Seventy years ago, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin met at Yalta to lay the foundations of the post-World War II world order. Less than one month after their historic meeting, TIME magazine on March 5, 1945, published an unsigned article entitled “Ghosts on the Roof.” The article was written by Whittaker Chambers, then TIME’s foreign news editor and formerly a member of a Washington, D.C.-based Soviet espionage ring. Chambers broke with communism in the late 1930s and in doing so remarked to his wife that they were joining the “losing side” in the great world struggle between communism and the West.
Chambers’ repeated efforts during the late 1930s and early 1940s to alert the State Department and the FBI to communist penetration of our government and the existence and activities of the espionage ring fell on deaf ears, so he used his position at TIME to attempt to warn the American public about the true nature of communism and the goals of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The Yalta Conference, which took place during February 4-11, 1945, was immediately heralded as foreshadowing a peaceful postwar world order. Chambers, having been in the belly of the beast, knew better. He showed “Ghosts on the Roof” to T.S. Matthews, TIME’s associate executive editor, but doubted that TIME would publish it. According to Chambers’ biographer Sam Tanenhaus, Matthews showed it to TIME’s owner Henry Luce who called it “a forceful piece of journalism” but was otherwise non-committal on publishing it. Other TIME staffers urged Matthews not to publish the piece fearing that it would poison relations between the wartime allies. With some hesitation, and characterizing it as a “political fairy tale,” Matthews decided to publish it.
Chambers’ story has the ghosts of the murdered Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family descend on the roof of the Livadia Palace, their former estate and the site where the “big three” allied war leaders negotiated the fate of the world. Clio, the Muse of History, greets them and discusses with Nicholas and Alexandra what just occurred there. Nicholas, the Tsarina remarks, is fascinated by Stalin. “What statesmanship! What vision! What power!,” says Nicholas. “We have known nothing like this since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic states in the 18th century. Stalin has made Russia great again.”
“It all began with the German-Russian partition of Poland,” Chambers has Alexandra say, reminding readers that the Second World War was started by Hitler and Stalin. “Stalin,” says the Tsar, “is magnificent. Greater than Rurik, greater than Peter! . . . Stalin embodies the international social revolution . . . the mighty new device of power politics which he has developed for blowing up other countries from within.” The Royal couple then lists the countries conquered by Stalin—Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland—and those soon to be conquered because of Western appeasement. The Tsarina marvels at Stalin’s ability to persuade Churchill and Roosevelt solve the issues of Central and Eastern Europe to Stalin’s liking in a friendly fashion, remarking that “even peace may be only a tactic of struggle.”
At the end of the tale, the Muse of History foresees the consequences of Yalta as “more wars, more revolutions, greater proscriptions, bloodshed and human misery.” If you can foresee such troubles, the Tsarina asks Clio, why don’t you prevent them. The Muse of History replies that she must leave something for her sister Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, to do.
Readers reacted negatively to the piece. TIME’s Moscow correspondent lost his access to Kremlin officials. Chambers, some said, was zealously trying to destroy U.S.-Soviet collaboration that was so essential to world peace. TIME’s own editors noted in a subsequent issue that they did not believe that U.S.-Soviet relations were doomed to failure.
History vindicated Whittaker Chambers. His courageous efforts to reveal the truth about communism and Stalin’s intentions are not unlike the current efforts by writers—several associated with this journal—to alert the United States and the world to the true nature and goals of Islamic jihadists.
In Chambers’ time, the West was confronted by a murderous, expansionist secular totalitarian ideology whose leaders sought a communist world empire. Today, the West is confronted by a murderous, expansionist religion-based totalitarian ideology whose leaders seek a world caliphate where all must submit to Allah or be eradicated.
Chambers’ warnings were largely ignored by Western leaders whose willful blindness to the true nature of communism sealed the fate of millions behind the iron curtain in Europe, in China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere.
Today, perhaps the ghosts of Mehemed II and Sulieman the Magnificent are looking down and smiling as Western leaders fecklessly attempt to negotiate with the Iranian mullahs and search for “root causes” of ISIS terror and aggression. The Muse of History would understand, and her sister Melpomene, unfortunately, still has work to do.
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