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Part Three

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.

This article appears in three parts.

 • Part One
 • Part Two
 • Part Three

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.”

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.”

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.

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).

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.

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.  

*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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