Earlier this week, Francis Sempa offered a curious effort to rehabilitate James Burnham, best known as a columnist for the National Review, and as author of Suicide of the West. Burnham began his career as a radical Trotskyite, but by the 1950s found himself on the right edge of the American conservative movement.
What’s odd about Sempa’s column is that very few try to resurrect the reputation of Vietnam hawks, the people who argued that the only problems with the war in Indochina are that the United States didn’t squander enough blood and treasure and didn’t slaughter enough Asians. America’s historical memory has struggled to flush such voices from its consciousness, and has largely succeeded. It also bears note that the National Review itself rarely enjoys being reminded of the sort of sentiments it published during the 1950s and 1960s.
In any case, Sempa believes Burnham deserving of attention and rehabilitation because Burnham “was mostly right about the ‘big’ items.” Which of these “big items” does Sempa cite? Here’s one: “It is a critical battle in the war for Asia, the Western Pacific and the South Seas,” [Burnham] wrote. If the U.S. withdraws from the struggle, “we will have demonstrated our inability as defender. It will become next to certain that the whole vast region, sea and land, will shift into the camp of the enemy.”
It is difficult to convey in words just how wrong this claim ended up being. The United States lost the Vietnam War, and lost it in the worst possible way. The investment of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in the Vietnam War yielded huge dividends in U.S. engagement and escalation; the United States paid tremendous costs in blood, treasure, and national solidarity. U.S. credibility, always an intangible quality, surely must have taken a massive hit when American helicopters departed from the roof of the embassy in Saigon.
And yet… The Soviet Union would only outlast the Republic of Vietnam by sixteen years. The geopolitical orientation of the People’s Republic of China would shift even before the war ended. And today, the United States is developing a potentially strong, positive security relationship with Hanoi, in the interest of balancing against the PRC. Someone who believed it was “next to certain that the whole vast region, sea and land, [would] shift into the camp of the enemy” is more accurately deemed a liar or a fool than a voice of wisdom.
Burnham misunderstood the relationship between Hanoi, Beijing, and Moscow; he vastly over-stated the importance of Vietnam to the greater struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union; he was flatly wrong about the impact of the loss of U.S. “credibility” in Southeast Asia. Burnham advocated military escalation directly against China, a choice that surely would have forestalled the achievements of 1972 and likely made impossible Sino-American rapprochement, the most important strategic achievement of the second half of the Cold War.
Burnham got at least one thing right; U.S. defeat in Indochina was a “minor affair.” Its strategic importance did, in fact, depend on how America reacted in other parts of the world. It turned out the United States was capable of assessing, with some reason and wisdom, that accepting defeat on this “minor affair” would allow it to focus more heavily on areas of actual national interest.
The United States did not withdraw from East Asia; it came to realize that it could concentrate on defending assets and allies truly important to American security, rather than squander resources in a pointless effort to build credibility. We learned that the faith of the Western allies did not depend on the willingness of the United States to pour blood and money down the drain, but rather on mutual values, understanding, and respect. This represents the key error not only of Burnham, but of so many of the hawks of the Vietnam era; saying “no” to escalation in one area does not mean surrendering the whole game.
The most that can be said of Burnham is that he was only rarely more wrong than the foreign policy establishment of the day, which worked hard to compound tragic errors with even more tragic errors.