Geopolitical Thinkers: James Burnham

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Born in Chicago in 1905, James Burnham attended Princeton University and Balliol College, Oxford, and taught at New York University from the early 1930s until 1953. From 1930-1933, Burnham co-edited Symposium, a review of literary and philosophical criticism. In the early 1930s, he helped organize the American Workers Party, which later became the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite political organization. He edited and wrote for the New International but broke with Marxism after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. 

Burnham began writing regularly for Partisan Review, and wrote his first book on geopolitics, The Managerial Revolution, in 1941. In that book, Burnham predicted that the Second World War would result in the growth of “super-states” centered in regions of sufficient population and industrial capacity that would struggle for postwar hegemony. During the war, he was an analyst for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and in the spring of 1944 wrote a paper on Soviet postwar goals that predicted a postwar struggle between the USSR and the United States. In 1945 in an article entitled “Lenin’s Heir” in Partisan Review, Burnham warned that the Soviet Union controlled the geopolitical “Heartland” from which it would bid for global predominance. 

After the war, Burnham wrote a trilogy—The Struggle for the World (1947), The Coming Defeat of Communism (1950), and Containment or Liberation? (1952)—wherein he used the classical geopolitical concepts of Mackinder and Spykman to analyze the early years of the Cold War. Burnham criticized the policy of containment as too defensive and recommended waging a subversive, political war (a policy of “Liberation”) against world communism headquartered in the Soviet Union. Between 1955 and 1978, Burnham wrote a regular column on the Cold War for National Review. In those columns, Burnham provided an insightful running commentary on the geopolitics of the struggle between the West and the Soviet-led communist empire. In 1964, Burnham in Suicide of the West described the steady Western global retreat since 1914 and characterized modern liberalism as the “ideology of Western suicide.” 

Burnham suffered a stroke in 1978 that ended his writing career. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Burnham died in 1987. 


The Managerial Revolution (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1941).

“Lenin’s Heir,” Partisan Review, Volume 12, 1945, Issue 1.

The Struggle for the World (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1947).

The Coming Defeat of Communism (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1950).

“Philosophy of Communism,” Naval War College Review (March 1952).

Containment or Liberation? (New York: John Day Company, Inc., 1952).

“As the Geographer Sees It,” National Review (November 26, 1955).

“Strategy at Dead Center,” National Review (June 27, 1956).

“Maginot Line of the Air?,” National Review (July 11, 1956)

“American Policy Sclerosis,” National Review (November 3, 1956).

“Sighting the Target,” National Review (December 29, 1956).

“Liberation: What Next?,” National Review (January 19, 1957).

“Communist or Russian?,” National Review (February 9, 1957).

“Signs and Portents,” National Review (March 23, 1957).

“The Answer to Sputniks,” National Review (December 14, 1957).

“The Disintegration Tactic,” National Review (February 22, 1958).

“Reorganizing the Pentagon,” National Review (April 15, 1958).

“De Gaulle and Africa,” National Review (June 14, 1958).

“The Road From Damascus,” National Review (August 2, 1958).

“Watch Out for That Back Door!,” National Review (April 25, 1959).

“The Undecisive Weapon,” National Review (July 4, 1959).

“Hungary, Tibet, and the Caribbean,” National Review (July 18, 1959).

“Eurafrica or Afro-Asia?,” National Review (October 10, 1959).

“Laid on the Line,” National Review (January 2, 1960).

“Moscow’s Aims in West Europe,” National Review (January 26, 1960).

“To This Challenge, What Response?, National Review (July 2, 1960).

“The African Shambles,” National Review (January 28, 1961). 

“Root Fallacy,” National Review (January 16, 1962).

“Western, Yes, but Hard,” National Review (February 13, 1962).

“The Choking Point,” National Review (March 27, 1962).

“Common Market Dialectic,” National Review (October 9, 1962).

“The Battle for Aerospace,” National Review (October 22, 1963).  

“Foreign Policy of the Kennedy Administration,” National Review (December 17, 1963).

“I Will Eat You,” National Review (January 28, 1964).

“Crumbling Line,” National Review (June 16, 1964).

“Bear Baiting,” National Review (August 25, 1964).

Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (Chicago: Regnery Books, 1985, first published in 1964).

“The Weakest Front,” National Review (June 15, 1965).

“Reflections on Neo-Isolationism,” National Review (April 5, 1966).

“The Explosive Triangle,” National Review (May 30, 1967).

“Sunset,” National Review (August 8, 1967).

The War We Are In: The Last Decade and the Next (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1967).

“Just Shut Your Eyes,” National Review (May 21, 1968). 

“Reading the Entrails,” National Review (July 29, 1969).

“Pax Atomica,” National Review (July 14, 1970).

“The Great Retreat,” National Review (December 15, 1970).

“Whose Serve?,” National Review (May 4, 1971).

“How to Solve the China Problem,” National Review (June 29, 1971).

“Do These Bones Live?,” National Review (April 14, 1972).

“Geopolitics of Geo. McGovern,” National Review (May 26, 1972). 

“Moscow Wins Heads or Tails,” National Review (November 9, 1973).

“War, Arms, détente, NATO, Oil,” National Review (November 23, 1973).

“Roots of Terrorism,” National Review (March 15, 1974).

“Arabs, Oil, and Islam,” National Review (November 8, 1974).

“Fire at the Center,” National Review (December 6, 1974).

“Reflections on Defeat,” National Review (May 23, 1975). 

“The Third Wave?,” National Review (August 1, 1975).

“The Logic of Détente,” National Review (August 15, 1975).

“The Atmosphere of Détente,” National Review (December 19, 1975).

“Clearboard to the Rhine,” National Review (April 16, 1976).

“The Kissinger-Sonnenfeldt Doctrine: I,” National Review (May 14, 1976).

“Do-Good as Foreign Policy,” National Review (January 7, 1977). 

“Some Euroquestions,” National Review (August 5, 1977).

“A Separate Peace?,” National Review (January 20, 1978).

“Jimmy Meets the World,” National Review (February 3, 1978).

“The Time of the Fox,” National Review (March 17, 1978).

“Growing Pains,” National Review (July 7, 1978).

“Will Iran Collapse?,” National Review (October 13, 1978).

         –Francis P. Sempa