The Catholic Thing
"Witness" at Sixty Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 26 May 2012

There are many political testimonies that touch on matters of faith, and many spiritual testimonies that refer to politics. Much more rare is a book that blends both in an integrated, coherent, and profound way. 

Last year, an insightful priest suggested that I read Witness by Whittaker Chambers. It is a long tome, but it richly rewards anyone who takes the time. Sixty years after its publication, and over two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, its context – pre-World War II communist efforts to gain a foothold in the United States, and the beginnings of the post-war superpower contest – can seem ancient history. 

But no book in the last 100 years has more direct relevance to our politics and the spiritual struggles of living in a materialist, secular moment. Witness tells of Chambers’ turn to communism and his activities – including espionage – to advance that cause, followed by growing doubts that parallel and intertwine with a budding spiritual awareness (culminating in his faith as a Quaker). Finally, he escapes from communism, and labors to alert a complacent America to the dangers it faced from within.

Chambers came from what would now be called a dysfunctional family, one outcome of which was his brother’s suicide, and, much later, his own suicide attempt. His Marxism was not merely a youthful or academic digression into a misguided movement. He worked hard for years as a dedicated communist. He lied under oath during the investigation of the charges he lodged against Alger Hiss, a darling of the Washington establishment. By his own account, he was a deeply flawed man who haltingly received the grace to proceed, one short step at a time.

But after the long public battle that convicted his friend-turned-nemesis Hiss (who, despite protesting his innocence until his death, now seems clearly to have been a communist spy), Chambers understood that – either despite or because of his manifold weaknesses – he had a critical role to play in history.

Chambers recalls that he was originally drawn to communism for its two main promises, change and hope: 

The tie that binds [communists] across the frontiers of nations, across barriers of language and differences of class and education, in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weaknesses of the body, and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world. . . .It is the same power that moves mountains; it is also an unfailing power to move men. It is not new. . . .Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” [It is] the vision of Man without God.

     Whittaker Chambers

He continues: “[Communism] had one ultimate appeal. In place of desperation, it set the word: hope. . . .In the twentieth century, it seemed impossible to have hope on any other terms.”

Observing an interwar world that was “without faith, hope, [or] character,” Chambers embraced the change and hope offered by communism as a “choice against death and for life.” But in subsequent years, he cast off “the whole web of the materialist modern mind. . .paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of [man’s soul] for God.” He realized that in choosing secular statism and collectivism for ostensibly virtuous and noble reasons, he had chosen the very thing whose essential nihilism made virtue and human dignity impossible.

Chambers argues that a “man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something. A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.” 

That’s one reason he became a powerful witness against all forms of materialism, in favor of God and life, of the nature and value of the human person. He witnessed, not through political participation in the usual channels (though he does vote), but by denouncing the inhuman political system spawned by Marxism and then testifying against an existential threat to the best of what American political institutions once represented. 

When Chambers decided to break from communism, he believed he was joining the losing side. While he shared much of the philosophy of American conservatives, he did not join in their sometimes sunny optimism. His viewed the West as in decline, though he believed strongly in the underlying truths of Western beliefs and ideas. Those truths are ultimately the source and object of his witness, of what made that witness right regardless of the odds against its success.

In the end, although he made both his living and his lasting contributions through writing and editing, his great loves were his faith, his family, and the labor and land of his farm. He maintained a great trust in the American people – most of them – despite his skepticism about what American institutions and elites had become.

Witness contains a lot of historical detail, which many readers will find excessive or distracting. But those details were essential to documenting the truth of Chambers’ testimony in the Hiss case and to explain the seriousness of the communist threat. They give today’s reader a concrete sense of the reality Chambers faced.

The book is also filled with moving passages about Chambers’ Christian transformation and with incisive commentary on America, the West, and the modern mind. It remains a challenge to us, in a time when daring witness to the truth is as important as ever.

Joseph R. Wood
is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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written by Don, May 26, 2012
I read that book about 40 years ago. It was an amazing story. Reading Alger Hiss's words and his many defenders at the time I became convinced that Chambers was telling the truth. His conversion to Christianity was remarkable. He began writing for William Buckley at National Review after the launch of that magazine. He wrote the scathing review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged which I recommend to anyone reading that book for the first time who might feel the pull of libertarianism.

Thanks Mr. Wood for the article. I'll revisit that book myself this summer. It seems appropriate in our current world.
written by Other Joe, May 26, 2012
I am trying to remain silent, but am easily provoked - because I am not well advanced in the practice of my faith. It would be a shame if this web experience became just another political soapbox faceoff, so let us ignore the bent narrative of Manfred that leaves out more context than it includes to arrive at wrong (provably so) conclusions about economic matters and their consequences. Please allow me to attempt to nudge the conversation back to the morality of communism. It is self-evident that a majority of intellectuals in the 1930s were drawn toward materialistic philosophies. As Mr. Wood noted, the attractions of materialism flow from a man-centered worldview. Take a bite and you will be as God. Communism was not a reaction to economic turndown. It was a reaction to what was perceived as the death of God and the ascendance of Natural Selection. Its proponents (and they are still legion) described themselves as scientific. If one was “in the know”, one was godlike, elite, in the vanguard. Mr. Chambers broke with the intellectual fashion simultaneously with a new appreciation of God. The two are connected. Rhetoric aside, one cannot be a communist Catholic except in name only. One cannot be a pro-choice Catholic. There are many who call themselves Catholic who believe in all sorts of things. They are due for an awakening in the manner of Mr. Chambers. I hope they get it.
written by John Hinshaw, May 26, 2012
And he listed, as one of his first doubts of the communist cause, the arival of and the subsequent plans for the abortion of, his first child. Thus does the cause of life further the ends of liberty. I have been to his brother's gravesite (it is not far from my home) and the home they grew up in still stands. Due to the marginalization of Christianity in the 20th century, the depiction of idologies as the only repositories of hope nearly destroyed the world. This must always be borne in mind when pondering why the Church called for a General Council when it did.
written by Thomas C. Coleman< jr., May 26, 2012
Thank tyou, Mr. Wood. Adn thabnk you Joe for showing that the questions that Chambers raises are NOT merely connected to any era or set of politics by DO go back to Eden and will be with us as log as men make of themselves gods and embrace the supersitions of materialism, solcialism, and so-called free love. marxism took root among the intellectuals of industrialized Europe and Asia before the collapse of the 1930s. It has its roots in Europe before Marx hinmsefl was born. In the hubris of men intoxicated by scientific notion that they imagined made them gods. Every pastor, bishop, and theology professor should be warning people about the consequences of of the folly of man believing in his own sufficiency. Thanks again.
written by Manfred, May 27, 2012
@Other Joe: Before you libel me or anyone on this site, answer this very important question: How did the United States, with a small Army and a 33% unemployment rate in 1938, become THE world economic and military superpower with a 3% unemployment rate just seven years later, in 1945? How did it sustain that position for the next fifty years? Do you think that very intelligent political and business leaders had anything to do with it, or was it all an "accident"?
written by Thomas C. Coleman< jr., May 27, 2012
Dear Brother Manfred: I have enjoyed and agreed with some of your other posts. If I disagree with with something that you write, or even suggest that an idea that you express might have origins that you might not have suspected, I am not libeling you. It is hihgly improbable that the littel goalie in my own mind has not let a few shots slip through. IN the case you cited, please consider that the simplest explanation might be the most accurate. That is, at that end of WWII, becuase our nation was not directly hit and devisagted like the other belligerants, we were left in a situation that not only allowed us to prosper but to lead the ongoing fight agsint tyranny. One of the main belligerants, namely the Soviet Union, soon showed that it was not sick of aggression and violecen. Please remember that after trying to keep the US out of the war in Europe ude to the Soviet-Nazi Alliacne, the Reds began to agitate for our entry. Thaqt war once over, Satlin resumed his efforts at globalo domination and that God we were left intact to fence him and Mao and Kim Il-dong in. This is not really waht Witness is about. I want people to read it so that they will know what the true horigins of totaltarian evil are, and yes, it all goes Back to Genesis 3!
written by Other Joe, May 28, 2012
Dear Brother Manfred, I had promised myself not to be further drawn in to pointless conflict, but I will do you the honor of adding to what Mr. Coleman has noted above in answer to your question. Were you aware that in the early 1950s Cuba had the eighth largest economy in the world? It was not because she was a manufacturing giant, it was because of the damage done to the European and Asian manufacturing centers by the war, which the US escaped. Another driver of economic growth in the US was the dramatic development in technology resulting from the desperation programs of warring nations. Man entered the war with mounted cavalry still in the field and came out only six years later with RADAR, rockets, computers, jets, atomic devices, and a new philosophy in mass manufacturing and quality control. The US had the intact factories and organizations to exploit the new techniques. Once the war ended, the new techniques were used to transform the manufacture and delivery of consumer goods. Throughout history, civilizations rise to meet challenge and are enervated by general ease. Fat, dumb and happy leads fairly quickly to just fat and dumb. My greater problem with your characterization was that you seem to know the mind of President Roosevelt. You lay bare for us here his deepest motivations. You stated that his purpose in cutting off oil to the Japanese was to induce them to attack us. I don't have the powers to know another's mind, but I would suggest to you that one of his many motives might well have been to provide economic sanctions to stop the Japanese from continuing to run amuck in China, one of our allies. The barbarism and racism of their military and the use of thought police was evil in the same class with the European dictators. The economic sanctions worked about as well as sanctions seem to work today. If you only look at the dark side, you will only see the darkness.
written by Manfred, May 28, 2012
@Other Joe and Thomas Coleman: Read both my entries above.
a. Do I mention President Roosevelt? NO. Then why do you charge me with reading his mind?
b. The Japanese treated China brutally? Then why did the U.S. gov't allow Japan to assume KOREA as a colony in 1910, knowing the reputation of the Japanese even then.
c. All the technological advancement which occurred as a result of the War. Wasn't that the whole point? Business and the American public reaped those benefits to this day.
d. AMERICA NEVER HAD TO ENTER THE WAR. NEITHER GERMANY, JAPAN or ITALY could invade us AND THEY HAD NO INTEREST IN DOING SO. The AMERICA FIRST movement did not want us to enter the war. One of its leaders was Charles Lindbergh who, by his flight to Paris in 1927, had become an American hero.
e. The American leadership knew the Japanese propensity for sneak attacks, as they had marvelled at the Japanese attack which had sunk the entire Russian fleet in 1905. Pearl Harbor united the American public just as the American leaders knew it would.
f. This Yankee ingenuity was not just for domestic use. Why do you think Britain gave up its colonies by 1950? That was to repay the U.S. who demanded it so American business could exploit(?) formerly British markets after the War. Our first assistance was fifty obsolete American destroyers.
Fellows, it has been nice chatting. May I suggest a regimen of serious reading to both of you?
written by Thomas C. Coleman, jr., May 28, 2012
@Manfred: In re para b. Ath the time that Japan annexed Korea in 1910, Japan had not yet infaded China nad demonstrated its disregard for the value of human life. Another practical reason for US betryal of korea, with with it had a mutual amity treaty, is that the US simply did not have the wherewithall to stop Japan. We had made a secret agreement with Japan after the Russo-Japanese War according to which the US would recognize the primacy of Janapese interests in Korea nad Manchuirs in return for Japan recognizing US interests in the Philipines. Treachorous perhpas, but it was the best the US could do.
In re para d: Wagering that the the voracious apetites for conquest of GErmany and Japan would end thier the shores of thier respective continets was a bet that the US woulod ot take, any more than the UK shold have taken the wager that Nazis would stop with Austria, the Sudetnalnad and half of Poland. Moreover, by the time that WWII was is full destructive madness, the captiols of the west knew that the Axis Powers were nearing the develpment of both atomic weapons and delivery systems. It is lovely to think that the US could have reamined neutral for a few years, but eventually we would not have had a choice.
As to serious reading, well, it might be helpful if you name some authors and titles. Is it really serious to to imagine that the only serious boks are the onee that support one's own views?
written by Matthew M, May 29, 2012
So, I read the excellent article, and then noted the exchange in the comments. Nutty troll, skim skim skim, ending with Manfred's suggestion of a "regimen of serious reading to both of you". Goodness, I needed a laugh at the end of this long day! Thank you, Manfred.

Don - I'll second your remark about Chambers' review of Atlas Shrugged. It's an absolutely delicious read. There's no accounting for taste, as they say, but I serious question the judgment of anybody who can make it through Rand's novel and still take her seriously as a philosopher or novelist.
written by David Chambers, May 29, 2012
Mr. Wood,

Many thanks for your insightful, broad-sighted review Whittaker Chambers' memoir Witness.

David Chambers
written by F.R. Duplantier, May 31, 2012
In the introduction to Witness, the autobiographical account of his personal repudiation of Communism, Whittaker Chambers told the story of a German diplomat in Moscow whose sympathy for the Soviets turned suddenly sour simply because "one night he heard screams." Most Communists -- and fellow travelers -- learn to live with those screams; but, for some, they are a catalyst to conversion.

"What Communist has not heard those screams?" asked Chambers. "They come from husbands torn forever from their wives in midnight arrests. They come, muffled, from the execution cellars of the secret police, from the torture chambers . . . from all the citadels of terror. . . . They come from those freight cars loaded with men, women, and children, the enemies of the Communist State, locked in, packed in, left on remote sidings to freeze to death at night in the Russian winter. They come from minds driven mad by the horrors of mass starvation ordered and enforced as a policy of the Communist State. They come from the starved skeletons, worked to death, or flogged to death (as an example to others) in the freezing filth of sub-arctic labor camps. They come from children whose parents are suddenly, inexplicably, taken away from them -- parents they will never see again."

Communism is "man's second oldest faith," Chambers affirmed. "Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: 'Ye shall be as gods.' It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision." According to Chambers, "The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God. It is the vision of man's mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man's liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man's destiny and reorganizing man's life and the world."

Most Communists have "accepted the fact that Terror is an instrument of policy, right if the vision is right, justified by history, enjoined by the balance of forces in the social wars of this century," said Chambers. What happens to the convert from Communism is that one day he "really hears those screams."

The Communist can hear those screams, if he listens, "because in the end there persists in every man, however he may deny it, a scrap of soul," Chambers declared. "If he does not instantly stifle that scrap of soul, he is lost [to the Communist cause]. If he admits it for a moment, he has admitted that there is something greater than the [Communist] vision. If the party senses his weakness -- and the party is peculiarly cunning at sensing such weakness-- it will humiliate him, degrade him, condemn him, expel him. If it can, it will destroy him." It reacts so violently, said Chambers, because the vision of the Communist Party, the vision of all socialists, "the vision of Almighty Man," cannot accommodate "the fact of God."

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