We tend to be strongly influenced by the recent past in our predictions about the future. After World War I, any number of pundits, statesmen, and military officers thought the next war would be a carbon copy of the one they had just lived through, albeit perhaps on a larger scale. The German government’s disastrous decision to declare war in 1914 was likely influenced by the quick and decisive German victories in 1864, 1866, and 1870. The Japanese were similarly mesmerized by their brilliant success against the Russians in 1904-05 after an opening surprise attack against the Russian fleet lying at anchor at Port Arthur, and assumed history would repeat itself if they launched a similar attack against Pearl Harbor.
Sometimes startling events force the reevaluation of old ideas and paradigms, such as the German armored Blitzkrieg or the destruction of powerful battleships from the air in World War II, or, more recently, the sudden collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union from 1989-91. We are always fascinated by such events, yet few of us grasp their significance as they are happening. Our tendency is always to look backwards, to fit the revolutionary and the unprecedented into the old world that we understand rather than the new one that we can’t yet imagine. So it was after the dropping of the first atomic bombs. It certainly focused the attention of public intellectuals, unleashing a torrent of essays full of dire predictions. For many, the future they imagined was simply a continuation of the immediate past, albeit with new and incredibly destructive weapons. It was to include the continued inexorable push for world dominion by totalitarian Communism, centered in the Soviet Union, and world wars following each other in quick succession every 15 to 20 years, about the same as the interval between the first two world wars.
Such a vision of the future was described by James Burnham in “The Struggle for the World,” published in 1947. Burnham was a former Marxist and Trotskyite who eventually abandoned Marxism, and became one of the leading conservative intellectuals of his day. His thought made a deep impression on, among others, George Orwell. For example, he had suggested the possibility of a world dominated by three massive totalitarian states, constantly at war with each other, in an earlier book, “The Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941. These became Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in Orwell’s “1984.” The notions of “doublethink”, the totalitarian use of terms such as “justice” and “peace” in a sense opposite to their traditional meanings, and the rewriting of history every few years “so that history itself will always be a confirmation of the immediate line of the party,” familiar to readers of “1984,” were also recurrent themes in “The Struggle for the World.”
Burnham, born in 1905, had come of age during the stunning period of wars, revolutions, and the birth of the first totalitarian states that began and ended with the world wars of the 20th century. He assumed that events of such global impact would continue at the same pace, only this time in a world with nuclear weapons. As a former Marxist, he knew that the Communists, at least, were deliberately engaged in a “struggle for the world,” and was dismayed that U.S. politicians at the time were so slow to realize the nature of the struggle. He also correctly predicted that, unless they were stopped, the Communists would develop nuclear weapons in their Soviet base “in a few years.” This, he warned, could not be allowed to happen because it would inevitably and quickly lead to a full scale nuclear exchange. His reasoning was as follows:
Let us assume that more than one (two is enough for the assumption) power possesses, and is producing, atomic weapons. Each will be improving the efficiency and destructive potential of the weapons as it goes along. Now let us try to reason as the leaders of these powers would be compelled to reason.
Each leader of Power A could not but think as follows: Power B has at its disposal instruments which could, in the shortest time, destroy us. He has possibly made, or is about to make, new discoveries which will threaten even more complete and rapid destruction. At the moment, perhaps, he shows no open disposition to use these instruments. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly rely on his continued political benevolence – above all since he knows that I also have at my disposal instruments that can destroy him. Some hothead – or some wise statesman – of his may even now be giving the order to push the necessary buttons.
Even if there were no atomic weapons, many of the leaders would undoubtedly be reasoning today along these lines. Atomic weapons are, after all, not responsible for warfare, not even for the Third World War, which has begun. The fact that the political and social causes of a war are abundantly present stares at us from every edition of every newspaper. The existence of atomic weapons merely raises the stakes immeasurably higher, and demands a quicker decision.
But to assume, as do some foolish commentators, that fear of retaliation will be the best deterrent to an atomic war is to deny the lessons of the entire history of war and of society. Fear, as Ferrero so eloquently shows, is what provokes the exercise of force. Most modern wars have been, in the minds of every belligerent, preventive: an effort to stamp out the fear of what the other side might be about to do.
The existence of two or more centers of control of atomic weapons would be equal to a grenade with the pin already pulled.
According to Burnham, the resulting nuclear war or wars would lead to the collapse of Western Civilization. In his words,
If, however, we are not yet ready to accept passively the final collapse of Western Civilization, we may state the following as a necessary first condition of any workable solution of the problem of atomic weapons: there must be an absolute monopoly of the production, possession and use of all atomic weapons.
One wonders what direction world history might have taken had someone like Burnham been President in 1950 instead of Truman. He would have almost certainly adopted MacArthur’s plan to drop numerous atomic bombs on China and North Korea. We were lucky. In the end, Truman’s homespun common sense prevailed over Burnham’s flamboyant intellect, and the nuclear genie remained in the bottle.
However, in 1947 the U.S. still had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and, for the reasons cited above, Burnham insisted we must keep it. He suggested that this might best be done by establishing an effectual world government, but dismissed the possibility as impractical. The only workable alternative to a Communist conquest of the world or full scale nuclear war and the end of Western Civilization was U.S. hegemony. In Burnham’s words,
It is not our individual minds or desires, but the condition of world society, that today poses for the Soviet Union, as representative of communism, and for the United States, as representative of Western Civilization, the issue of world leadership. No wish or thought of ours can charm this issue away.
This issue will be decided, and in our day. In the course off the decision, both of the present antagonists may, it is true, be destroyed. But one of them must be.
Whatever the words, it is well also to know the reality. The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control. Nothing less than this can be the positive, or offensive, phase of a rational United States policy.
As a first step to empire, Burnham proposed the union of Great Britain and the United States, to be followed, not by outright conquest, but by firm assertion of U.S. predominance and leadership in the non-Communist world. Beyond that, the Communist threat must finally be recognized for what it was, and a firm, anti-Communist policy substituted for what was seen as a lack of any coherent policy at all. Vacillation must end.
Fortunately, when it came to the nuclear standoff, Burnham was wrong, and the “foolish commentators” who invoked the fear of retaliation were right. Perhaps, having only seen the effects of dropping two low yield bombs, he could not yet imagine the effect of thousands of bombs orders of magnitude more powerful, or conceive of such a thing as mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it was only dumb luck, but the world did not stumble into a nuclear World War III as it had into the conventional world wars of the 20th century, and the decisive events in the struggle did not follow each other nearly as quickly as Burnham imagined they would.
Burnham also failed to foresee the implications of the gradual alteration in the nature of the Communist threat. At the time he wrote, it was everything he claimed it to be, a messianic secular religion at the height of its power and appeal. He assumed that it would retain that power and appeal until the battle was decided, one way or the other. Even though he was aware that the masses living under Communism, other than a dwindling number of incorrigible idealists, were already disillusioned by “the God that failed,” he didn’t foresee what a decisive weakness that would eventually become. In the end, time was on our side. The Communists, and not we, as Lenin had predicted, finally dropped onto the garbage heap of history “like a ripe plum.”
However, Burnham wasn’t wrong about everything. To win the struggle, it was necessary for us to finally recognize the threat. Whatever doubt remained on that score, at least as far as most of our political leaders were concerned, was dissipated by the North Korean invasion of the south. Our policy of vacillation didn’t exactly end, but was occasionally relieved by periods of firmness. In the end, in spite of a media dominated through most of the struggle by Lenin’s “useful idiots” and the resultant cluelessness of most Americans about what we were even trying to do on the front lines of the “clash between the cultures” in places like Vietnam, we prevailed.
It was a near thing. Burnham feared that, even after losing the opening battles of the next war to a United States with a monopoly of nuclear weapons, the Communists might regroup, abandon their vulnerable cities, and transform the struggle into a “people’s war.” His description of what would follow was eerily similar to what actually did happen, but in a much smaller arena than the whole world:
They would transform the struggle into a political war, a “people’s war,” fought in every district of the world by irregulars, partisans, guerillas, Fifth Columns, spies, stool pigeons, assassins, fought by sabotage and strikes and lies and terror and diversion and panic and revolt. They would play on every fear and prejudice of the United States population, every feeling of guilt or nobility; they would exploit every racial and social division; they would widen every antagonism between tentative allies; and they would tirelessly wear down the United States will to endure.
Though the result would be not quite so certain, perhaps, as if the communists also had atomic weapons, they would in the end, I think, succeed. Because of the lack of a positive United States policy, because it would not have presented to the world even the possibility of a political solution, its dreadful material strength would appear to the peoples as the unrelieved brutality of a murderer. Its failure to distinguish between the communist regime and that regime’s subject-victims would weld together the victims and their rulers. Americans themselves would be sickened and conscience-ridden by what would seem to them a senseless slaughter, never-ending, leading nowhere. The military leadership would be disoriented by the inability of their plans based on technical superiority to effect a decision. The failure to conceive the struggle politically would have given the communists the choice of weapons. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire world would have been turned into an ambush and a desert. In the long night, nerves would finally crack, and sentries would fire their last shots wildly into the darkness, and it would all be over.
Change “the world” to Vietnam and it reads like a history instead of a premonition. Tomorrow is another day, and I doubt that any of us will prove better at predicting what the future will bring than Burnham. We have lived through an era much different, more peaceful, and more sedate in the pace of events than the one he experienced between 1914 and 1945. We should beware of assuming, as he did, that the future will bear any resemblance to the immediate past. The world is still full of nuclear weapons, some of them already in the hands of, or soon to be in the hands of, dictators of suspect rationality. Some of our intellectuals soothe our fears with stories about the “vanishing of violence,” but as Omar Khayyam put it in the “Rubaiyat,” they could soon be “cast as foolish prophets forth, their mouths stopped with dust,” through some miscalculation or deliberate act of malice. As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared.”