Skip to main content

Often we remark that the convert exhibits an unusually devoted commitment to his or her new cause. Such evidently was the case with the subject of this essay. Remembered as an anticommunist American intellectual and dedicated foe of the Soviet Union, university professor James Burnham started his career at the opposite end of the political spectrum. The author, who recently wrote an appreciation of Halford Mackinder’s world view for this journal (Winter 2000), assesses Burnham’s scholarly approach to Cold War strategy as set forth over some three decades. ~ Ed.

 

DURING THE EARLY post-Second World War years, James Burnham, a leading American Trotskyite in the 1930s, emerged as a chief critic of the policy of containment as articulated by the Department of State’s policy planning chief, George F. Kennan, and implemented by the Truman Administration. At this time, Burnham was a prominent liberal anticommunist associated with the journal Partisan Review who had worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the war. In three books written between 1947 and 1952, and in hundreds of articles written over a twenty-five-year period for the conservative magazine National Review, Burnham criticized containment from the ideological Right, arguing for a more aggressive strategy to undermine Soviet power. That strategy, which Burnham called “liberation” and others called “rollback,” was widely ridiculed at the time and subsequently, even though, ironically, Kennan in his memoirs termed it “persuasive.”1 Decades later, however, the Reagan Administration’s confrontational style and offense-oriented policies during the 1980s, an approach which arguably resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War, can be said to have vindicated Burnham’s strategic views.

Burnham was born in Chicago in 1905. His father, Claude George Burnham, who emigrated as a child to the United States from England, was an executive with the Burlington Railroad. James attended Princeton University where he studied English literature and philosophy, and graduated first in his class, delivering his valedictory address in Latin. Burnham earned a masters degree at Balliol College, Oxford University, in 1929; later that year he accepted a teaching position in the philosophy department of New York University. He remained on the faculty of NYU until 1953.

From 1930-1933, Burnham co-edited (with Philip Wheelwright) Symposium, a review devoted to literary and philosophical criticism. In 1932, he and Wheelwright wrote a textbook entitled Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. During his editorship of Symposium, Burnham became acquainted with Sidney Hook, a colleague in the Philosophy Department at NYU. According to Hook, their relationship became “quite friendly” when Symposium published Hook’s essay “Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx.” Burnham’s articles in Symposium impressed Hook and other readers, including Soviet exile Leon Trotsky.

During the 1930s, with the country in the throes of a great economic depression, Burnham joined the Trotskyite wing of the international communist movement. He had read Marx and Engels while living in France in 1930, and was later greatly impressed by Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. His move to the far left, however, was not without detours along the way. For example, in the April 1933 issue of Symposium, Burnham described the communist party as “ridiculously utopian” and “barbaric.” John P. Diggins, one of Burnham’s biographers, believes that three principal factors persuaded Burnham to join the communist movement: an article by Sidney Hook on Marx; Adolf Berle’s and Gardiner Means’s book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property; and Burnham’s tour of the country in the summer of 1933 where, in Diggins’s words, “he encountered the first stirrings of an authentic class struggle.”

In 1933, Burnham helped Hook, A.J. Muste, and J.B.S. Hardman organize the American Workers Party. The next year, the party merged with the Trotskyite Communist League of America to form the Socialist Workers Party. Burnham, according to Hook, emerged as the Party’s most admired and “most distinguished intellectual figure.” Samuel Francis, another Burnham biographer, notes that during that time Burnham was considered a “leading spokesman” of the Trotskyite branch of the international communist movement. Diggins goes further, describing Burnham as Trotsky’s “chief spokesman” within American intellectual circles. Burnham became an editor of the Party’s monthly journal, New International, wherein he defended Trotsky from Stalinist verbal attacks. Initially, Burnham viewed Stalinism as an “aberration of Bolshevism.” He saw Trotsky as Lenin’s true heir, and Trotskyism as the fulfillment of the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution. After the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in August 1939, however, Burnham began distancing himself from Trotsky (who defended the pact). In May 1940 Burnham resigned from the Socialist Workers Party, ended his involvement in the international communist movement, and began to write regularly for Partisan Review, the leading journal of the non-communist left.2

Burnham emerged as a Cold War strategist in 1944 upon writing an analysis of Soviet post-war goals for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. The seeds of his intellectual evolution from Trotskyite to anticommunist cold warrior were planted during the time period between his break with communism and the beginning of the Cold War. It was then that Burnham formulated his “science of politics” and began viewing the world through a geopolitical prism. This intellectual evolution began in 1941 with the publication of his The Managerial Revolution, a study in which he theorized that the world was witnessing the emergence of a new ruling class, “the managers,” who would soon replace the rule of capitalists and communists alike. The book was an instant best-seller and was translated into most major foreign languages. It received critical acclaim from the New York Times, Time, The New Leader, Saturday Review, and leading opinion-makers of the day. John Kenneth Galbraith recalled that The Managerial Revolution was “widely read and discussed” among policymakers in Washington in 1941. William Barrett remembered it as “an original and brilliant book when it appeared” which “anticipated by a good number of years the discovery of the ‘New Class’.”3

The Managerial Revolution is mostly remembered as a political and socioeconomic work, which in part it was. What is often overlooked, or at least understated, is that the study was Burnham’s first intellectual foray into global geopolitics. In it he sketched an emerging post-war world divided into “three strategic centers for world control”:

  1. the northern two-thirds of the Western Hemisphere;
  2. north-central Europe, west Asia and northern Africa; and
  3. the “Asiatic center,” east Asia and the off-shore islands.

“Geography,” he explained, “gives certain advantages to each of the contestants in certain areas: to the United States in the northern two-thirds of the two Americas; to the European center in Europe, the northern half of Africa and western Asia; to the Asiatic center in most of the rest of Asia and the islands nearby.”

A key factor that conditioned Burnham’s selection of those regions as “strategic centers” was their concentrations of modern industry. Burnham predicted that “the world political system will coalesce into three primary super-states, each based upon one of these three areas of advanced industry,” and the “nuclei of these three super-states are… Japan, Germany and the United States.” Russia, he believed, would break up as a result of the war, “with the western half gravitating toward the European base and the eastern toward the Asiatic.” Somewhat more presciently, he predicted the dissolution of the British Empire resulting from “the consolidation of the European Continent….” Burnham explained that England’s dominant position depended on its ability to “balance Continental nations against each other” and that “the balance of power on the Continent is possible only when the Continent is divided up into a number of genuinely sovereign and powerful states.”

Burnham was right, of course, about the fact of the collapse of British power, but wrong about its cause. The British Empire broke up because after the war Britain lacked the resources and, more importantly, the will to maintain it. The whole European Continent was not consolidated as Burnham had predicted; instead, the Continent was strategically divided between two super-states. Burnham was correct in predicting that the war would produce a world struggle for power among “super-states.” Whereas he foresaw the emergence of three super-states, however, the war’s outcome produced only two, the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead of three “strategic centers,” there were only two — the northern two-thirds of the Americas and the Asiatic center.

Although in The Managerial Revolution Burnham clearly underrated the staying power of the Soviet regime, he accurately forecast the role of the United States in the post-war world. “The United States,” he wrote, “…constitutes naturally the nucleus of one of the great super-states of the future. From her continental base, the United States is called on to make a bid for maximum world power as against the super-states to be based on the other…central areas.” He even foresaw that the United States would become “the ‘receiver’ for the disintegrating British Empire.4

By this time Burnham’s break with communism was complete. In The Managerial Revolution he noted that “all evidence indicates that the tyranny of the Russian regime is the most extreme that has ever existed in human history, not excepting the regime of Hitler.” He no longer believed, as he had in his Trotskyite days, that Stalinism was an aberration from true Marxism-Leninism. “Stalinism,” he wrote, “ is what Leninism developed into…without any sharp break in the process of development.”5

In 1943, to his growing anti-communism and geopolitical world view, Burnham added a “science of politics” based on the ideas and concepts of thinkers that he called “the Machiavellians.” The Machiavellians, according to Burnham, studied and analyzed politics in an objective, dispassionate manner in an effort to arrive at certain fundamental truths about “political man.” From the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel, Robert Michels, and Vilfredo Pareto, Burnham deduced that:

  1. All politics is concerned with the struggle for power among individuals and groups;
  2. genuine political analysis involves correlating facts and formulating hypotheses about the future without reference to what ought to happen;
  3. there is a distinction between the “formal” and “real” meaning of political rhetoric, which can only be discovered by analyzing the rhetoric in the context of the actual world of time, space, and history;
  4. “political man” is primarily a “non-logical” actor driven by “instinct, impulse and interest;”
  5. rulers and political elites are primarily concerned with maintaining and expanding their power and privileges;
  6. rulers and elites hold power by “force and fraud;”
  7. all governments are sustained by “political formulas” or myths;
  8. all societies are divided into a “ruling class” and the ruled; and
  9. in all societies the “structure and composition” of the ruling class changes over time.6

The Machiavellians is the most complete exposition of Burnham’s approach to the study and analysis of politics. Samuel Francis judges it to be his “most important book,” and opines that “virtually all of Burnham’s writing since The Machiavellians must be understood in reference to it.” Brian Crozier agrees, calling The Machiavellians “the most fundamental of Burnham’s books,” and “the key to everything he wrote subsequently.” Joseph Sobran calls the book “the key to Burnham’s thought.” John B. Judis believes that Burnham’s approach to analyzing power politics as set forth in The Machiavellians “informed his tactical understanding of the Cold War….”7

In the Spring of 1944, a year after writing The Machiavellians and just three years after The Managerial Revolution, Burnham used his “science of politics,” his understanding of the nature of Soviet communism, and his grasp of global geopolitical realities to prepare an analysis of Soviet post-war goals for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).8 Although there is some lack of clarity on just when it was written, according to Diggins and Christopher Hitchens, Burnham’s analysis was prepared for the U.S. delegation to the Yalta Conference. His study of Soviet intentions was later incorporated in his first Cold War book, The Struggle for the World (1947). As Burnham noted in the opening essay of The War We Are In (1967), “The analysis of communist and Soviet intentions in Part I of The Struggle for the World was originally part of a secret study prepared for the Office of Strategic Services in the spring of 1944 and distributed at that time to the relevant Washington desks.”9 In his OSS paper, The Struggle for the World, and in two essays that appeared in the spring of 1944 and early 1945 in Partisan Review, Burnham warned that the Soviet Union was aiming at no less than domination of the Eurasian land mass. He identified the communist-inspired mutiny in the Greek Navy at Alexandria in April 1944 as the beginning of what he called the “Third World War.” The mutiny was quickly crushed by the British, but Burnham saw larger forces at work. The mutineers were members of the ELAS, the military wing of the Greek Communist Party-controlled EAM, which in turn was directed by the Soviet Union. The incident, therefore, was fundamentally a clash between Britain and the Soviet Union, at the time ostensibly allies in the still-raging Second World War. To Burnham, this meant that the Greek mutiny was a skirmish in another and different war. Events in China, too, indicated to him that supposed allies in the war against Japan — Chiang Kai-shek’s army and the communist Chinese forces led by Mao Tse-tung — were battling each other as much or more than they were opposing Japanese forces. From these events he concluded that “the armed skirmishes of a new war have started before the old war is finished.”10

The new phase of Soviet policy evidenced by Greek and Chinese events, according to Burnham, was the sixth major period in Soviet policy since 1917. The first period, “War Communism,” lasted from 1918 to 1921. It was succeeded by the New Economic Policy (NEP) which continued until 1928. The years 1928 to 1935 marked the “Third Period,” which encompassed the first Five Year Plans and the forced collectivization of agriculture. The fourth period, which Burnham called the “Popular Front,” lasted the next four years, and was followed by the “Hitler Pact,” from 1939-1941. After an “interregnum” between 1941 and 1943 when the very survival of the regime was at stake, the sixth or “Tehran” period commenced. Writing in the spring of 1944, Burnham concluded that “the object of the present (Tehran) period is to end the European phase of the war on a basis favorable to the perspectives of the Soviet ruling class, i.e., in de facto Stalinist domination of the Continent.”11

Burnham believed Stalin’s foreign policy was driven by a “geopolitical vision” that corresponded to the theories and concepts of the great British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder.12 “Out of this war,” explained Burnham, “…Stalin has translated into realistic political perspective the dream of theoretical geopolitics: domination of Eurasia.” Borrowing Mackinder’s terminology, Burnham warned that, “Starting from…the Eurasian heartland, the Soviet power…flows outward, west into Europe, south into the Near East, east into China, already lapping the shores of the Atlantic, the Yellow and China seas, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf.…”13 The goals of Soviet foreign policy as he saw them were:

  1. The political consolidation of Eurasia under Soviet control;
  2. the weakening of all non-communist governments; and
  3. a Soviet-controlled world empire.

Burnham’s OSS study perceptively identified the post-war geopolitical structure that was then emerging from the ashes of the Second World War. It did so a full two years before George Kennan wrote his “Long Telegram” from Moscow and Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri. It even predated Kennan’s lesser-known papers, “Russia—Seven Years Later” (September 1944) and “Russia’s International Position At the Close of the War With Germany” (May 1945), that predicted future difficulties between the United States and Soviet Union. No one foresaw or recognized the emergence of the Cold War more accurately, more comprehensively, or earlier than James Burnham.14

BURNHAM’S WORK for the OSS marked a turning point in his intellectual career. His first two books written after his break with Trotskyism were broad sociopolitical works, concerned more with political trends within countries than geopolitical conflicts between countries. After the OSS study and for the rest of his career, however, with two major exceptions he brought his intellectual gifts to bear almost exclusively upon the central geopolitical struggle of the second half of the twentieth century, the Cold War.

“The Sixth Turn of the Communist Screw” and “Lenin’s Heir,” which appeared in Partisan Review in the summer of 1944 and early 1945, respectively, were the first public indications of Burnham’s altered focus (the OSS study remained secret). The Soviet Union, he asserted, was positioned to extend its political control from the Heartland to the remaining key power centers of the Eurasian continent. Moreover, Soviet goals would not likely change after Stalin because Stalinism was “a triumphant application” of Leninism. “There is nothing basic that Stalin has done… 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,” wrote Burnham, “is Lenin’s Heir. Stalinism is communism.” Burnham’s linking of Stalin to Lenin produced, according to the historian Richard H. Pells, “a painful reexamination of socialist doctrine among American intellectuals in the immediate postwar years.” Many on the anti-Stalinist Left still believed that Stalinism had betrayed, not fulfilled Leninism. As William Barrett recalled, “Hitherto, the name of Lenin had been protected almost as a holy relic; the blame for any miscarriage of the Russian Revolution had been shunted over entirely on the head of Stalin, who thus provided a ready-made excuse for not locating the fault within the nature of Marxist doctrine itself.” Most of the anti-Stalinist Left, however, was not ready to so drastically and fundamentally change the premises of their political beliefs.15

Any lingering doubts in the intellectual community about James Burnham’s shifting intellectual focus were dispelled by the publication in 1947 of The Struggle for the World. There, for the first time in the United States and the West, was a broad, comprehensive analysis of the beginning of the Cold War, the nature of the Soviet communist threat to the world, and a strategy for U.S. and Western victory. Over the next five years, Burnham expanded and refined his analysis in two more books, The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950) and Containment or Liberation? (1952). Those books present a penetrating and lucid trilogy on the early years of the Cold War. Burnham’s admirers, such as Brian Crozier, Samuel Francis, and John O’Sullivan, have treated the three books as essentially a single three-volume work. O’Sullivan, in a brilliant, reflective essay in National Review, demonstrated that the fundamental geopolitical vision informing Burnham’s Cold War trilogy is traceable to The Managerial Revolution.

These three works by Burnham span the time period from 1944 to 1952 and can be analytically divided into three broadly defined topics:

  1. The global context of the struggle and the nature of the Soviet communist threat;
  2. estimates and critiques of then existing U.S. and Western policies for dealing with the threat; and
  3. proposals or strategies to effectively respond to the threat and achieve ultimate victory.

Each book of the trilogy discusses, with varying emphases, those three topics; when considered together, they show Burnham’s ability to respond to specific events and changes within a larger, consistent intellectual framework.

All three works also manifest the continued influence on Burnham’s thought of “the Machiavellians” and the geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder. He described the Soviet Union of 1945 as controlling the vast interior of Eurasia that Mackinder termed the Heartland of the “World-Island” (the Eurasian-African land mass). The Soviet position, wrote Burnham, “is…the strongest possible position on earth.” [T]here is no geographical position on earth which can in any way be compared with [the Soviet] main base.” The Heartland, he explained, is “the most favorable strategic position of the world.” From its Heartland base, the Soviet Union was positioned to expand into Europe, the Middle East, and Eastern and Southern Asia. 16

The United States and North America, according to Burnham (here he borrowed from both Mackinder and Yale University’s Nicholas Spykman), constitute “an island lying off the shores of the great Eurasian land mass.” Geopolitically, the United States was to Eurasia what Britain was to Europe — an island facing a great continental land mass. Both Mackinder and Spykman made this precise analogy. (Spykman judged the power potential of coastal Eurasia — Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, which he termed the “Rimland” — to be greater than that of the Heartland.) Burnham agreed with Mackinder that “potentially, the Heartland controls the Eurasian land mass as a whole, and, for that matter, the…African Continent.” It was “an axiom of geopolitics,” Burnham explained, “that if any one power succeeded in organizing the Heartland and its outer barriers, that power would be certain to control the world.” (Mackinder had written in 1919 that control of the Heartland and command of the World-Island would lead to world dominance.) Air power and atomic weapons, Burnham believed, “upset the certainty of this…axiom,” but the “facts of geography” still gave the Soviet Union an incomparable advantage in the post-war struggle because “[g]eographically, strategically Eurasia encircles America, overwhelms it.”17

Burnham pictured the Soviet geopolitical position as a “set of concentric rings around an inner circle.”18 (Mackinder’s 1904 world map consisted of the Russian-occupied heartland or “pivot state” bordered by an “inner or marginal crescent” and far removed from an “outer or insular crescent”.) Burnham’s inner circle was the Soviet Union. The first concentric ring contained the Kuriles, South Sakhalin Island, Mongolia, Turkish regions, Bessarabia and Bukovina, Moldavia, Ukraine, East Poland, East Prussia, the Baltic States and Finnish regions — territories already absorbed or soon to be absorbed by Soviet power. The second ring included Korea, Manchuria, North China, the Middle East, the Balkans, Austria, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia, and Finland — territories within range of Soviet domination. The third ring contained Central and Southern China, Italy, France, smaller western European states, and Latin America — areas where Soviet influence or neutralization was possible. The fourth and final circle included England and the British Commonwealth and the United States and its dependencies— territories forming the rival base of global power.

This geographical setting formed the surroundings for a clash between two major power centers or, as Burnham referred to them in The Managerial Revolution, super-states. The clash, according to Burnham, proceeded “simultaneously and integrally along political, economic, ideological, sociological and military lines.” It “affects and is affected by events in all parts of the earth,” opined Burnham, and was zero-sum in nature.19 A U.S. or Western defeat was a Soviet or communist gain, and vice-versa.

The Soviet enemy, wrote Burnham, was the head of “a world-wide conspiratorial movement for the conquest of a monopoly of power.” Conspiracy, deception, and terror were integral and essential aspects of Soviet communism. Soviet leaders and their clients conducted “a political, subversive, ideological, religious, economic, . . guerrilla, sabotage war, as well as a war of open arms” against the West. The communists exerted external pressure on target countries and sought to infiltrate those countries’ trade union movements, technical and scientific establishments, and media enterprises. The ultimate goal of Soviet policy, as manifested in official documents, speeches, and a plethora of Soviet actions since 1944, was “the conquest of the world.”20

The United States from 1945 to 1952, as we know, reacted to this global challenge by gradually positioning itself in opposition to Soviet encroachments. Thus emerged the policy of containment that was explained most succinctly by George F. Kennan, the State Department’s Policy Planning Chief, in his famous “X” article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. Even before Kennan’s highly influential article appeared, Burnham accurately perceived the broad contours and direction of early post-war American foreign policy. In The Struggle for the World, Burnham noted that during the latter stages of the Second World War, U.S. policy amounted to “appeasement” of her wartime Soviet ally. The United States ceded to the Soviets the Kurile Islands, South Sakhalin Island, Darien, Port Arthur, Manchuria, northern Korea, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, eastern Germany, and part of Austria, all in an effort to “get along” with Russia. The United States coerced Chiang Kai-shek into joining a coalition government with the communists in China, “when we should have aided Chiang,” Burnham wrote, “to block communist domination of…the Eastern Coastland of Eurasia.” United States policy, Burnham lamented, “has not hindered but furthered communist expansion on Eurasia; it has not combated but aided communist infiltration all over the world….” Those policy failures, he believed, resulted from “a completely false estimate of communism and…of the communist dominated Soviet Union.” American statesmen mistakenly believed that Soviet Russia was a normal, traditional nation-state and that Soviet leaders could be influenced by demonstrations of good intentions by the United States. Those flawed judgments and beliefs, Burnham thought, resulted from even more fundamental U.S. handicaps: political immaturity and ineptness; a provincialism and ignorance of world affairs; a misconception about human nature; and a tendency toward “abstract, empty and sentimental…idealism.” Judging by the evidence of its policies up to 1946, Burnham believed that it was “unlikely that the United States will adopt any sustained, consistent, long-term world policy,” but instead would follow a “policy of vacillation.”21

Burnham’s view of U.S. policy became somewhat more optimistic when the Truman Administration moved forcefully to block Soviet threats to Iran, Turkey, Greece, Berlin, and Italy, and Tito moved Yugoslavia out of the Soviet orbit. In The Coming Defeat of Communism, he wrote that “Our general diplomacy and foreign policy could be judged, compared to our past performances, reasonably strong and intelligent.”22 He applauded what he viewed as a shift in policy from appeasement to containment. But he viewed containment favorably only as a temporary defensive policy to block communist expansion. As a long term policy, containment, wrote Burnham, was incapable of achieving victory in the Cold War. He identified four principal defects in the policy:

  1. It was not “sufficiently unified,” i.e., it was not being applied consistently by all U.S. policy makers and agencies;
  2. it was too narrow in that it overemphasized the military aspect of the struggle to the detriment of the political, economic, ideological, and sociological aspects;
  3. it was wholly defensive in nature; and
  4. it lacked an objective, i.e., it did not seek the “destruction of communist power.”

The most serious defect of containment, according to Burnham, was the policy’s defensive nature. This criticism appeared in all three books of Burnham’s Cold War trilogy, and it was the major theme of Containment or Liberation? (1952). A “defensive strategy, because it is negative, is never enough,” he wrote. It left unsolved the “intolerable unbalance of world political forces.” Containment, he explained, “leaves the timing to the communists. They have the initiative; we react …. Our policy, as a consequence, is subordinated to, determined by, theirs …. They select the issues, the field, and even the mood of combat.” “Containment doesn’t threaten anyone,” Burnham explained, “it doesn’t ask anyone to give up what he’s already got.” Furthermore, wrote Burnham, the effort to contain communism “is as futile as to try to stop a lawn from getting wet by mopping up each drop from a rotating sprinkler…. [T]o stop the flow we must get at the source.”23

Even if containment could be successfully implemented by the United States, which Burnham doubted, it would not prevent a Soviet victory in the Cold War. “If the communists succeed in consolidating what they have already conquered,” he explained, “then their complete world victory is certain.” “The threat,” he wrote further, “does not come only from what the communists may do, but from what they have done…. The simple terrible fact is that if things go on as they are now, if for the time being they merely stabilize, then we have already lost.”24 Here Burnham was simply taking Mackinder’s geopolitical theories to their logical conclusion. At the time Burnham wrote those lines, the Soviet Empire and its allies controlled the Heartland, Eastern and part of Central Europe, China, northern Korea, and parts of Indochina. Political consolidation of such a base, coupled with effective organization of that base’s manpower and resources, would give the Soviets command of Mackinder’s World Island.25 “That is why,” warned Burnham, “the policy of containment, even if 100 percent successful, is a formula for Soviet victory.”26

The Truman Administration’s focus on Western Europe and the Republican Party’s advocacy of what he called an “Asian-American strategy” were both misguided according to Burnham because they excluded efforts to penetrate the Soviet sphere. No positive gains could result from those wholly defensive strategies. At most they would buy time until the Soviets completed their consolidation and organization of their great continental base, after which, to borrow Mackinder’s phrase, “the end would be fated.” Burnham’s strategic vision, however, consisted of more than simply a critique of the policy of containment. He also set forth in some detail an alternative grand strategy that he called “the policy of liberation.” That policy, wrote Burnham in The Struggle for the World, must seek to “penetrate the communist fortress,” to “reverse the direction of the thrust from the Heartland,” to “undermine communist power in East Europe, northern Iran, Afghanistan, Manchuria, northern Korea, and China.” The United States should seek to exploit Soviet economic and cultural weaknesses. The Western powers should launch a world-wide propaganda offensive against the communist powers. As a result, predicted Burnham, “the communists will be thrown back on the political defensive ….The walls of their strategic Eurasian fortress…would begin to crumble. The internal Soviet difficulties, economic and social, would be fed a rich medium in which to multiply.”27

Burnham became more forceful and specific in his policy proposals three years later in The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950). He called for America to adopt a policy of “offensive political-subversive warfare” against the Soviet Empire. America should aim, he advised, to increase Soviet economic troubles; to stimulate discontent among the Soviet masses; to encourage more Tito-like defections from the Soviet orbit; to facilitate the “resistance spirit” of the enslaved satellite nations of the empire; to foment divisions within the Soviet elite; and to recruit from behind the Iron Curtain “cadres of liberation.” He was too much of a realist, however, to expect the complete achievement of every U.S. and Western goal in the struggle against communism. In a remarkable chapter in this volume entitled “A Deal With Russia,” Burnham set forth five specific conditions that would allow the United States to claim victory in the Cold War without militarily defeating the Soviets:

  1. An end to the world wide communist subversive apparatus;
  2. an end to the world wide Soviet propaganda offensive;
  3. the withdrawal of the Soviet army and security services to the pre-1939 Soviet borders;
  4. full sovereignty for those territories conquered or annexed by the Soviets since 1939; and
  5. the modification of the Soviet governmental structure to permit unrestricted travel, a free press and international inspection of scientific-military facilities.28

Half a century later, most of Burnham’s conditions for victory either are in place or in the process of being achieved.

In Containment or Liberation? (1952), Burnham identified Eastern Europe as the crucial target of U.S. strategy. U.S. policy, he wrote, must shift its focus from protecting Western Europe to liberating Eastern Europe. “A strategy which had Eastern Europe as its geopolitical focus — Europe from the Iron Curtain to the Urals — would best serve the American objective,” he explained.29 Eastern Europe, he repeatedly asserted, was the key to the world struggle. Here again we see the influence of Mackinder. In his 1919 classic, Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder, too, emphasized the importance of preventing a single power from controlling both Eastern Europe and the Heartland. In perhaps the book’s most famous passage, Mackinder recommended that an “airy cherub” should whisper to British statesmen the following warning:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World.
30

When Burnham was writing Containment or Liberation?, the Soviet Union controlled the Heartland, Eastern Europe, and was allied to China. Mackinder’s geopolitical nightmare was a fact of international life. From Mackinder’s 1919 analysis, it logically followed that the only way to prevent Soviet world hegemony was to undermine Soviet positions in Eastern Europe. That is precisely what Burnham’s proposed policy of liberation was designed to do.

TWO INFLUENTIAL statesmen who agreed with thrust of Burnham’s strategy, at least initially during the early years of the Cold War, were John Foster Dulles, who became President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, and, ironically, George Kennan, the author of the Containment doctrine. Dulles, both before and during the early years of the Eisenhower Administration, promoted a policy to “roll back” the Soviet empire.

Kennan, according to Peter Grose in a new book titled Operation Rollback, secretly proposed during the Truman Administration an ambitious program of organized political warfare against the Soviets, which included sabotage and subversive operations, propaganda, and help to resistance forces throughout the Soviet empire. Kennan’s flirtation with a liberation policy ended, according to Grose, when the Truman Administration’s attempts to implement the strategy failed. Dulles abandoned “rollback” after U.S. responses to the East German, Polish, and Hungarian uprisings of the 1950’s demonstrated to the world America’s unwillingness to support resistance forces within the communist bloc. There is no evidence that either Kennan or Dulles was directly influenced by Burnham’s ideas; given his prominence at the time in intellectual circles and his connections with the intelligence community, it is likely that both Kennan and Dulles were familiar with his writings.31

Public reaction to Burnham’s Cold War trilogy was mixed. Henry Luce gave The Struggle for the World prominent play in Time and Life. Luce even urged President Truman’s press aide, Charles Ross, to persuade the president to read it. The Christian Century speculated that the book was the intellectual foundation for the Truman Doctrine announced during the same week that Burnham’s book was published. The American Mercury published excerpts from all three books. Liberal anticommunist reviewers, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., accepted Burnham’s analysis of the Soviet threat but dissented from his call for an offensive policy. For conservative anti-communists, however, Burnham’s Cold War trilogy achieved almost Biblical status. As George Nash pointed out in his study of the American conservative movement, “More than any other single person, Burnham supplied the conservative intellectual movement with the theoretical formulation for victory in the cold war.”32

Other reviewers were less kind. Charles Clayton Morrison called The Struggle for the World a “blueprint for destruction.” Harry Elmer Barnes called it a “most dangerous and un-American book.” George Soule in The New Republic asserted that Burnham wanted “reaction abroad and repression at home.” George Orwell accused Burnham of worshiping power. The Coming Defeat of Communism received strong criticism from, among others, James Reston, David Spitz, R.H.S. Crossman and Louis Fischer. Containment or Liberation? received even harsher treatment. The editors of Foreign Affairs commented that Burnham’s “temper at times outruns his argument.” The Atlantic Monthly described the book as “permeated with absolutist thinking.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called the book a “careless and hasty job, filled with confusion, contradictions, ignorance and misrepresentation.” It was, wrote Schlesinger, “an absurd book by an absurd man.”33

Burnham’s relations with his colleagues on the non-communist Left suffered as a result of his Cold War trilogy. Where once there was widespread acclaim for The Managerial Revolution, now his colleagues on the Left disdained him as a warmonger who advocated atomic war. For many liberals (and some conservatives) Burnham’s geopolitical vision was too sweeping and apocalyptic. To many, a policy of “liberation” was simply too dangerous in the nuclear age. The non-communist Left sought, at most, to contain the Soviet Union while searching for areas of accommodation. Burnham did not think that accommodation with communism was a long-term possibility. For Burnham, the Cold War was a systemic conflict that would only end when one or the other system changed or was defeated.

His final and lasting break with the non-communist Left, however, resulted not from his proposed strategy of “liberation,” but from his views toward domestic communism and what came to be known as “McCarthyism.” Burnham, unlike many intellectuals of the time, believed the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and other ex-communists who identified and described the activities of a Soviet espionage apparatus that operated in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. He supported the congressional investigations of domestic communism and even testified before investigating committees. He also called for outlawing the Communist Party of the United States.

As Senator Joseph McCarthy became increasingly reckless in his accusations of communist infiltration of government agencies, including the military, the non-communist Left condemned the very idea of loyalty oaths and congressional investigations of American citizens and their ideological affiliations. This was too much for Burnham. Condemning specific erroneous accusations by Senator McCarthy was one thing, but ignoring the reality of communist penetration of the government was potentially suicidal.

Burnham broke with Partisan Review and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (an organization of anticommunist intellectuals) over this issue. He began writing for The Freeman, a conservative journal of opinion. In 1954, with his wife’s help, he wrote an analysis of communist penetration of the government entitled The Web of Subversion.34 That book, based largely on testimony before congressional committees and the revelations of Chambers, Bentley, and other communist defectors, makes interesting reading today in light of the “Venona project” disclosures which support many of the charges of communist infiltration and subversion that were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In addition to writing books and articles about the Cold War, Burnham lectured at the National War College, the Naval War College, the School for Advanced International Studies, and the Air War College. He was a consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency and is reputed to have had a hand in the successful plan to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh and install the Shah in power in Iran in the early 1950s.

Having severed ties to the anticommunist Left, Burnham found his permanent intellectual home in the pages of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, where for twenty-three years he provided the magazine’s readers with a running commentary on the events and personalities of the Cold War. In his regular column, originally called “The Third World War” and later changed to “The Protracted Conflict,” Burnham brought his “encyclopedic mind” to bear on specific events as they occurred, but also fitted those events into the larger global geopolitical context. The extent of his knowledge and learning was formidable. A typical Burnham column would include insightful references to Thucydides, Gibbon, Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Tocqueville, Trotsky, Faulkner, Palmerston, Toynbee, J.F.C. Fuller, Clausewitz, Liddell Hart, Mahan, Sun Tzu, Lincoln, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Churchill, and, of course, Mackinder and the “Machiavellians.” Burnham, like all great thinkers, understood that he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Burnham demonstrated in his columns an ability to relate seemingly disparate events within a single strategic framework. He showed, for example, how Soviet moves in Cuba and Latin America might affect Berlin and Western Europe; how our Middle East policy could impact on the solidarity of NATO; how our defeat in Indochina, the loss of U.S. nuclear superiority, the rapid de-colonization in Asia and Africa, the French loss of Algeria, and the British pull-out from Suez and Aden amounted to a general Western global retrenchment, and how the resulting power vacuum could be filled by Soviet expansion. He also showed an ability to view world events from a Soviet or communist perspective. Here, he benefited from his Trotskyite past. Several of his most perceptive columns were written from the perspective of a fictional Soviet intelligence officer. Burnham was yet another example of how ex-communists often make the most intelligent and realistic anti-communists.

He had a tendency in some of his writings to be too schematic in his analysis of world events. Not everything that happened in the world significantly affected the Cold War, but Burnham sometimes gave the impression that it did. He also at times portrayed Soviet leaders as almost perfect strategists who nearly always made flawless political and strategic calculations. He sometimes gave Soviet strategists too much credit for causing or influencing world events. He occasionally overrated the strategic stakes involved in local and regional conflicts. The consequences of some of our defeats in the Cold War were not as catastrophic as Burnham thought they would be. But, unlike many other Western observers, at least he understood that there would be negative consequences to those defeats.

Burnham was frequently controversial. In some columns he suggested using nuclear or chemical weapons in Vietnam. Although not anti-Israel, he favored a more balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East, on one occasion writing that if Americans had to choose between oil and Israel they should choose oil. He heaped scorn upon the “peace movement” in the United States, viewing it as a composition of pro-communists and “useful idiots.” However well intentioned a “peacenik” was, thought Burnham, the political and strategic effect of his conduct benefited the nation’s enemies. He refused unambiguously to condemn Joe McCarthy and he defended congressional investigations of domestic communists. He viewed the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a U.S. defeat and a retreat from the Monroe Doctrine. Although he recognized there was a Sino-Soviet dispute and recommended that the United States exploit the differences between the two communist giants, he dismissed the notion that the dispute was ideological, maintaining that both countries were part of the world communist enterprise and, therefore, enemies of the United States. He viewed superpower summits and arms control efforts as dangerous Western illusions. Finally, he used his column to attack liberal icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Kennan, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Linus Pauling.

In his National Review columns Burnham was not a predictable conservative. He had a soft spot for Robert McNamara, repeatedly defending him from critics on the Left and Right. He criticized libertarian conservatives who opposed the draft and the welfare state, and other conservatives who sought ideological purity in their political candidates. He wrote in opposition to ballistic missile defenses. He advocated ending U.S. control of the Panama Canal and favored granting diplomatic recognition to communist China. He also criticized those conservatives who overestimated the military, technological, and economic prowess of the Soviet Union.

What is most striking about Burnham’s National Review columns, however, is how often he got things right. Consider Vietnam. As early as March 1962, Burnham predicted a U.S. defeat in Indochina. He criticized Kennedy’s policy of confining military activities to South Vietnam. Fighting a war in this manner, he argued, was “senseless butchery.” Four months later he criticized the concept of “escalation” warfare, which became a key aspect of America’s failed Vietnam policy. In a January 1963 column, he wrote that the nation was losing the war in Vietnam, and he predicted that for Americans the war was “likely to get much dirtier before it is over.” That year, he scathingly attacked the “qualitative and quantitative” restrictions on U.S. military activity in Vietnam, and he predicted that a unwillingness to attack the enemy’s base of operations (North Vietnam) would lead to the United States pulling out of Indochina.

In a September 1964 column, Burnham argued that we had two options in Vietnam: use enough force and an appropriate strategy to win or get out. Two months later Burnham wrote that Lyndon Johnson would be a war president. By 1966, Burnham was criticizing Johnson for wasting American lives by forbidding troops the use of weapons and methods that could win the war. He also perceived that the North Vietnamese communists viewed the United States, not Indochina, as “the principal front in the war.” In a February 1968 piece, Burnham noted that television coverage was negatively impacting war effort. A month later, he pronounced the U.S. strategy of “gradual escalation” a failure. By August 1968, Burnham recognized that the domestic political debate over Vietnam was now a debate about “how to get out.” In a July 1969 column, Burnham foresaw that the communists would only agree to a “settlement” that guaranteed their takeover of South Vietnam. A year later, he accurately characterized Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy as a “policy of withdrawal.” As negotiations intensified and the 1972 election drew nearer, Burnham wrote that the United States had effectively lost the war; what Nixon and Kissinger were calling an “honorable peace” was nothing more than a defeat. By April 1972, Burnham predicted that South Vietnam would not survive as an independent nation, and he viewed our failure there as resulting from the “self-imposed strategic prison” of containment. After the peace agreement was signed to much public acclaim, Burnham noted the uncomfortable facts that South Vietnam was encircled and infiltrated by the enemy, and predicted that the U.S. would not muster the political will to intervene again to prevent the now certain communist takeover of the South.35

Burnham’s prescience in his columns was not limited to Vietnam. He dismissed unsupported claims of Soviet technological superiority in the wake of Sputnik. He criticized Western observers who uncritically accepted Soviet disinformation regarding economic achievements, military power, and technological advances. In September 1962, he correctly guessed that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. He was an early critic of the “détente” policy with its accompanying emphasis on arms control, summitry, and trade concessions. In the early 1970s, he wrote about the “internationalization of terrorism” and noted the links between the various terrorist groups, anticipating by several years the more detailed analysis of this phenomenon by Claire Sterling in The Terror Network. He also anticipated Jeane J. Kirkpatrick’s analysis in Commentary of the important distinctions between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. He even foresaw the rise in the United States of an imperial presidency that would upset the delicate constitutional balance established by the Founding Fathers, a topic he discussed at length in his much neglected book, Congress and the American Tradition (1959).36

The most important thing Burnham got right was a strategy for winning the Cold War. The essence of that strategy was to wage political, psychological, and economic warfare against the Soviet Empire and thereby weaken and eventually break Soviet control over Eastern and Central Europe. The strategy’s key elements were the following:

  1. An ideological and propaganda offensive against Soviet rule;
  2. assisting dissident and resistance groups within the Soviet Empire;
  3. using U.S. economic and technological strength to put strains on the vulnerable Soviet economy;
  4. utilizing psycho-political warfare to encourage fear and divisions among the Soviet elite;
  5. using trade and other economic weapons to further weaken the Soviet economy; and
  6. forcing the Soviets onto the geopolitical defensive.

During the 1980s, as Peter Schweizer, Jay Winik, Andrew Busch, and others have described, the Reagan Administration formulated and implemented an offensive geopolitical strategy designed to undermine Soviet power.37 While there is no evidence that Reagan or his advisers consciously sought to apply Burnham’s precise strategy of “liberation,” Reagan’s strategy consisted of policies that in a fundamental sense were remarkably similar to Burnham’s proposals. Reagan launched a vigorous ideological and propaganda offensive against the Soviets, calling Soviet leaders liars and cheats, predicting the Soviets’ near-term demise, and daring its leader to tear down the Berlin Wall. Reagan provided aid and encouragement to Poland’s Solidarity movement and the Afghan rebels, two resistance movements within the Soviet Empire. Reagan built up U.S. military forces, deployed intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, and announced the plan to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), thus putting additional pressure on the already strained Soviet economy, thus serving to convince the Soviets that they could not win an arms race with the United States.

The so-called “Reagan Doctrine” placed the Soviets on the geopolitical defensive throughout the world. Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down, the enslaved nations of Eastern Europe revolted, and the Soviet Empire was on its way to dissolution. Burnham, it turns out, was right all along. Containment was not enough to win the Cold War. It took an offensive geopolitical strategy to undermine Soviet power. And, as Burnham had argued, Eastern Europe was the key to victory.

Burnham had little confidence that such a strategy as his would ever be implemented by the United States. His pessimism in this regard was most profoundly expressed in his 1964 book, Suicide of the West. Burnham argued that since reaching the apex of its power in 1914, Western civilization had been contracting, most obviously in a geographical sense. Burnham described the contraction in terms of “effective political control over acreage.” Because the West continued to possess more than sufficient relative economic, political, and military power to maintain its ascendancy, the only explanation for the contraction was an internal lack of will to use that power. Hence, the West was in the process of committing “suicide.” In the book he was highly critical of modern liberalism, but the author did not claim, as some have stated, that liberalism caused or was responsible for the West’s contraction. “The cause or causes,” he wrote, “have something to do…with the decay of religion and with an excess of material luxury; and…with getting tired, worn out as all things temporal do.” Liberalism, instead, was “the ideology of Western suicide.” It “motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it.” He expressed his belief that the collapse of the West was probable, although not inevitable. He acknowledged the possibility of a “decisive change” resulting in a reversal of the West’s contraction.38

Suicide of the West provided a good analysis and explanation of historical events and trends, but its main conclusion is wrong. This is so not because Burnham misunderstood historical events or misjudged current trends; his mistake derived from his apparent unwillingness in this instance to be more open to the possibility that things might change. The Western contraction did stop, at least temporarily. The United States found the will to use its resources and adopt an offensive strategy to win the Cold War.

In 1978 Burnham suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. His last column for National Review was an analysis of the potential impact of the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accord on U.S.-Soviet relations in the Middle East. In 1983, Ronald Reagan, who presided over the West’s victory in the Cold War, presented the United States’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to James Burnham, who had envisioned a strategy for that victory nearly forty years before. The citation reads:

As a scholar, writer, historian and philosopher, James Burnham has profoundly affected the way America views itself and the world. Since the 1930’s, Mr. Burnham has shaped the thinking of world leaders. His observations have changed society and his writings have become guiding lights in mankind’s quest for truth. Freedom, reason and decency have had few greater champions in this century than James Burnham.

At the end of July 1987, James Burnham died of cancer. Two years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, his vision became reality.

Kennan, according to Peter Grose in a new book titled Operation Rollback, secretly proposed during the Truman Administration an ambitious program of organized political warfare against the Soviets, which included sabotage and subversive operations, propaganda, and help to resistance forces throughout the Soviet empire. Kennan’s flirtation with a liberation policy ended, according to Grose, when the Truman Administration’s attempts to implement the strategy failed. Dulles abandoned “rollback” after U.S. responses to the East German, Polish, and Hungarian uprisings of the 1950’s demonstrated to the world America’s unwillingness to support resistance forces within the communist bloc. There is no evidence that either Kennan or Dulles was directly influenced by Burnham’s ideas; given his prominence at the time in intellectual circles and his connections with the intelligence community, it is likely that both Kennan and Dulles were familiar with his writings.31

Public reaction to Burnham’s Cold War trilogy was mixed. Henry Luce gave The Struggle for the World prominent play in Time and Life. Luce even urged President Truman’s press aide, Charles Ross, to persuade the president to read it. The Christian Century speculated that the book was the intellectual foundation for the Truman Doctrine announced during the same week that Burnham’s book was published. The American Mercury published excerpts from all three books. Liberal anticommunist reviewers, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., accepted Burnham’s analysis of the Soviet threat but dissented from his call for an offensive policy. For conservative anti-communists, however, Burnham’s Cold War trilogy achieved almost Biblical status. As George Nash pointed out in his study of the American conservative movement, “More than any other single person, Burnham supplied the conservative intellectual movement with the theoretical formulation for victory in the cold war.”32

Other reviewers were less kind. Charles Clayton Morrison called The Struggle for the World a “blueprint for destruction.” Harry Elmer Barnes called it a “most dangerous and un-American book.” George Soule in The New Republic asserted that Burnham wanted “reaction abroad and repression at home.” George Orwell accused Burnham of worshiping power. The Coming Defeat of Communism received strong criticism from, among others, James Reston, David Spitz, R.H.S. Crossman and Louis Fischer. Containment or Liberation? received even harsher treatment. The editors of Foreign Affairs commented that Burnham’s “temper at times outruns his argument.” The Atlantic Monthly described the book as “permeated with absolutist thinking.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called the book a “careless and hasty job, filled with confusion, contradictions, ignorance and misrepresentation.” It was, wrote Schlesinger, “an absurd book by an absurd man.”33

Burnham’s relations with his colleagues on the non-communist Left suffered as a result of his Cold War trilogy. Where once there was widespread acclaim for The Managerial Revolution, now his colleagues on the Left disdained him as a warmonger who advocated atomic war. For many liberals (and some conservatives) Burnham’s geopolitical vision was too sweeping and apocalyptic. To many, a policy of “liberation” was simply too dangerous in the nuclear age. The non-communist Left sought, at most, to contain the Soviet Union while searching for areas of accommodation. Burnham did not think that accommodation with communism was a long-term possibility. For Burnham, the Cold War was a systemic conflict that would only end when one or the other system changed or was defeated.

His final and lasting break with the non-communist Left, however, resulted not from his proposed strategy of “liberation,” but from his views toward domestic communism and what came to be known as “McCarthyism.” Burnham, unlike many intellectuals of the time, believed the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and other ex-communists who identified and described the activities of a Soviet espionage apparatus that operated in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. He supported the congressional investigations of domestic communism and even testified before investigating committees. He also called for outlawing the Communist Party of the United States.

As Senator Joseph McCarthy became increasingly reckless in his accusations of communist infiltration of government agencies, including the military, the non-communist Left condemned the very idea of loyalty oaths and congressional investigations of American citizens and their ideological affiliations. This was too much for Burnham. Condemning specific erroneous accusations by Senator McCarthy was one thing, but ignoring the reality of communist penetration of the government was potentially suicidal.

Burnham broke with Partisan Review and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (an organization of anticommunist intellectuals) over this issue. He began writing for The Freeman, a conservative journal of opinion. In 1954, with his wife’s help, he wrote an analysis of communist penetration of the government entitled The Web of Subversion.34 That book, based largely on testimony before congressional committees and the revelations of Chambers, Bentley, and other communist defectors, makes interesting reading today in light of the “Venona project” disclosures which support many of the charges of communist infiltration and subversion that were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In addition to writing books and articles about the Cold War, Burnham lectured at the National War College, the Naval War College, the School for Advanced International Studies, and the Air War College. He was a consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency and is reputed to have had a hand in the successful plan to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh and install the Shah in power in Iran in the early 1950s.

Having severed ties to the anticommunist Left, Burnham found his permanent intellectual home in the pages of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, where for twenty-three years he provided the magazine’s readers with a running commentary on the events and personalities of the Cold War. In his regular column, originally called “The Third World War” and later changed to “The Protracted Conflict,” Burnham brought his “encyclopedic mind” to bear on specific events as they occurred, but also fitted those events into the larger global geopolitical context. The extent of his knowledge and learning was formidable. A typical Burnham column would include insightful references to Thucydides, Gibbon, Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Tocqueville, Trotsky, Faulkner, Palmerston, Toynbee, J.F.C. Fuller, Clausewitz, Liddell Hart, Mahan, Sun Tzu, Lincoln, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Churchill, and, of course, Mackinder and the “Machiavellians.” Burnham, like all great thinkers, understood that he stood on the shoulders of giants.

Burnham demonstrated in his columns an ability to relate seemingly disparate events within a single strategic framework. He showed, for example, how Soviet moves in Cuba and Latin America might affect Berlin and Western Europe; how our Middle East policy could impact on the solidarity of NATO; how our defeat in Indochina, the loss of U.S. nuclear superiority, the rapid de-colonization in Asia and Africa, the French loss of Algeria, and the British pull-out from Suez and Aden amounted to a general Western global retrenchment, and how the resulting power vacuum could be filled by Soviet expansion. He also showed an ability to view world events from a Soviet or communist perspective. Here, he benefited from his Trotskyite past. Several of his most perceptive columns were written from the perspective of a fictional Soviet intelligence officer. Burnham was yet another example of how ex-communists often make the most intelligent and realistic anti-communists.

He had a tendency in some of his writings to be too schematic in his analysis of world events. Not everything that happened in the world significantly affected the Cold War, but Burnham sometimes gave the impression that it did. He also at times portrayed Soviet leaders as almost perfect strategists who nearly always made flawless political and strategic calculations. He sometimes gave Soviet strategists too much credit for causing or influencing world events. He occasionally overrated the strategic stakes involved in local and regional conflicts. The consequences of some of our defeats in the Cold War were not as catastrophic as Burnham thought they would be. But, unlike many other Western observers, at least he understood that there would be negative consequences to those defeats.

Burnham was frequently controversial. In some columns he suggested using nuclear or chemical weapons in Vietnam. Although not anti-Israel, he favored a more balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East, on one occasion writing that if Americans had to choose between oil and Israel they should choose oil. He heaped scorn upon the “peace movement” in the United States, viewing it as a composition of pro-communists and “useful idiots.” However well intentioned a “peacenik” was, thought Burnham, the political and strategic effect of his conduct benefited the nation’s enemies. He refused unambiguously to condemn Joe McCarthy and he defended congressional investigations of domestic communists. He viewed the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a U.S. defeat and a retreat from the Monroe Doctrine. Although he recognized there was a Sino-Soviet dispute and recommended that the United States exploit the differences between the two communist giants, he dismissed the notion that the dispute was ideological, maintaining that both countries were part of the world communist enterprise and, therefore, enemies of the United States. He viewed superpower summits and arms control efforts as dangerous Western illusions. Finally, he used his column to attack liberal icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Kennan, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Linus Pauling.

In his National Review columns Burnham was not a predictable conservative. He had a soft spot for Robert McNamara, repeatedly defending him from critics on the Left and Right. He criticized libertarian conservatives who opposed the draft and the welfare state, and other conservatives who sought ideological purity in their political candidates. He wrote in opposition to ballistic missile defenses. He advocated ending U.S. control of the Panama Canal and favored granting diplomatic recognition to communist China. He also criticized those conservatives who overestimated the military, technological, and economic prowess of the Soviet Union.

What is most striking about Burnham’s National Review columns, however, is how often he got things right. Consider Vietnam. As early as March 1962, Burnham predicted a U.S. defeat in Indochina. He criticized Kennedy’s policy of confining military activities to South Vietnam. Fighting a war in this manner, he argued, was “senseless butchery.” Four months later he criticized the concept of “escalation” warfare, which became a key aspect of America’s failed Vietnam policy. In a January 1963 column, he wrote that the nation was losing the war in Vietnam, and he predicted that for Americans the war was “likely to get much dirtier before it is over.” That year, he scathingly attacked the “qualitative and quantitative” restrictions on U.S. military activity in Vietnam, and he predicted that a unwillingness to attack the enemy’s base of operations (North Vietnam) would lead to the United States pulling out of Indochina.

In a September 1964 column, Burnham argued that we had two options in Vietnam: use enough force and an appropriate strategy to win or get out. Two months later Burnham wrote that Lyndon Johnson would be a war president. By 1966, Burnham was criticizing Johnson for wasting American lives by forbidding troops the use of weapons and methods that could win the war. He also perceived that the North Vietnamese communists viewed the United States, not Indochina, as “the principal front in the war.” In a February 1968 piece, Burnham noted that television coverage was negatively impacting war effort. A month later, he pronounced the U.S. strategy of “gradual escalation” a failure. By August 1968, Burnham recognized that the domestic political debate over Vietnam was now a debate about “how to get out.” In a July 1969 column, Burnham foresaw that the communists would only agree to a “settlement” that guaranteed their takeover of South Vietnam. A year later, he accurately characterized Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy as a “policy of withdrawal.” As negotiations intensified and the 1972 election drew nearer, Burnham wrote that the United States had effectively lost the war; what Nixon and Kissinger were calling an “honorable peace” was nothing more than a defeat. By April 1972, Burnham predicted that South Vietnam would not survive as an independent nation, and he viewed our failure there as resulting from the “self-imposed strategic prison” of containment. After the peace agreement was signed to much public acclaim, Burnham noted the uncomfortable facts that South Vietnam was encircled and infiltrated by the enemy, and predicted that the U.S. would not muster the political will to intervene again to prevent the now certain communist takeover of the South.35

Burnham’s prescience in his columns was not limited to Vietnam. He dismissed unsupported claims of Soviet technological superiority in the wake of Sputnik. He criticized Western observers who uncritically accepted Soviet disinformation regarding economic achievements, military power, and technological advances. In September 1962, he correctly guessed that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. He was an early critic of the “détente” policy with its accompanying emphasis on arms control, summitry, and trade concessions. In the early 1970s, he wrote about the “internationalization of terrorism” and noted the links between the various terrorist groups, anticipating by several years the more detailed analysis of this phenomenon by Claire Sterling in The Terror Network. He also anticipated Jeane J. Kirkpatrick’s analysis in Commentary of the important distinctions between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. He even foresaw the rise in the United States of an imperial presidency that would upset the delicate constitutional balance established by the Founding Fathers, a topic he discussed at length in his much neglected book, Congress and the American Tradition (1959).36

The most important thing Burnham got right was a strategy for winning the Cold War. The essence of that strategy was to wage political, psychological, and economic warfare against the Soviet Empire and thereby weaken and eventually break Soviet control over Eastern and Central Europe. The strategy’s key elements were the following:

  1. An ideological and propaganda offensive against Soviet rule;
  2. assisting dissident and resistance groups within the Soviet Empire;
  3. using U.S. economic and technological strength to put strains on the vulnerable Soviet economy;
  4. utilizing psycho-political warfare to encourage fear and divisions among the Soviet elite;
  5. using trade and other economic weapons to further weaken the Soviet economy; and
  6. forcing the Soviets onto the geopolitical defensive.

During the 1980s, as Peter Schweizer, Jay Winik, Andrew Busch, and others have described, the Reagan Administration formulated and implemented an offensive geopolitical strategy designed to undermine Soviet power.37 While there is no evidence that Reagan or his advisers consciously sought to apply Burnham’s precise strategy of “liberation,” Reagan’s strategy consisted of policies that in a fundamental sense were remarkably similar to Burnham’s proposals. Reagan launched a vigorous ideological and propaganda offensive against the Soviets, calling Soviet leaders liars and cheats, predicting the Soviets’ near-term demise, and daring its leader to tear down the Berlin Wall. Reagan provided aid and encouragement to Poland’s Solidarity movement and the Afghan rebels, two resistance movements within the Soviet Empire. Reagan built up U.S. military forces, deployed intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, and announced the plan to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), thus putting additional pressure on the already strained Soviet economy, thus serving to convince the Soviets that they could not win an arms race with the United States.

The so-called “Reagan Doctrine” placed the Soviets on the geopolitical defensive throughout the world. Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down, the enslaved nations of Eastern Europe revolted, and the Soviet Empire was on its way to dissolution. Burnham, it turns out, was right all along. Containment was not enough to win the Cold War. It took an offensive geopolitical strategy to undermine Soviet power. And, as Burnham had argued, Eastern Europe was the key to victory.

Burnham had little confidence that such a strategy as his would ever be implemented by the United States. His pessimism in this regard was most profoundly expressed in his 1964 book, Suicide of the West. Burnham argued that since reaching the apex of its power in 1914, Western civilization had been contracting, most obviously in a geographical sense. Burnham described the contraction in terms of “effective political control over acreage.” Because the West continued to possess more than sufficient relative economic, political, and military power to maintain its ascendancy, the only explanation for the contraction was an internal lack of will to use that power. Hence, the West was in the process of committing “suicide.” In the book he was highly critical of modern liberalism, but the author did not claim, as some have stated, that liberalism caused or was responsible for the West’s contraction. “The cause or causes,” he wrote, “have something to do…with the decay of religion and with an excess of material luxury; and…with getting tired, worn out as all things temporal do.” Liberalism, instead, was “the ideology of Western suicide.” It “motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it.” He expressed his belief that the collapse of the West was probable, although not inevitable. He acknowledged the possibility of a “decisive change” resulting in a reversal of the West’s contraction.38

Suicide of the West provided a good analysis and explanation of historical events and trends, but its main conclusion is wrong. This is so not because Burnham misunderstood historical events or misjudged current trends; his mistake derived from his apparent unwillingness in this instance to be more open to the possibility that things might change. The Western contraction did stop, at least temporarily. The United States found the will to use its resources and adopt an offensive strategy to win the Cold War.

In 1978 Burnham suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. His last column for National Review was an analysis of the potential impact of the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accord on U.S.-Soviet relations in the Middle East. In 1983, Ronald Reagan, who presided over the West’s victory in the Cold War, presented the United States’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to James Burnham, who had envisioned a strategy for that victory nearly forty years before. The citation reads:

As a scholar, writer, historian and philosopher, James Burnham has profoundly affected the way America views itself and the world. Since the 1930’s, Mr. Burnham has shaped the thinking of world leaders. His observations have changed society and his writings have become guiding lights in mankind’s quest for truth. Freedom, reason and decency have had few greater champions in this century than James Burnham.

At the end of July 1987, James Burnham died of cancer. Two years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, his vision became reality.

 

Endnotes

 

  • George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1950-1963 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 100.
  • The facts and circumstances of Burnham’s early life and intellectual activity are derived from John P. Diggins, Up From Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual Development (New York: Columbia University Press, Morningside Edition, 1994), pp. 161-180; Sidney Hook, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century ( New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1988), pp. 192-204; Samuel Francis, Power and History: The Political Thought of James Burnham ( Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), p 7; Kevin J. Smant, How Great the Triumph: James Burnham, Anticommunism and the Conservative Movement ( Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), pp. 1-21; and Sidney Hook, “Radical, Teacher, Technician,” National Review (September 11, 1987), pp. 32-33.
  • John Kenneth Galbraith, National Review (September 11, 1987), p. 35; William Barrett, The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals ( Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982), p. 86.
  • James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1941), pp. 179, 176, 180, 177, 262, 264.
  • Ibid., pp. 47, 195.
  • James Burnham,The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1943), pp. 223-226.
  • Francis, Power and History, p. 49; Brian Crozier, National Review (September 11, 1987), p. 36; Joseph Sobran, National Review (September 11, 1987), p. 46; John B. Judis, Grand Illusion: Critics and Champions of the American Century (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992), p. 155.
  • Diggins, Up From Communism, p. 319; Francis, Power and History, p. 67; Judis, Grand Illusion, p. 146; Christopher Hitchens, “How Neo-Conservatives Perish,” For the Sake of Argument (London: Verso, 1993), p. 144; George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976), p. 92; James Burnham, The War We Are In: The Last Decade and the Next (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1967), p. 10.
  • Burnham, The War We Are In, p. 10.
  • James Burnham, The Struggle for the World (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1947), p. 3.
  • James Burnham, “The Sixth Turn of the Communist Screw,” Partisan Review, Volume 11, Number 3, Summer 1944.
  • For an analysis of Mackinder’s writings, see Francis P. Sempa, “Mackinder’s World,” American Diplomacy (Winter 2000) , http://www.americandiplomacy.org; Francis P. Sempa, “The Geopolitics Man,” The National Interest (Fall 1992), pp. 96-102; and Francis P. Sempa, “Geopolitics and American Strategy: A Reassessment,” in Herbert M. Levine and Jean Edward Smith, ed., The Conduct of American Foreign Policy Debated (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., 1990), pp. 330-343.
  • James Burnham, “Lenin’s Heir,” Partisan Review, Volume 12, 1945, Issue 1, p. 66.
  • William C. Bullitt appears to have recognized even earlier than Burnham that the United States would have post-war problems with the Soviet Union. Bullitt wrote lengthy, prophetic memos to FDR on January 29 and August 10, 1943, warning the president about Soviet post-war goals. Bullitt also wrote a book in 1946 entitled The Great Globe Itself that provided a realistic assessment of Soviet post-war intentions. Burnham’s analyses and proposals as set forth in the OSS paper, the Partisan Review essays, and his early Cold War trilogy, however, are more comprehensive than Bullitt’s works.
  • Burnham, “Lenin’s Heir,” pp. 71-72; Richard H. Pells, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s & 1950s (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 82; Barrett, The Truants, pp. 88-9.
  • Burnham, Struggle for the World, p. 162; James Burnham, The Coming Defeat of Communism (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1950), p. 14.
  • James Burnham, Containment or Liberation? (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1952), p. 147; Nicholas J. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1944); Burnham, Struggle for the World, pp. 114-115.
  • Burnham, Struggle for the World, p. 97.
  • Burnham, Coming Defeat of Communism, p. 23; Burnham, Containment or Liberation?, p. 73.
  • Burnham, Struggle for the World, pp. 59, 90; Burnham, Coming Defeat of Communism, p. 104;
  • Burnham, Struggle for the World, pp. 171, 163, 159, 10, 239-40.
  • Burnham, Coming Defeat of Communism, p.99.
  • Burnham, Struggle for the World, p. 181; Burnham, Coming Defeat of Communism, p. 100, 36-7.
  • Ibid., p. 251.
  • Writing three years after Burnham, the great French writer Raymond Aron noted ominously that “Russia has in fact nearly achieved the ‘world island’ which Mackinder considered the necessary and almost sufficient condition for universal empire.” Raymond Aron, The Century of Total War (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955), p. 111.
  • Burnham, Containment or Liberation?, p. 251.
  • Burnham, Struggle for the World, pp. 162, 197-198, 228-229, 239, 221.
  • Burnham, Coming Defeat of Communism, pp. 159-160.
  • Burnham, Containment or Liberation?, p. 128.
  • Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962), p.150. The book was originally published in 1919.
  • See John Foster Dulles, “A Policy of Boldness,” Life (May 19, 1952), pp. 146-60; and Peter Grose, Operation Rollback: America’s Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 2000).
  • W. A. Swanberg, Luce and His Empire (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), p. 254; Nash, Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, p. 91.
  • Diggins, Up From Communism, p. 322; Smant, How Great the Triumph, pp. 36, 43, 51.
  • James Burnham, The Web of Subversion: Underground Networks in the U.S. Government (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1959). It was first published in 1954.
  • “Southeast Asian Contradiction,” National Review (March 13, 1962), p. 163; “Escalating Downward,” in The War We Are In, pp. 267-269; “Toujours, la Sale Guerre,” National Review (January 29, 1963), p. 60; “What Chance in Vietnam,” National Review (October 8, 1963), p. 304; “The Perils of Under-simplification,” National Review (September 8, 1964), p. 766; “The Hand on the Trigger,” in The War We Are In, pp. 95-97; “What is the President Waiting For?,” National Review (June 28, 1966), p. 612; “Hanoi’s Special Weapons System,” National Review (August 9, 1966), p. 765; “The War in Studio 7,” National Review (February 27, 1968), p. 179; “Time for Some Answers,” National Review (March 26, 1968), p. 282; “An Honorable Peace,” National Review (July 30, 1968), p. 792; “Front into Government,” National Review (July 1, 1969), p. 635; “Stripped Down,” National Review (July 28, 1970), p. 778; “Is It All Over in Vietnam?,” National Review (April 28, 1972), p. 449; “Peace, Peace but is it Peace?,” National Review (February 16, 1973), p. 199; “Under Northern Eyes,” National Review (March 16, 1973), p. 303.
  • James Burnham, Congress and the American Tradition (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1965). First published in 1959.
  • Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994); Jay Winik, On the Brink: The Dramatic, Behind the Scenes Saga of the Reagan Era and the Men and Women Who Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); Andrew E. Busch, “Ronald Reagan and the Defeat of the Soviet Empire,” Presidential Studies Quarterly (Summer 1997), pp. 451-466. The Reagan strategy to undermine Soviet power was laid out in secret National Security Decision Directives in 1982 and 1983 (NSDD-32, NSDD-66 and NSDD-75).
  • James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning of Destiny of Liberalism (Chicago: Regnery Books, 1985, first publ. 1964), pp., 301, 26.

 

 

The author, principal deputy attorney general for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, earned degrees at the University of Scranton and Dickinson University School of Law.

Comments are closed.