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Monday, March 5, 2012

Reading List: Russia and the Big Red Lie

Mallan, Lloyd. Russia and the Big Red Lie. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1959. LCCN 59004006.
It is difficult for those who did not live through the era to appreciate the extent to which Sputnik shook the self-confidence of the West and defenders of the open society and free markets around the world. If the West's social and economic systems were genuinely superior to totalitarian rule and central planning, then how had the latter, starting from a base only a half century before where illiterate peasants were bound to the land as serfs, and in little more than a decade after their country was devastated in World War II, managed to pull off a technological achievement which had so far eluded the West and was evidence of a mastery of rocketry which could put the United States heartland at risk? Suddenly the fellow travellers and useful idiots in the West were energised: “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational socialist economy!”

The author, a prolific writer on aerospace and technology, was as impressed as anybody else by the stunning Soviet accomplishment, and undertook the daunting task of arranging a visit to the Soviet Union to see for himself the prowess of Soviet science and technology. After a halting start, he secured a visa and introductions from prominent U.S. scientists to their Soviet counterparts, and journeyed to the Soviet Union in April of 1958, travelled extensively in the country, visiting, among other destinations, Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Yalta, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Yerevan, Kharkov, and Alma-Ata, leaving Soviet soil in June 1958. He had extensive, on the record, meetings with a long list of eminent Soviet scientists and engineers, many members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And he came back with a conclusion utterly opposed to that of the consensus in the West: Soviet technological prowess was about 1% military-style brute force and 99% bluff and hoax.

As one intimately acquainted with Western technology, what he saw in the Soviet Union was mostly comparable to the state of the art in the West a decade earlier, and in many cases obviously copied from Western equipment. The scientists he interviewed, who had been quoted in the Soviet press as forecasting stunning achievements in the near future, often, when interviewed in person, said “that's all just theory—nobody is actually working on that”. The much-vaunted Soviet jet and turboprop airliners he'd heard of were nowhere in evidence anywhere he travelled, and evidence suggested that Soviet commercial aviation lacked navigation and instrument landing systems which were commonplace in the West.

Faced with evidence that Soviet technological accomplishments were simply another front in a propaganda offensive aimed at persuading the world of the superiority of communism, the author dug deeper into the specifics of Soviet claims, and here (from the perspective of half a century on) he got some things right and goofed on others. He goes to great length to argue that the Luna 1 Moon probe was a total hoax, based both on Soviet technological capability and the evidence of repeated failure by Western listening posts to detect its radio signals. Current thinking is that Luna 1 was a genuine mission intended to impact on the Moon, but the Soviet claim it was deliberately launched into solar orbit as an “artificial planet” propaganda aimed at covering up its missing the Moon due to a guidance failure. (This became obvious to all when the near-identical Luna 2 impacted the moon eight months later.) The fact that the Soviets possessed the technology to conduct lunar missions was demonstrated when Luna 3 flew around the Moon in October 1959 and returned the first crude images of its far side (other Luna 3 images). Although Mallan later claimed these images were faked and contained brush strokes, we now know they were genuine, since they are strikingly similar to subsequent imagery, including the albedo map from the Clementine lunar orbiter. “Vas you dere, Ivan?” Well, actually, yes. Luna 3 was the “boomerang” mission around the Moon which Mallan had heard of before visiting the Soviet Union but was told was just a theory when he was there. And yet, had the Soviets had the ability to communicate with Luna 1 at the distance of the Moon, there would have been no reason to make Luna 3 loop around the Moon in order to transmit its pictures from closer to the Earth—enigmas, enigmas, enigmas.

In other matters, the author is dead on, where distinguished Western “experts” and “analysts” were completely taken in by the propaganda. He correctly identifies the Soviet “ICBM” from the 1957 Red Square parade as an intermediate range missile closer to the German V-2 than an intercontinental weapon. (The Soviet ICBM, the R-7, was indeed tested in 1957, but it was an entirely different design and could never have been paraded on a mobile launcher; it did not enter operational service until 1959.) He is also almost precisely on the money when he estimates the Soviet “ICBM arsenal” as on the order of half a dozen missiles, while the CIA was talking about hundreds of Soviet missiles aimed at the West and demagogues were ratcheting up rhetoric about a “missile gap”.

You don't read this for factual revelations: everything discussed here is now known much better, and there are many conclusions drawn in this text from murky contemporary evidence which have proven incorrect. But if you wish to immerse yourself in the Cold War and imagine yourself trying to figure it all out from the sketchy and distorted information coming from the adversary, it is very enlightening. One wishes more people had listened to Mallan—how much folly we might have avoided.

There is also wisdom in what he got wrong. Space spectaculars can be accomplished in a military manner by expending vast resources coercively taken from the productive sector on centrally-planned projects with narrow goals. Consequently, it isn't surprising a command economy such as that of the Soviet Union managed to achieve milestones in space (while failing to deliver adequate supplies of soap and toilet paper to workers toiling in their “paradise”). Indeed, in many ways, the U.S. Apollo program was even more centrally planned than its Soviet counterpart, and the pernicious example it set has damaged efforts to sustainably develop and exploit space ever since.

This “Fawcett Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated containing a single long article. It even includes the usual delightful advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what amounts to a pulp magazine. Is this work in the public domain and hence eligible to be posted on the Web? I don't know. It may well be: it was published before 1978, and unless its copyright was renewed in 1987 when its original 28 year term expired, it is public domain. Otherwise, as a publication by a “corporate author”, it will remain in copyright until 2079, which makes a mockery of the “limited Times to Authors” provision of the U.S. Constitution. If somebody can confirm this work is in the public domain, I'll scan it and make it available on the Web.

Posted at March 5, 2012 23:08