The Corner

Did Apollo Help Win the Cold War?

Yesterday I posted this, in relation to readers offering conservative justifications for the Apollo program:

A common argument is that by demonstrating our aerospatial-technological superiority to the Soviets, Apollo helped win the Cold War. I can’t myself see any evidence that Apollo advanced our victory in the Cold War by so much as fifteen minutes, and nobody has anything concrete to offer. The U.S.S.R. decayed on its own domestic timetable, with very little reference to what we were doing. So it seems to me, anyway. Contrariwise to the Apollo argument, our humiliation in Vietnam should have enormously encouraged the Soviets; but I see no real sign of that, either. They just went on slowly crumbling.

I got several replies to that, and shall post some of them as time permits. The following one belongs at the head of the list, as it comes from a long-time correspondent who was a Soviet citizen, and also, if memory serves, an officer in the Soviet military. In other words, his opinion is really worth something (i.e. probably a lot more than mine):

Dear Mr. Derbyshire,

I believe that the Moon landing was the most consequential American action since at least WWII and perhaps since the 18th century. There was definitely a huge impact on the Cold War. There was a tremendous propaganda effect (and let’s not forget that in the absence of American landings the Soviets would sooner or later have landed on the Moon themselves and made a huge deal out of it).

In 1961 Khrushchev officially promised (in the party program) to overtake America some time in the 1970s, and early Soviet achievements in space exploration in the late 1950s and early 1960s were lending a lot of credibility to that promise. That may have slowed down internal dissent growth in the USSR, while the subsequent loss in the space race in 1969 made it painfully clear to the people that the USSR was not in fact overtaking America (and by the time I started taking History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at Moscow U in 1983, the Commies were so embarrassed of their own program — especially its quantifiable parts with specific timelines — that they did not even much insist on us reading it).

But the biggest impact was in the Third World. In the 1960s the Soviets were making good progress spreading socialism all over the Third World. Credible claims of overtaking America in the near future were quite helpful in this respect, since everybody wants to be on the winning side. Friedman and von Hayek provided superb arguments, but they were too theoretical for the rulers and too complex for the populations. Economic statistics were too inconclusive and untrustworthy.

The space race, however, provided a clear-cut competition. And the Moon was the Big Enchilada, since poorly educated people are not much impressed by low Earth orbital stuff, but even African tribesmen are well aware of the Moon, can easily grasp the concept of walking on it and intuitively understand that it’s not an easy feat.

The simple fact that the Americans walked on the Moon and the Soviets did not made both the elites and the populations question Soviet claims of their superiority and boastful promises of the inevitable victory in the Cold War.

It is quite easy to imagine an alternative history: Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia rejecting markets, India moving further to the left and closer to the USSR, more Middle Eastern countries becoming Baathist rather than Khomeinist (the latter was, of course, bad for the USA but even worse for the USSR, since more and more of their conscripts were coming from Muslim Central Asian republics), Latin America moving to the left, most of Africa choosing socialism and close ties with the USSR, Red China choosing to improve relations with the USSR rather than the US (we might now be looking at pictures of Brezhnev rather than Nixon at the Great Wall in 1972), etc., etc., etc.

Though strongly tempted to yield to my correspondent’s expertise, the fall of the USSR still looks to me like — if ex-Marxists won’t mind the term — a case of historical inevitability. The thing was rotten from top to bottom: By the 1970s Soviet citizens themselves were making jokes about it. I’ll allow that American actions, including the Moon landings, might have affected the timetable; but I simply can’t see that even without Apollo, even without the Reagan defense build-up, without any other American event you can name, there would still be a USSR in 2009.

If my ex-Soviet correspondent comes back with a counter-argument, though, I’ll post it without further quibbles.

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