This month marks the 40th anniversary of moon landing. I was reading a TIME cover story on that and mused on the space race. Soviet Russia gave US quite a bit of a race. The first satellite, first living being in space, first human being, first female cosmonaut were all Russian achievements. Irked by this Kennedy made the famous pledge to beat the Russians to the moon. Sure we did beat the commies.
The Cold War was unique in affecting every sphere of human endeavor. A chess board was as much prestigious to win at as it was to win in Korea. The Olympics medals tally was keenly contested as much as the Berlin Wall was contested. Then there was 007, "I am Bond, James Bond" defending Queen and country from Russia. All James Bond movies were banned in Soviet Russia until "Golden eye" which was filmed in Russia (just Russia, no longer Soviet).
The space race, the race for missiles (nuclear and otherwise), the quarrel over better life style for labor spilled over into so many areas of competition. Who can forget the famous "Kitchen debate" between Nixon and Krushchev (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitchen_Debate). Not many realise that May Day rallies originated in US. The 8 hour work day was started by Henry Ford while Stalin mowed down the factory workers who struck work. Ford, pioneer of the assembly line method, made it a point to pay his workers enough to buy cars they built, he gave profit share, communism shared not profits but misery amongst its workers.
Science and technology were the areas of keenest competition. The movie "A Beautiful Mind" based on the eponymous biography of John Nash by Sylvia Nasar, has the Dean of Princeton ask newcomers "who will be next Einstein, who will help US defeat communism". The RAND institute, MIT etc were hotbeds of research giving US its technical edge.
Nobel Prizes were anxiously awaited. A Nobel for Pasternak was seen as a snub to Soviet totalitarianism. Defection of agents was one thing, defection of a person like Solzhenitsyn was epochal. Solzhenitsyn, while safely cocooned in the liberties of US found it OK to berate his hosts who protected him for greedy consumerism.
While America was locked in an existential struggle with Communism the struggles many aspects tapped into the creative genius of the country, in some angles the competition itself had its ennobling moments.
Contrast this with America's current War on Terror. This is existential too but what is being tapped into is only the base raw instinct to outfight each other and at best only some vague defense of Western liberalism.
Two cheers for Cold War.