CAMBRIDGE – In the 1950’s, many Americans feared that the Soviet Union would surpass the United States as the world’s leading power. The Soviet Union had the world’s largest territory, the third largest population, and the second largest economy, and it produced more oil and gas than Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the USSR possessed nearly half of the world’s nuclear weapons, had more men under arms than the US, and had the most people employed in research and development. It detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1952, only one year after the US, and it was the first to launch a satellite into space, in 1957.
In terms of soft power, communist ideology was attractive in post-World War II Europe, owing to its anti-fascist credentials, and in the Third World because of its identification with popular national-independence movements. Soviet propaganda actively fostered a myth of the inevitability of communism’s triumph.
Nikita Khrushchev famously boasted in 1959 that the Soviet Union would overtake the US by 1970, and by 1980 at the latest. As late as 1976, Leonid Brezhnev told the French president that communism would dominate the world by 1995. Such predictions were bolstered by reportedannual economic growth rates of 5-6% and an increase in the USSR’s share of global output, from 11% to 12.3%, between 1950 and 1970.