Historical Notes: Death of the Witness

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Outrage & Hope. "I am an outcast," Chambers wrote in his bestselling autobiography, Witness. He traced his feeling of isolation to his birth, as the unwanted child of a struggling commercial artist and a thwarted actress. Chambers was raised in Lynbrook, on the south shore of Long Island, where "family life festered incurably at the heart of our home." At one point. Chambers' father deserted his wife and two sons and sent them an allowance of only $8 a week. Chambers' mother developed a fear of prowlers, and took to sleeping with an ax under her bed. Chambers himself was soon tucking a knife under his pillow. Chambers' brother became an alcoholic, and killed himself by drinking a quart of whisky and cushioning his head on a pillow inside an oven.

Chambers was convinced that his brother had committed suicide largely out of despair with the world—a despair he himself soon came to share. In 1925 he quit Columbia University to become a Communist. "The dying world of 1925 was without faith, hope, character," he later explained. "Only in Communism had I found any practical answer at all to the crisis, and the will to make that answer work. If it was the outrage, it was also the hope of the world."

Home on P Street. At first, Chambers did little but talk about Communism in party meetings and write for the Daily Worker and the New Masses. One day, while covering a textile strike in Passaic, he watched a slender girl in a brown beret lead a charge against a police line while a cop yelled: "Get that bitch in the brown beret." Chambers later learned that the girl was a pacifist named Esther Shemitz. They were married in 1931. Four years later, the Communist Party ordered Chambers to Washington as a member of the Fourth Section of the Soviet Military Intelligence.

As Chambers later told his story, he soon met Communist Alger Hiss and his wife, and the two men began a friendship as close "as a man ever makes in his life." At one point the Chamberses even shared a house with the Hisses on P Street. In 1936, on party orders, Hiss began feeding classified material to Chambers. "He would bring home a briefcase containing documents from the State Department," explained Chambers. "I would then take the documents to Baltimore to be photographed, returning them to Alger Hiss late the same night or the next morning."

Go Jump. In 1938 Chambers quit the party because, he explained, his Communist faith in mankind had been replaced by a religious faith in God as the only force that could reform society. Ever the careful conspirator hedging against the future, Chambers gathered together documents, memos in Hiss's handwriting and microfilm, and gave them to his wife's nephew for safekeeping. Then he and his family fled in terror from Washington and the Communist Party. In 1939, moved by the Russo-German pact that opened the floodgates of World War II, Chambers disclosed the existence of his old spy ring to Adolf A. Berle Jr., then in charge of State Department security. In Witness, Chambers reports that Berle hustled the information to Franklin Roosevelt, who told him to "go jump in a lake."

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