Why the “Witness” of Whittaker Chambers Is Still Relevant

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One might wonder why an almost 800-page book written 67 years ago (1952) by an author who died in 1961 would still have any relevance today. The book is Witness by Whittaker Chambers. It is both an autobiography and a “tell-all” book of a complicated life, of espionage, of a notorious court case, and, finally, of a complete conversion. Perhaps the answer lies with the famous phrase attributed to Winston Churchill: “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” There is an entire generation or perhaps two generations of people who have never heard the story and sadly are repeating those errors. At the time of its publication, the book was a New York Times best seller in spite of its forbidding length. This is not another review, as many have already been written, but it intends to be a reminder to the unknowing that the “past is prologue.”

Chambers described himself as “a heavy man,” that is, someone whom most people would rather not be around. Yes, he was “heavy” in the same sense that Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn are “heavy.” So would anyone be deemed as such who was writing about the “tragedy of history”—as Chambers himself describes it. In the “Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children,” he wrote: “At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts.”

Jay Vivian Chambers was born on April 1, 1901—the irony of which most likely did not escape him. The dislike of his given name caused him to change it to his mother’s maiden name of Whittaker. His parents, he, and a younger brother, Richard, moved from Philadelphia to Lynbrook, Long Island, when he was four years old. (This was not far from where Thomas Merton spent part of his early childhood some thirteen years later.)  He was born into a somewhat cultured but imperfect family. His father was an artist and his mother a former actress. The parents separated for a time but later were tenuously reconciled. Upon graduating from high school, Chambers left home and spent time “on the road” as an itinerant laborer working on railroad construction. Here he befriended and found camaraderie with the poor and semi-literate, mostly foreign workers. Upon returning home he attended Columbia University but left in his junior year. However, this was not before becoming a student and protégé of Mark van Doren. He said that when he entered Columbia he was a “conservative in my view of life and politics and I was undergoing a religious experience. By the time I left … I was no longer a conservative and I had no religion.”

In the interim between Columbia and his Communist party membership Chambers’s life became openly tragic. After several attempts, his brother succeeded in taking his own life; his paternal grandmother while living with the family began to suffer from schizophrenia, forcing the family to keep night watches; and his father died suddenly and unexpectedly. The only meaning he had to his life he found in the philosophy of Marxism. He wrote: “It [the Communist Party] offered me what nothing else in the dying world had power to offer at the same intensity—faith and a vision, something for which to live and something for which to die.”

 

Whittaker Chambers

Chambers joined the Party in 1931. He was both a gifted linguist and a gifted writer. He was fluent not only in Romance and Slavic languages but also had some knowledge of the languages of the Middle and Far East. After writing for The Daily Worker newspaper, his talent led him to become the editor of The New Masses—a Communist-controlled literary magazine. (Several years later, Joy Davidman, the future wife of C.S. Lewis, also began writing for The New Masses.) In order to earn some extra money, Chambers accepted an offer from Simon & Schuster to translate Bambi by Felix Salten from the German. Eventually his translating experience and talent helped him support his family when he finally broke from the Party.

Chambers began working for the Party Underground in 1932 in and around Washington, DC. A number of incidents converged to make him rethink his position. He met, fell in love with, and married Esther Shemitz, an artist and illustrator. They had a daughter in 1933 and a son three years later. The Party considered children a hindrance to the cause and therefore encouraged abortion. This was something neither he nor his wife would ever have considered. Another incident concerned his infant daughter; sometimes the simplest things lead to the deepest thoughts. Chambers wrote: “My daughter was in her high chair…. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life… My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear‒those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. They could have been created only by immense design….’ Design presupposes God. I did not then know that at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.”  These insights, coupled with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and stories of the purges taking place in the Soviet Union, caused Chambers to rethink his Party affiliations. He broke with the party in 1938 but knew that no one who had reached the level he had ever escapes the Party’s revenge. His life was in danger as was that of his wife and children.  He wrote: “I decided to do the only thing I could do. I had decided to become an informer…. Men shrink from that word and what it stands for as something lurking and poisonous.”

Chambers’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee made and broke many careers. Alger Hiss and Richard Nixon come to mind. The Hiss-Chambers trial that followed is not like any spy novel. Chambers exposed Hiss as an active Communist while working in high governmental positions in FDR’s Administration. This was an unheard-of accusation and Chambers became the “poster child” of the politics of personal destruction. The complete description of this phase of his life is for another time. It suffices to say that we should be ever vigilant of corruption in high places and the personal sacrifice that is often required to expose it. Those who have suffered vicious attacks merely for seeking public service—certain nominees to the Supreme Court come to mind—would be totally empathetic.

Chambers’s vindication rested on two very simple things: a typewriter and the Pumpkin Papers. Hiss denied that he ever knew Chambers, but the secret government documents in Chambers’s possession were proven to have been written on Hiss’s typewriter. Chambers felt he needed an insurance policy in the event of a Party raid on his home, and, therefore, he had hidden some official government papers and microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm—thus the name Pumpkin Papers. Years later when the Venona Files were made public, Chambers was further exonerated.

In the dark days of all the negative publicity and heart-wrenching exposure of attacks on his character, his personal life, and his family throughout the United States and the world, in every newspaper and magazine, Chambers reached his darkest moment. As the vitriol against him increased, he analyzed how people could be so motivated: “…like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched…” He left his job at Time to spare them the negativity of his presence.

Somewhere he wrote that he received a letter from a Catholic priest that was the sole encouragement and ray of hope that ever came his way. I do not think he ever identified the priest, but he expressed his gratitude for having been given a small light in the ever darkening tunnel. Chambers turned to the Society of Friends for his religious solace. As a child, he had first heard of the Quakers from his grandmother. “She talked about the meeting houses—how they were usually built on hilltops, were built of stone, with little white porches and green shutters. ‘What was inside?’ I asked. She paused for a moment. Then she said: ‘Peace’.” This scene burned into his memory and, when, in adulthood, he once again came upon some Quakers, he wrote: “A new and enormously tranquilizing spirit enveloped me. It emanated from those quiet presences … or simply from the sound of the plain language, as voices asked me: ‘How is thee, Whittaker Chambers?’ The 17th-century form was still touched with the sweetness of the Middle Ages. This is my natural home, I thought. I wanted nothing so much as to remain in it.”

Whittaker Chambers died in 1961 having suffered his final heart attack. Most certainly the spectacle of his life as played out in the hostile press exacerbated his illness. If all anyone gleans from his life is a story of spies, intrigue, and a youthful dalliance with radicalism, then read spy novels instead. They at least are not soul-wrenching. If you are thinking that that was then, and this is now, think again. To destroy your opponent by all means necessary is the new old mantra. We are being told that he is not your opponent, he is your enemy. The best way to destroy someone is to “rush to judgment.” Or, more accurately, to make a rash judgment. The names and the incidents may have changed but the method has not. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” God said to Moses.

Robert Novak, the Catholic convert known for his career in journalism, wrote of Witness: “It changed my worldview, my philosophical perceptions, and, without exaggeration, my life.” Being a witness can mean varied things, but for Christians it should mean what was written in Acts 1:6-8: “Those who were gathered asked him this question: ‘Lord, is it at this time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Jesus said to them, ‘It is not yours to know the times or seasons which the Father has appointed in his own authority. But you will receive your authority when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, then in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”

Clara Sarrocco

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Clara Sarrocco is the longtime secretary of The New York C.S. Lewis Society. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Touchstone, New Oxford Review, Gilbert, The Chesterton Review, CSL: The Bulletin of The New York C.S. Lewis Society, St. Austin's Review, The International Philosophical Quarterly, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Homiletic and Pastoral Review and the Catholic Historical Encyclopedia. She has taught classes on C.S. Lewis at the Institute for Religious Studies at St. Joseph's Seminary and is the president of the Long Island Chapter of The University Faculty for life.

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