The Soviet Union’s Continuing Influence on America
by James Bovard
It has been almost 20 years since the Soviet Union officially dissolved. While the nation of that name no longer exists, its legacy continues influencing political thought and practices in many places in the world. The glorification of the Soviet Union by American intellectuals from the 1920s onwards helped spur the creation of federal programs that continue plaguing the United States to this day. After 9/11, the Soviets provided the model for the most controversial aspect of the war on terror.
Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trust were confident of their ability to forcibly improve other Americans’ lives, in part because of the supposed success of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell, in a 1934 book that praised the Soviet Union’s economic management, captured the spirit of the New Deal: “We have developed efficiency and science in the art of government. Our administrative, executive, and judicial bodies have proved competent to handle the most difficult matters.” Tugwell informed America, “We must now supply a real and visible guiding hand to do the task which that mythical, non-existent invisible agency [i.e., Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”] was supposed to perform, but never did.”
The Roosevelt administration’s “guiding hand” paid farmers in 1933 to slaughter 6 million baby pigs (at a time of widespread hunger) and plow up 10 million acres of cotton fields (at a time when millions were wearing rags). The Agriculture Department was ridiculed for “solving the paradox of want amidst the plenty by doing away with the plenty.” Tugwell did concede that a major impediment to government planning in the United States was the “unreasoning, almost hysterical attachment of certain Americans to the Constitution.” Many of the farm programs launched during Tugwell’s term in office continue to this day.
The Soviet Union was routinely portrayed as a moral leader. Academics, politicians, and others habitually ignored or understated the coerciveness of government throughout the 20th century. American churchman Sherwood Eddy wrote in 1934, “All life [in Russia] is … directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation…. It releases a flood of joyous and strenuous activity.”
American philosopher John Dewey visited the Soviet Union and proclaimed upon his return, “The people go about as if some mighty, oppressive load had been removed, as if they were newly awakened to the consciousness of released energies.”
In 1978, members of the American Political Science Association voted to cancel contracts for their annual conference in Chicago the following year to protest the fact that Illinois had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment — at the same time they voted in favor of sending delegates to an International Political Science Association meeting in Moscow.
Government power vastly expanded in the past century in part because of a presumption that government is incapable of exploiting the governed. Authors Sidney and Beatrice Webb, two of the founders of British socialism and authors of a 1936 book, The Soviet Union: A New Civilization? discussed Soviet ethical doctrines: “Paramount is the injunction to abstain from and to resist ‘exploitation,’ meaning any employment of others at wages for the purpose of making a profit out of their labor.” The Webbs observed that “abstention from exploitation is the ethical duty that is … most forcibly and frequently impressed on the youthful mind.” The Webbs’ comment exemplifies the tendency to presume that all private contracts are exploitative and all political commands just. Making money off someone else’s labor is the worst sin — regardless of the wages that a person might receive — even if that job is the best option available to the worker.
The Webbs wrote in the aftermath of a five-year plan during which Stalin intentionally slashed the living standard of his subjects to finance state investment. The Webbs had no problem with the minuscule wages paid by the Soviet state because those wages were dictated by an institution that supposedly incarnated justice — and thus was incapable of exploiting people. And the proliferation of vast slave-labor systems and the gulags was not a moral issue because the internees were merely being forced to labor for the good of society. (Leon Trotsky captured the meaning of Soviet employment ethics: “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation…. [Who] does not obey shall not eat.”)
When Stalin forcibly collectivized the farms, he sent execution squads to kill peasants who had a few bushels of grain hidden in their hovels. “Hoarding” — even of one’s own property — was an unforgivable sin. In 1934, when Roosevelt ordered all Americans to surrender their gold to the federal government, he denounced anyone who resisted being pilfered as a hoarder. His executive order defined “hoarding” as “the withdrawal and withholding of gold coin, gold bullion or gold certificates from the recognized and customary channels of trade.” He was not concerned with the gold that was in the “customary channels of trade”; instead, he wanted government to possess all the gold. And the notion that someone was “withholding” his gold merely because he did not rush to the nearest Federal Reserve bank to relinquish it was political logic at its best. Roosevelt was kinder and gentler than Stalin, seeking only 10-year prison sentences for any citizen who retained more than five Double Eagle gold coins.
The reigning principle of legislation in the Soviet Union was “Everything is prohibited which is not specifically permitted.” The American Planning Association recommended a similar rule to subjugate American citizens: “As a matter of legislative drafting, it is good practice to include a general ‘violations’ section in zoning regulations that, in part, says, ‘It shall be a violation of this ordinance to make any use of property not expressly permitted by this ordinance or a permit or other approval granted hereunder.’” This is the situation already existing in many areas in the United States.
Denunciation and justice
In the 1930s, the Soviet regime rewarded young children who betrayed to the authorities words of criticism their parents had spoken about the great Stalin. As Robert Conquest noted in his classic history, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, “Stalin’s idea of a good young Communist demanded … the qualities of an enthusiastic young nark.” Some critics allege that public schools are now adopting some of Stalin’s methods. Many American children have turned in their parents to the police after receiving federally funded anti-drug education (taught by cops) in their government-school classrooms.
After 9/11, the U.S. government constructed an interrogation program in part by “copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture,” the New York Times reported in 2007. The Pentagon and CIA “reverse engineered” many Soviet interrogation techniques that the United States had long denounced as torture. Policymakers looked at the “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” training American aviators received to endure Soviet interrogation for leads on how the United States could break the will of Muslim detainees. A 1956 Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry article entitled “Communist Interrogation” described how the Soviets used “isolation, anxiety, fatigue, lack of sleep, uncomfortable temperatures” on their targets. The Bush administration adopted the same techniques at Guantánamo and the U.S. secret prisons scattered throughout the world. The methods provided a bounty of false confessions that were trumpeted to sanctify the war on terrorism.
There were also close comparisons between how the United States treated detainees at Guantánamo and how the KGB treated suspects. The New York Times noted that under the Soviet system “prisoners are tried before ‘military tribunals,’ which are not public courts. Those present are only the interrogator, the state prosecutor, the prisoner, the judges, a few stenographers, and perhaps a few officers of the court.” The Soviets routinely dictated new rules for its administrative convenience. As the 1956 Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry article noted, when the Soviet interrogators desired to use torture “against a prisoner or to obtain from him a propaganda statement or ‘confession,’ it simply declared the prisoner a ‘war-crimes suspect’ and informed him that, therefore, he was not subject to international rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war.”
Those were not the only Soviet-style shams the Bush team relied on. After 9/11, Bush administration officials boasted that the feds had arrested more than 1,200 people as part of their response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They thereby brought the same mentality to locking up suspects after 9/11 that the Soviet Union used for the potato harvest from collective farms. It didn’t matter how many bushels of potatoes were rotten, or how many bushels were lost or pilfered along the way, or how many bushels never really existed except in the minds of the commissars who burnished the official reports. All that mattered was the total number. In the same way, the success of the immediate federal response to 9/11 was gauged largely by the number of people rounded up, regardless of their guilt or innocence.
These parallels do not mean that current or former U.S. policymakers or politicians are or were communists. But Americans should be wary when their government embraces methods or standards used by a regime that Ronald Reagan derided as “the evil empire.” Practices that were horrendous abuses when carried out by the Soviets do not become triumphs of democracy when carried out in America.
James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy  as well as The Bush Betrayal , Lost Rights  and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.