James Burnham: Unheralded Prophet of the Cold War
In Washington, D.C., there are no statues of James Burnham. Most Americans know little or nothing about him. He was not a high-level U.S. government official. He was a writer, a political philosopher, and a geopolitician. He started his intellectual journey on the Left as a member of the Trotskyite faction of the international communist movement in the 1930s. He ended up writing for William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Burnham was an empiricist, not an ideologue. His intellectual heroes were Machiavelli, Mosca, Pareto and Michels—writers who studied history and the way ruling classes wielded political power. He accepted Toynbee’s historical view of the rise and fall of civilizations. And he viewed global politics through the timeless geopolitical lenses provided by Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman. As the year 1945 approached, Burnham used his formidable intellectual arsenal to discern the beginnings of the Cold War.
In the summer of 1944, the Allied armies in northwest Europe broke out of the Normandy beachhead, liberated Paris, and seemed on their way to victory in the west until the Allied broad-front strategy and the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes Forest halted their advance. In January 1945, the American army at great cost won the Battle of the Bulge. In the next month, Allied armies seized back the initiative and advanced against the German Reich along a broad front on their way to the Rhine River. Meanwhile, the last great Soviet offensive of the war began in the east with the goal of capturing Berlin. In February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at Yalta to negotiate Europe’s postwar boundaries. But as the Second World War wound down, a new war began, but few in the West noticed.
Postwar WW II peace didn't come to be
Wartime propaganda in the United States and England painted a favorable picture of our “heroic” Soviet ally. President Roosevelt engaged in what Robert Nisbet called “the failed courtship” of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Roosevelt, oblivious to the new war that had commenced, envisioned a postwar world in which peace would be guaranteed by a United Nations led by the five “great powers”: the United States, the Soviet Union, England, France, and China. It was all an illusion. The Cold War began even before the Second World War ended.
There were some in the American government that recognized the new geopolitical struggle that had emerged during the last phase of the war. William Bullitt, the former Ambassador to the Soviet Union and onetime Roosevelt confidant, tried in 1943 to warn FDR of Soviet postwar ambitions, but was rebuffed by the president. In the spring of 1944, James Burnham, then working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), wrote an analysis of Soviet postwar goals that foreshadowed the emerging Cold War, but there is no evidence that Burnham’s paper ever reached the White House.
With that as background, in the summer of 1944, Burnham wrote an article entitled “The Sixth Turn of the Communist Screw” in Partisan Review, a respected journal of the non-communist Left. In the article, Burnham divided Soviet policy into six historic periods: (1) “War Communism” that lasted from 1918-21; (2) the New Economic Policy (NEP), which continued until 1928; (3) the first Five Year Plans and the forced collectivization of agriculture that lasted from 1928-35; (4) the “Popular Front” that lasted until 1939; (5) the “Hitler Pact” during 1939-41, followed by an “interregnum” between 1941-43 when the very survival of the regime was at stake; and (6) the “Tehran” period that began in 1944.
Burnham warned of Stalin's desire to control Eurasia
Burnham provocatively concluded that, “the object of the present [Tehran] period is to end the European phase of the war on a basis favorable to the perspectives of the Soviet ruling class, i.e., in de facto Stalinist domination of the Continent.” Burnham claimed that the political goal of Soviet war policy was the domination of the Eurasian landmass. No summit meetings or wartime conferences of the “big three” could reconcile Soviet and Anglo-American postwar goals.
In September 1944, Burnham added to this prescient geopolitical analysis in an article in Commonweal entitled “Stalin and the Junkers.” In this largely forgotten article, Burnham foresaw that Stalin was cooperating with certain elements of the Prussian Junker class (who would eventually form the military leadership of the East German communist state) to “swing the German people within the orbit of a Soviet-led political system.” From the Soviet perspective, Burnham wrote, “Eurasia must be made, under Soviet leadership, an impregnable fortress. The European Continent must be so organized as to constitute the outer bastions of the fortress, not the spearhead of attack against the [Eurasian] heartland.” Stalin and German communists created the Free Germany Committee and planned to form a bloc with the Junkers, which would be “the wedge that opens the political gates into Germany.” This Soviet plan, Burnham wrote, “is independent of peace treaties, terms of military occupation, assignments of territory. The plan does not rest upon the forms of legal settlements but upon the realities of power and political ascendancy.” It is Stalin’s geopolitical plan, Burnham concluded, “upon whose outcome . . . rests the future of Europe, of Eurasia, and, perhaps, of the world.”
Burnham attempts to expose Soviet totalitarianism
Then in early 1945, Burnham’s article “Lenin’s Heir” appeared in Partisan Review. In “Lenin’s Heir,” Burnham attempted to expose the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system and to further explain the dangerous geopolitical situation confronting the West. It was both a brief preview of the grim details the West would learn from such writers as Robert Conquest and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a Churchillian warning about the emerging global geopolitical threat—sensational, provocative, forceful, accurate, and mostly ignored by Western leaders.
The Soviet Union, Burnham wrote, is the “most totalitarian state . . . that has ever existed.” It is the “most anti-democratic regime in world history.” Stalin “starved, by deliberate decision, several millions,” and liquidated “tens of thousands” of his perceived domestic opponents in purges and show trials. He deported millions of “class enemies” to Siberia. The Soviet economy, Burnham wrote, “rests integrally on fifteen or more millions of slave laborers in its work and concentration camps.”
And the Soviet terror state, Burnham argued, was not a Stalinist perversion of the Marxist-Leninist ideal, but rather the fulfillment of Leninism. “There is nothing basic that Stalin has done,” Burnham explained, “ . . . from the institution of terror as the primary foundation of the state to the assertion of a political monopoly, the seeds of which and even the shoots of which were not planted and flourishing under Lenin.” “Stalin,” Burnham bluntly wrote, “is Lenin’s heir. Stalinism is communism.”
Since 1939, Burnham wrote, Stalin’s geopolitical “moves have been marked by . . . boldness and dash.” First came the “Hitler Pact,” which enabled the Soviets to annex the Baltic nations, Bessarabia and Bukovena. Later in the war, Stalin successfully supported Tito over Mikhailovitch in Yugoslavia, installed communist puppets in Czechoslovakia and Poland, promoted the Free Germany movement in a bloc with Prussian Junkers to establish allies in Germany, helped maintain communist forces in China in their internal struggle against the Nationalist government, and engineered the overthrow of the Iranian government. “During these war years,” Burnham continued, “Stalin has never once lost the political initiative.”
Burnham sounded alarm in many ways
And Stalin’s political initiatives were grounded in what Burnham called “a geopolitical vision.” That vision was the geopolitical nightmare that Mackinder had written about in his 1919 classic Democratic Ideals and Reality. “Out of this war,” Burnham wrote, “ . . . Stalin has translated into a realistic political perspective the dream of theoretical geopolitics: domination of Eurasia.”
“Starting from the magnetic core of the Eurasian heartland,” Burnham continued, “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.” Soviet power, he explained, absorbed the Baltics and part of Central Europe, dominated Finland, the Balkans, Mongolia, and North China, politically influenced Italy, France, Turkey, Iran, central and south China, and seeks to infiltrate England and the United States.
At the end of “Lenin’s Heir,” Burnham argued that these truths about the Soviet Union “are indispensible for an understanding of what is now happening in the world, and for the choice of a viable attitude toward what is happening.” Events confirmed Burnham’s assessment, though he largely remains an unheralded prophet. More than a year before George Kennan sent his “Long Telegram” from Moscow and Winston Churchill delivered his “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, James Burnham, to his everlasting credit, sounded the alarm about the growing Soviet threat to the world.