Witness is a reminder of why there was an era in which some Americans were terrified that communists had infiltrated the whole government. It is because they had. Algier Hiss, Chambers’ nemesis, was a near the top at the State Department and helped broker the deal at Yalta.
With that background in mind, it's amazing to read Chambers' recollections of a young, energetic, and principled congressman Richard Nixon (Chambers was dead before Nixon became president).
What is clear from Witness is that the same personal characteristics that led Chambers to become a communist that also caused him to desert communism and testify against communism even at the cost of putting his family in harm's way.
A seminal point in Hiss' journey to communism was his brother's suicide. His brother thought there was no value in, or hope for, humanity's future, and killed himself. His brother’s death galvanized Chambers’ commitment to communistic revolution, which he though could provide an answer to the question his brother posed and give meaning to humanity.
But later on, after persevering through working with all kinds of mediocrities and crazies to support communism, Chambers realized that life had meaning on its own, and that communism stood in opposition to that meaning. He mentions a few different events that served to prompt him to abandon communism.
1. Les Miserables. Chambers thought that Les Miz was relatively lowbrow literature and had some glaring flaws, but nevertheless:
I read and reread Les Misérables many times in its entirety. It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things —Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent.
I scarcely knew that Les Misérables was teaching me Christianity, and never thought of it that way, for it showed it to me, not as a doctrine of the mind, but in action in the world, in prisons, in slums, among the poor, the sick, the dying, thieves, murderers, harlots and outcast, lonely children, in the sewers of Paris and on the barricades of revolution. Its operation did not correspond to anything I knew as Christian in the world about me. But it corresponded exactly to a need I felt within myself.
2. His wife’s pregnancy. As a member of the communist underground, he wasn’t supposed to be married in the first place. Abortion was not a major politic question at the point, but when his wife got pregnant, his presumption and hers was that she would seek an abortion, for a few reasons. One was that communists were supposed to abort their pregnancies because childbearing would interfere with the work. The second was that Chambers was afraid of having kids because of his family’s history of depression and suicide. The third was that they were afraid of bringing up a kid in the world of the 1930s.
But his wife broke down crying and said she couldn’t go through with it. He felt relief: “Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the 20th century, crumbled at the touch of the child.”
3. A realization that the good things about communism weren't exclusive to communism. When stationed in D.C. as a spy, the soviets required Chambers to get a maid in order to fit in. The family hired a black maid reluctantly, but forced her to treat them as equals and to eat dinner at their table – unthinkable at the time. Chambers writes that he later realized communism impelled him to treat blacks in a more Christian way than the Christians of the time did. He points to the instance as an example of why people would be attracted to communism in the first place, and of the spirit that later moved him to Christianity.