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Witness – TIME 1
Monday, May 26, 1952
Books: Publican & Pharisee
WITNESS (808 pp.) — Whittaker Chambers — Random House ($5).
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican … And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.
Alger Hiss, accused of being a Communist and a traitor, told the House Committee on Un-American Activities on Aug. 25, 1948: “It is inconceivable that there could have been on my part, during 15 years or more in public office … any departure from the highest rectitude … anything except the highest adherence to duty and honor.”
Whittaker Chambers, at the same Washington hearing, was called a “liar, spy and traitor.” He admitted it, calling himself “an erring, inadequate man, capable of folly, sin and fear … I only sought prayerfully to know and to do God’s purpose with me.”
Throughout his two trials for perjury. Hiss kept saying that he had not sinned. Chambers kept confessing sins. Yet both juries voted (the first 8 to 4, the second 12 to 0) that the Pharisee was a whited sepulcher, that the publican spoke the truth.
No case in living memory, not even the Dreyfus or the Sacco-Vanzetti cases, split a nation so sharply into two camps. The other two cases touched passions that were primarily political. The Hiss-Chambers case has stirred the whole spirit of the time. The conflicting forces of the 20th century — religious, social and political — beat over it in fierce waves.
“At heart,” says Chambers, “the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time — Communism and Freedom — came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men … Both had been schooled in the same view of history (the Marxist view). Both were trained by the same party in the same selfless, semi-soldierly discipline. Neither would nor could yield without betraying, not himself, but his faith …”
This week Chambers published an 808-page book, Witness, Book-of-the-Month for June. Witness, with its 350,000 words, gives a much fuller apologia than the 50,000 words which the Satevepost printed in its recent ten-part serial.
“Crimes of My Century.” The dominant tone of the book is religious rather than political. Chambers quotes German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Wer, wenn ich schriee,
aus der Engel Ordnungen?
(Who, if I cried out, would hear me
from among the orders
Of the angels?)
“I have been painfully sketching the personal sins and follies of a weak man …
Out of my weakness and folly (but also out of my strength), I committed the characteristic crimes of my century … the first century since life began when a decisive part of the most articulate section of mankind has not merely ceased to believe in God, but has deliberately rejected God. And it is the century in which this religious rejection has taken a specifically political form, so that the characteristic experience of the mind in this age is a political experience. At every point, religion and politics interlace, and must do so more acutely as the conflict between the two great camps of men—those who reject and those who worship God—becomes irrepressible. Those camps are not only outside, but also within nations …
“Until 1937, I had been in this respect, a typical modern man, living without God except for tremors of intuition. In 1938, there seemed no possibility that I would not continue to live out my life as such a man. Habit and self-interest both presumed it. I had been for 13 years a Communist; and in Communism could be read, more clearly with each passing year, the future of mankind, as. with each passing year, the free world shrank in power and faith … Yet, in 1938, I gave a different ending to that life.
“Again, in 1948, exactly ten years later, I was leading a life prosperous beyond most men’s and peaceful beyond my hopes. On its surface, this was the other typical life of my time — the life of career and success. Again, there seemed no possibility that I would not lead that second life to its close. I did not do so …”
Third Ending. “If my story is worth telling, it is because I rejected in turn each of the characteristic endings of life in our time—the revolutionary ending and the success ending. I chose a third ending.
“I am only incidentally a witness to a weak man’s sins and misdeeds or even the crimes that are implicit in the practice of Communism. In so far as I am a true witness, it is because twice in my life I came, not alone, for I had my wife and children by the hand, to a dark tower, and, in a storm of the spirit, listened to that question that was both within and without me: Who, if I cried out, would hear me from among the orders of the angels?
“… This book is about what happened—translated into the raw, painful, ugly, crumpled, confused, tormented, pitiful acts of life.”
From the start of his unhappy boyhood, all those adjectives applied to Whittaker Chambers. He grew up at Lynbrook, Long Island, a quiet village 18 miles from New York City, in a ramshackle frame house where his mother still lives.
His father, Jay Chambers, a commercial artist who never wanted children, left his wife and two sons for some years — and gave them a living allowance of $8 a week. Even after he came back to his family, he seldom spoke except to quarrel with his mother-in-law, who was apt to roam the house brandishing a butcher’s knife.
Grandfather Chambers, a Philadelphia newspaperman, had a different foible: every time he came to visit, he took the two little boys on his tours of the local bars. “By the time I was nine or ten,” says Chambers, “my grandfather had dragged me through most of the saloons in eastern Long Island … Saloons, I early discovered, were singularly tranquil places.”
Picking Flowers. At school, there was a big, bony-faced girl. The other children called her “Stewguts,” and baited her mercilessly. Her stupid younger sister was in Chambers’ classroom. One recess, Stewguts peered in warily, and, seeing only Chambers and her sister, slipped into the room.
“To impress the meaning of words on us,” writes Chambers, “the teacher used to draw a column of flowers on the board with colored chalk — a different color for each flower. Opposite each flower was a word. The teacher would point to the word. If you knew it. you were privileged to go to the blackboard and erase the word and the flower. This was called ‘picking flowers.’
“Stewguts drew a column of colored daisies on the blackboard. Then she beckoned her sister to come up. Patiently, she went down the column of words, asking her sister each one. The younger girl got most of them wrong. Gently, they went over and over them again. Stewguts never showed impatience. Sometimes, she let her sister ‘pick a flower.’ I watched fascinated, listening to the girls’ voices, rising and falling, in question and answer, with the greatest softness, until, with Stewguts’ help, almost all the flowers had been ‘picked.’
“Then there was a tramp of feet in the hall outside the room. Stewguts slapped down the pointer and hurriedly erased the last of the flowers. Suddenly she took her sister’s face in both of her hands, and, bending, gently kissed the top of her head. As the hall door opened with a burst of voices, Stewguts silently closed the cloakroom door behind her and fled.
“I knew that I had witnessed something wonderful and terrible, though I did not know what it was. I knew that it was a parable, though I did not know what parable meant, because I knew that in some simple way what I had seen summed up something very important, something more important than anything I had ever seen before. It is not strange that I should not have understood what I saw. What is strange, and humbling, is that I knew I had seen something which I never could forget. What I had seen was the point at which from corruption issues incorruption.
“After that, I knew that Stewguts, who was bad, was not bad.”
“Total Crisis.” Chambers ran away from home, and worked as a day laborer in Washington and New Orleans. Later he entered Columbia, where he substituted “Whittaker,” his mother’s maiden name, for the baptismal “Jay Vivian” he had always hated. His college reading, and a 1923 trip to Germany “reeling from inflation, readying for revolution,” turned him to Communism. “Few Communists,” Chambers noted, “have ever been made simply by reading the works of Marx or Lenin. The crisis of history makes Communists; Marx and Lenin merely offer them an explanation of the crisis and what to do about it … It is in fact a total crisis — religious, moral, intellectual, social, political, economic. It is popular to call it a crisis of the Western world. It is in fact a crisis of the whole world. Communism, which claims to be a solution of the crisis, is itself a symptom and an irritant of the crisis.”
But in 1925, to idealistic young Whittaker Chambers, Communism seemed to offer “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.”
During the late ‘205, Chambers was on the New York Daily Worker. In the city room he sat with Tom O’Flaherty, a big Irishman with “a brisk sense of humor (always a heavy cross for a Communist),” and Fred Ellis, a blue-eyed sign painter from Illinois who did the Worker cartoons when Chambers had an idea (one idea: after Teapot Dome, Andy Mellon as September Morn in a pool of oil).
Brown Beret. Wages on the Worker were so intermittent, and so small, that Chambers cast about for a part-time paying job. His Columbia friend Clifton Fadiman, knowing his skill at languages, offered him a book to translate. It was Bambi, and its immediate success established him as a translator.
The Worker sent Chambers to cover a textile workers’ demonstration in Passaic, N.J. The police were massed in force to keep the strikers from marching, but a slender girl rushed out before the cops could stop her. The demonstration surged after her. “Get that bitch in the brown beret!” a policeman shouted. Without flinching, she walked forward as the cops closed in, swinging their clubs. Led by the “bitch in the brown beret,” the demonstrators swept right through the police. This was Chambers’ first glimpse of Esther Shemitz, who since 1931 has been his wife.
In June 1932 Chambers was tapped for the Communist underground, and assigned to the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence. To his surprise, he found that “there existed a concealed party which functioned so smoothly that in seven years as a Communist I had not suspected it … I felt a quiet elation … that it had selected me to work with it. For the first time, I did something involuntary that would soon cease to be involuntary, and would become a technique — I glanced back to see if anybody were following me.”
Armored Train. Ulrich was Chambers’ first boss in the underground. A tough, agile little Russian, Ulrich had been a fellow prisoner of Stalin in a sub-Arctic Siberian camp, and commander of an armored train during Russia’s civil war. “If there is ever a revolution in America,” Ulrich used to say, “get yourself an armored train. It is the only comfortable way to go through a revolution.” Pending a revolution, he taught Chambers all the wrinkles of underground work, from invisible ink to serving as a courier, to developing microfilms in the bathroom of a Gay Street apartment in Greenwich Village. In 1934 Ulrich returned to Russia. His final warning: “Remember, Bob, there are only two ways that you can really leave us: you can be shot by them or you can be shot by us.”
Chambers’ next boss in the underground was a Hungarian Communist, J. Peters, who switched Chamber’ party pseudonym from Bob to Carl and shifted him from New York to Washington. To Chambers, Peters “enlarged on the party’s organizational and human resources in Washington, mentioning, among others, the man whose name he always pronounced ‘Awl-jur’—with a kind of drawling pleasure, for he took an almost parental pride in Alger Hiss. Then, with a little inclusive wave of his pudgy hand, he summed up. ‘Even in Germany under the Weimar Republic,’ said Peters, ‘the party did not have what we have here.’ ”
“In the 19305 the revolutionary mood had become so acute … that the Communist Party could recruit its agents, not here and there, but by scores within the Government of the U.S. … Between the years 1930 and 1948, a group of almost unknown men and women, Communists or close fellow travelers, or their dupes, working in the U.S. Government or in some singular unofficial relationship to it … affected the future of every American now alive … Their names, with half a dozen exceptions, still mean little or nothing to the mass of Americans. But their activities, if only in promoting the triumph of Communism in China, have decisively changed the history of Asia, of the U.S., and therefore, of the world. If mankind is about to suffer one of its decisive transformations, if it is about to close its 2,000-year-old experience of Christian civilization, and enter upon another wholly new and diametrically different, then that group may claim a part in history such as it is seldom given any men to play, particularly so few and such obscure men. One of them was Alger Hiss …”Crisis of Conscience? “I have sometimes been asked at this point: What went on in the minds of those Americans, all highly educated men, that made it possible for them to betray their country? Did none of them suffer a crisis of conscience? The question presupposes that whoever asks it has still failed to grasp that Communists mean exactly what they have been saying for a hundred years: they regard any government that is not Communist, including their own, merely as the political machine of a class whose power they have organized expressly to overthrow by all means, including violence. Therefore, ultimately, the problem of espionage never presents itself to them as a problem of conscience, but as a problem of operations.”
Chambers’ personal questioning of the Communist program was spurred by the Great Purge of 1936-38
“The Purge, like the Communist-Nazi pact later on, was the true measure of Stalin as a revolutionary statesman. That was the horror of the Purge — that acting as a Communist, Stalin had acted rightly. In that fact lay the evidence that Communism is absolutely evil … The more truly a man acted in its spirit and interest, the more certainly he perpetuated evil … I said: ‘This is evil, absolute evil. Of this evil I am a part.’ … The structure of my Communist thought was firmly and logically built. It was not the structure but the ground it stood on that was in convulsion. I knew confusion and despair long before I knew what to do about it. I knew that my faith, long held and devoutly served, was destroyed long before I knew exactly what my error was, or what the right way might be …
“At some point, I sought relief from my distress by trying to pray … As I continued to pray raggedly, prayer ceased to be an awkward and self-conscious act. It became a daily need to which I looked forward … The torrent that swept through me in 1937 and the first months of 1938 swept my spirit clear to discern one truth: ‘Man without mysticism is a monster.’ I do not mean, of course, that I denied the usefulness of reason and knowledge. What I grasped was that religion begins at the point where reason and knowledge are powerless and forever fail — the point at which man senses the mystery of his good and evil, his suffering and his destiny as a soul in search of God.”
Chambers tried to get several of the key members of the underground Washington apparatus, including Hiss, to break with Communism too. He failed in every instance. Chambers is sure that Hiss and others in the group are still convinced Communists. Says he: “All of the ex-Communists who cooperated with the Government had broken with the party entirely as a result of their own conscience years before ‘the Hiss Case began. It is worth noting that not one Communist was moved to break with Communism under the pressures of the Hiss Case. Let those who wonder about Communism and the power of its faith, ponder upon that fact.”
Sanctuary. For more than a year after his break with Communism in the spring of 1938, Chambers and his family went in fear of their lives. Chambers did translating to support them, and carried a gun. By the spring of 1939 he had less than 50¢ left, had borrowed all he could borrow, and had nowhere to turn. Next morning he heard about a possible job from a friend on TIME, where a few days later he was hired at $100 a week. When he resigned, 9½ years later, at a crisis of the Case, his TIME Inc. earnings were $30,000 a year. Chambers adds that TIME’S parting settlement was “so generous” that “I did not have to worry about money again during the Case.”
Chambers rose to be a senior editor of TIME. He wrote many TIME cover stories (e.g., on Marian Anderson, Arnold Toynbee and Reinhold Niebuhr), edited various departments (e.g., BOOKS, FOREIGN NEWS), and for LIFE wrote a notable series of articles on the development of Western Man (e.g., on the Middle Ages, Venice, and the Age of Enlightenment). Chambers thus sums up his years on this magazine: “My debt and gratitude to TIME cannot be measured. At a critical moment, TIME gave me back my life. It gave me my voice. It gave me sanctuary, professional respect, peace and time in which to mature my changed view of the world and man’s destiny, and mine, in it. I went to TIME a fugitive; I left it a citizen.”
Rugs & Films. Some 300 pages of Witness are devoted to the Case itself — mainly transcripts from the hearings. They give a remarkably detailed proof of the many and well-substantiated links between Hiss and Chambers (whom Hiss first denied he had ever known at all), as well as between Hiss, Communism and the stolen State Department documents (links which Hiss denied entirely, to the end).
The evidence of the old Ford, the Oriental rugs, the Woodstock typewriter on which some of the secret telegrams were typed, the Leica camera with which the rest were photographed, the Hiss-written memos and bills of sale, the pumpkin films, 1 the prothonotary warbler, and many other items is overwhelming cumulative evidence of Hiss’s guilt.
“Underground Espionage Agent.” On Sept. 2, 1939, Chambers spent four hours with Adolf A. Berle, Assistant Secretary of State in charge of U.S. security matters. The notes Berle took that evening were headed “Underground Espionage Agent,” and in these Berle notes, Alger Hiss was listed as “Member of the Underground Communists—Active.” Berle’s four pages of notes outline the entire conspiracy. If the 1948 investigation had taken place when Chambers first volunteered his data in 1939, this outline would have been filled in when it could have done the most good.
Neither Berle nor the Administration acted effectively on Chambers’ 1939 report. Says Chambers: “In going to Berle, I had keyed myself to the highest pitch of effort. When nothing came of it, I felt like a wire that has been stretched to the snapping point and let go slack.”
Chambers ran a real risk of prosecution for his part in the conspiracy when he volunteered these names and facts in 1939. He again risked prosecution, as a perjurer, in 1948, when he swore several times that he had no espionage material, then reversed himself and produced a four-foot stack of secret Government telegrams and typescripts. Says he: “I never asked for immunity. Nor did anyone at any time ever offer me immunity, even by a hint or a whisper.” For weeks it was widely thought that Chambers, not Hiss, would be indicted.
How does Chambers feel about being an informer? “On that road of the informer, it is always night. I who have traveled it from end to end, and know its windings, switchbacks and sheer drops—I cannot say at what point, where or when, the ex-Communist must make his decision to take it. That depends on the individual man … I cannot ever inform against anyone without feeling something die within me. I inform without pleasure, because it is necessary.”
Says Chambers of his evidence against Hiss to the grand jury: “There was always the possibility that the world would see only the shocking facts of the testimony and … an abhorrent man making himself more abhorrent by every act that he confessed to.” Having this fear in mind, Chambers at first deliberately—and repeatedly—lied about espionage. He thereby hoped to save not only himself but Hiss.
Hiss made it clear, by forcefully pressing a $75,000 libel suit on Chambers for calling him a Communist, that he would destroy Chambers if he could. Only then did Chambers produce his belated time bomb: a long-hoarded package of secret documents. Even then, Chambers produced his hoard piecemeal, giving some to the lawyers in the libel suit against himself (which later became a perjury suit against Hiss), and later surrendering the pumpkin films, on a subpoena from the Un-American Affairs Committee.
Cyanide. Some criticize Chambers for making money out of his confession. Witness has already earned him more than $100.000. It may well earn over $200,000 (before taxes) by 1953 or 1954. But if Chambers had emulated scores of other ex-Communists and simply refused to testify, he might have kept on at his salaried job and earned about as much—also avoiding an ordeal which wrecked much of his life and might easily have killed a lesser man.
It nearly killed Chambers. He was so lonely and sick of heart during the days just before Hiss was indicted that he wrote a number of suicide letters and opened a tin of cyanide compound on his pillow, thinking its fumes would kill him as he slept. He narrowly failed, only because he had misread the directions.
Chambers says of his waverings, evasions and attempted suicide: “I was weak and vacillating. I dodged and delayed. I was far from consistent. I’m a human being. People find fault with this. They say that, once started. I should have gone right ahead, like a locomotive on a track. But a man isn’t like a locomotive.”
Dirt Farm. Chambers is more like one of his tractors bobbing along one of his own steep hillside fields. The Chamberses live on 300-acre Pipe Creek Farm near Westminster, Md., a $30,000 farm which still has a $7.500 mortgage. They milk a herd of registered Guernsey cattle, annually raise more than 100 Hampshire hogs and some 60 Shropshire sheep, grow corn, wheat, barley, oats and soybeans in regular crop rotations, and each year put 5,000 bales of hay into their three barns. Says Chambers, with a flash of real pride: “It is not a show place. It is a dirt farm.
“We bought this farm in my second year at TIME (1940). We knew something of the hardships we must expect. Soon we knew more of them. But we had decided that our children must grow up close to the soil, familiar with labor, embedded in the nation by attending its public schools and taking spontaneous part in its routine work and play. Above all, we wanted to place them beyond the smog of the great cities, seeing few newspapers, seldom hearing the radio, seldom seeing motion pictures, untouched by the excitements by which the modern world daily stimulates its nervous crisis. We wished them never to hear the word Communism until they had developed against it, and the modern mind from which it springs, the immunity of a full and good life …
“Today I walked across the ridge from our home place to this house where I write. I climbed the first rise and the second, from which, in clear weather, we can see, far off, the dark blue wall of the Allegheny Front. As I passed the crest of the ridge, below me on the field in the hollow, my 15-year-old son was windrowing hay. He sat, small and brown, on the big green tractor while the side-delivery rake click-clicked behind. When I came down the slope in the sunlight, he waved to me —a wave that meant smiling pride in what he was doing and pleasure at seeing his father unexpectedly.
“I thought: ‘Surely, this is a moment in a man’s life, when he can stand in his fields and see such a son, to whom he has given life, and a tranquil, orderly way of living, wave his gratitude for that life and for that way of living it.’ “
Besides his farming, Chambers will keep on writing. He is now completing an essay on St. Benedict as part of a book of saints’ biographies to which Graham Greene, Rebecca West, Clare Boothe Luce, Evelyn Waugh and others are contributing.
“The Case has turned my wife and me into old people,” says Chambers (he is 51). “We who used to plan in terms of decades now find a year, two years, the utmost span of time we can take in.”
History & Tragedy. The book does not succeed in telling what sort of man Whittaker Chambers is — as, say the Confessions of Augustine or of Jean-Jacques Rousseau succeed in telling about their authors. Neither does Witness succeed in telling what sort of man Alger Hiss is. It would have to be a great book to do that. Chambers is an intellectual who feels, and who dramatizes — and sometimes over-dramatizes — his feelings. But he has feeling, he has imagination, and the perception, rare among his present-day countrymen, to see actual life as profoundly historic, profoundly tragic.
Its depth and penetration make Witness the best book about Communism ever written on this continent. It ranks with the best books on the subject written anywhere. After reading it, Arthur Koestler, whose Darkness at Noon is the finest novel about Communism, wired Chambers: “You have said what I tried to say.” Though Witness is very long (808 pages), the reader who skips the more familiar parts of the Case (such as the House hearings) will find it about average length — but far above average interest. For in bearing witness to his life & times, Whittaker Chambers, at his best — and at his book’s best — speaks, like the publican, with the tremendous eloquence of humility.
- *The incurable love of U.S. journalists for alliteration’s artful aid transformed these films into the “pumpkin papers” – TIME editor ↩
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- B&W Photos from Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection
- Life of the People: Radical Impulse + Capital and Labor
- Art of Marxism
- Comrades in Art
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- Jacob Burck
- Hugo Gellert + Gellert Papers
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- Jan Matulka: Thomas McCormick Gallery + Global Modernist
- Esther Shemitz Chambers
- Armory Show 1913
Official website of Whittaker Chambers ( >> more )