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« Public intellectuals | Main | Labour's malaise »

April 23, 2008


Joe in Australia

President Reagan's offer (whether made sincerely or not) was one which the former Soviet Union could not possibly have accepted. At the time I had a small interest in short wave radio news broadcasts and I recall listening to an announcer on Radio Moscow denouncing the Star Wars program. I can't recall the specifics of his complaint, but it was something along the lines of it being provocative, dangerous, militaristic and so forth. I don't think that an official organ of the FSU would have spoken so finally if the matter was up for debate.

We now know that the FSU was financially stretched and that its technology was many decades behind that of the USA. I don't believe the USA then (perhaps even now) could have successfully implemented the Star Wars program, but it is obvious that the FSU could have had nothing to do with it. President Reagan's offer was to share technology that the FSU could not use, or at best to make the FSU's defense depend upon its erstwhile enemy's largesse. It was simply an offer that could not possibly be accepted.

My reason for suspecting that the offer was in a way insincere is that it rubbed the FSU's nose in the fact that it had fallen many years behind the democratic world. Radio Moscow's line (as I recall hearing it) was that Star Wars would be destabilising during the period in which it was partially complete, because it would potentially make a first strike practical. That argument didn't seem very strong to me, because it rested upon the assumption that Star Wars would work. If it would work, I thought, surely it's worth the risk of instability during its construction.

The other economic and technological failings of the FSU could have been disguised by propaganda - the rationing is due to bad harvests, or the FSU providing economic aid to other countries. The FSU may lack consumer luxuries, but its communal goods (like the army) are the best in the world. Western technology might be more sophisticated, but Soviet engineering is superior. Star Wars exploded that myth: it was pretty clear that the FSU could not keep up with the USA even on a project vital to its interests. This demonstrated the urgent need for internal reform in the FSU and is, I believe, one of the factors that led to the swift collapse of the FSU.


It is simply not the case that the technology of the former USSR was universally behind that of the west. In some advanded domains, for example in aerospace electronics and aircraft design, the USSR was very much ahead, as I know from consulting to western aerospace company managements in the 1980s and 1990s. This technology lead was known to both sides at the time, and commonly discussed within defence-industry and defence-policy circles on both sides. After 1991, western aerospace companies were very keen to obtain access to Soviet expertise, either directly by employing Russian technologists and scientists, and purchase of Russian industrial plants, or indirectly, through joint ventures with research groups and industrial plants from the CIS states.

The effects of Soviet scientific education can be seen even today in Britain: Most British University Mathematics and Computer Science Departments employ academic staff who were citizens of the countries of the former Soviet bloc.


Not on topic, but thought people might enjoy what "Americas finest news source" has to say on 9/11 conspiracy theories:


"the world's top public intellectual"

That is like saying that Madonna is the world's top singer. Nothing to do with music.


Thanks for linking to the Chomsky article. Great stuff.

Joe in Australia

Peter, could it be that the Soviet aerospace engineers had more access to military technology? When I criticised Soviet technology I was thinking of computers and other sophisticated electronics. Their design skills were not inferior; what they lacked was easy access to components and materials available in the West. Computer simulation wasn't as important back then, particularly if you could throw plenty of labor at creating physical simulations.

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