, and the liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks, it took a decade of subservient toadyism before he saw cracks in the Stalinist edifice. Naturally, his faith in shambles, he threw himself toward Christianity.

He blames Stalin not just on Lenin, or even on Marx, but in REASON. Reason, he suggests (and here I agree with him), turns people away from God. Little is more sickening to me than someone who denounces rational thought because it sews the seeds of agnosticism. Ugh. Plus he was fat.
Profile Image for Aberdeen.
232 reviews26 followers
June 15, 2020
There were other, less hazardous ways of disengaging myself from the Communist party. I could, possibly, have had myself transferred, on one pretext or another, from the underground to the open Communist Party—such transfers are not uncommon. Once back in the open party, after a suitable period of shuffling, I could have gradually lapsed from it. But such a course would have meant some agreement, some kind of hobbling terms, between the Communist party and me. I wanted no terms. I deliberately deserted from the Communist Party in a way that could leave no doubt in its mind, or anybody else's, that I was at war with it and everything it stood for.

Definitely one of the best books I've read this year. I'll start with a personal caveat, which is that it's always hard to know how much to trust someone's autobiography. Even though Chambers writes with a lot of humility and is revealing an ugly part of his life (his work in the Communist Underground, undermining the U.S. Government in the lead up to World War II), he is trying to defend himself, defend his accusations against Alger Hiss (a fellow Communist Underground worker whom he testifies against once he breaks from the Communist Party), defend why he joined and then why he left and why he did so in a manner that he did. I think it's clear that he wrestled long and hard with both decisions and that he is a man seeking to do justly and live his life well before God. He is deeply thoughtful in all that he does. But no man is completely perfect or able to perfectly examine themselves.

I say this to protect against my own inclination toward hero worship, my incessant quest to find someone I can respect and trust without reservation. Sometimes, Chambers comes across as a little too defensive of his righteousness, a little too sure that his perspective is the only right way (this is mostly in moral issues; I'm not speaking of the facts of the Hiss case). I disagree with some of his theology, and, pettily, with his negative opinion of urban life. But overall, from this book, he is a man to admire, certainly a man to learn from who has earned the right to have his words wrestled with and pondered.

Okay, caveat OVER. Basically, this is the perfect book for an Enneagram One—alllll the moral dilemmas. Should he join the Communist Party? Should he join the Underground and become a traitor to America? What should he do when he realizes that Communism is evil? How should he go about informing the US government what was going on? Should he inform against his old friends? How do you balance mercy to individuals with justice, wrecking the lives of individuals but possibly saving a nation? What is it that makes Communism evil?

And, maybe most importantly, is there an alternative to Communism, a way from our world to be saved?

I was also fascinated with the pure history of it. I had no idea there was a Communist Underground infiltrating the US government at high levels for decades before and during World War II. Just ... no idea. Anyone else know that? It was fascinating to hear his perspective on what the appeal of Communism was, especially to non-Soviets. How could born and raised Americans be willing to spy on their own government?

Plus, his description of the trial is fascinating. Heart-rending, but fascinating. He includes long excerpts from transcripts, which I enjoyed marking up in the margins with snarky rejoinders to Alger Hiss and moments of exultation when one of the Congressmen finally got fed up with Hiss' prevarications. If you like court case stories, this is a good one.

This is a story of transformation, of redemption. In it, broken man looks at the brokenness of the world and tries to fix it. When he realizes he has in fact been aiding one of the main instigators of brokenness, he changes course and does everything in his power—often at great personal cost and with no hope of success—to defeat that evil. In the end, he realizes that his great mistake was somehow turned to good, because his time in the Underground enabled him to eventually be able to inform against it.

This has everything—moral and psychological exploration, fascinating history, court room drama, investigative suspense, even a lovely romance. And his writing—oh, friends, he's got a gift for words.

Also, as I was copying down my copious amount of notes the other day, his thoughts on whether Christians should use force to combat evil in the world felt quite relevant. Here's one:

But I was not only gentle. Deep within me there was a saving fierceness that my brother lacked. ... Within me there is a force. It says that gentleness, which is not prepared to kill or be killed to destroy the evil that assails life, is not gentleness. It is weakness. It is the weakness of the nearly well-meaning. It is the suspended goodness of the men of mere good will whose passivity in the face of evil first of all raises the question whether they are men. It is the permanent temptation of the Christian who, in a world of force, flinches at the crucifixion which alone can give kindness and compassion force.

I'll leave you with these quotes to give you a sampling of the powerful themes he explores.

The tie that binds [Communists] across the frontiers of nations ... in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weaknesses of the body and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world.


What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.


Life had not yet taught me that, without courage, kindness and compassion remain merely fatuous postures.


I faced the fact that, if Communism were evil, I could no longer serve it, and that that was true regardless of the fact that there might be nothing else to serve, that the alternative was a void.


But I was also thinking that it would take more than modulated voices, graciousness and candlelight to save a world that prized those things.


At that end, all men simply pray, and prayer takes as many forms as there are men. Without exception we pray. We pray because there is nothing else to do, and because that is where God is—where there is nothing else.
53 reviews2 followers
May 5, 2015
Sometimes, very rarely, a book can profoundly change your perspectives. Witness is one of those books; it is biography, political history, spy thriller and philosophy. Chambers is a compelling writer and it is difficult to put the book down. Without such great writing, the book's impact would certainly have been blunted. The book gets to the heart of the matter by what Chambers calls the "tragedy of history." As an avid historian and political thinker, I had never before truly grasped the conflict between those whose faith lies in God verses those whose faith lies with Man. This book gave me a more substantial understanding of my own conservative beliefs. I now know that those who are seduced by communism, socialism, or progressivism truly want to better mankind, but they fail to accept the perpetual fallibility of man, therefore accepting periods of tyranny in the futile hope that utopia lies on the far side of terror.

On a basic level, if you enjoy history books, especially on the Cold War or espionage, you will enjoy this book. On a more fundamental level, if you're interested in the great human struggle of modern times, you should read this book. This book has a fine literary style, particularly the climax of the book coming with Chambers struggling against himself, alone in a picturesque setting, that has become so well known to history. Also, I would advise self-proclaimed progressives, to give the book an honest reading, it may provide insight into your own beliefs and those of your adversaries. Finally, if you are hesitant to read this book, I urge you to read the forward, "A letter to my children." I think you will be persuaded to finish the book and come to understand how profound it really is.
Profile Image for Ben.
131 reviews9 followers
July 18, 2014
Come for a riveting blow by blow retelling of essential American history and stay for the profound political, philosophical, and spiritual insights. In our day and age Chambers' insight is essential. Trying to separate faith and politics as we so often do is foolhardy and ultimately impossible because what we have faith in determines or should determine our politics. Chambers' simple but elegant analysis of the problem of modernity is that modern man chooses faith in almighty man rather than faith in God. Communism is the systematic expression of that choice but much of the non-communist world shares Communism's faith in almighty man. Symptomatic of this modern faith is disregard for the reality of the human soul. Chambers finds this out by hard experience in the midst of an empty life in the communist underground. Chambers' experiences and analysis are powerful and important, though Communism may have fallen many of the problems that he has identified have not gone away and in fact will not. An essential book. I'll end with a quotation from the book:

"Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age. The Western world does not know it, but it already possesses the answer to this problem-but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as Communism's faith in Man."
Profile Image for Daniel Freedman.
20 reviews6 followers
May 31, 2012
"Witness" should be a mandatory read for anyone interested in politics. It is a bit dated, but it reveals how the Communists worked infiltrating the power structure of the United States. Some of the revelations are really shocking. I think all governments are corrupt but the Communists took it all to a dispassionate art form.
I worked on a Kibbutz in Israel, which had Communist beginnings. There is a need in humans to belong to a group and the comfort of having others share your experiences is strong. Even on a Kibbutz the Jews there were unable or unwilling to give up the traditions of lighting candles on the Sabbath or having a glass of wine. It was kind of sad to see them having gotten as far as Israel, and giving up their religious practices. Chambers talks a lot about this sadness.
I don't think all the evils of the world can be placed on the shoulders of Communism. It did some good as well, but this book is a chance to glance behind the veil.
Profile Image for Ann.
377 reviews25 followers
August 3, 2008
This political biography of one of the most controversial Soviet spies in American history is so EXCELLENT. The intrigues and subversive plots and plans that he chronicles from the time he was involved in the Communist underground are some of the best "spy" material ... While Chambers held to hard core Communist ideals at the beginning of his life, he found that it eventually led to disillusionment and despair. His search for the truth led him to Christianity and the desire to sound the alarm to a country (America) that had become enamored with Communist ideology ... those enamored with Communism went as high as high officials in our government. This autobiography is as CURRENT in its application today as when it was first published in the early 1050's ... an EXCELLENT read !
Profile Image for Peter Bradley.
875 reviews48 followers
July 4, 2016

Please give my review a helpful vote at http://www.amazon.com/review/R3EDW9AE...

The Alger Hiss case has always been a part of my background knowledge, but nothing more than that. I graduated from High School in 1977. I remember my history teacher sharing an anti-HUAC chant that he participated in during the 1950s. I knew that Whittaker Chambers was a seedy, homosexual, drunken psycho and that Nixon was involved in some kind of publicity seeking chicanery. I also knew that the question of whether Hiss was wrongfully convicted of perjury was a divisive issue and that – after I left high school – evidence emerged that Hiss was undoubtedly guilty.

After reading Witness by Whittaker Chambers, I wonder how I formed the impression that Chambers was an untrustworthy, seedy compulsive liar. Or rather I marvel at the power of disinformation to reach out across decades and to poison minds with smear and slander.

It is odd to me now that I knew things that were problematic. I think I knew that Chambers was a senior editor at Time magazine, but I never wondered how he managed to make the jump from underground Communist to leading journalist while being such a loathsome and incompetent human being. It seems that he must have had something going for him. Likewise, I knew that he was involved with National Review at its inception and that many of the writers of National Review held him in high esteem, and, yet, my sense that Chambers was a man I would not want to be in the same room with remained intact.

This book is therefore a revelation and a fascinating window into the Communist underground of the twenties and thirties.

The book has an odd structure for memoirs, but it is a structure that makes sense from the standpoint of telling a topical story to people who wanted the “sexy bits.” The book starts with a long first chapter where Chambers recounts both his break with the Communist underground and his activities in that underground, including his involvement with Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White. The book then moves back in time to Chambers’ boyhood and brings him up to the point where he enters the Communist underground. Having caught up to the beginning of the first chapter, third part of the book follows Chambers years after leaving the Communist Party, his employment at Time magazine, and his subsequently becoming embroiled in the Hiss case (the “Case.”)

Chambers was born in 1901. His family life was miserable. His father was cold and a philanderer. His mother was frustrated by not belonging to the wealthy classes, which she had inhabited in her youth. Chambers favorite book was Les Miserables, and he was particularly enamored of the character of the Bishop of Digne, which he felt was a foreshadowing of his attraction to Communism and its love of the poor. When he graduated from school, he left home and spent three months doing physical labor in Washington DC and then used the money he had earned to travel to New Orleans. When the money ran out, he contacted his parents and got money to return home. He then went to Columbia University, where he became enmeshed in socialist politics. When he was 25 he joined the Communist Party and worked on the Daily Worker as a reporter and editor. In 1932, Chambers was moved to the Communist underground where worked under “party names,” including “Carl.” His job in the underground was to act as a courier for information that other underground Communists in government had to provide to Russia. (Chambers was actually working for the Soviet espionage service.)

Chambers hold virtually nothing back from his memoirs when it comes to self-accusation, except his homosexual affairs, which he disclosed to J. Edgar Hoover. However, I never felt that I got enough information to understand Chambers’ motivations. Chambers claimed that he was motivated to join the Communist Party because of “the great world crisis” as to which only the Communist Party had a plan, but he never tells us what this crisis was or what plan the Communist party had. (Later he does mention a trip through Europe immediately after the end of World War I and his observation of the poverty and damage caused by war but it isn’t clear what the greater crisis was – nationalism? War?) Likewise, throughout the book, Chambers clearly romanticizes the working class or the working man. He looks back fondly on his period in Washington DC where he worked with men of all kinds of races and nationalities and languages and tells a story about how he was helped in getting his first job by a conspiracy of proletarians. This seems to have been his one experience with physical labor, and, typical of leftwingers in love with the proletariat, he had the resources to end his adventure with a phone call, and then go to college.

The other interesting feature is the Columbia connection. Chambers met a class of people who were able to help him throughout his life. He got his job with Time after 6 years of being underground through a Columbia friend, and he was able to provide for himself and his family as a German-French translator. (Chambers was the translator of “Bambi”, of all things. With an internet search of newspaper databases you can see numerous references to Chambers being the translator of various books.)

Chambers’ disengagement from Communism came in part from the Stalinist purges which caught up his friends and comrades. In addition, he claims that he came to doubt the materialistic philosophy of Communism. This passage is particularly effective:

“But I date my break from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. It was shortly before we moved to Alger Hiss’s apartment in Washington. My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear— those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.”

In 1939, motivated by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Chambers attempted to report to the United States government the truth of Communist penetration into government. His report was taken by Adolf Berle, who was an Assistant Secretary of State. Berle did nothing with the report:

“In August, 1948, Adolf A. Berle testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities not long after my original testimony about Alger Hiss and the Ware Group. The former Assistant Secretary of State could no longer clearly recall my conversation with him almost a decade before. His memory had grown dim on a number of points. He believed, for example, that I had described to him a Marxist study group whose members were not Communists. In any case, he had been unable to take seriously, in 1939, any “idea that the Hiss boys and Nat Witt were going to take over the Government.”

Chambers’ constant theme is that he was a reluctant witness. I found his many efforts to limit Hiss’s exposure to the consequences of his actions totally inexplicable. At every occasion, Chambers soft-peddled the accusations against Hiss. Chambers committed perjury in denying that espionage had occurred before one grand jury. He did not bring up the espionage information to the HUAC committee. He would not have produced the documentary evidence he secreted at the time of his break if Hiss’s attorney in the libel action brought by Hiss against Chambers had not goaded him into it. Even then, Chambers withheld microfilm (which he did turn over to the HUAC committee.)

Chambers constantly expresses his concern about being an “informer.” His memoirs go on ad nauseam about his mental torture at being an informer, but simultaneously he goes on about the importance of being a witness and the need to expose Communism. Chambers explains that he is concerned about mercy and so proportions his goal of exposing Communism to his desire to protect Hiss and his former comrades from the worst results of their conduct.

I admit that I don’t get it. Chambers was being called a liar and a fraud by a person who had shown himself to be a disloyal psychopath (the willingness of Hiss to shamelessly fabricate lies on the spot that contradicted prior lies is impressive in its being totally unmoored from normal human abilities.) An editorial from 1953 that I read makes the point that perhaps we who have not been in the Communist underground and separated ourselves from a totalizing faith like Communism may not be in a position to understand:

“Because of Chambers’ own compulsive desire to confess, all because we do have so much information concerning him, his motivations, his mysticism and his other-worldly attitudes, we must take him on his own terms. They are not our terms. But we must, I feel, believe that mingled with his desire to make a clean breast of his offenses and to injure the Soviet cause in America was a sort of odd saintliness; a wish not to visit upon a former friend and associate the full odium of his crimes, not, as he says, to destroy Hiss.” (Cincinnati Inquirer 7/1/53 Forrest Davis Editorial.)

Davis makes a fair point about knowing so much about Chambers and knowing nothing about Hiss. We have biographical details about Hiss, but nothing that explains his betrayal and pathological deceitfulness. After all, it wasn’t like Hiss could ever write a memoir explaining his motivations.

As a practicing attorney, I was amazed at how much of a liar Hiss clearly was. His testimony was classically evasive and he was a horrible witness in his egotism and condescension. He seemed to be operating on the premise that since all of his friends despised the HUAC, all he had to do was show the HUAC the same derision directly that he heard from his friends in cocktail parties and all would be fine. However, to someone who is not in his Amen corner, he was anything but an innocent person. An innocent person would have answered simply and directly and not have needed the evasions. An innocent person can be allowed one or two mistakes, but Hiss went from not knowing Chambers to identifying him as George Crosley, from saying that he sold Crosley a car to saying he gave him the “use of” the car when it was obvious that documents contradicted him, from claiming that Crosley was a mere boarder to saying that Crosley was running a “deep con” on him.

We now know that there were Communist spies in the American government, but why is that surprising? Wouldn’t we expect that the Soviets would place agents in our government? I would hope that we had spies in their government.

What is surprising is the unwillingness of the American government of the 1930s and 1940s to do anything about them when they were exposed. Chambers reported Hiss in 1939. The FBI had been reporting Hiss for ten years prior to 1948. Yet, President Truman described the Hiss case as a “red-herring” and Hiss was able to trot out the Secretary of State and Supreme Court Justices to vouch for his integrity. A reasonable person could look at the facts and see a cover-up. Moreover, there was a class bias in this cover-up: the right sorts of people with the right connections were being coddled and protected because of their connections. It was the outsiders – the Californian Nixon – who were blowing the whistle.

In reading this book I was struck by how much this seemed like modern politics. This review is written a few weeks after a Muslim Democrat shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando. The Department of Justice initially refused to release the audio of the shooter proclaiming his allegiance to Islamic terrorism (ISIS at this point) and then released with the pledge omitted and the word “Allah” changed to “God.” In the 1940s, the government line was that Communists were really not a problem; today it is that Islamic terrorism is not a problem. In both cases, the average person has to wonder, “what the heck is going on?” After which, the wondering gives rise to conspiratorial implications, which are then described as “paranoid” and “psychotic.”

Likewise, with the Hiss case, we see the politics of personal destruction, as Chambers is vilified as insane and a drunk and a deadbeat. Chambers was “psychologized” to explain his behavior and the slander was never retracted. Even today we see the same thing as Trump or his reporters are “psychologized,” while Hillary Clinton, who has to be a fascinating case study in neurosis based on the nastiness and cruelty that is reported about her, is left alone.

Hiss v Chambers may not be the first example of this kind of politics, but it seems to have set the mold for the next 80 years.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
959 reviews122 followers
January 4, 2016
There was much that was unfashionable about this memoir when it was published in 1952, and much that will forever damn it to tastemakers. It praises the House Un-American Activities Committee for its work unearthing Communists, and celebrates its member Richard Nixon as the "kindest of men." It also engages in extended soliloquies on the wonders of Christianity, the nature of God, and the futility of atheism. The New Deal is attacked as a stalking horse for Communism.

Whatever one thinks of these sentiments, the reader of this book is early on forced to confront two facts: first, that the author, Whittaker Chambers, was correct, factually and morally, to expose a massive underground Communist conspiracy that once permeated the government. Second, that Chambers is a supremely gifted writer. In a less partisan world, this would be enough to make make this book essential reading in the literary and historical canon.

The book centers around the famous legal battle between Chambers and former State Department panjandrum Alger Hiss, which began in August 1948 when Chambers claimed he worked with and befriended Hiss as part of the Communist underground in 1930s Washington. Chambers also named a slew of others who worked with or for him, from Nathan Witt, secretary of the National Labor Relations Board; to Lee Pressman, government lawyer and general counsel for the CIO; to Henry Collins, of numerous Senate committees; to Victor Perlo, of the National Recovery Administration and Brookings Institute; to Harry Dexter White, creator of the IMF; along with many others. Most of those charged by Chambers took the fifth amendment, but Hiss, then head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had already testified that he was never a member of the Communist Party, and fought back. He sued Chambers for libel. Hiss was too central in too many recent Democratic achievements to throw to the Republican wolves, and he attracted broad support. Hiss had helped create the UN, and was a central drafter of the agreements at Yalta and Potsdam with Stalin and Churchill. When Chambers finally produced a series of secret State Department documents from Hiss and others to show that not only had Hiss been a Communist but that he had spied for the Soviet Union, Hiss was convicted of perjury.

Much of the enlightened world never forgave Chambers, but in the fullness of time, with recent Soviet archives releases, we've learned that he was right. Hiss and others were almost certainly spies for the Stalinist government. One would be hard-pressed to read this book, however, and believe that Chambers was telling anything but the truth, since he shows how hard-won that truth was.

Despite the supposed allure of Soviet espionage, the best parts of the book are the stories of Chambers's tragic childhood: of his peripatetic womanizing father, of his depressed brother who eventually killed himself, and of his mad grandmother whose violent outbursts tormented his house. The Communist Party to Chambers seemed to offer the only release from the tragic tenor of his life and of his times. When a party central committee member named Max Bedacht tried to recruit Chambers from "The Daily Masses" newspaper to the underground, Chambers took to it as a further relief from the internecine squabbles ("the Lovestone-Foster" battle) and interminable propaganda of the regular party. He eventually headed up a large policy and espionage ring in Washington, where he had members steal documents and then had them photographed, developed and microfilmed in safe houses around the area. He broke with the Party as the full terror of Stalin and the violent methods of even the American Communists became clear in 1938. Ten years later, at the beginnings of the Hiss circus, he had made himself a respected and well-paid editor at Time Magazine, although he already attracted animus for his fierce anti-Communism.

There is much that is troublesome about this book. The spy sections devolve into a series of short character sketches, often included just to provide "witness" to the extent of Communist subversion. Almost one hundred pages are taken up by only faintly edited transcripts of the House Committee testimonies of Chambers and Hiss, detailing such things as their overlapping gas leases and auto titles. In the final part of the book, Chambers seems to lose his bearings entirely as he describes his life fall apart under the media scrutiny. The book devolves into a series of rambling ruminations on life, freedom, God, and Communism. On the whole, the book would have been much improved with 400 fewer pages. Still, I tore through all of it. In the end, I remain most impressed by Chambers's ability to celebrate, against his own nature, his truest act of courage, which happened to be informing on an old and obviously dear friend.
59 reviews1 follower
March 29, 2016
The most intriguing book I have read. Mr. Chambers lays out the good and the bad both of himself and the Communist infiltration of our government in many places but especially of high places next to the president. Once Mr. Chambers' eyes were opened to the evil of Communism he had to remove himself from all possibilities of being assassinated by the underground network. When he finally tried to get Alger Hiss to leave the Communist Party too because he was his friend, this failed. Later he went to high government individual (Adolph Berle) and reported the infiltration to him to no avail. It seems the highly placed government officials circled their wagons and covered up.
Page 617: A European guest at a meeting with Henry Luce (Time Magazine) and Mr. Chambers said "The Communist conspiracy is unlike any ever known before. In the past, conspiracy has always meant secrecy, concealment. The peculiarity of Communism is that everybody really knows who these people are and what the conspiracy is and how it works. But everybody connives at it because nobody wants to believe his own eyes. It is something new under the sun. It is conspiracy in the open."

Mr Chambers was to lay down his life to expose the espionage committed by Alger Hiss. His family was slandered, Hiss lawyers grilled him unmercifully at trials, intimated that Mr. Chambers was mentally ill and had been hospitalized for being insane, and on and on. Most human beings couldn't withstand the attacks made against him. In the end the truth prevailed and Alger Hiss was convicted and sent to prison.

Some of the tactics Hiss and the Hiss lawyers used during the trial remind me of the actions of a certain politician being interrogated recently about the use of her illegal server at home to conduct government business. Interestingly enough both Hiss and this person were with the State Department.

The book is long but worth the time to read and digest what has transpired in our government from the early 1900's. It seems that many foreigners immigrated to the U.S. during that time and came with the intention of causing a revolution toward Communism.

Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
856 reviews34 followers
November 11, 2017
This is an astonishing book, for several reasons.

First, the writing. Chambers was a tremendous writer, and though he struggled putting himself and his family under the microscope, those portions of the book are his most powerful attack on Communism. Especially the short chapter after the birth of his first child, a child party doctrine said should be aborted.

Second, even after the release of the Venona Papers,


it remains an article of faith among U.S. liberals that Hiss was not a spy. Why not? The defense is delusional as what kept Burgess, Philby, Kim, etc. going long after they should have been detected: How could East Cost Establishment, Harvard Law grad possibly be working for the other team? No one who reads “Witness” can fail to be convinced of Hiss’s perfidy: Chambers takes it step-by-step, augmenting his tale with undeniable facts. At the end, Witness isn’t the “he-said/she-said” of Hiss’s perjury trial, but an indictment for treason.

Yes the book is thicker than two steaks. But reading it in high school, at the suggestion of Ronald Reagan, was the beginning of my road to Damascus. Sure, it's a outdated today; the dramatis personæ all are dead. But Witness allows the reader an under-publicized perspective on Communist infiltration into U.S. government ranks.
Profile Image for Warren.
28 reviews
October 13, 2015
Every American should read this book and every student should find it on his/her list of required readings. Whittaker Chambers is a excellent writer and this, so far, is the best autobiography I've ever read.
This is the true account of the Alger Hiss trials as they were a huge part of the Whittaker Chambers story and the author provides an outstanding picture of his emotions and philosophies throughout his ordeals as first a communist, then a convert to Christianity and ultimately the key witness in the Hiss trial as a result of his desire to save the United States from being overtaken by communism from within. The book reads like a novel in many places and is difficult to put down.
While learning a great deal of history that I knew little about (I was a small child during the Hiss trials) I also developed the opinion that Richard Nixon is totally exonerated from any wrongdoing as President inasmuch as he played a huge part in bringing Hiss to trial and thwarting communism in the mid-20th century at a time when so many Americans, including FDR and Truman, thought Hiss was innocent and Chambers was either insane or a drunkard. He was neither, of course.
If you haven't read this book...please do. It is powerful enough to alter one's worldview.
80 reviews
January 22, 2017
A witness not only to Soviet spies in mid-20th century American government, but to why Communism is evil and how it, and its cousin, Socialism, work to destroy humanity. The searing honesty creates a suspense that Increases with each page. This is also a true story of redemption and amazing personal courage. Today, 65 years later, Chambers' message resonates ominously, yet hopefully as America faces similar threats from the current incarnation of Communism and Socialism - the progressive left. I have to add that I greatly admire much of Ayn Rand's thinking on capitalism versus communism and socialism, and, given that Chambers wrote the most excoriating review of Atlas Shrugged in National Review in 1957, I put off reading this book for years. I regret having done so, and I believe that Chambers and Rand share more in common than either would have believed, just as William F. Buckley did, though he never admitted it. Ayn Rand admirers should read this book with an open mind because, ultimately, it speaks to the dignity of every individual, and there is much common ground.
Profile Image for John Harder.
228 reviews12 followers
October 11, 2011
Throughout the Roosevelt administration the state department was infiltrated with Democrats, er, I mean communists. Whitaker Chambers, a reformed communist, was aware of the espionage and started naming names. But, unfortunately, he was not suave, just smart and sincere. This resulted in a seemingly losing battle against one of his best friends and unrepentant undercover communist, Alger Hiss. With persistence, bravery and a newly found faith in God, Mr. Chambers proved his case and became a great American. I whole-heartedly recommend this autobiography -- in addition the telling an great story, Chamber is an almost poetic writer.
Profile Image for David.
1,272 reviews24 followers
October 18, 2015
Have had 5 stars in mind during most of my reading time, but in the latter stages have come to think 4.5 stars is right, as I'm having a hard time buying his reasons for not exposing the ESPIONAGE sooner. He says he hates and wants to destroy CommunISM but wants to spare his CommunIST friends and acquaintances. Hmm . . . THEY wanted to destroy the freedom of the U.S. AND Chambers -- don't believe he was thinking clearly.

STILL, this is a remarkable and wonderfully written book . . . many very thought-provoking ideas and spiritual insights. Makes me want to find out more about the whole Hiss-Chambers story and will move on to a Chambers biography presently.

Profile Image for Stacy.
1,004 reviews91 followers
July 10, 2016
A inside look at the Communist movement in this country prior to WWII
Profile Image for Graychin.
737 reviews1,795 followers
September 6, 2022
Here’s an embarrassing admission. I’m nearly 50 years old, a graduate of a liberal arts university, decently well read, and yet until this year I had thought Witness by Whittaker Chambers was a novel on which the 1985 Harrison Ford movie “Witness” was based. (You know, crooked big-city cops, Amish folk in buggies, and Kelly McGillis at her make-up-free prettiest.) I had heard of the Alger Hiss trials but knew next to nothing about them. Something, somewhere, went wrong in my education.

I know better now. Witness is an 800-page brick of a non-fiction book but it somehow reads like a good novel. It is an autobiography, a love story, a spy thriller, a courtroom drama, and a religious conversion tale wrapped up in one. I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the Great American Documents, both an outstanding work of history and an outstanding work of literature. I finished it nearly a month ago and I’m still thinking about it. A few memorable quotes:

“Man without mysticism is a monster.”

“I never supposed that what man means by well-being and what well-being means to God could possibly be the same. They might be as different as joy and suffering.”

“Conspiracy itself is dull work. Its mysteries quickly become a bore, its secrecy a burden and its involved way of doing things a nuisance. Its object is never to provide excitement, but to avoid it. Thrills mean that something has gone wrong.”

“In any such change as I was making, the soul itself is in flux. How hideous our transformations then are, wavering monstrously in their incompleteness as in a distorting mirror, until the commotion settles and the soul’s new proportions are defined.”

“Hence like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched, and reacted with a violence that completely belied the openness of mind which they prescribed for others.”

“Each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself.”

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282 reviews8 followers
September 5, 2017
I started reading Witness by Whittaker Chambers at the suggestion of my uncle. The Red Scare and the Cold War have always interested me, but I haven’t read any books on the subject since college. Witness is still recommended reading by many conservative institutions, and I thought it would be worth giving it a try considering how influential it is.

Witness is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers. In short, Chambers came across as an introverted, melodramatic, idealist, who was radicalized circa 1925 after he read various communist writings. He served the American Communist Party for seven years (which was really a proxy of the USSR) as a writer and editor of communist propaganda. Later, he joined the secret communist party, which he deduced (though wasn’t explicitly told) was an arm of the GRU (the Soviet military intelligence agency). In 1939, after Stalin’s Great Purge and the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Whittaker came to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was really just left-wing fascism, and he defected. In the years between his defection and his testimony he became a successful writer and editor at Time Magazine. This was possible because at the time, no one took his defection seriously. Chambers was able to live a pretty regular life until 1948 when he was eventually brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about his former associates. Between all his testimony and the two Hiss trials, he outed several people in the FDR/Truman admins as being communists (the Alger Hiss outing getting the most attention), which resulted in quite a bit of media and political pushback (made worse because 1948 was an election year).

I consider this an incredibly important book because of the implications of a vast communist conspiracy, but the book itself is a bit of a mess. I genuinely think Chambers could have edited this down to half of its length. Much of it is repetitive, very difficult to follow, and filled with overly flowery prose for the sake of the prose itself. I found myself thinking, “cool line, bro, but it doesn’t really apply here.” To a degree, I understand why he wrote this book the way he did. He wanted to write his definitive account on his experiences as a communist. This doesn’t make a particularly good read, though. First of all, as a good spy, he never took notes, or wrote anything down. He even said he purposefully tried to not learn things like street names. I found these espionage strategies interesting, but when you’re trying to recount a history with no notes and little recollection, it can be a little difficult to get through at times.

Chambers is also kind of unlikable. For one, he only vaguely explains why he ever became a communist. Multiple times he referred to problems in society and cited WWI as a manifestation as an example of the flaws in society. That WWI would lead one to communism, seems like a non sequitur, but he never explains it in a way that made me understand why he became a communist. Maybe this was written in a time when people inherently understood why a person would want to be a communist, but I don’t get it.

Chambers also comes across as a really annoying fence straddler. After he denounced communism, he became a Quaker and passivity became a fundamental part of what he stood for. So when it came time to testify, he wanted to warn the government that communists had infiltrated the federal government, but he didn’t want anyone to get in trouble (he just wanted them to be fired). In his mind, he stopped being a communist on his own and was able to seek redemption. He thought others should have a shot at their own redemption as well. In some ways this is admirable, but it also drove me crazy. Instead of giving all the evidence right away, he only gave what he thought was enough to make the committee believe his story. He comes across as childly naive and in my mind, this strategy is a big part of the reason many people didn’t believe his testimony. There were multiple times in the book where I couldn’t help but think that if I knew him, I would have slapped him. This was all made worse by a pretty serious and annoying (and probably warranted) persecution complex.

The most compelling part of the book was his testimony in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee and at trial of Alger Hiss. In my opinion, he should have written the whole book from the perspective of the Hiss trials, and flashed back to various important things from his past when necessary. To anyone looking to read the book, but maybe not particularly interested in reading 800 pages, I would skip to the Hiss trial.

I could go on and on about the political implications of this book and the parallels to today where we have one party accusing the other of being under Russian influence. I would rather not political, though. In terms of whether or not Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy, I would guess he was. Chambers knew Hiss, even though Hiss at first denied this fact. This was corroborated by other witnesses during the second trial (the first trial ended in a hung jury).

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would deny (and some still do) that Hiss was a spy. It comes down to politics and I won’t get too specific (and the book only rarely discusses partisan politics), but basically, Republicans thought that the Democratic Party had essentially been infiltrated by the USSR and Democrats thought Republicans were just desperate to get back in the White House after losing four straight presidential elections (1948 would be the fifth straight loss).

One political point I will make: I am sure Putin tried to hack this election. He wants to return Russia to its glory days. There was a time where the various Russian spy apparatus was hugely influential within the American government. Chambers himself says spying was a secondary goal. The main goal was to get into positions of power and set policy. I don’t think Russia has half the influence it once did within the American bureaucracy, but it shouldn’t surprise us that he would want to.

The story behind Witness is better than the book. The story could be an HBO mini-series. There was lots of info about early communist activities that I was previously unaware of, including the fact that the Great Purge included assassinations of Trotskyists inside the US. I give this book three stars. It is just too long and I imagine that there are much better books on the subject now (this book was originally published in 1952). The only people I would recommend this book to are people who are obsessed with the subject and desire the first hand account of Whittaker Chambers.
568 reviews
December 14, 2009
Suprisingly good book. The memoir of a former communist who breaks with the party and exposes Alger Hiss in trials that fuel the rise of Richard Nixon. Who knew that he was such a good writer. This book is said to have changed Ronald Reagon's life and was once thought of as a bible for conservatives.

Chambers is plagued by guilt and resentment. He hated his father and blamed his miserable family life in Lynbrook Long Island for his brother's dissipation and suicide. He claims that after world war one communism offered hope and had enormous appeal because the bourgoise democracies appeared to be morally bankrupt and ineffectual. Chambers became a communist and entered the underground in the mid 1920's and broke with the party after the purges by Stalin convinced him that it was an evil system. He went to the government to name names and expose communism in he late 30's but he was ignored. Ten years later, he was called before the House committee on Unamerican Activities. The country was ready for his story that many young intellectuals had entered the party and risen to infiltrate the government. His prime example was Alger Hiss who had been a golden boy. Harvard law school, clerk for a supreme court justice, various positions in the Roosevelt administration, part of the US delegation at Yalta, instrumental in the formation of the United Nations and the time of the accusations of Chambers, was president of the Carnegie foundation for peace.

Much of what Chambers said about the evils of communism was prescient. And it appears almost certain that Hiss was a communist and a spy. However, Chambers ushered in a hysteria which destroyed many lives. Chambers was indeed the witness but also the executioner. He also vastly exaggerated the red threat. He was, of course, the darling of the right wing.

But the book is more than a political diatribe. Chalmers depiction of his early life is captivating, he captures the paranoia of the party in the 30's but also his love for his wife and his small farm in Westminster Md. where he famously hid incriminating microfilm in a pumpkin. It is also fun to read about him walking about with communist spies past the Uptown theatre just a mile from my house.

This is a man who settles scores.

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