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 Part One

“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. . . .”

This article appears in three parts.

  • Part One
  • Part Two
  • Part Three

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.

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’.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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


(This article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two.)


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

American Diplomacy               Vol. V, No. 4               Fall 2000
Copyright © 2000 American Diplomacy Publishers, Durham NC
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 Sunday, December 3, 2000 
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