Yalta, Whittaker Chambers, and Time Magazine
Between Feb. 4-11, 1945, the “Big Three” leaders of the Allied powers met at the Livadia Palace at Yalta in the Crimea to plot end-of-the-war strategy and to plan for the postwar world. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin sensed victory. The Battle of the Bulge had ended in a German defeat. British and American forces were poised to breach the Siegfried Line. The Soviet army had launched a great offensive in the east. And American forces were advancing pincer-like against Japanese forces in The Philippines and in the islands of the central Pacific. The war’s end was in sight.
After Yalta, when Churchill returned to London and Roosevelt returned to Washington, they were generally greeted with praise for what had been accomplished in the Crimea. FDR’s top political advisor Harry Hopkins stated that “The Russians had proved that they could be reasonable and far-sighted, and neither the President nor any of us had the slightest doubt that we could live with them and get on peaceably with them far into the future.”
FDR informed Congress on March 1, 1945:
Never before have the major Allies been more closely united — not only in their war aims but also in their peace aims. And they are determined to continue to be united with each other-and with all peace-loving Nations — so that the ideal of lasting peace will become a reality.
London gave 'unqualified support' to Yalta result
In London, as Churchill acknowledged, the reaction to Yalta in Parliament was “unqualified support.” Churchill told the House of Commons on Feb. 27, 1945:
The impression I brought back from the Crimea, and from all my other contacts, is that Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship and equality with the Western democracies. I feel also that their word is their bond. I know of no Government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet Government. I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion about Russian good faith.
Those who understood Stalin and communism better than Roosevelt or Churchill knew better than to accept at face value the hopeful words of the two democratic war leaders. Whittaker Chambers, then the foreign news editor at Time magazine, and a former member of the communist underground in the United States, on March 5, 1945, wrote a fable about Yalta entitled “The Ghosts on the Roof.”
Chambers became a communist in the mid-1920s while enrolled at Columbia College. After he joined the Communist Party, he wrote for The Daily Worker and New Masses, and then joined the communist underground as a courier of U.S. government documents that were provided to Chambers by Alger Hiss and others within the Roosevelt administration.
Sometime in 1937-38, during Stalin’s purges, Chambers broke with communism and kept a cache of government documents given to him by Hiss and others as an insurance policy against assassination. He also bought a farm along Pipe Creek in Westminster, Md. T.S. Matthews, a senior editor at Time hired Chambers to review books at a salary of $100 per week. Time was then owned and presided over by Henry Luce, a religious anti-communist. Many Time writers, however, were, if not pro-communist, at least anti-anti-communist. As Chambers’ biographer Sam Tanenhaus notes, several writers on Time’s staff “were convinced Chambers was paranoid, demented, or an outright fascist.”
Chambers disrupted news desk at Time magazine
Chambers’ brilliant writing earned him a promotion to senior editor at Time, where he edited the “Back-of-the-Book” section. Then, in the summer of 1944, Luce named Chambers foreign news editor and all hell broke loose at Time. In his autobiography, Witness, Chambers recalled that when he edited foreign news “[t]he tacit ban on Chambers’ editing or writing of Soviet or communist news had at last been broken.” Chambers used his new position to rewrite articles written by the magazine’s foreign correspondents that Chambers deemed to be too favorable to the communists (Russian, Chinese and Yugoslavian). His new editing assignment, Chambers recalled, “sent a shiver through most of Time’s staff, where my views were well known and detested with a ferocity that I did not believe possible until I was at grips with it.” The correspondents complained to Luce about Chambers’ altering their copy and demanded his removal, but Luce backed Chambers.
Pro-communist copy was transformed by Chambers into anti-communist news stories. As Tanenhaus points out, Chambers’ edited stories “caught the drift of history far better then the reports he was getting” from the journalists in the field. Chambers also during this time wrote a few anti-communist pieces for The American Mercury under the pseudonym “John Land.” Unlike Roosevelt and Churchill, Chambers, Tanenhaus writes, “grasped better than anyone else around him — and as well as any other American of the day—that the postwar world would be formed in the crucible of ‘power politics.’”
Amidst the post-Yalta euphoria in the West, Chambers wrote, and Time courageously published, “The Ghosts on the Roof.” In this brilliant fable, the ghosts of the murdered Romanov Tsar Nicholas II and his family descend on the roof of the Livadia Palace just as the Yalta conference is ending. There, they are joined by Clio, the Muse of History. Nicholas praises Stalin’s diplomacy as being greater than Rurik, the founder of the Russian state, and Peter the Great, who brought Russia to the gates of central and northern Europe. Stalin has achieved at Yalta, Nicholas said, recognition by the West of a great empire that includes Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, northern China, Finland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia.
The Muse of History, however, foresees problems because the basis of the struggle between communist Russia and the West is a clash of “two faiths,” and if the diplomats fail to resolve the clash there will be “more wars, more revolutions, greater proscriptions, bloodshed, and human misery.” When Tsarina Alexandra asks the Muse of History why she does not do something to prevent that outcome, Clio responds: “I never permit my fore-knowledge to interfere with human folly, if only because I never expect human folly to learn from history. Besides, I must leave something for my sister, Melpomene,” the Muse of Tragedy.
The reaction to “The Ghosts on the Roof” ranged from outrage by Time staffers who called it irresponsible journalism that could undermine our alliance with Russia, to correspondents like John Hersey in Moscow who complained that the essay “absolutely destroyed me” in the Russian capital, to furious readers who viewed the fable as an unwarranted slap at our heroic wartime ally.
Chambers exposes Hiss as a spy
Chambers later publicly identified Alger Hiss, who as Assistant Secretary of State had accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta, as a communist agent who had provided him with secret government documents. When Hiss denied Chambers’ allegations under oath, he was charged with perjury, convicted after two trials (the first ended in a hung jury), and sentenced to 44 months in prison. Chambers retreated to his Maryland farm and wrote Witness, one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century. In Witness, he described communism as:
[T]he vision of Man without God . . . the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals.
It is a vision that still exists today in communist China and North Korea, and among many Western intellectuals and Leftist politicians. The struggle between “two faiths” that Chambers so movingly described continues.