Weak Become Heroes
Via Sociological Images is this pretty awesome “pro-capitalist” propaganda cartoon from 1948:
The Miller Center of Public Affairs (my employer) is holding a conference on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as such, I spent most of my Monday night at a work-related dinner with prominent IR scholars and Cold War historians. Most of the folks at my table taught at large universities, and unsurprisingly, they spent a fair amount of time discussing/complaining about how hard it is to really make undergraduates understand the fear and paranoia that defined the early Cold War era. Although they generally agreed that it was an exercise in futility (my protests didn’t really have an impact), the professor sitting next to me did acknowledge that he had found some success by simply giving his students a brief economic history of the Soviet Union, from its creation in the early 1920s to the end of the Second World War. As the professor explained it, if you do that, it’s actually very easy to see why U.S. policymakers were terrified of the Soviet system and it’s implications for the rest of the world.
In less than a generation, the Soviet Union – formerly a poor, agrarian society – ballooned into an industrial powerhouse with the military might to successfully stop* what was then the most well-equipped and well-led army on the planet. What’s more, the Soviet Union’s command economy didn’t seem to have a negative impact on growth rates. Indeed, the Soviet economy grew briskly for a good portion of the early post-war period, convincing many American elites – even industrialists – that at least for developing countries, the Soviet approach had real merit**. This is why you see cartoons like the one above – at the time, most of the available evidence supported the idea that the Soviet system was a reasonable alternative. And since the Western world was only a few years removed from the almost total collapse of capitalism (as well as the prospect of left-wing revolution) it was important to impress upon people the benefits of capitalism and the deficiencies of Soviet-style command economics.
*Americans mythologize the Second World War in such a way as to almost completely discount the contributions of the Soviets/Russians. In fact, calling them “contributions” doesn’t come close to doing the Russians Soviets justice; Germany unleashed the vast majority of its military might against the Soviet Union, sending nearly 80 percent of its combat divisions to rampage across Russia. The Soviet Union fought and destroyed the vast majority of said divisions – 4.3 million German soldiers were killed or wounded on the Eastern Front – at an unfathomable cost to itself. Wikipedia puts Soviet military casualties at approximately 10.5 million and Soviet civilian casualties (within postwar borders) at 15.7 million. Or, put another way, if the Soviet Union hadn’t joined the war effort, its safe to assume that most of Western Europe would have ended up as part of a greater Germany.
**There is a reason why large, developing countries like China and India aligned themselves with the Soviet Union – the command and control thing really did seem to work.
Update: Edited for clarity.