Whitaker Chambers’s Witness is the fourth of the four books that John V. Fleming covers in The Anti-Communist Manifestos. It is also a book that figures prominently in Andrew Ferguson’s Weekly Standard cover story on David Mamet’s turn away from the left. Of Witness Professor Fleming writes that “by any just canon of literary history [it] should claim its place within the great tradition of American autobiography.”
One passage from Witness that has stayed with me over the years comes when Hiss and Chambers were brought together face to face before Richard Nixon and John McDowell. Nixon and McDowell were meeting at the Commodore Hotel in New York on August 17, 1948, in an executive session of the the House committee investigating Chamber’s allegation that Hiss was a Communist. Hiss admitted that he knew Chambers while denying everything else Chambers had testified to about him before Congress. This is what Chambers had to say about that day in 1948:
Until we faced each other in the hotel room, I had been testifying about HIss as a memory and a name. Now I saw again the man himself. In the circumstances it was shocking.
Until then I had wondered how he could be so arrogant or so stupid as to suppose he could deceive the nation into believing that he had never known me. (I did not know that Hiss had already tentatively identified me, with infinite qualifications, as George Crosley.)
But when I saw him in person, that feeling, too, fell away, and I was swept by a sense of pity for all trapped men of which the pathos of this man was the center. For the man I saw before me was a trapped man.
Chambers adds: “I felt what any humane man must feel when, pursuing an end that he is convinced is right, he finds himself an instrument of another man’s disaster, even though that disaster is being invited by the man who suffers it.”
Hiss kept right on lying about his relationship with Chambers til the day he died in 1996, nearly fifty years later.