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How America Helped Build The Soviet Machine
To bring their nation to the leading edge of technology, Soviet leaders are turning to the United States. Their grandfathers did the same thing.
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
Cooper, a dry and cautious man, once said that he did not accept any “isms” except good, old-fashioned American common-sense-ism, but he added that he found all the Soviet leaders with whom he dealt—including Joseph Stalin—men of great intellectual ability, committed to improving living conditions through technology. He commended their forthright business dealings and their lack of corruption, and he also liked Russian workers, whom he found eager to help on his huge project. Trying to teach peasant laborers to use complex equipment could be heartbreakingly frustrating, but he made headway. The Soviet managers’ clear authority over their workers and their use of piecework wages also pleased Cooper.
In the United States Cooper was a backer of Soviet-American relations before his country formally recognized the Soviets. He headed the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce, whose directors came from leading American corporations eager for business. Among those represented in 1932 were International General Electric, Westinghouse Electric International, General Motors, W. Averell Harriman & Company, and the Chase National Bank. President Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. According to the historian Herbert Feis, “economic calculations brought the question of recognition to the fore. . . . Prevailing conditions in the United States made the lure of any new foreign market attractive; and the Russian market was thought to be potentially a great one.” Ultimately, however, “the hope of economic benefit was scantily fulfilled.”
Lenin asked that the national electrification plan be sent to every school; peasants should use it to learn to read.
By 1928, when the Soviets inaugurated the First Five-Year Plan, Henry Ford had become an even greater hero to the Soviets than Frederick Taylor. An emotional cult grew up around Ford’s methods and even his person. By 1925 his autobiography, My Life and Work, had had four printings in the Soviet Union, and one American in Russia reported that plant managers were studying Ford with as much enthusiasm as they had had for Lenin. More than one village adopted the name of the Fordson tractor, and the New York Times reporter Walter Duranty wrote in 1928 that “Ford means America and all that America had accomplished to make her a model and an ideal for this vast and backward country. . . . Cheap mass production is a Soviet goal, more precious from the practical standpoint than world revolution.”
The Soviets invoked their massive Ford-designed plants, along with the Dnieper hydroelectric project, to symbolize modern Soviet technology. And Ford’s social philosophy, espousing both mass production and mass consumption, fired as much enthusiasm as did his machinery and plant layouts. In 1919 a Soviet delegation had asked for a meeting with Henry Ford, stating, “We believe we could make you understand that Soviet Russia is inaugurating methods of industrial efficiency compatible with the interests of humanity.” Ford’s role as a Soviet hero and provider of technology must have caused him at least a minor identity crisis, for in My Life and Work (1922) he wrote: “Nature has vetoed the whole Soviet Republic. For it sought to deny Nature. It denied above all else the right to the fruits of labor.”
Ford’s views on the Soviet regime never penetrated Soviet consciousness the way his Fordson tractors did. By 1926 the Soviets had ordered 24,600 Fordsons, and most had been delivered. The Ford Motor Company boasted in 1927 that 85 percent of the trucks and tractors in the Soviet Union were Ford-built. Whereas in 1924 there had only been about 1,000 tractors operating in all the vast Russian countryside, by 1934 there were 200,000, most of them of U.S. manufacture.
Trotsky said that “the most popular word among our forward-looking peasantry is Fordson.” Indeed, the peasants celebrated Fordson days and Fordson festivals in their villages. But superb as the Fordsons were as a symbol, they served less well as real tools. They were often too light to plow Russian soils deeply enough. The Soviet Union had no Ford service system to repair them when they broke down. And the Fordson turned out to be an inappropriate technology in any case because it burned benzene, a fuel in short supply. The Russians needed naphtha-burning engines. After 1928 they imported larger and sturdier tractors from International Harvester, John Deere, and Allis-Chalmers. After 1931 imports of tractors dropped sharply as the Soviet Union finally began to increase its own production—mostly in plants of American design.