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Part Two

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.

This article appears in three parts.

 • Part One
 • Part Two
 • Part Three

“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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.


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


*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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