America, West Ignored Warnings About Stalin
Seventy-five years ago, near the end of the Second World War when Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union was America’s ally against Nazi Germany, two of the most perceptive American writers about Soviet communism, James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers, stunned the world by writing the truth about Stalin’s Russia and its geopolitical challenge to the West. The leader who President Franklin Roosevelt called “Uncle Joe Stalin” and praised as America’s great wartime ally, was, according to Burnham and Chambers, a murderous, ruthless dictator who sought to spread communism throughout the world.
James Burnham (1905-87) began his intellectual journey as a Marxist, becoming in the early 1930s a supporter of exiled communist leader Leon Trotsky. Burnham’s flirtation with Marxism ended in the late 1930s, and he began writing for Partisan Review, a leading journal of the non-communist Left. In 1941 and 1943, Burnham wrote two great books of political philosophy and analysis, The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians. The first book combined sociopolitical theories (managerialism) and geopolitical analysis; the second synthesized the writings of Machiavelli, Gaetano Mosca, Robert Michels, Vilfedo Pareto, and Georges Sorel to formulate a “science of power.” In 1944, Burnham worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s wartime intelligence agency, where he wrote a prescient paper analyzing the goals of Soviet policy.
Stalin a 'great military captain' indifferent to human life
With the war winding down, and hopes for a peaceful and cooperative postwar world on most minds, in early 1945 Burnham wrote “Lenin’s Heir” in Partisan Review. He wrote that “the evidence of these war years” proved that Stalin was a “‘great man’ in the grand style.” Burnham mentioned the grand banquets Stalin staged for visiting dignitaries, the toasts, the “streams of liquor,” against the background of starving Leningraders, full slave labor camps, and “the dying millions at the front.” It reminded Burnham of the Tsars, the Kings of Medes and Persia, and the great rulers of the Mongol Empire. Stalin showed himself, Burnham wrote, to be a “great military captain,” indifferent to human life but doing what was necessary to save Soviet power and rule.
Burnham recognized Stalin’s technical and political “genius,” which he demonstrated in the 1920s and 1930s by “his consolidation of the monopoly of power” within Soviet Russia. “His liquidation of the various oppositions,” he wrote, “not all at once . . . but over many years, primarily by getting them to destroy each other and then to commit suicide, is classically moulded.” Stalin killed thousands of his old comrades, deported millions of his subjects to Siberian camps, and starved millions more by collectivizing agriculture.
During the war, Stalin demonstrated his diplomatic skills, first with the Nazi-Soviet Pact that allowed him to grab half of Poland, the Baltic States, Bessarabia and Bukovina, and later by making military and political inroads in Poland, Yugoslavia, northern Iran, and China. “During these war years,” Burnham wrote, “Stalin has never once lost the political initiative. He has moved first; others have followed.” Stalin’s “bluffs were never called,” Burnham continued, “and the other players [Roosevelt and Churchill] were rivals in their eagerness to lose to him.” Stalin has boldly denounced annexations and aggression, Burnham explained, even while he expanded Soviet control wherever his armies trod.
Stalin's impressive geopolitical vision
Stalin’s moves were not defensive, as many then and since have claimed. Instead, Burnham claimed, they fit within his “geopolitical vision.” That vision, Burnham explained, corresponded to geopolitical concepts first developed by Britain’s Halford Mackinder. “Starting from the magnetic core of the Eurasian heartland,” Burnham wrote, “the Soviet power . . . flows outward, west into Europe, south into the Near East, east into China, . . . lapping the shores of the Atlantic, the Yellow and China Seas, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf.” Stalin, Burnham wrote, has absorbed the Baltics and Poland, dominated Finland, the Balkans, and northern China, spread communist influence in Italy, France, Turkey, Iran, and the rest of China, and sought to infiltrate England and the United States. Moreover, Stalin’s goal is not to destroy nationalism where Soviet forces conquer, but instead to fuse nationalism within the communist movement worldwide.
Trotsky, Burnham noted, believed that he, not Stalin, was Lenin’s true heir. Burnham ridiculed that notion. Stalin was Lenin’s heir. “There is nothing basic that Stalin has done,” Burnham explained, “. . . from the institution of terror as the primary foundation of the state to the assertion of a political monopoly, the seeds and even the shoots of which were not planted and flourishing under Lenin.” “Stalin,” Burnham concluded, “is Lenin’s heir. Stalinism is communism.” This was the “indispensible truth” for the West to understand as it approached the postwar world.
Around the same time that Burnham’s “Lenin’s Heir” appeared in Partisan Review, another former ex-communist named Whittaker Chambers wrote an article in TIME entitled “The Ghosts on the Roof.” Chambers (1901-61) turned to Marxism in the mid-to-late 1920s, and became an underground communist courier of classified American government documents in the 1930s. Like Burnham, he broke with communism in the late 1930s, though for different reasons, and became a writer and editor at TIME magazine. After twice unsuccessfully trying to persuade the Roosevelt administration to recognize and do something about communist infiltration of the government both before and during the war, Chambers used his platform at TIME to expose the truths about our communist wartime ally.
Publication of 'Ghots on the Roof'
“The Ghosts on the Roof” appeared in TIME on March 5, 1945. It was billed as a “fairy tale” of the recently concluded Yalta conference where the “Big Three”—Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill — met to determine the postwar world order. Chambers began the tale by having the ghosts of the Russian royal family, who were murdered by the communists after Lenin seized power, descend on the roof of Yalta’s Livadia Palace, where the “Big Three” were finishing the conference that would seal the fate of Poland and other nations of Central and Eastern Europe. There, they joined Clio, the Muse of History.
Tsarina Alexandra tells Clio that her husband Nicholas II is fascinated by Stalin. Nicholas then exclaims, “What statesmanship! What vision! What power! We have known nothing like it since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic states in the 18th century.” “Stalin,” Nicholas said, “has made Russia great again!” Stalin’s magnificent diplomacy, the Tsarina interrupted, began “with the German-Russian partition of Poland.” Stalin next conquered the Baltic States, she continued, and Nicholas added, “Bessarabia was recovered from Rumania.”
Chambers then has Nicholas peer through a hole in the roof and say: “And now . . . the greatest statesmen in the world have come to Stalin. . . . He is magnificent. Greater than Rurik, greater than Peter.” Nicholas and Alexandra point out to Clio that Stalin is set to conquer Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland, and Finland, and already controls “a vast region of China.” The ghosts of the royal couple predict that Stalin will take “Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Korea, and [will] settle the old score with Chiang Kai-shek.” He will also “sweep through Iran,” they claim.
The Muse of History, however, notes that all “right-thinking people” say that Stalin is a friend of democracy and will help “make the world safe for democracy and capitalism.” Nicholas and Alexandra attempt to educate Clio on Marxian dialectics where “peace may be only a tactic of struggle.” The Marxists believe, Nicholas argues, that Britain and the United States will collapse into communism due to the contradictions of capitalism. Clio, however, refuses to believe that America and Britain will go communist. “More is at stake,” Chambers has Clio say, “than economic and political systems.” It is a clash of two faiths. And Clio predicts “more wars, more revolutions, greater proscriptions, bloodshed and human misery.”
Chambers concluded the article by having Alexandra ask the Muse of History why she does not do something to prevent the horrors she foresees. Clio responds: “I never permit my foreknowledge to interfere with human folly, if only because I never expect human folly to learn much from history. Besides, I must leave something for my sister Melpomene,” the Muse of Tragedy.”
James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers attempted to warn America and the West in early 1945 about the coming postwar struggle for power. Their prescience was informed by their first-hand knowledge of Marxism, their understanding of geopolitics, and their study of how communists acted on the world stage.