- Historic Sites
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
During World War II the Soviets leaned heavily on the massive industrial base that they had by then established with American help.
America’s past role in building up the Soviet Union contributed to both magnificent success and agonizing failure in an effort propelled by both true idealism and ruthless drive. Analogies can actually be drawn between Russia’s transformation and the earlier growth of technology in our own country. Until about 1850 Europeans, especially the British, considered American technology crude. Collapsing wooden bridges, rickety railroads, and exploding steamboat boilers were common. Though American inventions at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851 were judged ingenious, and talk of a new American system of production was then spreading, Britain still felt secure and superior in its technological preeminence. Americans had been heavily borrowing technological knowledge from Europe for a century. But only half a century later, the rise in American production and patents was making Britain a second-rate power. Mikhail Gorbachev might be encouraged by the fact that more than a century passed between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of American technological and industrial preeminence. Perhaps he looks forward to 2017.
The Soviet Union today remains a mammoth stage on which the technological drama of creation and construction can be enacted. If history should repeat itself and large-scale transfer of American technology occur once again, perhaps Americans on the right of the political spectrum will see it merely as another ruthless power grab by the Evil Empire, and perhaps those on the left will discern only a profit-motivated sellout by Western industrialists. More likely the main motivation will be the same as last time. Since the 1917 Revolution many Soviets, especially those who see themselves as the heirs of Lenin, have pursued a destiny of technological transformation that casts power struggles and economic maneuvering into the shadows. They have deeply admired and envied the United States because for more than two centuries it was a building site on which a mostly poor and aspiring people transformed a wilderness into a mighty system of production.
Countless remarks by the early Bolsheviks testify to this. Soviet leaders have always hoped to capture this spirit and imbue their people with it. In the 1920s conservative American engineers and industrialists recognized in their Russian counterparts this kindred spirit of invention and development. They even sensed that the Soviets, like ordinary Americans, believed that technology could help bring them both goods and a good life. Perhaps that technological spirit reflects more in common between the two peoples than we have realized. It could be a bridge for a lasting creative dialogue between two nations of builders.