Whittaker Chambers: Witness


Chambers, Whittaker. Witness (New York: Random House, 1952)

I've previously commented on the foreword to Whittaker Chamber's famous (or infamous, if you prefer) autobiography Witness. Susan Jacoby's Alger Hiss and the Battle for History prompted me to look deeper into the Hiss/Chambers case that epitomized the mid-century Red Scare, and Witness was at the top of the stack.

Witness is much more than a recollection of the Hiss/Chambers case--it is an autobiography of exceeding interest despite its sometimes-excessive detail. Various formative traumas in Chambers' early life (his parents' painful relationship, the suicide of his brother, the death of his father, and his disturbed grandmother) help to illuminate his character, but the mind-numbing minutiae of his Communist Party intrigues make me feel as if this 800-page book could be shorter by half without omitting anything of importance.

His writing is frequently praised--and justly so--although Chambers does not demonstrate much capacity for editing his own work. He describes at length a post-HS stint at manual labor on the railroads, an aborted education of Columbia, and his life as a Communist. His employment at the communist newspapers Daily Worker and New Masses led to him spending several years underground. The narrative then slows to a crawl as Chambers recounts the endless pseudonyms and deceptions en route to his membership in the Ware Group--where he met Alger Hiss, a rising star in the State Department.

Interestingly, Chambers concluded that the information allegedly provided by Hiss and others in the Ware Group was worthless:

I concluded that political espionage was a magnificent waste of time and effort--not because the sources were holding back; they were pathetically eager to help--but because the secrets of foreign offices are notoriously overrated. There was little about political espionage, it seemed to me, that an intelligent man, who knew the forces, factors and general direction of history in our time, could not arrive at by using political imagination, backed by a careful study of the available legitimate facts. (p. 426)

Disillusioned by Stalin's Great Purge and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, Chambers eventually broke with the Communist Party. In Witness, Chambers calls the Communist Party "a terrorist organization," (pp. 65-66) writes that Communism is "absolutely evil," (p. 79) and opines that, through Stalin, "it found its supremely logical manifestation:"

The important point was not the character of Stalin, but the character of Communism, which, with an intuitive grasp that was at once the source of his strength and his mandate to power, Stalin was carrying to its inevitable development as the greatest of fascist forms. (pp. 248-249)

When a comrade suggested that the Kronstadt Rebellion changed Soviet communism "from benevolent socialism to malignant fascism," Chambers continued to conflate Communism and Fascism:

The fascist character of Communism was inherent in it from the beginning. Kronstadt changed the fate of millions of Russians. It changed nothing about Communism. It merely disclosed its character. (p. 460)

He did the same thing in "The Revolt of the Intellectuals," writing that "Lenin was the first fascist" and that the communists were "the party from which the Nazis had borrowed all their important methods and ideas." His ideological ire in Witness crescendoed from a claim that "Communism exists to wage war" (p. 454) to this climax:

Americans...are at grips with a secret, sinister and enormously powerful force whose tireless purpose is their enslavement. (p. 542)

At the time in question, however (September 1936 to April 1938, p. 441), the Americans and Soviets were not enemies. In fact, we've never waged war against Russia, except when we assisted an invasion of their country during their civil war. (I'm guessing that not many Americans know about that...)

Amid some irrelevant details (the make and model of his farm equipment; the breeds of his cattle, pigs, and sheep; which grains he planted on each of his three farms) the latter half of the book is of more consistent interest. The transcripts of his testimony--and that of Alger Hiss--are well selected, illuminating both history and its actors. Chambers' professed reticence at destroying Hiss' reputation (although Hiss did pretty well on that score all by himself) surprised me:

I could not separate the acts that I had felt that I must perform from my repugnance at having to perform them. What I had done I had done from a necessity that I could not evade, and I had done it most reluctantly. (p. 773)

The famed Case is what engenders Chambers' profoundest insights, and his deepest indignations:

Sooner or later in this book, I must unavoidably take note of the slanders which at one time or another, as best suited their purposes, the Hiss forces have spread about my relations with every member of the Hiss household. Those slanders were part of an international whispering campaign, probably originated and spread by the Communist Party and made deafening by certain commentators and public figures. (p. 374)

It takes him three hundred more pages to return to the subject, writing that "the charge of insanity, and the whispering campaign that was linked to it, was the heart of the Hiss defense." (p. 690) Later, Chambers writes:

It was late in the Hiss case before any friend summoned the courage to tell me the slander in which the Hiss partisans had involved me with my brother--a story so inconceivable that it seemed to me that only a mind deformed by something more than malevolence could have erected it. I said only to the woman who told me: "What kind of beasts am I dealing with?" The fact that men and women could be found to credit and spread a lie so disgusting and so cruel remains the measure of the Hiss defense and the pro-Hiss psychosis. (p. 733)

To what slander is Chambers referring? Negligence? Murder? Incest? He doesn't say. His lifelong habits of evasion and omission appear to have rendered a full and complete accounting of these details beyond his ability. I had wondered previously if the talk of "slanders" was about to lead into a discussion of Chambers' sexuality--but I was wrong. The jacket flap's claim that "In this book you meet a man who does not hesitate to bear witness first of all against himself, disclosing facts that men commonly conceal" falls short in one area: Chambers' bisexuality. He mentions molestation once:

In the boarding house, there was a good deal of drinking, and I could not help but overhear, and hear about, things that cannot be mentioned. But nobody ever molested me. (p. 157)

and homosexuality once,

...under the fiction of unity, the factions fought fiercely and shamelessly. Each sought to gain control by any means of the party press and al the units of the party organization. Each circulated secret mimeographed attacks on the other or promoted scandals whispering campaigns, in which embezzlement of party money, homosexuality and stool pigeon were the preferred whispers. (p. 206)

but otherwise leaves the subject untouched despite its clear relevance to his life. One wonders if, in an era less consumed with the closet, Chambers would have been an openly gay man--perhaps even a member of the Log Cabin Republicans--or whether his religious fervor would have prevented such an honest course of action. The religiosity that made the Foreword such a chore to read is almost absent from the body of the book, except for a few paeans to Quakerism and some passages like this:

"...the conflict between the two great camps of men--those who reject and those who worship God--becomes irrepressible." (p. 449)

"I could never be a complete man without God." (p. 489)

Other remarks like "...all men simply pray" (p. 446) and "In the end, the only memorable stories, like the only memorable experiences, are religious and moral." (p. 450) assume that his personal desire for religion is a universal need.

Despite its faults, Witness is still an important book. One doesn't have to be a rabid wingnut to appreciate the first-hand account of a major actor in twentieth-century America--even accounting for the text's biases and omissions. This book demanded a substantial amount of supplemental reading, of which the following is a selection:

Alger Hiss (Wikipedia, Conservapedia)
Whittaker Chambers (Wikipedia, Conservapedia)

(Due to many errors stemming from a severe ideological bias, Conservapedia should not be used as a reference source. For example, their claims that Hiss "fabricated stories about Chambers having homosexual experiences" and that Chambers "was sent to Moscow for intelligence training" are easily disprovable. I link to the site both as an indication of the wingnut antipathy for factual accuracy and their homophobic denialism.)

Daniel Mahoney's "Whittaker Chambers: Witness to the Crisis of the Modern Soul" (Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2002) is largely split between discussions of the Foreword (about which I've already written) and Chambers' fragmentary book Cold Friday (which I have yet to read). I'm intrigued by his assertion that "it is the duty of keep pointing out why the Enlightenment and its faults were a wrong turning point in man's history," as that offers an insight into his apocalyptic religiosity.

The Alger Hiss Story

personal reminiscences:
Ralph de Toledano "I Witness" (American Conservative, 14 February 2005)
William Buckley "Witness and Friends" (National Review, 6 August 2001)

contemporary reviews:
Saturday Review called Witness "one of the longest works of fiction of the year," and Time quoted from a number of equally harsh assessments.

Chambers' gay liaisons:
There's a summary of the Hiss/Chambers case at GLBTQ, and UK's Out magazine reprinted an AP article asking if Hiss was the "Victim of Unrequited Gay Love." The AP piece quotes Alger Hiss' stepson Timothy Hobson as suggesting that Chambers' romantic inclinations may have influenced the case:

"It is my conviction that he was in love with Alger Hiss, that he was rejected by Alger Hiss and he took that rejection in a vindictive way."

The Villager mentions a "gay debate" at NYU's "Alger Hiss and History" conference, which led me to the Timothy Naftali paper "Alger Hiss and the Chambers' Secrets." The Naftali transcription misidentifies Chambers' youthful paramour Bub Bang as "Bumps Baine," illustrating one kind of stumbling block for online researchers that depend on correct spelling.


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