Monday, May 25, 2009

Whittaker Chamber's "Witness"

A few weeks ago, I finished Witness by Whittaker Chambers—part auto-biography and part warning about the spiritual and material perils of Communism (and Statism). The book is seen as one of the great “conservative” books of the 20th Century and is credited with converting many (including Ronald Reagan) from various forms of liberalism to various forms of conservatism.

Chambers spends a lot of time on his own story with respect to Communism—both his attraction and eventually his revulsion to it. But the narrative centers around the legal trial of Alger Hiss—and the related personal trial of Chambers as his accuser.

It is a long book (about 800 pages in my 1978 Regnery Gateway edition), but it was relatively easy to read. It was quite compelling in parts—especially as he moves into the trial. Perhaps most interesting, like Al Capone and (ironically) one of his chief antagonists, Richard Nixon, Hiss was tripped up in perjury by little things—lying about an old Ford and a small bird.

My limited understanding of that period has been marked by ignorance—having only studied the period—and the relatively standard ambivalence that people feel toward the anti-communism of the 1950s. There was some good reason to be worried about the USSR and Communism—as a threatening world power and frightening ideology. But “McCarthyism” toward domestic variants is typically seen as an over-reach or even an unnecessary response to the problem.

If Chambers’ accusations are correct, there were grave reasons for concern. For example (p. 427):

"In the persons of Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, the Soviet military intelligence sat close to the heart of the United States Government. It was not yet in the cabinet room, but it was not far outside the door…Hiss became Director of the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs and [Harry Dexter] White had become Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. In a situation with few parallels in history, the agents of an enemy power were in a position to do much more than purloin documents. They were in a position to influence the nation's foreign policy in the interests of the nation's chief enemy, and not only on exceptional occasions like Yalta (where Hiss’ role, while presumably important, is still ill-defined), or through the Morgenthau Plan for the destruction of Germany (which is generally credited to White), but in what must have been the staggering sum of day-to-day decisions. That power to influence policy had always been the ultimate purpose of the Communist Party's infiltration. It was much more dangerous, and, as events have proved, much more difficult to detect, then espionage, which beside it is trivial, though the two go hand in hand."

Chambers thoughts on the New Deal—both what he thought and what he came to believe—are sobering in light of the current administration. Eventually, Chambers grew to see the use of the New Deal—not just as perhaps-appropriate and humane legislation, but as a Communist tool (p. 471-472):

“It is surprising how little I knew about the New Deal, although it had been all around me during my years in Washington. But all the New Dealers I had known were Communists or near-Communists. None of them took the New Deal seriously as an end in itself. They regarded it as an instrument for gaining their own revolutionary ends. I myself thought of the New Deal as a reform movement that, in social and labor legislation, was belatedly bringing the abreast of Britain or Scandinavia. The New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation. It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking.”

I'll blog in three separate posts about 1.) the profound and poignant philosophical aspects of his "witness"; 2.) the connection of Communism to other faiths including Christianity; and 3.) some interesting miscellaneous things from book.


At May 25, 2009 at 9:18 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

"Witness" sounds very interesting. I like what you have put up about Whittaker so far. I will have to add that to my reading list.

Material I am familiar with on the Cold War, often discusses our "overreaction" to the Communist threat, which has lead to some serious abuses of U.S. power especially in Indochina, Latin America where the "Cold War" exacted extremely high flesh and blood casualties (still is), and has been used as a "front" to gain control over the resources of developing nations.

In my opinion, Communism was/is a real threat to our God-given right to "self-determination"/freedom of persons and should be opposed. How do you go about doing that is the question.
I think two big mistakes have been made along the way, as this has evolved through the years:

(1)FEAR - "Preemptive" aggressive military action taken because of FEAR (of Communism) in order to control other governments/people groups. We know acting in fear is never a good idea and causes people/gov to use very bad judgment. This results in the philosophy that the outcome (a govt friendly to our philosophies and economic interests) will be supported and empowered by any means (military dictatorship, if necessary)

(2)WORSHIP (of a false god)- namely our form of government (American Republic/democracy, even the worship of freedom, itself - as much as I believe in it) as being the ultimate answer to everyone's problems. Democracy does not work if all people want to do with their freedom is kill each other.
Jesus Christ is the only ultimate answer to everyone's problems.

In my opinion, the above two errors have lead us WAY overboard as it relates to foreign policy - really intervention in the governments and affairs of others.
Reagan had a hand in this.
Actually, one could make the argument that the USSR self-destructed. All the killing we sponsored in Vietnam, Guatemala, etc, did not do much to help end the Cold War.

At May 26, 2009 at 11:16 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I agree.

For example, if people understood Pape's work, then the "War on Terror" would be understood in a completely different light.

In somewhat of a contrast, the context of Witness is dealing with an internal threat.

At May 26, 2009 at 2:01 PM , Blogger PianoMom said...

An internal threat would need to be "nipped in the bud", so to speak.
I agree that FD Roosevelt really got us going down the wrong path with the inception of all those taxpayer sponsored social programs of the Depression era.

I read somewhere that FDR had to fight the Courts every step of the way to get his "public works"/social security plans approved. We just seem to be giving Obama the green light to proceed in this direction as he is pleased. We seem to be moving toward defined Socialism (healthcare, higher education, for starters) - and Communism? - I can't even think it.

At March 9, 2010 at 10:03 PM , Blogger Rachel said...

Are you referring to Robert Pape, Jr and his book on terrorism?

At March 10, 2010 at 8:11 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Yes. I did a review of the book here (sorry for not providing the link in my comment!):

At March 10, 2010 at 8:12 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Or if the full link does not appear, you can search the blog under Pape and strategic.


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