Hiss and others in government had helped the Russians in the 1930s. They were drawn to the Bolshevik cause during the economic crisis of the Depression, believing capitalism was doomed and state socialism was the wave of the future. At that time, the Kremlin was trolling for security and trade information not so much about the U.S. but about the Soviet Union’s adversaries in Europe and Asia. This it obtained in Washington, through Chambers and other underground party couriers, from the files of sympathetic officials at State, Treasury, and other U.S. government agencies.
New Dealers and liberals were affronted by this belated accusation against polished and articulate Alger Hiss. They believed he was innocent – not a spy but merely a whipping boy of anticommunists, a symbol by which the Right could smear the New Deal as subversive. Elite opinion scorned Chambers and defended Hiss throughout congressional hearings, grand jury investigations, and two trials at the conclusion of which Hiss was convicted of perjury.
The Hiss-Chambers case formed a partisan and ideological fault line that was to stretch across the generations. Witness solidified this effect. Its grim decline-of-the-West poetry and gripping cloak-and-dagger narrative “may have enlisted more American anticommunists than any other book of the Cold War,” said author Lee Edwards, one of the panelists at the November conference in honor of the book. Edwards, a biographer of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, recalled that Reagan could quote from memory the first pages of the foreword to Witness.
Regnery brought the memoir out in a paperback edition during the second Reagan administration. It shaped the political and cultural outlook of a new generation of readers, among them yours truly. The sufferings of the world weigh upon all of us; that much I knew. What Witness showed me was where this sensitivity could lead. The adventurous young tend to want to save the world, and in Witness, the most adventurous are the most prey to tunnel vision and a distasteful sort of hubris.
Chambers’ sharp portraits of the world-savers he met add up to a meditation on idealism that is without peer in American literature. Violence and repression on the part of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union dented some people’s – but only some people’s – dedication to the cause. Others were impervious. The book’s gallery of personalities includes more than Bolsheviks. Along with them we meet socialists, liberals, “unclassified progressives” – all people of good will who “share a similar vision [with communists], but do not share the faith because they will not take upon themselves the penalties of the faith.” The project of bringing the Soviet model to America held the appeal of a cult. This, writes Chambers, was “the root of that sense of moral superiority which makes Communists, though caught in crime, berate their opponents with withering self-righteousness.”