Witness is the best autobiography I've ever read. It details the fascinating life of Whittaker Chambers, and the monumentally important Hiss-Chambers case. It is also first-rate prose. What made Chambers's life so compelling? Two things: courage and redemption. Courage is the greatest of the virtues, because without it all the other virtues are merely pleasant thoughts that melt away at the first sign of adversity. Chambers needed that courage, because his devotion to the cause he would later repudiate, placed him in extreme danger. In the first half of the 20th century, the Soviet handlers of the Communist underground dealt with defectors by killing them and anyone who assisted them. Starting in 1937, Chambers assisted numerous communists to escape from this network, and he in turn fled with his family in 1938. Chambers compounded the danger to himself by approaching each of his Washington sources, and pleading with them to also break ties with Communism and stop performing espionage. Chambers was no Saint. He was probably bisexual (implying unfaithfulness to his devoted wife), he spied for a foreign government, and his communist duties required him to regularly practice deception. Nonetheless, his courage allowed him to reject communism and seek redemption when its evil nature became apparent to him. At the age of 36 he started his life over; he renewed his faith in God, he used his position at Time magazine to relentlessly warn of the dangers of communism, and he risked everything (disclosure of his past, a civil libel suit, his job and professional reputation/relationships) to prove that the highly-placed State Department official Alger Hiss was a Communist spy. The Hiss case was pivotal in warning the nation that communist spies were present at the highest levels of American policy-making. Hiss was a key figure at Yalta and Bretton Woods and other globe-shaping events, that rewarded the Soviets with more power than they had won during the war. Most Americans of my generation are unaware that prior to McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee was performing a genuine service for America, and removed numerous actual Communists from positions of influence. Hiss's conviction against the "immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts" is a testament to the greatness of this country, and this victory could not have been won without the undaunted courage of Whittaker Chambers. I cannot conclude this review without attempting to describe the pleasure I received from reading each line of Chambers's prose. Every human is born with the ability to think, to feel, and to recognize or remember.....so is every animal. What separates humans from animals is an immortal soul. The immortal soul is what links humans with one another through the barriers of culture and time. This linkage is possible through a piece of God's eternity. This eternity allows for an accumulation of the shared conscience of man, and serves to help
Tremendously moving, quiet, unaffected writing
Published by Thriftbooks.com User , 15 years ago
I would rate this work among the greatest I have ever read, particularly as autobiography. With all politics aside, Chambers illuminates the human condition and the redemptive power of suffering in a deeply moving way. The plot is very engaging, the detail exhaustive. He had the full force of the Truman administration, the Communist underground and Party, and the mainstream press all bearing down on him to destroy and discredit him (all proven wrong in later years if you were blind to the clear truth then). As a battle between good and evil, truth and manipulation, this book is unmatched. If you want fatuous, insensitive manipulation of the truth and proof that the forces Chambers warned against are very much with us today, look no further than the one-star (non)review that precedes this one. Appalling. That's an unsophisticated example of the nonsense he dealt with in life. This book will, quite simply, add to your life; Chambers' unique voice, unmatched in credibility, speaks for itself, as you will see. And as I have begun to do, you will want to seek out his other work. I am as yet a non-believer (religiously speaking) and am moved to say, "may God rest his soul."
one more piece to the political puzzle
Published by Thriftbooks.com User , 16 years ago
I taught high-school history for a few years before switching to math then switching to a new career. I remember teaching about the Hiss-Chambers case, but could never remember who was who and like a sensationalist journalist, mostly just concentrated on the story of the microfilm Chambers had hidden in his pumpkin. I'm glad I finally got around to reading the story, and will briefly share my impression here. Firstly, Chambers was an excellent writer. The book flows well, is hard to put down, and Chambers led a fairly interesting life. Probably the least interesting was his time as a spy, and the second least interesting was the case itself. The second thing I found impressive, and indeed the pivot on which the book turned, was the account of his metamorphisis from ardent communist true-believer to ardent anti-communist. From godless to God-filled is how one might sum it up, but the changes were subtle, and often described in a kind of echo. "I heard someone screaming in the night"- sums it up figuratively if not literally for him, knowing that the screams were due to the grinding of a soul under the gears of the communist-soviet machinery. Thirdly the book has a quiet humor mixed in with the tragic melancholy of Chamber's ironic life. It's not laugh-out-loud funny by any stretch, no one has any hilarious Stalin anecdotes or anything, but the humor is there, and it provides an undercurrent to carry the reader through the drier places until the end. Finally I was amazed at the similarity with the left-right struggle of today. I know every generation thinks their's is the most or best or worst- fill in the blank, but I really did think that the secular,liberal, pseudo-intellectual left and the conservative, religious, family-oriented right were relatively new camps, at least in the sharp focus they are in today. I knew that the "silent majority" had been around for a while, and that many of the fellow-travelers would by definition have strong leftist notions, but I'd forgotten just how powerful a sentiment that was in the depression/war era, and just how similar the struggle is to today. The Chambers/Hiss case was and is a metaphor for that struggle, and the story of one man and his stand to be a witness for Christ and good and to expose evil is a must read for today.
A hero for any age
Published by Thriftbooks.com User , 16 years ago
Nearly unknown today, this extraordinary book deserves to be a classic. A gifted writer, Chambers soars whether discussing the world crisis that led him to Communism, his life underground, the trials of the establishment turning against him, and the religious faith that saw him through. Chambers emerges as a profoundly conscience-driven man, one whose human feelings kept him ever so slightly out of step with Communism as a party member, and which caused him repeatedly to consider the humanity of former comrades he ended up having to attack in trying to save his nation. Whittaker Chambers joined the American Communist Party in the 1920s. He was then recruited into the separate Soviet-run Communist underground. He helped form a secret ring of Communists among New Deal officials who then spied on their own country, passing documents to the Soviets. Chambers led the ring for about three years before his growing disillusion with Communism led him to risk his life by breaking with the party in 1937, at the height of Stalin's purges. He grew personally close to Alger Hiss, a New Deal lawyer with sterling credentials - including Harvard Law and working as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hiss served in the Agriculture, State and Justice departments and later became president of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. He helped create the United Nations and advised Roosevelt at Yalta, where the ailing president ceded Eastern Europe to the Soviets, condemning it to half a century of Communist domination. Chambers' break with the party, and his later focus on Hiss in his accusations, is made poignant by the intensity of his friendship with Hiss. Hiss's supporters defended him for decades. Conservatives, meanwhile, raised troubling questions about not only the UN and Yalta but about the nation's China policy leading up to the Communist takeover in 1949. They were labelled paranoid as a result. But decrypts of Soviet wartime cables called the Venona Files, kept secret until the 1990s, strongly suggested the guilt of Hiss and other officials suspected during the McCarthy era. Chambers in 1939 told a high-ranking State Department official what he knew, but nothing was done. He went to work for Time magazine, becoming a star editor. In 1948, the House Un-American Activities Committee, spurred on by a young Richard Nixon, began hearings with Chambers as the main witness that Hiss had secretly been a Communist. The affair went on for nearly two years, including two trials of Hiss for perjury, ending in Hiss's conviction and three years in prison. Hiss also sued Chambers for slander, and a grand jury investigated Chambers' espionage charges. Another highly placed spy was Harry Dexter White, an assistant to FDR's treasury secretary. Long under suspicion, White died before being prosecuted. The affair saw dramatic twists and turns including Chambers' sensational production of long-hidden documents in Hiss's handwriting or typed on his t
An Important Piece Of American History
Published by Thriftbooks.com User , 17 years ago
It is sad but true that a large portion of young Americans--even many with college degrees--probably have no idea who Whitaker Chambers was. Indeed, numerous conservatives likely know the name only as belonging to someone who was anti-communist but would be unable to provide more than vague generalities on his life and accomplishments. Ann Coulter helped rectify this unfortunate development last year with the publication of her mega-bestseller "Slander". Her trenchant exploration of twentieth century communism and the unbridled invective hurled against those who dared to oppose the murderous ideology introduced Chambers to a whole new generation. In interviews she has often stated that his autobiography Witness is one of the absolute-must reads for conservatives and an important title for all students of American history.As someone whose knowledge of Alger Hiss' nemesis was lacking, I decide to follow the sapient blonde's advice and picked up a copy of the 800-page memoir. I now second Miss Coulter's call; Witness is a moving and educational read. The extent to which communists infiltrated the United States Government in pre-World War days is frightening both in its scope and in the fact that today few Americans appreciate just how serious actual security breaches were. Chambers was well-qualified to address the magnitude of the red threat because for more than a decade he was a part of the menace. As a committed fellow traveler, he hobnobbed in all the right (left?) circles. So powerful was the communist structure within our nation that when he eventually grew disillusioned and abandoned the atheistic dead end, he firmly believed that he was "leaving the wining world for the losing world." Among the most striking features of the communist organization he exposed was its massive bureaucratic nature. Within the clandestine cabal there was an "underground" so completely sequestered from the regular communists that few committed adherents knew who was who in the parallel penumbras. Additionally, the labyrinthine steps taken to maintain secrecy are almost laughable. Chambers' talks about never learning addresses to places he regularly visited for years; rather he knew to get there by landmarks and neighborhoods. This was a precaution in case of capture--unknown information could not be provided to the authorities. Furthermore, Chambers relates cumbersome machinations for all his assignments; yet his endeavors to deliver "plans" or meet ever-changing, ephemeral "contacts" seem like little more than wheel-spinning busy work. It is no wonder that conspiracy theories abound among modern day leftists--the direct descendants of the very group that perfected the art. Many of Chambers' observations are as suitable to the early 21st century as they were in the 1940s. A cavalier attitude toward abortion permeated communists. As soon as his first child was conceived Chambers and his wife readily conceded that abortion was their only option, bu
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