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Books: Killing the witnesses

Books | Those who stood up against Communism in the State Department and in Hollywood have much to teach us

Issue: "End of the innocence," Jan. 30, 1999

"To be a witness means, ultimately, ... that a man is prepared to destroy himself, if necessary, to make his witness," wrote ex-Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers in his classic 1952 autobiography, Witness,. In 1938 he left the Communist Party, professed faith in Christ, and began writing for Time magazine. Ten years later he identified Alger Hiss, who had played an important role in the State Department, as a former fellow comrade and spy. The result was an espionage trial that was on the front pages for weeks 50 years ago. Witness was recently re-issued to commemorate that golden anniversary. As in the Clinton scandal, the accused was embraced by a leftist establishment as "one of us," while those who exposed the truth were attacked. In Witness Mr. Chambers describes how he, not Alger Hiss, was savaged as a crackpot and worse by the elites "precisely because they could not tell the difference between themselves and [the accused]." To attack Alger Hiss was to attack the left, and that they could not tolerate. In the same way, Kenneth Starr and other "witnesses" against President Clinton are the ones many attack, rather than the wrongdoer. The primary challenge of all men at all times, according to Mr. Chambers, is to choose between faith in God and faith in man. The political expression of that battle in 1949 was Freedom vs. Communism. In defecting from the Party, Mr. Chambers believed he was moving to the losing side. Given the 1989 collapse of the Soviet empire, he may have overestimated Communism. But he was right about the central conflict, God vs. Man Without God, which continues today unabated but in different forms. Witness, beautifully written, uncovers some of the implications of what Christ meant when he said to his disciples, "You will be my witnesses." This is a terrific book to read and to give to a generation unaware of Cold War conflict. Public sympathy for Alger Hiss in 1950 likely would have been less intense without Tinseltown's support for socialist causes in the preceding two decades. In Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley begins with the infamous "Hollywood blacklist" and traces the Party's attempts to influence movies, partly through the writers and actors, but also through the unions. With its cast of thousands and heavy reliance on clippings from The Daily Worker, some readers of Hollywood Party will get lost in the details. The book fails to show exactly how movies promoted socialism in Western cultures. But Mr. Billingsley does show that Hollywood's complaints of McCarthyite persecution-still regularly and self-righteously invoked whenever they are criticized by conservatives-obscure the fact that Communism really was a major presence in the film industry. And he shows the context in which a particular anti-communist actor named Ronald Reagan first turned into a political activist. By the end of Witness and Hollywood Party, it's clear that men with the courage to stand up against the pressures of the left are few and far between-and it's also clear that those who do can make a huge difference. ±

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Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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