No military battles in the Cold War took place on American soil. But 30 years ago, the clashing civilizations of capitalism and communism slugged it out for 18 days in - of all places - downtown Los Angeles.
The bloodless 1977 skirmish started when the Soviet Union sent 200 bureaucrats and KGB agents to the Los Angeles Convention Center to put on a gigantic communist propaganda show called the “Soviet National Exhibition.” The Soviets hoped to impress Americans with the glorious scientific, industrial and cultural achievements of 60 years of Communist Party rule.
But the rare exhibit, which ran Nov. 12-29 and attracted 310,000 visitors and hundreds of anti-communist protestors from the U.S.S.R.’s many captive republics, hurt the Soviet image more than it helped.
No doubt many children, movie actors and devout socialists were impressed by the government flea market of shiny Soyuz spacecraft, Armenian micro-art and 100-pound reel-to-reel tape decks. They'd have agreed with the Los Angeles Times, which called the exhibit “splashy” and “seductive.”
But to any red-blooded capitalist who looked at the exhibit with a critical or malicious eye - as I did during six visits - words like "boring," "clueless" and "unintentionally hilarious" came to mind.
The show’s 10 ceiling-to-floor propaganda banners and huge silk-screened panels celebrating great moments in Communist history were dumb enough. But what fool at the Ministry of Marketing thought ordinary Americans - in hip, happening L.A.! - were going to be interested in viewing large-scale models of things like hydroelectric dams and BN-600 fast-neutron reactors?
The official Soviet pamphlets and brochures were pitiful. Printed on cheap paper and dully written, they were rife with government statistics about electric power capacities, rolled ferrous-metal output and 10-year-plan goals.
And Orwell would have loved the print up of a translation of a speech Leonid Brezhnev gave to mark the 60th anniversary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution.”
Delivering perhaps the Cold War’s greatest series of 180-degree-wrong predictions, Brezhnev droned on for 32 pages about the Communist Party’s heroic past, capitalism’s imminent demise and the inevitable triumph of socialism. His ringing final line - “Onward, to the victory of communism!” - was followed by this parenthetical and unintended punch line:
“L.I. Brezhnev’s report was heard with great attention and punctuated with prolonged stormy applause.”
The Soviets also made another marketing mistake by scattering guest books around for Joe Six-pack to scribble such comments as “This is almost as impressive as the Berlin Wall,” “No toaster, no microwave?” and “P.S.: Lenin needs a hair transplant.”
Few of these quipsters probably realized that the Soviets' hapless PR road show - which naturally was slobbered over by L.A.'s media and civic booster elites - was a perfect microcosm of the Soviet Union.
Totally controlled by government, saturated with propaganda and devoid of consumer goods, the exhibit was manned by overworked employees who during off-hours were imprisoned in their motel and forbidden to go anywhere alone.
In 1977, many experts who should have known better were saying the Soviets were winning the Cold War. But if those "experts" had looked behind the smoke and shiny Soyuzes at the Soviet exhibition, they would have seen many hints that, at age 60, the fearsome Evil Empire was a clumsy, senile and sickly superpower.