THE ILLUSION OF ‘CONVERGENCE’

It may now seem odd that for a time it was the fashion to say that the United States and Soviet Russia were growing more and more alike, and that this meant that Soviet policy was becoming less menacing. This theory of ‘convergence’ gave a distorted emphasis to one indisputable truth: the Soviet Union was a developed economy. In the 1960s some on the European Left still thought socialism a plausible road to modernization because of that. But often overlooked was the fact that the Soviet economy was also inefficient and distorted.

Although Soviet industrial strength had long been evident in heavy manufacture, the private consumer in the Soviet Union remained poor by comparison with his American counterpart, and would have been even more visibly so, but for a costly system of subsidies. Russian agriculture, which had once fed the cities of Central Europe and paid for the industrialization of the Tsarist era, was a continuing failure; paradoxically, the Soviet Union often had to buy American grain. The official Soviet Communist Party programme of 1961 proposed that by 1970 the USSR would outstrip the United States in industrial output. That did not happen, although President Kennedy’s proposal of the same year to put a man on the moon was realized. Yet the USSR, in comparison with undeveloped countries, was undoubtedly rich. In spite of the obvious disparity between them as consumer societies, to the poor the USA and USSR sometimes looked much the same. Many Soviet citizens, too, were more aware of the contrast between their stricken and impoverished country in the 1940s and its condition in the 1960s, than of comparison with the United States. Nor was the contrast of the two systems always one-sided. Soviet investment in education, for example, may have achieved literacy rates as good as, and even at times better than, the American. Such comparisons, which fall easily over the line from quantitative to qualitative judgement, nevertheless do not alter the basic fact that the per capita GDP of the Soviet Union in the 1970s still lagged far behind that of the United States. If its citizens had at last been given old age pensions in 1956 (nearly half a century after the British people), they also had to put up with health services falling further and further behind those available in the West. There had been a long legacy of backwardness and disruption to eliminate; only in 1952 had real wages in Russia even got back to their 1928 level. The theory of ‘convergence’ was always too optimistic and too simplistic.

Nonetheless, by 1970 the USSR had a scientific and industrial base that in scale and at its best could rival the achievements of the United States. Its most obvious expression, and a great source of patriotic pride to the Soviet citizen, was in space. By 1980 there was so much ironmongery in orbit that it was difficult to recapture the startling impression made twenty years before by the first Soviet satellites. Although American successes had speedily followed, Soviet space achievements remained of the first rank. Reports of space exploration fed the patriotic imagination and rewarded patience with other aspects of daily life in the USSR. It is not too much to say that for some Soviet citizens their space technology justified the Revolution; the USSR was shown by it to be able to do almost anything another nation could, and much that only one other could, and perhaps one or two things which, for a while, no other could. Mother Russia was modernized at last.

Whether this meant that she was in some sense becoming a satisfied nation, with leaders more confident and less suspicious of the outside world and less prone to disturb the international scene, is an entirely different matter. Soviet responses to Chinese resurgence did not seem to show that; there was talk of a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Chinese border. Soviet society was beginning to show new signs of internal strain as well by 1970. Dissent and criticism, particularly of restraints upon intellectual freedom, had become obvious for the first time in the 1960s, as had such symptoms of anti-social behaviour as hooliganism, corruption and alcoholism. But they probably held both as much and as little potential for significant change as in other large countries. Less obvious facts may turn out to have been more important in the long run; in the 1970s native Russian-speakers for the first time became a minority in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the regime was still one where the limits of freedom and the basic privileges of the individual were defined in practice by an apparatus backed up by administrative decisions and political prisons. The difference between life in the Soviet Union and the United States (or any west European nation) could still be reckoned by such yardsticks as her enormous expenditure on jamming foreign broadcasting.

For obvious reasons, changes in the United States were more easily observed than those in the USSR, but this did not always make it easier to discern fundamentals. Of the sheer growth of American power there can be no doubt, nor of its importance to the world. In the middle of the 1950s, the United States contained about 6 per cent of the world’s population but produced more than half the world’s manufactured goods; by the year 2000, the economy of the state of California alone would be the fifth largest in the world. In 1968 the American population passed the 200 million mark (in 1900 it had been 76 million), only one in twenty of whom were not native-born (though within ten years there would be worries about a huge Spanish-speaking immigration from Mexico and the Caribbean). Numbers of births went up while the birth rate dropped after i960; the United States was unique among major developed countries in this respect. More Americans than ever lived in cities or their suburbs, and the likelihood that they would die of some form of malignancy had trebled since 1900; this, paradoxically, was a sure sign of improvement in public health, because it showed a growing mastery of other diseases.

The immensely successful American industrial structure was dominated in 1970 by very large corporations, some of them already commanding resources and wealth greater than those of some nations. Concern was often expressed for the interests of the public and the consumer, given the weight in the economy of these giants. But no doubts existed about the economy’s ability to create wealth and power. Though it was to be shown that it could not do everything that might be asked of it, American industrial strength was the great constant of the post-war world and underpinned the huge military potential upon which the conduct of American foreign policy inevitably rested.

Political mythologies still mattered in the 1950s. President Truman’s second administration and those of President Eisenhower were marked by noisy debate and much shadow-boxing about the danger of governmental interference with the economy. It was largely beside the point. Ever since 1945 the federal government has held and indeed increased its importance as the first customer of the American economy. Government spending had been the primary economic stimulant and to increase it had been the goal of hundreds of interest groups and thousands of capitalists; hopes of balanced budgets and cheap, business-like administration always ran aground upon this fact. What was more, the United States was a democracy; whatever the doctrinaire objections to it, and however much rhetoric might be devoted to attacking it, a welfare state slowly advanced because voters wanted it that way. These facts gradually made the old ideal of totally free enterprise, unchecked and uninvaded by the influence of government, unreal. They also helped to prolong the Democratic coalition. The Republican presidents who were elected in 1952 and 1968 on each occasion benefited from war-weariness; but neither could persuade Americans that they should elect Republican congresses. On the other hand, signs of strain were to be seen within the Democratic bloc even before 1960 - Eisenhower appealed to many southern voters - and by 1970 something a little more like a national conservative party had appeared under the Republican banner because some southerners had been offended by Democratic legislation on behalf of the blacks. The Democratic-voting ‘Solid South’ created by the Civil War had disappeared as a political constant.

Presidents could sometimes shift emphasis. The Eisenhower years leave an impression that little happened in the domestic history of the United States during them; it was not part of that president’s vision of his office that he should provide a strong policy lead at home. Partly because of this, Kennedy’s election by a narrow margin of the popular vote in 1960 - the arrival of a new man (and a young one, too) - produced a sense of striking change. It was misleading in that too much was made at the time of the more superficial aspects of this. In retrospect, though, it can be agreed that in both foreign and domestic affairs, the eight years of renewed Democratic rule from 1961 brought great change to the United States, though not in the way in which Kennedy or his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, hoped when they took office.

One issue already there in i960 was what could still then be called the ‘Negro question’. A century after emancipation, the black American was likely to be poorer, more often on relief, more often unemployed, less well housed and less healthy than the white American. Forty years later, this was still to be true. In the 1950s and 1960s, though, there was growing optimism about changing things. The position of blacks in American society suddenly began to appear intolerable and became a great political question because of three new facts. One was black migration that had turned a southern question into a national problem. Between 1940 and 1960 the black population of northern states almost trebled in a movement not reversed until the 1990s. New York became the state with the biggest black population of the Union. This not only brought blacks into view in new places, but also in new ways. It revealed that the problem facing them was not only one of legal rights, but was more complex; it was one of economic and cultural deprivation, too. The second fact pushing the question forward on to the national stage lay outside the United States. Many of the new nations, which were becoming a majority at the UN, were nations of coloured peoples. It was an embarrassment - of which communist propaganda always made good use - for the United States to display at home so flagrant a contravention of the ideals she espoused abroad as was provided by the plight of many of her blacks. Finally, the action of blacks themselves under their own leaders, some inspired by Gandhian principles of passive resistance to oppression, won over many whites. In the end, the legal and political position of black Americans was radically altered for the better as a result. Yet bitterness and resentment were not eliminated in the process, but in some places actually increased.

The first and most successful phase of the campaign for equal status for the black was a struggle for ‘civil rights’, of which the most important were the unhindered exercise of the franchise (always formally, though not actually, available in some southern states) and for equality of treatment in other ways, such as access to public facilities and schooling. The success stemmed from decisions of the Supreme Court in 1954 and 1955. The process thus began not with legislation, but with judicial interpretation. These important first decisions declared that the segregation of different races within the public school system was unconstitutional and that where it existed it should be brought to an end within a reasonable time. This challenged the social system in many southern states, but by 1963 there were some black and white children attending public schools together in every state of the Union, even if others stayed in all-black or all-white schools.

Legislation was not really important until after 1961. After the inauguration of a successful campaign of ‘sit-ins’ by black leaders (which itself achieved many important local victories), Kennedy initiated a programme going beyond the securing of voting rights to attack segregation and inequality of many kinds. It was to be continued by his successor. Poverty, poor housing and bad schools in run-down urban areas were symptoms of deep dislocations inside American society. And inequalities were made more irksome by the increasing affluence in which they were set. The Kennedy administration appealed to Americans to see their removal as one of the challenges of a ‘New Frontier’.

Even greater emphasis was given to legislation to remove them by Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency when Kennedy was murdered in November 1963. Unhappily, the deepest roots of the American black problem appeared to lie beyond the reach of laws in what came to be called the ‘ghetto’ areas of great American cities. Again, a long perspective is helpful. In 1965 (a hundred years after emancipation from slavery became law throughout the whole United States) a ferocious outbreak of rioting in a black district of Los Angeles was estimated to have involved at its height as many as 75,000 people. Other troubles followed in other cities, but not on the same scale. Twenty-five years later, all that had happened in Watts (where the Los Angeles outbreak took place) was that conditions had further deteriorated. The problem of America’s blacks was (it was usually agreed) one of economic opportunity, but none the easier to solve for that. It not only remained unsolved but also appeared to be running away from solution. The poisons it secreted burst forth in crime, a major collapse in health standards in some black communities, and in ungovernable and virtually unpoliceable inner-city areas. In the culture and politics of white America they seemed at times to have produced a near-neurotic obsession with colour and racial issues.

His own poor southern background had made President Johnson a convinced and convincing exponent of the ‘Great Society’ in which he discerned America’s future, and perhaps this might have held promise for the handling of the black economic problem had he survived. Potentially one of America’s great reforming presidents, Johnson nevertheless experienced tragic failure, for all his aspirations, experience and skill. His constructive and reforming work was soon forgotten (and, it must be said, set aside) when his presidency came to be overshadowed by an Asian war disastrous enough before it ended to be called by some ‘America’s Sicilian Expedition’.

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