By Francis P. Sempa

James Burnham (1905–1987) was an American political philosopher and public intellectual who traveled the intellectual journey from Marxism (the Trotskyite version) to conservatism. When he broke with Marxism in the late 1930s, he began writing for Partisan Review, a leading journal of the non-communist Left. Shortly after the outbreak of the European phase of the Second World War, Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution (1941), a book that was part sociology and part geopolitics.

During the war, Burnham was an analyst for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime U.S. intelligence agency. In the spring of 1944, he wrote an analysis of Soviet/Communist postwar goals based on his understanding of the ideology of communism, Russian history, and classical geopolitics. After the war, Burnham wrote a Cold War trilogy—The Struggle for the World (1947), The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950), and Containment or Liberation? (1952)—wherein he advocated “rolling back” communism on the Eurasian landmass. Three years later, Burnham wrote The Web of Subversion, which identified and analyzed communist infiltration of U.S. government agencies in the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s.

In 1955, Burnham was recruited by William F. Buckley Jr to serve as Senior Editor of National Review. Burnham wrote a regular column for National Review until 1978, when a debilitating stroke ended his writing career. Burnham died in 1987 at the age of 82.

Burnham’s influence as a public intellectual was substantial. As an early Cold War liberal, Burnham joined with other academics and writers to wage a cultural war against communism in the 1940s. As a conservative polemicist, Burnham taught a generation of scholars and political leaders (including Ronald Reagan) about communism and global geopolitics.

Burnham understood that communism was a global phenomenon, and he wrote frequently about the Far East—what we now call the Asia-Pacific. Those writings have historical value—they were an important part of the discussions and debates, especially on the conservative side of the political spectrum, during the Cold War. But Burnham’s writings transcend the Cold War era because some of the factors he analyzed—communism, geopolitics, and the way leaders use political power—are still very much relevant to current international politics, including the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific.

Burnham first discussed Asian geopolitics in 1941 in The Managerial Revolution, where he envisioned a post–World War II world dominated by three “power centers” or “super-states,” including “the Asiatic Center.” He described the Asiatic Center as East and southwest Asia and the islands along the Pacific rim of East Asia. Those regions contained sufficient population and advanced industry to support power of global reach. The postwar world, he predicted, will see a “struggle among these strategic centers for world control.”

He described communism as a “managerial ideology” designed to enable a tiny vanguard or elite to rule over the masses and control them. Communism (and fascism) created a ruling class that monopolized privilege and power—a nomenklatura. This description perfectly describes the current leadership of China’s Communist Party.

Two years later, Burnham wrote what many of his admirers believe was his most important book, The Machiavellians, wherein he formulated a “science of power” to analyze political leaders and the exercise of political power. All Burnham’s subsequent writings manifested the “science of power” that he first explained in The Machiavellians.

In his first postwar book, The Struggle for the World (part of which was a declassified version of his 1944 OSS paper), Burnham wrote that the Cold War (which he called the “Third World War”) began in the waning months of the Second World War. In the Far East, China’s communist leaders supported by the Soviet Union renewed their struggle with the U.S.-supported Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek. “The armed skirmishes of a new war,” explained Burnham, “have started before the old war is finished.”

The Cold War was a bipolar struggle for world dominion, and its geographical setting corresponded roughly to Sir Halford Mackinder’s geopolitical concepts. Soviet-led communism was based in the Heartland of Eurasia. The goal of world communism was to absorb Eastern and Central Europe, dominate China and the Far East, “Finlandize” Western Europe, and infiltrate and demoralize the British Empire and the United States. Mackinder in 1919 had written that command of the Heartland and Eastern Europe could result in political domination of the Eurasian-African “World-Island.” China’s population and access to the sea could one day make it the primary bidder for global preeminence.

In the Far East, Burnham wrote, if the U.S. fails to understand that the struggle in China is “between the communist power and the American power, … then we know nothing.” The primary reason to support Chiang, Burnham explained, was that he served as “a shield of the United States against the thrust of communist power out of the Heartland.” U.S. policy, he continued, must aim to prevent other regions of Eurasia, including China and India, “from being incorporated within the communist Eurasian fortress … ” A wholly defensive policy, however, would not suffice. The U.S. “must strive to undermine communist power in … Manchuria, northern Korea, and China.”

Burnham opposed U.S. efforts to form a coalition government that included Nationalists and communists. “There can never be a genuine coalition between the Kuomintang and the communists,” he explained. “The objective of the communists is not to make China a unified democratic nation, but to turn it into a communist totalitarian province.” U.S. policy under the Truman administration, Burnham contended, “prolongs and deepens” China’s civil war. We should provide “all material aid necessary to Chiang, and nothing whatsoever for the communists.”

Writing two years later in The Coming Defeat of Communism, Burnham asserted that communism’s greatest triumphs have been in Asia. Communists controlled Manchuria, northern Korea, and much of China, their destructive influence had spread to Burma and Malaysia, and they were probing into southern Korea and even Japan. The Cold War had turned “warm” in Asia.

Burnham believed that there was potential to wean communist leaders from Soviet control, as happened in Tito’s Yugoslavia. He recommended exploiting the fissures and vulnerabilities within the communist movement throughout the world—a political, subversive form of warfare. He advocated forming covert partnerships with opposition forces in all communist countries, including China. Americans needed to abandon their tendency to “see the Far East through a heavy cloud of liberal sentimentality.”

The loss of China was a disaster, but Burnham advocated supporting anticommunist resistance forces there “to keep alive and nourish in China an anti-communist hope, a Resistance which, blocking meanwhile the consolidation of the communists’ Far Eastern position, will be able to join in the offensive” policy of Liberation.

In Burnham’s next book, Containment or Liberation?, he described containment’s failure to halt the communist advance in Asia. He reminded readers of Lenin’s famous quote in 1923 that in the final analysis “the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, and China … constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe.” “If the communists succeed in organizing Asia’s space and inhabitants into a going system, they will have a more than adequate geopolitical base from which to achieve world domination,” he wrote. The “conquest, consolidation, and development of the Asiatic Coastlands (China, Southeast Asia, India),” he continued, “would make eventual Soviet world victory certain.”

The policy of Liberation, or what others called “rollback,” was necessary, Burnham wrote, because after the conquest of Eastern Europe and China the communists controlled so much of the population and the resources of the Eurasian continent that if they “succeed in consolidating what they have already conquered, then their complete world victory was certain.” That is why he believed and wrote that containment, even if successful, was a “formula for Soviet victory.” Mackinder’s nightmare was close to being realized.

Burnham’s advocacy of the policy of Liberation and his refusal to condemn congressional investigations into communist infiltration of the U.S. government led to his break with many liberal anti-communists in the United States. He was clearly moving to the ideological Right. And he joined the fierce domestic debate in the United States over the question: “Who lost China?” Burnham began writing for The American Mercury and The Freeman, two conservative publications. In 1954, he wrote The Web of Subversion, an analysis of communist infiltration of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

He wrote about communist spies, agents of influence, and innocent dupes who he believed exercised influence on U.S. policy toward the Far East. He identified public officials in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations that had been identified as communists or agents of influence by Soviet defectors. He discussed the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), the Amerasia case, and other revelations from investigations by congressional committees. This “web of subversion,” he wrote, worked to dissuade American policymakers from aiding Chiang in the Chinese civil war, and later helped reconcile the United States to accept less than victory in the Korean War.

In his National Review articles from 1955 to 1978, Burnham continued to write about the Cold War in the Far East through the lens of classical geopolitics, and he continued to urge U.S. policymakers to abandon the defensive policy of containment.

His critique of containment was summarized in his 1964 book Suicide of the West. “The communists,” he explained, “divide the world into the ‘zone of peace’ and the ‘zone of war.’ ‘The zone of peace’ means the region that is already subject to communist rule; and … within their region the communists will not permit any political tendency … 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 … that operate against non-communist rule.” The United States and the West, he complained, accepted this peace zone–war zone dichotomy, and it resulted strategically in communist victories but never communist defeats.

In a 1957 column, Burnham wrote about Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s visit to Poland and Hungary. Zhou’s visit was an Asian leader “actively intervening in the public affairs of Europe.” Many Asians believe, Burnham wrote, that the twentieth century was witnessing a great “reawakening of Asia” that will replace the West as global organizer. “Asians,” he explained, “ordinarily think in longer time cycles than are natural to Western minds.” The Chinese communists envision a “coming Asian world order.” Burnham could have been describing current Chinese leader Xi Jinping who many believe is working today toward a Chinese-led world order.

In a later column, Burnham recognized that Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez created a power vacuum that would result in a struggle for strategic control of the Indian Ocean between the United States and Soviet-led communism. Today, the Indian Ocean has become the strategic “pivot” of the global struggle between the United States and China’s Communist Party.

Burnham wrote a series of columns in 1961 during visits to Manila, Quemoy (Kinmen), and Bangkok. He attended the Seventh Annual Conference of the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League in Manila, which hosted delegates from twenty Asian nations, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. In Quemoy, he visited with its commanding general and civil governor Liu An-chih, and he wrote that Quemoy was “the plug in Taiwan’s defense arc” and was symbolically comparable to West Berlin, “an inescapable symbol that the communist triumph is neither complete nor final.”

In two columns in January 1956, Burnham addressed what he called the “Soviet-Indian courtship” and recommended that the U.S. side with Pakistan to offset “Soviet-Indian political solidarity.” He decried those in America who sympathized with India because it was a democracy. “[A] nation’s foreign relations,” he wrote, “are in general governed by interest, not by gratitude or abstract principle.” Today, of course, Pakistan is siding with China while the U.S. is courting India. Burnham would have understood—strategic alliances are never permanent. As Lord Palmerston said, the only things that are eternal in global affairs are a nation’s interests.

Burnham also wrote many columns on the Vietnam War, which he viewed in the global context of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, he suggested that we should either fight to win or get out. He ridiculed the Paris Peace Accords for ensuring a communist victory. The U.S. lost the war, he wrote, because of its adherence to the “strategic prison” of containment. And he understood, and wrote, that a U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia would have negative geopolitical consequences.

Many of Burnham’s columns dealt with the Sino-Soviet relationship. As early as March 1956, he wrote that the Sino-Soviet relationship was not as solid as some in the U.S. imagined. In another column that year, Burnham saw the first manifestation of the emerging Sino-Soviet rift. China’s Mao Zedong, he wrote, sees himself as the leader of world communism—the natural successor to Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. In December 1956, Burnham wrote that China “was never fully integrated” within the Soviet communist apparatus. Three years later Burnham highlighted the distrust between Chinese and Soviet leaders. He described the rift between Moscow and Beijing as “bitter,” and predicted that someday it will “be a lot more bitter,” but he emphasized neither had abandoned the goal of world revolution. Their dispute was an “intra-Communist struggle” that could weaken the communist movement “irrecoverably.” “We should do all we can,” he wrote, “… to keep the fight going and to exacerbate it to a maximum.” He suggested—in 1963—helping the Chinese because they were the weaker party to the conflict. The worst possible outcome, he wrote, would be a reunification of the Sino-Soviet bloc.

After the dramatic Nixon-Kissinger “opening to China,” Burnham wrote that the rapprochement between the U.S. and China was in America’s interest, but he cautioned that the Chinese regime remained a “revolutionary power” that sought to expand its interests in what we now call the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Several Burnham columns commented on the importance of Taiwan in the Far Eastern Cold War. Burnham called Taiwan “a key link in [the U.S.] western frontier, which runs from the Aleutians down the Japanese islands, the Ryukyus (Okinawa) … to the Philippines.” Taiwan, he continued, commanded “China’s … vulnerable and all-important north-south communications, both by water and (through the use of airpower) by land.” If Communist China conquers Taiwan, Burnham argued, it would open a gaping hole in the American defense perimeter in the Pacific Rim. At stake in China’s threats to Quemoy, Matsu, and Taiwan was, he believed, “the integrity of the West’s Pacific frontier; the allegiance of the overseas Chinese in the great Pacific ports; the political attitude of allied and neutralist Asians.” Burnham thought Taiwan so important that in a column in October 1958, he recommended the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend it.

After the U.S. opening to China, Burnham resigned himself to China’s probable “reabsorption” of Taiwan, and wrote that the process had already begun. He did not accuse Nixon of “betraying” Taiwan—“the only country anyone can betray,” he wrote, “is his own.” He did not oppose a “reversal of alliances” if U.S. security was thereby enhanced. “Commitments,” he wrote in another column on Taiwan, “… come and go … and the latest in time takes precedence over the earlier.” By 1977, however, he called those who supported the “shameless sellout” of Taiwan “capitulationists.” A year later, he urged both the establishment of full diplomatic relations with China and continued support for Taiwan—essentially what continues to be U.S. policy today.

Always the geopolitical realist, Burnham in two of his last columns in 1978 urged the United States to “correlate its policy with the global strategic pattern.” “[I]t would be turning strategy upside down,” he wrote, “to let … sentiment … determine policy … toward Taiwan and China.” “The national interest,” he continued, “is the most reliable coach in the Game of Nations.… Taiwan’s relative political, economic, and strategic importance is rapidly declining.” He hoped that the Taiwan problem would “fade” and that Taiwan would become a “new and greater Hong Kong.”

Burnham did not neglect South Asia in his columns. He highlighted the importance of Indonesia and Singapore and the sea lanes through which much of the world’s commerce traveled. The South Seas, Burnham understood, connected the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Today, this maritime highway is central to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is through the South Seas that two-thirds of the world’s oil and one-third of its bulk cargo are transported each year.

As policymakers and strategists decide how best to accomplish our “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, they should keep Burnham in mind. His writings help shed light on previous events and power struggles in the Asia-Pacific. The details of Burnham’s analyses of previous Far Eastern issues and conflicts, however, are less important than his overall approach to international politics. He was the consummate geopolitical realist and empiricist. He did not embrace his later identification as a conservative; instead he rejected ideology, once writing that it was only by discarding all ideologies that we could begin to understand the world and man.

He carefully and brilliantly studied power and the way elites used power in the world. He recognized the importance of geography to the study of history and contemporary events. “History,” he once wrote, “is not a theorem of geometry or a game of chess.” It does not proceed “according to ideal rules that we impose upon” it. Although impersonal forces, like geography, help shape history and events, human beings with all of their flaws, faults, hopes, and dreams, make history and determine the course of events. Burnham understood that, and that is why his writings are still relevant to the world around us. 

Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.