The Cold War: a Competition between Two Countries

The United States sought to defeat the communist ideology of the Soviet Union on multiple fronts during the Cold War. Through indirect military interventions, cultural triumphs, and competitions occurring at the national level the two nations would oppose one another. These sorts of competitions proved incredibly effective as a project to help the bankrupting of the Soviet economy and ultimately played a pivotal role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. The Space Race between the two nations was in part merely a strategy employed to laud scientific achievement over the other nation, but the competitive drive instilled in the populations of both countries led to innovations that made voyages into space and onto the moon possible, arguably among mankind’s greatest achievements. Ideological superiority was the crux of this battle and the stakes rose for the first time in human history to a global level, meaning that the motivations to compete for individuals rose to meet those stakes as well. The rapid rate of development of technology that sprouted from this period is still fascinating to learn about, if this same rate of development could be achieved without the baggage of a nuclear standoff and ideological confrontation the results would no doubt again be tremendous as well.

The Cold War was at its core a clash between two differing ideologies. Dating back to the formal creation of the Soviet Union, the indirect nature of the ideological conflict is observable in the actions of President Woodrow Wilson asserts Trani. Wilson then faced a major decision whether or not to recognize the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 and Lenin’s communist government. Wilson and the United States immediately perceived this new ideologically run government as a potential threat, and took actions to either indirectly oppose or contain it. Both nations had parallels in their origins though, being created amidst a revolution in an attempt to establish a then experimental system of governing. It was almost as if the development of the two nations into superpowers was pushed through a mirror lens though, because they transformed into opposites in every imaginable sense. These opposing manifestations into culture, economics, and systems of government were a result of the two ideologies themselves being the root of the opposition.

Whether or not Wilson’s decision to greet the newly formalized nation with suspicion was warranted is up for speculation, as a degree of caution in the facing of an unknown entity could either be viewed as a reasonable precaution or a sort of xenophobia. This attitude of suspicion though would continue to exist in the minds of later American presidents, culminating in the nuclear standoff of the Cold War where it is plainly apparent to see. This initial suspicion though became clarified into the identification of an enemy state, as both sides would come to assert that the other’s form of governing could not produce a functional society that existed as Superpower in the global landscape.

The Cold War became framed in a way around the functional utility of the societies and achievements produced by socialist and capitalist ideologies. Both sides felt compelled to produce great feats and accomplishments justifying the existence of their own ideologically propped societies, and revealing the failures of their opponent. On the subject of the Soviet Ideology, Robinson has this to say, If the party could not prove that it was using its power to develop society correctly it became redundant by the terms of its own ideological discourse. While this quote is directly referencing the ideology of the Soviet Union, it can be related to the United States as well.

The overall claim being fought over in the propaganda competitions of the Cold War was ultimately which type of governing system could produce the best society, and if one of the two failed in these challenges, by extension this was a failure of the ideology as well. Suddenly something as recreational as a sporting event was in part being used to determine the viability and fidelity of either western or eastern civilization. This suddenly put both societies under a microscope in the examining of all the different ways a society can manifest and be comparatively measured. Education systems, infrastructure, recreational activities and sporting events all became channels of propaganda that had the stakes of the overall global conflict placed on them.

This propaganda war was fought on every imaginable front, leading to a multitude of bizarre posturing for dominance between the two countries. The Cold War came to shape not just military strength and technology, but culture, and became a struggle between two nation’s attempts at displaying the distinguishability and superiority of their own. Every potential way that the two ideologies could manifest themselves became a new indirect battleground for the two countries. Stone illustrates the extent to which the conflict occurred by facets of everyday life, from consumption patterns to film, sport or design were all influenced by the Cold War’s ideological strictures.

The nuclear stalemate between the two countries kept them from engaging in direct traditional warfare, and limited it to a seemingly petty rivalry. This element of rivalry separated it from other direct wars and conflicts as concerns of mutually assured destruction forced the two nations to resort to compete with one another, but not directly engage as combatants. This posturing placed enormous pressure on anyone unlucky enough to find themself enveloped in a societal activity that had been hijacked for propaganda purposes. While direct engagement was off the table of options, posturing of military and technological strength remained one as one of the most focused avenues for both sides. Scientific advancement of a tremendous scope is one of the only positive effects that came out of the Cold War.

This rivalry on a national level led to both incredible achievements but also the constant fear of the deployment of nuclear weapons. The nature of these competitions between the two ranged from sporting events all the way to scientific and industrial achievements like the space race. Again at the root of all these competitions was the desire to prove the superiority of their ideology by producing an Olympic winning national hockey team, or a fully functional aerospace division capable of completing missions into outer space. Slotten maintains precisely this by saying, “The nuclear standoff meant that some of the most important battles between the United States and the Soviet Union involved propaganda and symbolism rather than direct armed conflict.

While these types of competitions reached to a level that seemed petty from a present day perspective, they were still supremely significant in terms of producing influence by being in the global spotlight. It is rather comical though to consider the global stakes behind the overlying ideological confrontation manifesting into a game of chess between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. There is another aspect to these competitions that reveals the layer of propaganda behind it, the use of mudslinging tactics in televised encounters. A prime example would be Cassius Clay’s (Muhammad Ali) interview discussed by Wood, in which she remarks, After Clay’s gold medal match, a Soviet reporter, reflecting Cold War strategies and propaganda, asked Clay how it felt to win gold for a country that practiced racial segregation. Obviously there are very few ways to answer such a loaded question like that without helping create a poor outside image of the United States, and that is the point of such a tactic. It is designed in nature to catch the person off guard and sours what should have been a shining moment for Clay and the United States.

This tactic perfectly encapsulates the attitudes of both nations towards the other during the Cold War. It is reflective of a genuine resentment that existed in the collective mindsets of both nations. Even channels of dialogue, that were potentially means of peaceful resolution, became utilized in mudslinging efforts by both countries. Individual interactions between opposing members of these societies would have likely been one of the best ways to let the illusion of the iron curtain fall. In interacting as individuals that originate from foreign groups, one can realize that the other is not merely the stereotypical manifestation of said foreign group, but an individual with their own thoughts, traits, and motivations. Unfortunately Cold War societal attitudes on both sides aroused suspicions on individuals who attempted to bridge this gap. In the U.S., being labeled a Socialist or a Communist could subject someone to harassment from neighbors, police surveillance, and other varying forms of suspicion. The same could be said of Capitalist labels in the Soviet Union. It was a type of ideological xenophobia that either unified or ostracized individuals because of the all-encompassing nature of the Cold War. The echoes of this type of polarity still exist today in both American and Russian mindsets, as allegations of meddling in the American electoral processes by Russian agents are still currently being investigated. Tensions of Cold War magnitudes have been lowered significantly though due to a combination of things, like the collapse of the Soviet Union, the invention of new dialogue mediums via the internet, and lowering of nuclear arsenals.

The ideological conflicts also led to vast advancements in technology in the West, primarily designed for military focused applications, but still significant advancements nonetheless. This technological advancement and production being demanded by the government for military purposes had its roots in the transformative role of the United States government that occurred during World War II. Schaffer promotes this idea by saying, The success of the war effort, particularly the development and production of various weapon systems and the building of a massive manufacturing in- frastructure, quickly solidified the government’s expanded role. Rapid en masse output of tanks, bombers, and other military gear for the wartime effort was something the American people had proved capable of managing. Repurposing that same level of effort towards a singular project like a moon landing with successful results became a possibility in part because of this expanded role of the American government.

The goal of landing a man on the moon also reflects a possibility of a shift from simply pursuing endeavors that show off military strength to endeavors of scientific advancement that could have applications that benefit all of humanity. This is monumental because it opens the door for both sides to realize that ultimately their ideological conflict is inane when compared to a transcendent goal of pure scientific advancement for the sake of mankind. Unfortunately this did not happen, as the resentment in both sides continued until the Soviet Union’s collapse, but the possibility that it opened still exists today. Whether or not the same rate of technological advancement would occur if this sort of idealism were embraced is purely speculative, but it is a goal truly worth pursuing.

American voyages into outer space were largely a response to the Soviet Union’s recently developed capability to send satellites (and potentially nuclear missiles) into orbit. The 1957 Sputnik demonstration may have just been a satellite, but the implications behind what was now technologically possible in the Soviet Union loomed over the United States. The Eisenhower administration sought to immediately take action by dramatically increasing access to Federal Aid for students, and by also creating a number of agencies concerning national security and space travel. The most recognizable agency would be N.A.S.A, and although this tactic was expensive and potentially risky, it would ultimately pay off. Kay lists off some of the miraculous inventions produced from this era by saying, From space travel to stealth aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicle technology to the Internet, the by-products of this degree of government planning and strategic vision were extraordinary.

Eisenhower saw that the will of the American people was capable but that further education would ultimately be necessary to step forward with new technological innovations that would answer the Soviets. What had started out as a flexing match between the nations was becoming more nuanced, as science played a larger role in the development of weapons. Sheer military might was still a prominent motivator, but as the levels of weaponry became more sophisticated, so too did the strain in creating and operating them. Eisenhower recognized that the demand for scientific advancement could satisfy not just a response to the Soviet’s Sputnik, but also strengthen American infrastructure, which would lead to all sorts of future innovations that could exist and operate not just for the purpose of displaying military might. This tilting of attitude toward advancing technology for civilian or practical use is part of what kept American infrastructure so sound. It is a combination of evolution of application, and a then sequential shifting of goals.

The initial drive to innovate may have come from a desire to establish dominance by the means of the military but, once the new technology was invented, new possibilities were suddenly available. These new possibilities led to the repurposing of goals in what exactly to do with this technology. Compare Eisenhower’s foresight with the lack thereof in Soviet leaders toward scientific innovation and it helps illustrate why the United States would go onto advance, and the Soviet Union to ultimately collapse. In discussing the Soviet Union’s tactic of replacing officials frequently in an effort to combat misconduct, Sherman has this to say, Specifically, it caused resistance to technological improvements because these improvements are costly and may pay off only in a longer-run period. The Soviet’s inability to simultaneously solve short-term and long-term problems is primarily what led to their nation’s collapse. Economic collapse is tragic for the denizens of the nation, but it is ultimately better than the looming alternative that almost came to be during the Cold War: nuclear annihilation.

Imagine for a moment that a similar level of rivalry from the Cold War existed in a new pursuit towards scientific achievement, but instead of the ultimate goal being the annihilation of the enemy, it was the betterment of mankind. Consider again the leaps forward made in this era and how although they were in all likelihood created with motivations similar to the former goal, dozens of the innovations had practical applications resembling the latter goal. Similar to the sporting matches or other shows of force, technological breakthroughs were a sort of high stakes competitive game between sworn enemies. Ironically, by bringing new technology into fruition and displaying it on a global scale, both nations were guaranteeing the eventuality that the other nation would be able to produce and improve upon the same kind of technology. On the subject of generational improvements, Jones had this to say, Rather than consensus, the Cold War spawned competing visions of what caused unreliability in electronics, and how this unreliability might be eliminated. If this same rate of high tech improvements could exist today without being overshadowed by nuclear arsenals, the universal applications of all the innovations produced would be unimaginable. The privatization of tech companies has already produced astounding pieces of technology that is continually improving, but to imagine the same national level of unity that existed in the Cold War aimed at a more benevolent goal is dizzying.

The Cold War brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction, and in the ensuing stalemate also created a rivalry that encompassed almost every conceivable battleground. This rivalry went on not to just create world champions in sporting events, but also create innovations that decades later we still rely on today. An optimistic person would look forward to seeing a friendlier resurfacing of this nature of rivalry, intended only to move human achievements forward, not just national agendas. Modern titans of industry like Elon Musk certainly have made an impact in attempting to keep the rate of innovation and advancement moving forward, but one longs to see a renewed interest in space travel and access to quality education coming from the federal government, not just the private sector. History has proved that incentivizing citizens to receive higher educations ultimately produces a better-equipped and driven workforce.

The other lesson that Cold War history has taught is that the lack of foresight in the Soviet Union to invest in projects and educating their people ultimately played a role in their stagnation and decline. Although the military industrial complex attitude ultimately drove the demand of advancement in technology, individuals like Eisenhower saw the benefit of allowing this technology to be fully realized beyond its initial wartime designations. Part of the reason such astounding results came out of the Cold War era technological fields was due to the insane nature of the stakes. Threats of societal collapse, nuclear destruction, and ideological defeat were ultimately what drove the competitors so hard to succeed. When an individual truly believes his or her life and world to be at stake, they will compete harder than ever before to achieve success. It is doubtful that the world will ever see this rate of development again without the accompanying baggage of Cold War stakes.

A valuable lesson from this period in history to realize though is that competition of a much friendlier nature can still produce unexpected results, and some think this can be achieved while simultaneously removing the world ending stakes of the Cold War.


  1. Jones-Imhotep, Edward. “Disciplining Technology: Electronic Reliability, Cold-War Military Culture and the Topside Ionogram.” History & Technology 17, no. 2 (2000): 125.
  2. Kay, Sean. “America’s Sputnik Moments.” Survival (00396338) 55, no. 2 (2013): 123-146.
  3. Robinson, Neil. “What was Soviet Ideology? A Comment on Joseph Schull and an Alternative.” Political Studies 43, no. 2(1995): 325-332.
  4. Schafer, Todd and Paul Hyland. “Technological Policy in the Post-Cold War World.” Journal of Economic Issues (Association for Evolutionary Economics) 28, no. 2 (1994): 597.
  5. Sherman, Howard. “Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union.” International Journal of Political Economy 24, no. 1 (1994): 5-18.
  6. Slotten, Hugh Richard. “The International Telecommunications Union, Space Radio Communications, and U.S. Cold War Diplomacy, 1957-1963.” Diplomatic History 37, no. 2 (2013): 313.
  7. Stone, D. “Cold War Ideas.” Contemporary European History, 22(4) (2013): 675-686.
  8. Trani, Eugene P., and Donald E. Davis. “Woodrow Wilson and the Origins of the Cold War: A Hundred Years Later and Still Relevant.” World Affairs, 180, no. 4 (2017): 25-46.
  9. Wood, Molly M. “Spanning the Globe to Bring You the Constant Variety of Sports: Teaching the United States and the World in Cold War.” Journal of American History 103, no. 4 (2017): 1004-1011.
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