Sizing up the Competition: Alternate Perceptions of the US and USSR during the Cold War

By Avery Comar

The Cold War dominates scholarly analysis of the post-World War II period, and for good reason. In the post-war decades, fear of nuclear eradication began to dominate the everyday lives of average people across the globe, and the Communist versus capitalist ideological dichotomy became the driving force behind geopolitical conflict. As the saying goes, history is told by the victors. This held true following the collapse of communism, as Cold War historiography came to be dominated by narratives that emphasize the weaknesses of the socialist system (of which there are admittedly many), while paying comparatively less attention to the flaws of Western capitalism. An objective historian, however, should strive to remember that the eventual victory of capitalism was not a foregone conclusion; that is to say, communism did not always appear inherently inferior. During the Cold War, the criticisms of capitalism were just as loud as those of communism — it is only in retrospect that capitalism emerges as the obvious victor.

An article by Bernadine Fronda in the September 22, 1964 edition of the Miami Student, entitled “Soviets Ask Professor about Race Problem,” demonstrates the way in which contemporary anti-communist sentiments in the West were mirrored by equally powerful criticisms of capitalism from the East. The article describes the recent trip of Dr. John Thompson, a Miami professor in the geology department, to the Soviet Union (USSR). Dr. Thompson had spent the summer of 1964 in the USSR, traveling cities as diverse as Tbilisi, Rostov, Kharkhov, and Novgorod in addition to the large metropolises of Moscow and Leningrad. Among other notes from his trip (such as government screening of tour guides and the results of rapid industrialization), Thompson recounts two important observations: The poor condition of plumbing in hotels and the prevalence of racism in Soviet perceptions of American society.

Fronda’s article demonstrates two contemporary Cold War narratives; one from each side of the capitalist-communist divide. The first narrative associates capitalist society with racism, and is therefore submerged within the context of Western-dominated Cold War historiography. The second paints socialism in an unflattering light —  emphasizing the inability of a socialist system to maintain infrastructure — and therefore occupies a more conspicuous place in Western historical memory.

Racial inequality was the most effective criticism of American capitalist society, and the Soviet population was well aware of their ideological opponent’s greatest weakness. Marxist thinkers had long associated racism with capitalism, arguing that race was a bourgeois construct that served as an obstacle to proletariat collective action; if the proletariat was occupied by nationalistic concepts of us versus them, they would remain blind to the divisions of class which played the most fundamental role in their oppression. With the rise of socialism, those thinkers predicted, racism would be abolished as proletarians of all races joined together to overthrow the bourgeois status quo. For this reason, the ideas of capitalism and racism were linked in the Soviet mind.

Dr. Thompson experienced this firsthand during his trip to the Soviet Union, telling Fronda that he received “…constant questions about the United States’ integration problems.” He emphasized the frequency with which Soviet citizens inquired about problems with racial integration in the United States. The article mentions that most Soviets (aside from their guides) did not speak English, and were therefore unable to communicate with Thompson, but select groups of students had the language skills necessary to satisfy the answers to their questions. In one specific instance, a student in “…Minsk, capital of Vyelyorussia [sic: Minsk was the capital of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic]… asked about the integration problem.” Though the article does not elaborate on what is meant by “the integration problem,” the title and historical context indicates that it is related to the painful process of desegregation that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, ten years earlier.

The student in Minsk was not alone in his curiosity about race relations in the US. Dr. Thompson goes on to explain that, among groups of English-speaking students, “This was the most frequently asked question during the trip.” The frequency of these questions indicates the prevalence of racism in communist perceptions of the US; given the opportunity to interact with an American, one of the first thoughts of Soviet students was to inquire about American racism and the condition of race relations in the United States. The narrative about capitalist racism, though conspicuous in the Soviet Union, becomes submerged in the context of capitalist-centric Cold War historiography.

            However, Fronda’s article does not paint an altogether flattering picture of socialism, either. Soviet historians often characterize the post-Stalinist era by emphasizing crumbling infrastructure. State-owned buildings, streets, and railroads, a result of the rapid industrialization of the twenties and thirties, fell into disrepair in the fifties and sixties as a result of economic stagnation. This is apparent in the account of Johnson’s travels, as he complains of “bad plumbing” — his accommodations “…were nearly equivalent to American hotels except for the plumbing.” Here, Fronda’s article serves as a contemporary demonstration of a criticism of socialism which has now become a conspicuous part of Cold War historiography; namely, that the Soviet economy was unable to maintain the high productivity of the Stalinist years.

The local understanding of Cold War history (as it is depicted in this article) is unique in that it places communism and capitalism on even footing, giving no preference to the eventual ideological victor. This willingness can be explained with reference to the specific demographics of Miami Student readers. Since that group consists primarily of university students and professors, it makes sense that the Student would be more even-handed in their portrayal of contemporary Cold War circumstances than their mainstream media counterparts.

            By highlighting Soviet perceptions of American society as racist, the article exposes a social weakness of the capitalist victor of the Cold War which typically receives little attention. It also points out a weakness of socialism — the inability of a socialist economy to effectively maintain infrastructure. In this way, the 1964 article “Soviets Ask Professor about Race Problem” demonstrates two narratives within Western-dominated Cold War historiography: one submerged, and one conspicuous.

Avery Comar is a junior majoring in History and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

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