f Ronald Reagan was the political architect of the West’s Cold War victory, James Burnham was the intellectual architect. In a superb trilogy written between 1947 and 1952, and in his regular column in National Review between 1955 and 1978, Burnham supplied the grand strategy for the Soviet Empire’s defeat.
Conventional history credits American diplomat George F. Kennan’s strategy of containment, as set forth in his Long Telegram from Moscow in 1946 and his “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947, for maintaining the global balance of power while Soviet power, in Kennan’s words, “mellowed” or “broke-up.” But that’s only half the story. It is now clear that the Soviet Empire mellowed and broke-up in the late 1980s because of the West’s sustained pressure—economic, political, geopolitical, military—during that decade. Kennan’s passive containment was superseded by Burnham’s offensive policy of liberation.
The origins of Burnham’s Cold War strategy can be traced to portions of his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution, a memorandum he wrote for the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the spring of 1944 (later published in revised form in 1947’s The Struggle for the World) and an article he wrote in Partisan Review in 1945 entitled “Lenin’s Heir.” In those works, Burnham, borrowing generously from the ideas and concepts of Sir Halford Mackinder, explained his view of the geopolitical structure within which the Cold War would be waged.
Burnham’s intellectual debt to Mackinder is often overlooked or downplayed, though Daniel Kelly devotes a few pages to it in his excellent biography of Burnham. Burnham’s admirers more often trace his intellectual approach to the Cold War, and to politics in general, to the writers and political philosophers that he analyzed in The Machiavellians (1943).
The Machiavellians, however, had very little to say about geopolitics or foreign policy. At most, it armed Burnham to approach the emerging Cold War with a practical sense of how statesmen wield power. As he later acknowledged, The Machiavellians taught him that it was only by abandoning ideology and focusing on the experience of history that he could fully understand the world and man.
Burnham didn’t mention Mackinder in The Managerial Revolution but his description therein of the world’s geographic centers of power was reminiscent of Mackinder’s 1904 paper “The Geographical Pivot of History.” Mackinder’s “pivot state,” which he believed could serve as the strategic base for a world empire, occupied the northern-central core of Eurasia. Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution identified one of the competing centers of world power as the “Asiatic Center.”
When Burnham was writing The Managerial Revolution, Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe had invaded Soviet Russia and forced Soviet forces to retreat to the outskirts of Leningrad, Moscow, and Rostov. A German victory appeared imminent. Burnham foresaw, therefore, the possible break-up of Soviet power “with the western half gravitating toward [Europe]…and the eastern toward the Asiatic [Center].” More presciently, Burnham thought the war would result in the British Empire’s dissolution and its replacement as the “holder” of the global balance of power by the United States.
By 1944, however, it was evident that the Soviet Union would emerge victorious and dominate Burnham’s “Asiatic Center.” Burnham was then working as an analyst for the OSS, the CIA’s wartime predecessor. In the spring of 1944, he wrote a classified analysis of Soviet postwar goals, later published in The Struggle for the World.
Burnham sensed that what came to be called the Cold War actually started before the Second World War ended. Soviet forces and their proxies fought with an eye on the postwar settlement. Winston Churchill and William Bullitt, among others, urged President Roosevelt to do likewise, but FDR ignored their advice.
Burnham wrote his OSS paper with the assumption that the United States was already at war with the Soviet Union, placing the struggle within the context of geopolitics. Acknowledging his intellectual debt to Mackinder, Burnham wrote that the Soviet Union controlled the “inner Heartland” of “Central Eurasia,” and sought to dominate the Eurasian landmass. “Geographically, strategically,” Burnham warned, “Eurasia encircles America, overwhelms it.” He concluded that if the Soviets “succeed in extending their full direct control to the Atlantic, and in maintaining or extending their position on the Pacific, the odds on their victory would advance close to certainty.”
A year later in “Lenin’s Heir,” Burnham described the Soviet geopolitical threat to Eurasia: “Starting from the…core of 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.”
Burnham repeated this geopolitical analysis in his Cold War trilogy: The Struggle for the World (1947), The Coming Defeat of Communism (1949), and Containment or Liberation? (1952). In those books and his National Review columns, Burnham outlined the strategy of “liberation” or “rollback” that Ronald Reagan implemented during the 1980s.
Burnham acknowledged that containment was a necessary first step in winning the Cold War, but it was too defensive to achieve victory. U.S. policy, he wrote, should seek to “penetrate the communist fortress” and “reverse the direction of the thrust from the Heartland.” Our policy should “undermine communist power in East Europe, northern Iran, Afghanistan, Manchuria, northern Korea and China.” The Western powers, Burnham argued, should launch a subversive political, economic, cultural, and propaganda offensive against the Soviet Union. Such a strategy would result in putting the Soviets “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.”
Moreover, the West had allies within the Soviet Empire. “[T]he smashing of communism,” Burnham wrote, “should be accomplished from within, rather than by a war from the outside.” When the peoples and nations of the Soviet Empire “have rid themselves of their communist masters,” Burnham predicted, “we will find it easy enough to solve the now unanswerable riddle of ‘how to get along with Russia.’”
Two years later (in The Coming Defeat of Communism) Burnham called for a broad and sustained propaganda offensive that would declare that the United States and the West stood against communist totalitarianism, and for individual liberty and institutional restraints on power.
U.S. policy, Burnham argued, should attempt to cultivate allies within the Soviet bloc—the Catholic Church, Muslim populations, political dissidents, and nationalist forces that yearned to break free of the Soviet yoke. He suggested that in “Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, the Roman Catholic community constitutes a powerful Resistance element” that could be used to undermine Soviet rule. This would include covertly supplying weapons and other assistance to any armed resistance forces within the Soviet Empire. Burnham also urged Western policymakers to exploit divisions within the communist movement, supporting, at least temporarily, communist leaders who acted independent of Moscow.
The October 1949 communist victory in China’s civil war and China’s subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union added to the West’s strategic dilemma. The Sino-Soviet bloc controlled Mackinder’s Heartland, Eastern Europe, and much of central Asia. In Containment or Liberation?, Burnham warned that “If the communists succeed in consolidating what they have already conquered, then their complete world victory is certain.” “[T]he policy of containment,” he continued, “even if 100% successful, is a formula for Soviet victory.”
Hence the need for a policy of liberation—a political warfare strategy designed to exploit fissures within the Soviet Empire. “Its goal,” Burnham explained, “is freedom for the peoples and nations now enslaved by the Russian-centered Soviet state system—freedom for all peoples and nations now under communist domination, including the Russian people.” To achieve victory in the Cold War, Soviet control of Eastern Europe and its alliance with China had to end.
Between 1955 and 1978 Burnham used his column in National Review to advocate for the policy of liberation, even as each successive presidential administration adhered to containment. Eisenhower used the rhetoric of liberation but settled for containment in Korea, East Germany, and Hungary in the 1950s. Kennedy also substituted the rhetoric of freedom for action as the Soviets and their allies constructed the Berlin Wall, placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, and supplied weapons and advisers to communist forces in Vietnam without endangering any territory of their empire.
A frustrated Burnham described what he later called the “strategic prison of containment” in Suicide of the West (1964). The Soviets, he wrote, divided the world into the “the “zone of peace” and the “zone of war.”
“The zone of peace” means the region that is already subject to communist rule; and the label signifies that within their region the communists will not permit any political tendency, violent or non-violent, whether purely internal or assisted from without, to challenge their rule. “The zone of war” is the region where communist rule is not yet, but in due course will be, established; and within the zone of war the communists promote, assist and where possible lead political tendencies, violent or non-violent, democratic or revolutionary, that operate against non-communist rule.
Burnham’s peace zone/war zone dichotomy prefigured the Brezhnev Doctrine that manifested itself four years later in Czechoslovakia, and that acted as a self-imposed restraint on U.S. military operations during the war in Southeast Asia, resulting in our ignominious defeat (which Burnham predicted in a series of prescient National Review columns).
Though Burnham was a critic of the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente, he recognized the geopolitical value of the opening to China. The Sino-Soviet split ensured the geopolitical pluralism of Asia, and Sino-U.S. cooperation added to the strength of containment. But it did not translate into victory in the Cold War. Victory, as Burnham repeatedly wrote, required an offensive strategy.
During the 1980s, President Reagan signed national security directives and implemented policies that effectively changed U.S. strategy from containment to liberation. He used propaganda, support for resistance movements within the Soviet Empire, economic pressures, and cooperation with the Vatican to foster and exploit Soviet vulnerabilities in Eastern Europe and within Russia itself. He publicly called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and predicted that the West would transcend communism instead of containing it. Late in his presidency he challenged the Soviet leadership to tear down the Berlin Wall. Shortly after Reagan left office, the Wall came down and the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe collapsed. Burnham was vindicated.
Burnham did not live to see his policy of liberation succeed. He suffered a stroke in 1978 that prevented him from writing his National Review column. In 1983, President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Burnham died in 1987. His greatest achievement, writes The American Conservative’s Robert Merry, was “producing a strategic vision that ultimately, as embraced by Reagan, became the foundation for victory” in the Cold War.