It’s a little unsettling that one of the greatest bursts of technological advancement and exploration was fueled by a rivalry between two global superpowers afraid of war with one another, but also eager to show off to every other nations how much they could accomplish. The Soviet Union sent the first humans into orbit. The United States landed the first humans on another world. Both of them developed advanced aircraft, weapons, digital technology, and both entertained or carried out extremely complex, elaborate plans in the political and military world that would instantly be shot down today as being too expensive or too radical for consideration. While a good deal of those plans were pretty out there, there seemed to have been an environment where ideas were allowed to flourish and tested on the off chance that they could yield a competitive advantage. But a downside to half a century of runaway R&D competitions was the human cost, and in Popular Science’s retrospective of their coverage of the Red Menace’s military and engineering might, that’s a vague but recurring theme.
Several of the highlighted articles lament how few household goods there are for ordinary Soviet citizens and how outdated and bare-bones virtually everything was, from elevators to hotel rooms. That’s not just plain, old propaganda at work. Having lived in the Soviet Union, though during its twilight years, I can tell you that many of the things typical Americans take for granted were luxuries in the USSR and constant shortages made very basic products difficult to get, sometimes requiring connections and favors to speed things along. It’s not that the Soviet Union didn’t have the capacity to make plenty of food or manufacture plenty of high quality and high level electronics for common use, it’s just that no one had the incentive to do so and corruption at every level of the supply chain was so pervasive, I wouldn’t be surprised if a historical study uncovered that more than half a product’s cost was graft. Why didn’t the government step in? Because at first, the leadership didn’t care about the people, viewing them as nothing more than simple cogs in its machine, cogs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the industrial age, creating a mighty military, and then, when its rules favoring seniority and the devotion of its members over their merit as leaders turned it into a gerontocracy, the Politburo was far too busy keeping its grasp on power than actually caring about what the people needed.
There’s of course a lesson in this. A government that cares only about its own perpetuation and can’t be voted in or out of office, and a government on which people rely for anything and everything rather than just the basic things required to function in society, can both lead to a very sad end for the citizenry. In the United States, we may argue about how we vote and why we vote, and partisanship often overtakes reason in public discourse, but the government does have to deal with the public and its fury should it upset enough people. The nation’s entire population is typically not left to fend for itself and told to live off government rations, or placed in a state factory or power plant and told to do a particular job knowing that the only pay raises will come with seniority in one’s post rather than skill or merit, and that obedience to old and often dimwitted bosses was the only way to get enough seniority to be well off. In other words, the extent of the Peter Principle was on a level that very few establishments in the United States could ever meet. But this is not to say that American citizens were living it up in paradise while the Soviets suffered under their government’s indifference. They were subjected to highly dubious and very dangerous experiments by the CIA, spied on by multiple intelligence agencies, and groups that were considered a "leftist threat" were often broken up, their members harassed or prosecuted.
In their fear of the Evil Empire, Americans allowed their government to create institutions which could afford to do almost anything they pleased, just as long as they prefaced it by some reference to national security. This is why today’s return to domestic wiretaps and a heavy-handed Homeland Security department is actually an instinctive return to how things were with an ever-present danger rather than a new development. But while a lot of people may decry the TSA’s freedom gropes and FBI snooping in their personal finances, all that pales in comparison to what the KGB did to Soviet citizens. While the worst that can happen to you if you ridicule the American government today is a guest spot in Fox News, and a secretive investigation into your life during the previous administration, very rarely do you have to worry about being sent to a hard labor camp in Alaska. For an agonizing stretch of time in the Soviet Union, just writing a book that the leaders thought may contain some sort of ridicule of their actions could net you two decades in a Siberian prison, where all sorts of horrible and sometimes unspeakable things happened. When we look back at the Cold War now and list all the things we accomplished as a civilization, be they advancements in everyday life or in warfare, we have to ask ourselves two important questions. Was it worth doing it that way, and how many people suffered in the process, for the sake of "the cause"? And unfortunately, these questions are fiendishly difficult to address in advance…