Earlier this month we celebrated Valentine’s Day, a holiday when “love is in the air,” spurring spending binges and rampant consumerism. But if you’re on a budget, tough love might actually carry the day.
What does this have to do with the Cold War, you might ask. Well, think about the two kinds of POWER and the gap between the type and quantity of consumer goods available in the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1950s, when families in the United States were buying Silly Putty and RCA Victor TVs, textile plants, shoe factories and food‐processing industries comprised the bulk of the Soviet consumer‐goods sector, showing growth rates as low as 1 and 2 per cent. At the other end of the growth scale were chemicals, oil, gas and electric power, which were receiving priority in development. (The New York Times: January 24, 1964)
Hard and Soft Power: A Brief Primer
At the most general level, power means the ability to influence behavior to get the outcomes we want. We usually think about it in terms of hard power – military and economic might. But during the Cold War, when we were battling the Soviet Union to win hearts and minds around the world, we often relied on soft power – the ability to shape the preferences of others. That’s exactly what David Reisman wanted to do in his 1951 spoof titled The Nylon War.
To summarize, hard power is the ability to coerce, and it grows out of a country’s military or economic might. Soft Power, on the other hand, is characterized by a nation’s ability to attract and persuade. It springs from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.
Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power,” first introducing it in his book Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990), chapter 2. If you want to read it, you can buy it on Amazon. Just click here.
As the Cold War intensified, the United States attempted to use the soft power of consumerism to counter the influence of the Soviets.
The Nylon War: Soft Power in Action
In 1951, the sociologist David Reisman published an account of a “make believe” American bombing campaign against the Soviet Union. Called “The Nylon War” by imaginary reporters, the USSR was barraged by women’s stockings, not by explosives. This was the strategy:
Behind the initial raid of June 1 were years of secret and complex preparations, and an idea of disarming simplicity: that if allowed to sample the riches of America, the Russian people would not long tolerate masters who gave them tanks and spies instead of vacuum cleaners and beauty parlors. The Russian rulers would thereupon be forced to turn out consumers’ goods, or face mass discontent on an increasing scale.
The action, called Operation Abundance by US officials, was both “violently anti-Soviet and pro-peace.” Successive waves of air-dropped goods were meant to throw Soviet society into disarray “as Soviet housewives saw for their own eyes American stoves, refrigerators, clothing and toys.” Subsequently, the Russian leadership would be forced to produce “goods instead of guns.”
According to Reisman’s imaginary Nylon War, the first forays in June 1951 dropped:
200,000 pairs of nylons
4 million packs of cigarettes
35,000 Toni wave kits (anyone remember those?)
20,000 yo yos
10,000 wrist watches
miscellaneous other odds and ends.
Reaction in the Soviet Union
The drops resulted in frenzied rioting in the Soviet Union. Everyone, even party leaders wanted American consumer goods.
A bit later, in 1966, two Soviet scientists published an account of a catastrophic attempt to create “the universal consumer who desires everything.” Titled Monday Begins on Saturday the article is akin to Reisman’s Nyon War.
Both satires speculate about the role of consumption in deciding the fate of communism and fantasize the deployment of consumer desire as an agent of destruction.
Much later, when the East German state collapsed, some said
. . . an unsustainable escalation of consumer desire, fueled by Western lifestyle comparisons at times explicitly promoted by Party leaders, bankrupted state socialism.
The End of the Soviet Union
It would be simplistic to say that the desire for American consumer goods impelled the end of the Cold War. Still, Glasnost, or openness, meant a greater willingness on the part of Soviet officials to allow western ideas and goods into the USSR, and Perestroika was an initiative that allowed limited market incentives to Soviet citizens. (Want to know more about The End of the Cold War? Here’s a timeline.)
Gorbachev hoped these changes would be enough to spark the sluggish Soviet economy. Instead, pushed to the brink of economic collapse, a coup by conservative hardliners removed Gorbachev from power and soon the Soviet Union dissolved. The Soviet economy was in far worse shape than most Western observers believed at the time of its demise, but that’s a another story. You can read about it here if you’d like.
Featured Photograph: Hagley Museum and Library
The New York Times: January 24, 1964
You may recognize Reisman as the author of The Lonely Crowd, often listed as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. The book analyzed a middle class obsessed with how other people lived.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. Soft Power” The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004).
Want to read more about consumerism and the Cold War? Take a look at Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design by Greg Castillo.