Neglected Classic Envisioned End of Cold War

Neglected Classic Envisioned End of Cold War
Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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Seventy years ago, the political philosopher and geopolitical strategist James Burnham (1905-1987) wrote "The Coming Defeat of Communism,' the second book in his brilliant Cold War trilogy (the others being "The Struggle for the World" and 'Containment or Liberation?'). When the book appeared in early 1950, the Sino-Soviet bloc had formed, geographically adding China’s long eastern seacoast to Soviet control of the Eurasian Heartland. The Korean War—the first kinetic war of the Cold War—would break out several months later.

Burnham in "The Struggle for the World" (1947) called the U.S.-Soviet conflict the “Third World War,” and he noted that the first “shots” of that war were fired even before the Second World War ended. In "The Coming Defeat of Communism," he explained that during the spring and summer of 1944, communist forces aligned to the Soviet Union in Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece and China “virtually ceased their operations against [the Axis powers] and concentrated their efforts against the rival, non-communist resistance movements.” The term “Cold War,” Burnham wrote, was a misnomer because fighting between communist and non-communist forces extended from the Balkans to Southwest and East Asia, including Malaya, Indochina, and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the Soviets extended their totalitarian empire to Eastern and Central Europe, while communist parties in Western Europe allied to the Soviet Union sought to achieve power by the ballot box in Italy and France.

'Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland'

The conquest of Eastern Europe and China were the most significant victories for the communist side in this war. The Sino-Soviet bloc presented the United States and the West with what appeared to be unified control of a huge swath of the Eurasian landmass supported by great natural and human resources and motivated by a revolutionary ideology that dreamed of global conquest. It was the great British geopolitical theorist Sir Halford Mackinder who warned: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island [Eurasia-Africa]; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Burnham, who studied, admired, and respected Mackinder’s worldview, sensed, however, that Eastern Europe and China were also potential vulnerabilities of the communist empire that the United States and the West could exploit. The Cold War was, he wrote in The Coming Defeat of Communism, a “political, subversive, ideological, religious, economic, Resistance, guerilla, sabotage war, as well as a war of open arms.” The Soviet-led communist empire was vulnerable, and it was essential for the United States to “know the enemy’s weaknesses.” Burnham identified those weaknesses as economic, political, ethnic and national, religious and cultural. U.S. policy, he wrote, should aggravate Soviet economic problems, encourage independence and resistance movements within the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, promote religious groups within the Soviet sphere, and seek to divide the communist bloc, as had already happened in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Burnham viewed the “masses” within the Soviet empire as potential allies in the global struggle. “[A] careful distinction must be made,” he wrote, “between Soviet rulers and the masses whom they rule.” The United States should support resistance groups and identify and promote potential leaders of such groups within the communist empire.

U.S. should aim to defeat communism without 'kinetic' war

The political goal of U.S. policy, Burnham explained, is to defeat communism without waging total kinetic war. The West’s victory, he wrote, “depends, in the last analysis, upon a sufficient internal breakup of the Soviet empire by revolutions of one kind or another — by political upsets which, whatever their social content and by whomever made, would at least crack the hold of the monolithic Kremlin machine.” This would include, he added, division within communist parties.

Burnham then set forth the five principal conditions that would spell the end of the Cold War: First, the end of Soviet-communist subversive activities within the U.S. and the West; second, the cessation of communist propaganda proclaiming world revolution; third, the total withdrawal of Soviet forces from all territory conquered or occupied since 1939; fourth, free and independent governments in the former satellite nations of Eastern Europe; and fifth, a significant modification of the structure of the Soviet regime. Remarkably, all of those conditions occurred between 1989-91.

A major contributing factor to the West’s victory in the Cold War was the Sino-Soviet split that began to emerge in the late 1950s, intensified in the 1960s, and that was brilliantly exploited by President Nixon in the early 1970s. In The Coming Defeat of Communism, Burnham hoped that China was “not altogether lost.” He advocated providing greater aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces and urged support for resistance forces on mainland China. In his later writings, Burnham applauded Nixon’s opening to China, but also presciently warned that China could someday replace the Soviet Union as our main adversary.

In the concluding paragraph of "The Coming Defeat of Communism," Burnham was uncharacteristically optimistic about the outcome of the Cold War. “The defeat of communism,” he wrote, . . . is . . . inevitable, because there are enough determined men in the world—and their number daily grows—who have so resolved.” “The issue,” he concluded, “is no longer in doubt.”

Burnham’s optimism did not last. In his next book, "Containment or Liberation?", he gloomily predicted that if the United States and other Western powers did not shift their overall strategy from containment to a more offensive policy of liberation, Soviet victory in the Cold War was likely. More than a decade later, Burnham in "Suicide of the West," worried that liberalism was leading the West on a path to geopolitical defeat. Events subsequently proved that his optimism in "The Coming Defeat of Communism" was warranted.



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