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
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