Wednesday, October 31, 2007


One of the most unforgettable books I've read is Whittaker Chambers's Witness, published in 1952. An early convert to Lenin and Marx, Chambers was a long-time Soviet spy in America who broke with Communism in the late 1930s and in 1948 "identified Alger Hiss, a golden boy of the liberal establishment, as a fellow member of his underground Communist cell." Hiss denied the charge, but the "pumpkin papers" and other documents supported Chambers; ultimately, Hiss was convicted of perjury and given a five-year jail sentence.

As Powerline recounts, "The alleged exculpation of Alger Hiss has long been a cause of the left." Slowly, however, despite a half-century of certainty in far-left academics, the mass of true Hiss believers thinned once the West won the cold war. Today -- apart from small pockets of speculation by lefty author (and former neighbor) Kai Bird and disputed analysis by Dr. John R. Schindler -- most concede a 1945 Soviet cable decrypted at the time but released only in 1996, confirms Hiss was a Soviet agent code-named "Ales." Chambers died in 1961; in 1984, President Reagan honored Chambers with a posthumous Medal of Freedom.

Witness isn't an easy read -- both powerful and powerfully overwrought, in Arthur Schlesinger's view, though Schlesinger also called it one of the greatest of all American autobiographies. It's apocalyptic and characterizes the post-war world as a battle between faith in God and belief in Communism. Chambers himself explained the title in a forward labeled "Letter to my Children":
It was my fate to be in turn a witness to each of the two great faiths of our time. And so we come to the terrible word, Communism. My very dear children, nothing in all these pages will be written so much for you, though it is so unlike anything you would want to read. In nothing shall I be so much a witness, in no way am I so much called upon to fulfill my task, as in trying to make clear to you (and to the world) the true nature of Communism and the source of its power, which was the cause of my ordeal as a man, and remains the historic ordeal of the world in the 20th century. For in this century, within the next decades, will be decided for generations whether all mankind is to become Communist, whether the whole world is to become free, or whether, in the struggle, civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyed or completely changed. It is our fate to live upon that turning point in history.
Witness was enormously influential for conservatives from Reagan to Bill Buckley to Bob Novak. And for me.

What follows is from Witness, Chapter 6, pages 325-27:
“For one of us to have a child,” my brother had said in his agony, “would be a crime against nature.” I longed for children. But I agreed with my brother. There had been enough misery in our time. What selfish right had I to perpetuate it? And what right had any man and woman to bring children into the 20th-century world?. . .

As an underground Communist, I took it for granted that children were out of the question. . . Abortion, which now fills me with physical horror, I then regarded, like all Communists, as a mere physical manipulation.

One day, early in 1933, my wife told me she believed she had conceived. No man can hear from his wife, especially for the first time, that she is carrying his child, without a physical jolt of joy and pride. I felt it. But so sunk were we in that life that it was only a passing joy, and was succeeded by a merely momentary sadness that we would not have the child. We discussed the matter, and my wife said that she must go at once for a physical check and to arrange for the abortion.

When my wife came back. . .she was quiet and noncommittal. The doctor had said there was a child. My wife went about preparing supper. “What else did she say?” I asked. “She said that I am in good physical shape to have a baby.” My wife went on silently working. Very slowly, the truth dawned on me. “Do you mean,” I asked, “that you want to have the child?”

My wife came over to me, took my hands and burst into tears. “Dear heart,” she said in a pleading voice, “we couldn’t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart.” A wild joy swept me. Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the 20th century, crumbled at the touch of the child. Both of us simply wanted a child. If the points on the long course of my break with Communism could be retraced, that is probably one of them—not at the level of the conscious mind, but at the level of unconscious life. . .

[The baby was born on October 16, 1933. Visiting the hospital that morning, Chambers] went into the hall. Through a glass panel, I peered into the antiseptic nursery where . . . [a nurse] pointed out mine. The child had been born long enough to have lost the puckered, red, natal look. Her face was pink, and peaceful. She was sleeping. Her long lashes lay against her cheeks. She was beautiful.

I went back to my wife who was no longer only my wife but also the mother of our child—the child we all yearn for, who, even before her birth, had begun, invisibly, to lead us out of that darkness, which we could not even realize, toward that light, which we could not even see.

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