James Burnham: Reagan's Geopolitical Genius

James Burnham: Reagan's Geopolitical Genius

Afraid for the future of the West in the face of the Soviet threat, this former Trotskyite shaped Ronald Reagan's tough approach.

As the intellectual historian John P. Diggins pointed out, Burnham’s conclusions, though stark in their realism and disdain for utopian notions, were “far from pessimistic. If democracy, conceived in Lincolnesque terms as popular sovereignty and government by the people, was theoretically impossible, liberty and freedom, as expressed in and through organized opposition, could still prevail.” This became the bedrock of Burnham’s philosophy, and, decades later, he told an interviewer that he had not changed his “general point of view” in any fundamental way since The Machiavellians was published.


INDEED, THIS view undergirded his thinking as he turned his attention to the topic that would obsess him for the rest of his life—the threat to Western civilization from expanding Soviet totalitarianism. By this time it was clear that Germany and Japan would go down in defeat, that the British Empire would dissolve, that the Soviets would gobble up Eastern Europe and pose a mortal challenge to Western Europe, and that the fate of the West rested with America. Burnham foresaw that events unleashed by World War II were positioning Stalin to dominate what the celebrated British geopolitical analyst Halford Mackinder considered the most crucial swath of territory upon the globe: the Eurasian Heartland, impervious to sea power and from which the surrounding Coastland (Western Europe, China and India) would be vulnerable in the modern era of mechanized transportation. The key to global dominance was Eastern Europe, argued Mackinder, explaining, “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island” of both Heartland and Coastland. “Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

And now the Soviets had positioned themselves to grab Eastern Europe. Burnham, a student of Mackinder, anticipated a looming postwar crisis when he was asked by the wartime U.S. Office of Strategic Services to produce an analysis of the Soviet Union’s strategic ambitions. His study became a substantial part of his next book, The Struggle for the World (1947). “The Third World War,” it declared, “began in April, 1944.” This referred to a Soviet-inspired revolt of Greek soldiers and sailors against their British commanders in Alexandria. As Daniel Kelly explains, “Correctly understood, the mutiny amounted to a preliminary skirmish between communism and the West . . . in a new world war that was beginning before the old one had ended.”

Burnham feared that the West, lacking the necessary will in such a protracted crisis, would lock itself into a defensive posture that would prolong the struggle and preclude any eventual victory. That became his recurrent theme, interjected into his writings for the next thirty years, including in two books that, along with The Struggle for the World, constituted a kind of Cold War trilogy—The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950) and Containment or Liberation? (1953).

The Struggle for the World received from historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. a review that crystallized the new terms of responsible Cold War debate. Schlesinger, an anti-Communist liberal, pronounced the book “an able presentation of an allowable viewpoint” and added that it surpassed in logic “the confused and messy arguments of the appeasers.” But he thought Burnham focused too much on “the maximum Communist position” and slighted prospects for the emergence of “a minimum position” that might be fostered through deft American policies.

Instead, Schlesinger promoted the containment doctrine formulated by George F. Kennan. Burnham emerged as this doctrine’s leading critic. His alternative concept of “liberation” focused on political warfare, or “polwar”—propaganda efforts, support for local anti-Communist insurgencies, and covert operations aimed at undermining and perhaps overthrowing various Communist regimes. In Containment or Liberation?, he likened containment to a boxer’s strategy of merely parrying his opponent’s blows without delivering punches of his own. Returning to Mackinder, he argued that so long as the Soviets held Eastern Europe—enabling them to strengthen their hold on the Eurasian Heartland—they posed a mortal threat to the West and the rest of the world. What was needed, therefore, was a strategy aimed at dislodging their grip on this key European enclave.


SO ZEALOUS was Burnham in his anti-Communism that in 1949 he moved to Washington to work as an undercover consultant for the Office of Policy Coordination, a federal covert-action arm later incorporated into the CIA. He served there for four years, mostly in government-sponsored propaganda efforts. Then, in 1955, he began a twenty-three-year stint as senior editor and foreign-affairs columnist for William F. Buckley Jr.’s new magazine, National Review. Ultimately he became Buckley’s right-hand man, as well as acknowledged father figure, but to outsiders he was known largely for the stark realism and intellectual forcefulness of his column, entitled “The Third World War” (later “The Protracted Conflict”), which regularly highlighted what he considered the essential peril of the West in the face of global Communism and the inadequacy of Western resolve.

After the 1956 Hungarian uprising and Suez crisis, Burnham posited his “two zone” theory of the Cold War—the zone of peace and the zone of war. The zone of peace was the acreage already under Communist rule and thus “off limits to disturbers.” Soviet officials displayed an iron-fisted resolve to crush any effort to roll back these Communist gains. The zone of war was the acreage still free from Communist rule, always subject to Communist expansion. He added that, although the containment principle called for resistance to any attempted extension of the zone of peace, it never seemed to prevent slow, inexorable encroachment. Thus, when Communist dominance was extended to Cuba in 1959, America’s response was the half-hearted 1961 Bay of Pigs episode, which turned out to be a catastrophe. Even with the more favorable 1962 Cuban missile crisis outcome, President John F. Kennedy contented himself with getting rid of the missiles while accepting this provocative Communist regime inside the strategic threshold of the United States.

This, wrote Burnham, was “the essence of ‘the policy of peaceful coexistence,’” a product of containment, which served to remove serious diplomatic pressure from the Soviet regime. This state of play was brazenly codified in 1968 by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev when he declared that Communist party monopolies on power in all Communist states were inviolable and that all socialist countries must protect such monopolies wherever they were threatened. This attitude, quickly labeled the Brezhnev Doctrine, later was described by George Shultz as “What’s theirs is theirs; what’s ours is up for grabs.” The West’s willingness to play by these rules rankled Burnham.

It also rankled Ronald Reagan, and herein we see the significance of Burnham’s thinking in reversing America’s Cold War policy and contributing to the Soviet demise. The conventional wisdom today is that the Cold War was won largely through America’s long, patient application of Kennan’s containment policy. There is some truth in this. But the man who contributed most to that victory, and who read Burnham regularly in National Review, rejected many elements of containment that had become hallmarks of U.S. policy. Reagan was not a “realist” as that term has been applied to such figures as Kennan and Kissinger. He was, rather, a Burnhamite.

This comes into focus with a review of Burnham’s perspective on Cold War events as they unfolded over the decades. As early as the Berlin airlift, he lamented the West’s defensive posture at such flashpoint locations. He called the airlift “a decision not to decide”—leaving a festering sore in East-West relations unhealed—and felt vindicated thirteen years later when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev resolved the ongoing crisis in the Soviets’ favor by erecting the Berlin Wall. Burnham anticipated what would ensue in discussions to defuse the situation: “We grant them half or two-thirds or nine-tenths of what they have asked, and we ‘win’ one-tenth. Until the next round.”

Similarly, he opposed Kennedy’s Limited Test Ban Treaty, fearing it would let the Soviets off the hook from having to engage in a financially debilitating arms race. He foresaw the possibility of a sophisticated missile-defense system, and endorsed it for the same reason—as a means of draining Soviet resources as the USSR scrambled to keep up with the more technologically advanced West. He vehemently opposed the Nixon administration’s détente policies aimed at fostering a more friendly footing for U.S.-Soviet relations. He took particular aim at the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which granted the Soviet Union’s long-standing desire for legal recognition of its 1945 borders and expanded Soviet access to Western goods and technology. While Westerners tended to see détente as the “diplomatic equivalent of a business deal,” he wrote, the Soviets used it as “a cover for their fundamental strategy of aggression.”

Burnham also attacked the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which he argued would favor the Soviets. He vehemently opposed Nixon’s agreement to limit missile-defense systems, given that the United States could make serious technological progress in this realm and thus leave the Soviets gasping economically to catch up. “In any historical sequence,” he wrote, “it is the direction of change that counts. In this matter of strategic strength there can be no mistaking the direction: [U.S.] monopoly—superiority—parity—sufficiency—inferiority.” Such inferiority, he added, breeds “caution, yielding, unsureness on the one hand, and sometimes a desperate recklessness on the other.”