Nobody was as important to the definition of modern American conservatism as James Burnham, a quiet, urbane man of encyclopedic powers who died in Kent, Connecticut, a few weeks ago at the age of 82. In a series of books published from 1947 to 1964, Burnham laid the foundations of conservative foreign policy. He provided not only a critique of the prevailing containment doctrine but also an alternative of his own: the “liberation” or “rollback” of the Soviet empire.
Burnham is a kind of cult hero for many conservatives. In 1983 Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the first conservative intellectual to be so honored. At National Review’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1980, William F. Buckley described Burnham, who was a senior editor and foreign policy columnist at the magazine from 1955 to 1978, as “the dominant intellectual influence in the development of this journal.” Patrick Buchanan dutifully reread The Suicide of the West (1964) the summer before joining the White House as communications director in 1985. Daniel Oliver, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, keeps a framed set of Burnham’s sayings near his desk. Former Ambassador Evan Galbraith has said of Burnham that “his Suicide of the West was the piece of work that said it all.”
But Burnham’s legacy is more ambiguous than many of his followers care to admit. His strategy was based on apocalyptic and highly abstract assumptions about the Soviet Union and the clash between East and West, but his tactical advice was almost unfailingly based on concrete and realistic assessments of the American and world situation. Burnham’s political sensibility also differed from that of many of his disciples. Except during the last months of his life, when he rejoined the Catholic Church, Burnham was not a religious man. He had a cynical view of society. Although he moralized against the Soviet Union, he viewed both national and international conflict entirely as a struggle for power. Power, rather than good and evil, was Burnham’s absolute. He framed his proposals for an American offensive not in terms of a Wilsonian quest for global democracy, but in terms of American national interest.
The key to understanding Burnham is his evolution from Trotskyism to conservatism. Unlike some former communists, Burnham did not move quickly from left to right. He spent more than a decade trying to sort out the assumptions he had acquired during his years on the left. The two books that he wrote while in transition—The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians—are his best. And the political position that Burnham finally adopted bore very important traces of, and scars from, his Trotskyist past.
Even though he was several years their junior, Burnham is best grouped with Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, and the other intellectuals who came of age in the bohemian ‘20s rather than with those who matured in the more conformist Popular Front ‘30s. Burnham was an individualist: his first commitment was to ideas rather than to political movements; and he was willing to revise his ideas even if it meant threatening political loyalties. His model of worldly success was the artist rather than the political leader. Throughout his life he remained detached from the struggle for supremacy within the organizations and institutions in which he found himself. His most noted quality was his reserve. Yet he retained a curious intellectual fascination with social collectivity and political power.
Born in Chicago in 1905, the son of a railroad executive, Burnham was educated at Princeton, and then at Oxford, where he became a Marxist. In 1930 he was hired to teach in New York University’s philosophy department. His colleague William Barrett remembers that he “bore the stamp of the gentleman in his bearing—so much so that in comparison with some of the more raucous types of the New York intellectual he appeared almost shy and diffident.” But Burnham’s calm and urbane exterior concealed an ardor for ideological disputation.
From the first, Burnham was drawn toward the more skeptical and critical politics of the Trotskyist movement, whose adherents believed in political organization but insisted on retaining their intellectual independence. It was a politics of total opposition, to both capitalist and (existing) socialist society. If American Communism’s vice was lockstep sectarianism. Trotskyism’s foible was schismatic individualism. In 1934 Burnham joined the Workers Party (later the Socialist Workers Party)—the group committed both to Trotsky’s belief that Stalin had betrayed the ideals of the 1917 revolution and to support of the Soviet Union against capitalist encirclement. After the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact in 1939 and the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1940, Burnham decided that the Soviet Union was no better than its capitalist adversaries. He resigned from the Workers Party in May 1940. Over the next five years, Burnham’s reflections on the nature and the possibility of socialism propelled him from left to right, from the idealism of his Trotskyist days to the cynical realism that underlay his conservatism.
In The Managerial Revolution (1941) and The Machiavellians (1943), Burnham described a world divided between managerial and capitalist states. He saw the Soviet Union as neither capitalist nor socialist, but as evolving, along with the United States, Germany, and Japan, toward a new form of managerial society, characterized by state-bureaucratic rather than individual-capitalist control of the economy. He described Soviet socialism and internationalism as “ideologies” or “myths” whose “formal meaning” differed from their “real meaning.” Burnham did not abandon Marxism, but he abandoned its precise view of the stages of history. Instead of socialism following capitalism, managerialism followed capitalism, and socialism became a distant goal: “The results of [the Soviet] experiment are evidence for the view that socialism is not possible of achievement or even of approximation in the present period of history.”
The strength of The Managerial Revolution lay in its novel characterization of the Soviet Union as neither capitalist nor socialist. Its weakness was the inference that a worldwide managerial revolution was supplanting capitalism. Just as the Soviets had mistaken the Bolshevik revolution for a socialist revolution, Burnham mistook the displacement of laissez-faire by corporate capitalism for a revolution that was toppling capitalism itself. The Managerial Revolution also reflected a certain subservience to events: the book’s theory of contemporary history arose directly from the Nazi-Soviet pact, which, to Burnham, appropriately united the managerial states of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany against the bulwark of entrepreneurial capitalism. Great Britain, George Orwell, in a review of the book, attributed Burnham’s overestimation of Nazi Germany and later of Soviet Russia to his “power worship,” Indeed, Burnham tended to endow militaristic states such as Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia with almost magical capacities.
Ironically, Burnham’s allegiance to Trotskyism had kept this tendency in his thought under wraps. In the ‘30s Trotskyism demanded of its adherents a subtle balancing act between good and evil and between criticism and support. Once removed from the Trotskyist movement’s organizational and intellectual grasp and thrown on his own, Burnham retained his critical individualism, but constantly fell prey to a contrary tendency to absolutize and exaggerate the terms of global conflict.
In The Machiavellians, Burnham attempted to summarize the intellectual contribution of Machiavelli and his modern followers. In this abstract work, he broke more clearly with the fundamental political and historical tenets of Marxism, and the book’s cynical realism reflected his final abandonment of any hope of a non-Stalinist socialist future. Burnham denied the Marxist (and liberal) notion that the quest for freedom or for social justice was relevant to politics. Politics, he contended in The Machiavellians, is based on “the struggle for social power in its diverse open and concealed forms,” All societies, he maintained, are divided into classes of the
ruling and the ruled, and the ruling class or elite perpetuates its through “force and fraud,” The fraud need not be conscious; it can consist of what Marx called “ideology,” Georges Sorel called “myth,” and Gaetano Mosca called the “political formula.” The role of the ruling elite is to govern by means of religious myths or the utopian fantasies of Western democracy or Soviet socialism. Even though “a scientific attitude does not permit belief in the truth of myths… the leaders must profess, indeed foster, belief in the myths, or the fabric of society will crack, and they will be overthrown.”
The role of the political scientist, on the other hand, is to discover “the laws of political life” by laying bare the relationship between political myth and the reality it is intended to sustain. The political scientist has to be guided by scientific realism rather than by utopian or Platonic idealism, Machiavelli, Burnham noted, was a republican who would have liked to rid Italy of princes and kings, but who didn’t let his own political ideals blind him to the fact that only a prince could unify Italy.
In The Machiavellians, Burnham denied that socialism was possible. Following the modern Machiavellians, he insisted that there would always be a ruling class and a ruled. Revolutions consisted in “very rapid shifts in the composition and structure of elites,” rather than in the total destruction of elite rule. Thus capitalism was being displaced by managerialism—the rule of economic and bureaucratic elites— rather than by Marx’s or Trotsky’s “utopian” concept of socialism. The relevant distinction was no longer between class and classless societies, but between different kinds of elite rule, Burnham distinguished a “democratic” form of elite rule from a “totalitarian” one by “the right of opponents of the governing elite to express publicly their opposition view and to organize to implement those views,” And as a form of elite rule, socialism tended naturally toward totalitarianism.
The position Burnham took in The Machiavellians was uncomfortable, poised between the broken dreams of capitalism and socialism. Like Max Eastman and other newfound critics of Marxism, Burnham understood the looming contradiction between political freedom and the expansion of state economic power. But unlike Eastman, and right-wing Republicans, he was not drawn to a laissez-faire paradise Lost. “It is in any case impossible,” eh wrote, “to return to private [entrepreneurial] capitalism.”
His view of humanity was deeply cynical, conditioned by the ostensible failure of the Soviet experiment and by two world wars. He had adopted Marx’s critique of politics in a class society but he had rejected Marx’s classless solution. His political sociology lacked the recognition—central even to Marxism—that the growth of capitalism might be freeing human beings to engage in the kinds of activities once reserved for a prevailed few.
But if Burnham was cynical, his critics tended to sound like the utopians he railed against. Orwell proffered democratic socialism as the alternative to Burnham’s world ruled by “the lust for naked power.” But neither Orwell nor other socialists of the ‘40s could explain how government ownership might be reconciled with the expansion, rather than the constriction, of political democracy. Orwell clung to the conviction that immediately after the war “the Russian regime will either democratize itself, or it will perish.”
In some respects, Burnham’s position in The Machiavellians was similar to the post-socialist liberalism that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr developed after World War II. All three opted for imperfection over perfection. But Burnham was unwilling to stake American’s future on Kenesian economics and Truman’s foreign policy. The Machiavellians remained a transitional work, pointing toward the new anticommunist conservatism that Burnham would develop in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
When he wrote The Machiavellians in 1943, Burnham believed that the three most advanced managerial states, the United States, Germany, and Japan, would emerge from World War II as the new loci of world power. When the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany, he radically revised his own views. Burnham worked during the war in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence service that later gave way to the CIA, where many believed that the principal postwar conflict would be between the United States and Great Britain over the disposition of the developing nations. Burnham was among the first to insist that the Soviet Union would emerge as the United States’ principal adversary.
But having underestimated the Soviet Union, Burnham now endowed Stalin and the Soviet Union with a magical potency in the service of evil. In an essay entitled “Lenin’s Heir,” published in Partisan Review in 1946, he abandoned the last vestiges of the Trotskyist analysis of Stalin and the Soviet Union and insisted that Stalin was not a second-rate apparatchik, as Trotsky had charged, but a “great man,” that Stalin, not Trotsky, was Lenin’s political heir. Burnham became so enthusiastic in describing Stalin’s successes as a ruthless dictator (“His liquidation of the various oppositions… is classically molded. The Moscow trials have stood the test of action”) that Dwight Macdonald misread the essay as a “left-handed apology for Stalinism.”
Burnham concluded that “Stalinism is communism.” He insisted that Stalin, through “an act of creative political imagination,” had replaced Marx and Lenin’s “abstract internationalism” with a new “multinational Bolshevism” that allowed the different Communist parties to embrace rather than reject their own national heritages. But contrary to the scientific method he had described in The Machiavellians, Burnham rested his case on theoretical rather than historical grounds. If politics was the struggle for power, then international politics was the struggle for absolute power, or world domination. It thus made sense to Burnham, even without empirical evidence, that “Bolshevism (communism) . . . is a conspiratorial movement for the conquest of a monopoly of power in the era of capitalist disintegration.” It made equal sense to posit a struggle to the death between the United States and the Soviet Union—which is precisely what Burnham did posit in his next book.
The Struggle for the World appeared in March 1947, in the very week that Truman announced his intention to contain communism in Greece. From this coincidence, some reviewers inferred that Burnham’s book, the first part of which was an OSS study, was designed as a rationale for the administration’s policy, But in its emphasis on “offensive” rather than “defensive” strategy, and in its apocalyptic view of the Soviet Union, it was the first statement of what Burnham later labeled the “liberation” or “rollback” doctrine.
In The Struggle for the World, Burnham announced that in April 1944, when Communist-led Greek sailors had revolted, “the Third World War had begun.” The only alternative was for either the United States of the Soviet Union to establish a “universal empire” based on a monopoly of nuclear weapons. Burnham’s strategic deliberations were founded on his view of Stalinism and communism not only as a doctribe, but as a historical fixed state incapable of internal alteration. He argued that in order to withstand the Soviet threat, the United States would have to establish a network of hegemonic alliances (similar to what later became NATO, SEATO, and so on) and colonial and neocolonial relationships. (He candidly acknowledged that such an American empire already existed in Latin America and the South Pacific.) To sustain the empire in the face of Soviet aggression, America would also have to maintain its monopoly of nuclear weapons, and be “willing to fight,” presumably with those very weapons.
Burnham discussed both the possibility of nuclear war and the necessity of an American imperial presence with a frankness entirely missing from the talk of American policy-makers of the period, who were intent on selling America’s postwar foreign policy as a renewal of Wilsonianism. But Burnham’s book was also a deeply troubled, perhaps somewhat paranoid work, in which his earlier subtlety was abandoned for an apocalyptic— indeed a mythic—view of world politics.
His earlier understanding of the Soviet Union as a country neither socialist nor capitalist—as a curious hybrid that defied the current categorizations— broke important ground and might have been the basis for a more frutful theory of contemporary history. In The Struggle for the World, however, he abandoned what was most valid in his managerial theory, and in the method of The Machiavellians. John Patric Diggins, in his perceptive study Up from Communism, has remarked on the “curious discrepancy” in this period between “Burnham’s professed political theory [in The Machiavellians] and his actual political behavior, between Machiavelli’s sense of skepticism and moderation and Burnham’s absolute certainty about the course of history.”
The Struggle for the World was not a partisan work. But in 1953 Burnham published a book that was highly critical of the Truman administration’s containment doctrine. In Containment or Liberation?, he criticized George Kennan (who had formulated the containment doctrine in his famous cable from Moscow in 1947) and other liberal Democratic architects of cold war foreign policy. And Burnham also expounded what became known to conservatives as the chief alternative to containment: the doctrine of liberation or rollback.
He charged that Kennan’s and the Democrats’ containment policy was a classic balance-of-power strategy, based on understanding the Soviet Union as an “extension of czarist imperialism.” Burnham contended that the Soviet Union was “an entirely new revolutionary power” that had “irrevocably set itself the objective of monolithic world domination.” It could not be contained like the typical “post-Renaissance nation-state”:
It is hard to see what it means to try to “contain” a universalistic militant secular religion, based on a vast land mass inhabited by 800 million humans, which irrevocably set itself the objective of monolithic world domination and which already exists and acts inside every nation in the world.
If the containment strategy was followed, Burnham warned, the United States was doomed. He expressed his fear in a fine metaphor of paranoia: “How could a man sleep secure if he lives in the path of a rock big enough to crush his house to bits, and poised to drop at the shove of a surly neighbor?”
Burnham called for an offensive strategy, aimed not merely at containing communism within its post-Yalta limits, but at overthrowing Soviet client governments in Eastern Europe. He recommended an “open policy of liberation toward the USSR and its satellites and captive nations.” And though he warned against encouraging “premature narrow uprisings,” he insisted that we would have to be prepared for war:
What if in a captive nation a broad mass uprising against the regime began? Or what if one of the communist governments, supported by the majority of the people, decided against Moscow? And, in either case, what if help were then asked from the free world?.... Would not passivity under such circumstances be a final proof of the irreversibility of communist world victory?
Containment or Liberation? was one of Burnham’s least convincing works. Much of the evidence he adduced was flatly disproved by events, (In arguing against containment, for instance, Burn- ham insisted that the Truman administration had failed to build a “situation of socioeconomic strength” in Western Europe,) Yet it exerted a great appeal among conservatives and extreme anti- communists looking for an authoritative and scientific study that could sustain their quasi-theological understanding of the cold war. Containment or Liberation?, along with Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, quickly became a classic of modern conservative thought. And since the ‘50s, most conservative writing on foreign policy has simply been a gloss on its argument. But Burnham himself, though he adhered rhetorically to the strategy of Containment or Liberation?, would surprise his foll0wers by appearing to depart from his own strategy in practice.
In the late 1940s, when he was developing his liberation doctrine, Burnham described himself (under the influence of his friend Andre Malraux) as being neither on the right nor the left. But he belonged to liberal intellectual circles. He remained close to the anticommunist liberals on Partisan Review and in the American Congress for Cultural Freedom. After the war he became a consultant to the newly formed CIA, an institution identified with liberal anticommunism, where he served as a source of information and analysis for agents and helped to organize the International Congress for Cultural Freedom, of which the American Congress was a branch.
His books were denounced equally on the pro-Soviet left and the isolationist right. Working out of his Washington home, he maintained his detachment from the centers of power even as he served them. Howard Hunt, a fledging CIA agent in the late ‘40s, recalled visiting Burnham:
He was very quiet. He was professorial in the best sense of the word. He wore tweed jackets and British shoes and a nice foulard. I would pick up the New York Times, and I would say, “Do you have any idea of what is going on in Morocco?” That would be good for a minimum of a half hour because he knew the personalities involved. He had an encyclopedic acquaintanceship.
But in the early 1950s Burnham found himself at odds with his liberal colleagues over his refusal to repudiate Senator Joseph McCarthy. He was asked to resign from Partisan Review’s advisory board and was more or less forced out of the American Congress for Cultural Freedom. And according to Hunt, he was fired and even blacklisted by the CIA, probably because of his stand on McCarthy, whom CIA officials bitterly opposed.
Burnham’s ostracism from the left and center coincided with the emergence of a new conservative movement. The older isolationist right expired with Robert Taft’s defeat in 1952 in his run for the Republican presidential nomination. Republican conservatives of the new generation were largely internationalist in background; Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and future National Review publisher William Rusher were both staunch Eisenhower backers in 1952. These new conservatives adopted Burnham, along with former communists and Trotskyists such as Chambers, Willis Schlamm, and Frank Meyer.
Burnham retired in 1953 to his home in Connecticut to write The Web of Subversion, a book that defended Congress’s internal security investigations and advocated outlawing the American Communist Party. In the fall of 1954 William F. Buckley (whom Burnham had recruited for the IA in 1951) invited Burnham to become an editor of a new right-wing weekly. When National Review appeared in November 1955, Burnham began writing a regular colum called “world War III.” He also served as a kind of mentor to Buckley, and after Schlamm resigned in August 1957, he became the second-in-command at the magazine, supervising the journal in Buckley’s absence and writing many of the editorials. Burnham retired in 1979, after suffering a stroke that robbed him of his memory.
His first two years on National Review were tumultuous. He was faced with a series of events that challenged the premises of the grand theory he had developed over the previous decade. While other conservatives clung tenaciously to those premises, Burnham, true to the spirit of The Machiavellians, modified his views in the light of changed reality.
In February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev gave his “de-Stalinization” speech to the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Khrushchev’s speech and the subsequent “thaw” directly contradicted Burnham’s assertion that the Stalinist terror was “integral to communism,” as well as his broader identification of Stalinism with communism. Burnham was initially skeptical of the speech and its effects, but by August, faithful to the evidence, he gave in. “The ‘thaw’ is modest in degree,” he wrote. “Nevertheless it is real.”
Then in October, his assumptions were more severely tested. The Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Soviet invasion, and the Eisenhower administration’s refusal to intervene corresponded almost exactly to the scenario that he had sketched out in Containment of Liberation? But he refused to join other conservatives in the pressing for American intervention. He defended the Eisenhower administration’s unwillingness to intervene militarily, explaining that in refusing to risk war through an “ultimatum or any comparable move with military implications,” Eisenhower was following “liberal humanitarian” axioms that “are part of the reality of our time.”
“The basic Eisenhower axiom is that the United States will not deliberately initiate the risk of all-out nuclear war,” Burnham wrote. Those who called for military intervention, he charged, were practicing a utopian rather than a scientific politics. They were refusing to recognize that society’s historic values and traditions did not permit the enactment of the very foreign policy that conservative—and Burnham himself—had espoused.
Burnham argued that the Hungarian uprising was the “initial phase” in the “breakup of ‘the Yalta pattern’ according to which Eastern Europe has been organized as a satellite area of the Moscow-dictated Soviet empire,” But he contended that Eastern Europe was kept within the Soviet camp not only by force of arms, but by fear of a rearmed, reunified Germany, He therefore called for the reunification of Germany and the neutralization of Central and Eastern Europe—to be carried out on the model of Austria’s neutralization—as the means of accelerating the breakup of the Soviet empire.
He was proposing to negotiate with a power that he had formerly described as being irrevocably at war with the West. He defended his proposal by altering his view of the Soviet Union’s relationship to Western Europe. In Containment of Liberation? He had argued that by referring to the Soviet Union as “Russia,” Kennan had betrayed a mistaken conception of Soviet global intentions, Burnham now conceded that Soviet behavior could not be understood exclusively in terms of communism. And he rejected the charge that it was “immoral” to seek coexistence with the Soviet Union, “This is not a moral, but a strategic and geopolitical program. In fact, I would say that if morality enters in at all on this point, it is immoral for one nation not to try to coexist peacefully with every other—no matter what their regimes.”
His articles caused a furor among conservatives and on National Review’s editorial board. In a series of rebuttals, Schlamm and Frank Meyer accused him of abandoning the doctrine he had conceived. They refused even to acknowledge a change in the Soviet regime since Stalin’s death: “The incorrigibly naive West does not understand that Stalinization was the prerequisite for any ‘denial of Stalin,’” wrote Schlamm.
Burnham’s colleagues were correct that his “Austrian solution” amounted to a practical abdication of, and his “Russian” view of the Soviet Union to a theoretical abandonment of, the liberation doctrine, Burnham’s new position was in practice not all that different from Kennan’s, It anticipated Henry Kissinger’s, Burnham’s about-face was testimony to his own lack of dogmatism to the realism he admired in The Machiavellians.
While he was fighting with Schlamm and Meyer, Burnham was writing his book about American government. Congress and the American Tradition. Burnham’s approach to American democracy complemented what had become his realistic approach to foreign policy. He contrasted a liberal with a conservative philosophy of government. Liberals believed in the perfectibility of man; they sought to embody the democratic will in unmediated institutions. If socialism tended toward totalitarianism, liberalism tended toward what Burnham called “Caesarism” meaning, in America, the unchecked rule of the executive, Burnham identified conservatism with the Federalists’ skeptical view of human nature, with the constitutional theory of checks and balances, with the supremacy of Congress; and he saw in the diminution of Congress’s role (a process that had be gun during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency) the growing ascendancy of liberal political thought.
His view of government jibed with the prevailing conservative disenchantment with the New Deal and with Court-ordered desegregation. But it also ran counter to a kind of right-wing authoritarianism that had sought political salvation in the rise of a strong national leader, such as McCarthy or Douglas MacArthur, Burnham’s philosophy of government, like his foreign policy in the wake of Hungary, bespoke caution and gradual change, containment rather than rollback. He appeared to be on the verge of a new synthesis. The new philosophy would be conservative, but not radical or counterrevolutionary in the manner of most post-1945 American conservatism.
But instead of going forward, Burnham retreated to the verities of the ‘50s right wing and his own cold war books. By the late ‘50s, he may have wearied of factional quarrels: Ralph de Toledano believed that Burnham’s “lance was broken” in the bitter quarrels of the ‘40s and early ‘50s, Whatever the reason, Burnham did not go from the debate over his “Austrian solution” to a new conception of American foreign policy. Instead, he reverted to the formulations of Containment or Liberation?, urging again that the United States go beyond containment and seek to “reunify Germany” and “knock Albania out of the Soviet empire.”
During the 1960s Burnham’s discussion of the Vietnam War reflected both the best and worst of Containment or Liberation? He warned that “la sale guerre” could not be won on the scale on which America was fighting it, and he attacked the Wilsonian premises of American intervention, “If we have an excuse for being in Vietnam,” he wrote, “it can only be our own security,” But as though the debate about the “Austrian solution” had never occurred, he blithely proposed that the United States consider the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the invasion of China, He also wildly overestimated the effect of an American defeat in Vietnam, warning in June 1965 that defeat would mean “the foldback of our basic line of defense to our own Pacific coast.”
In 1964 Burnham tried to sum up his reflections on liberalism and the cold war in The Suicide of the West. The book was widely heralded on the right, but it simply reiterated Burnham’s most extreme formulations. Gone was the recognition, stated clearly in the debate over Hungary, that the Soviet empire was not growing but was in the process of “breaking up,” however long that process might take. According to Burnham, the West was “shrinking,” because it had lost the “will to survive” in the face of the threat of Soviet communism and the challenge from Third World peoples. The West’s will had been sapped by liberal ideology: “Liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide,” To prevent the suicide of the West, Burnham argued:
There would have to be reasserted the preliberal conviction that Western Civilization, this Western man, is both different from, and superior in quality to, other civilizations and non-civilizations.… And there would have to be a renewed willingness, legitimized by that conviction, to use superior power and the threat of power to defend the West against all challenges and challengers.
The Suicide of the West was a work of imperial nostalgia—the counterpart in foreign policy to right-wing paeans to the 19th-century free market economy, Burnham wanted to return to the pre World War I era of Western imperialism, with the United States (rather than Britain) as the undisputed leader of world capitalism.
When Burnham was writing about concrete issues rather than speculating about the future of the West, he retained his political realism. He was constantly keeping his colleagues at National Review and his right-wing readers off balance, (National Review’s managing editor, Priscilla Buckley, affectionately described him as the magazine’s “left-wing deviationist,”) From the early ‘50s on, Burnham, virtually alone on the right, called for the diplomatic recognition of China, In 1964 he favored Nelson Rockefeller for president over Barry Goldwater, And in 1965 Burnham the gradualist called on conservatives to accept the welfare state and Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare proposals.
In the Nixon years, faced with an apparent threat to established order from the left, Burnham reiterated the authoritarianism of his cold war books, calling for a “regime that will be authoritative and not liberal.” But he was among the very first conservatives to recognize and denounce Nixon’s abuse of power. In the mid-’70s, after the threat of the New Left had receded, Burnham appeared particularly open to new directions. Though slow to recognize the Sino-Soviet split (in 1961 he organized a special issue of National Review aimed at exposing the split as a “myth”), he very quickly recognized that Deng Xiaoping was taking China in a new direction that had significant implications for American foreign policy. In July 1978 he wrote Buckley:
As you know I have in the past believed it possible that in a decisive crunch that presented the issue as finance capitalism vs, socialism (which boils down to the U,S, versus the Soviets), China might line up with the Soviets, In recent years, this has seemed to me to become less and less probable…. This new China regime, with the undoubted and increasingly manifest break it is making with orthodox Maoism, has profoundly changed China’s domestic and global situation. The U.S. has got to get moving in the China connection, and is going to move.
Burnham praised the Carter administration’s initiatives toward China, the Panama Canal, and Israel and Egypt, He took the lead in backing the Panama Canal treaty and helped convince Buckley of its merits.
It was to the detriment not only of Burnham but also of American conservatism that he failed to reassess his own position after the bitter National Review debate of 1956-57, Instead of creating a new synthesis that might have unified Niebuhrian liberalism and cold war conservatism. Burnham bequeathed a divided legacy of fantasy and realism. To most of the right, only the fantasy has been of any interest. In 1983 the self-declared Burnham disciple Brian Crozier could recommend in National Review that “American (and British) politicians in high places take time to read Burnham, or at the very least, the most succinct of the vital series. Containment or Liberation?”
Since Ronald Reagan came to power, conservatives have been torn between their ideological commitment to Burnham’s rollback strategy and their recognition of the realities of American politics and world power. In December 1984, after Reagan’s second landslide victory, the Heritage Foundation sponsored a symposium in Policy Review on moving American foreign policy “beyond containment,” And in the name of global democracy, neoconservatives have proclaimed their own Wilsonian version of the rollback doctrine. But administration conservatives have been stymied in “rolling back” communism. They have had to settle for the invasion of Grenada, while being unable to defend Poland’s Solidarity or to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. And to pursue their foreign policy objectives, they have had to violate the rule of law that Burnham made the centerpiece of conservative politics in Congress and the American Tradition.
Conservatives have also been torn in their understanding of the Soviet Union. Conservative cold war doctrine, derived from Burnham’s earlier works, appeared credible during the last years of Brezhnev’s rule, when the regime clamped down on domestic dissent and when Soviet generals sought to establish new bases in Africa and the Persian Gulf. But conservatives have been singularly unable to come to terms with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and with his arms control overtures. Like Meyer and Schlamm in 1956, the conservatives of today refuse to recognize change.
It is difficult to say what Burnham would have thought of the Reagan years. His legacy remains divided against itself. Both Utopians and realists can claim it. American conservatives, living in Burnham’s shadow, will continue to stumble between darkness and light.