August 3, 2013


Exposing evil: 'Witness' has its 60th anniversary (Stephen Smoot, 7/31/2012, Human Events)

The story tortures the mind with the casualness by which intelligent Americans, including Chambers himself for a time, chose to betray their country.  It gives the reader a view through the looking glass of treason.

The dramatic confrontation between Chambers and the system dominates the second half of the book.  By now, a "pudgy, benign, if slightly mysterious editor," Chambers did embrace his Christian faith during his several years at Time magazine.  Although it was a relatively calm period in his life, Chambers was one of Henry Luce's field commanders in the effort starting in 1944 to educate Americans about the evils of Soviet Communism.

Two protagonists dominate this autobiography.  The rumpled and "heavy" Chambers first allies with and befriends Alger Hiss. They work closely together for most of the 1930s.  Then, about ten years later, Chambers named Hiss to a congressional committee as a Soviet spy.

Hiss appeared to be a perfect example of the New Deal Sadducees who filed into the bureaucracy during the Great Depression and rose quickly to influence American policy at crucial periods such as the Yalta Conference.  They expanded the bureaucratic grip on America's economy and society with confident and pleasant public demeanors.  Beneath the Johns Hopkins and Harvard educated, impeccably dressed, smiling visage of Hiss lay a man who continued to betray the secrets of his country even as the United States and the Soviet Union moved closer to conflict.

Chambers' testimony that an entire network of malefactors had metastasized within the Franklin Roosevelt administration came at great personal cost.  Every segment of liberal society rose to demonize him.  Some even issued threats.  Despite the mounting evidence Chambers produced, he could not put the establishment to silence.  They closed their eyes and insisted that his record, which included clearly identifiable handwriting samples, was not true. Even President Truman, who usually derided men like Hiss as "the striped pants boys," denounced him.  Revelations in the 1990s from Soviet records and defectors have affirmed every major detail explained by Chambers.

Towards the end of the book, the double meaning of "witness" overtly intertwines.  Chambers describes his experience testifying in front of Congress and at the Hiss trial, also recording the attacks on him and his reactions.  Then he expands his scope and describes the Christian moral imperative that drives him to expose the truth.  In the Book of Acts, comes the challenge to Saul, later St. Paul, that "for thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard."  But, unlike in Job, there is no material reward at the end of suffering.  St. Paul will only earn imprisonment and execution at the hands of Nero for his witness.  Chambers loses his job, his health, his friends, and nearly is stripped of his beloved farm.

Chambers conceived a gloomy pessimism for the fate of the world, knowing that "God who is a God of Love is also the God of a world that includes the atom bomb and the virus."  Complete faith in the face of personal persecution and complete pessimism over the fate of civitas mundi is what inspired Robert Novak, among others, to work towards choosing a strong Christian faith.  Belief in the Christian underpinning of free society thus became a guiding principle of mid to late 20th century American conservatism.

Posted by at August 3, 2013 7:25 AM

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