The Third World War

Police officers walk outside the Kremlin on March 30, 2020 (Alexandra Anikeeva / Reuters)
Reflections on Moscow’s post-war advances, by the late and longtime senior editor James Burnham.

Editor’s Note: The following essay ran in National Reviews premier edition on November 19, 1955. It is being reprinted here in honor of NR’s 65th anniversary.

A Remembrance of Things Past

In the latter part of January 1936, Albert Sarraut formed a caretaker government to get France through to the general elections scheduled for that spring. George V had just died, and the British government was immersed in the problems of Edward’s accession. At Geneva the speeches of the Western delegates, lamenting the fight in Ethiopia, were swamping the League’s multilingual stenographers.

This was the political landscape upon which the Italian and German strategists based their calculations. Mussolini, replacing General de Bono by Badoglio, stepped up the African war to a winning pace. On March 7, a few hours after he had proposed a 25-year peace pact to London and Paris, Hitler, discarding the advice of his generals, ordered 35,000 unequipped soldiers into the Rhineland.

Pierre-Étienne Flandin, Sarraut’s foreign minister, tells in his book of memoirs (which has unfortunately never been translated) the inner story of the French and British response to Hitler’s move. The issue was placed before the French Supreme Military Council. The Council members declared that the army could not act, that France had to wait for England’s decision. The Minister of War added that the manning of the Maginot Line was the only counter-move that had been prepared in advance. Moreover, he and the generals insisted, any positive action would require general mobilization. (Hitler’s troops were marching, in fact, with orders to withdraw if they met French resistance.)

This demand for general mobilization, Flandin notes, “provoked a storm in the Council. ‘General mobilization six weeks before the election! — it’s sheer madness!’ cried a number of my colleagues.”

In the continuing debate, a day or two later, the Socialists held that “in any case, there was no other solution than to refer the issue to the League of Nations and to consult with London.” As for the center parties, which constituted the majority, “they were disturbed by the idea that an energetic act by the government might create a threat of war at a time when the sentiment of the country was pacifist. In short, each and every one thought of the reoccupation of the Rhineland as a complication of domestic politics that might have an effect on the elections. I have never felt a more bitter distaste for electoral cowardice.”

Strategy and Elections

A traditional military commander, in his estimate before committing his forces to a battle or campaign, will never omit consideration of the geographical terrain over which he will have to move and fight. The totalitarian strategists of our century have learned to give the same scrupulous care to the political climate and terrain in which they plan to conduct their operations. To the strategists of the Kremlin, Hitler’s experiments seemed to confirm a general rule that modern democratic governments become paralyzed at the approach of elections; or, more accurately, that the energies of democratic governments become so obsessively focused on the inward electoral process that there is no surplus energy for positive and effective external action.

In the United States the 1956 election is already in process, troubled and intensified by the President’s illness. We can be sure that this outlook was a major determinant of the specific content of the current Soviet tactic — rather more basic, let us say, than the reputed temperamental differences between Khrushchev–Bulganin and Stalin–Beria.

The Geneva spirit as the Kremlin interprets it — that is, smiles as a cover for sharp, undercutting political blows — is admirably fitted to press the juice of an election year. Each political party in a modem democracy must, according to the Communist reasoning, strive to outdo its rivals in promising the voters peace and good times. Therefore no party can scorn the proffered smiles or promote an effective counter to the blows. To do either would prove it an Enemy of Peace.

Excuse It While I Cut Your Throat

Six months ago many of our analysts told us that Moscow sought coexistence because she had been thrown on the defensive as a result of the success of our policy of containment, her own internal difficulties, and her realization of the cost of nuclear war. Today it is not necessary to underline the error in this judgment.

For Moscow, the policy of election-year coexistence is precisely a renewal of the offensive, and on what Communists would call “a higher plane.” In this round, Moscow is leaping the Eurasian limits that she has hitherto observed. Guaranteed against war by the President’s promise in July, relying on the election neurosis, the Communists launch a rapid series of new and audacious moves.

Jumping over the southeast Asian peninsula, they prepare the absorption of Indonesia à la Prague. They fly on their political carpet over the land bridge into North Africa and the southwestern shore of the Mediterranean; and while choice elements of the enemy’s forces are there pinned in Morocco and Algeria, they quickly turn to build up Near Eastern steppingstones through those channels of world force that are left unwatched as the British complete their exodus from Suez. As far away as the eastern bulge of South America, they get ready for actions that are foreshadowed by the coming inauguration of their Brazilian friend, President-elect Juscelino Kubitschek. Meanwhile they block unification of Germany on Western terms, hammer at the joints of NATO, and press their wooing of Southeast Asia.

All this, and more, with the election still nearly a year away! Unresisted — and they are being resisted only as Hitler was resisted in 1936 — they will not quiet down. Rather will their blows increase in boldness and power. The détente is a rhetorical diversion. Egypt is not the last of the election-year surprises. And while new areas are tested, they will not have forgotten such old favorites as South Vietnam, Formosa, and West Germany.


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