The Biden administration has taken drastic measures to limit the transfer of technology to Russia in the months since that country invaded Ukraine. This is not the first time that the United States has waged a war of technology against Moscow. Beginning in 1945, the United States engaged in a decades-long effort to restrict the Soviet Union’s access to the most advanced military and civilian technologies.
It isn’t quite correct to say that export controls were invented to contain the Soviet Union, but it isn’t quite wrong, either. Before World War II, efforts to control the export of military equipment were haphazard, and they did not generally focus on technology. In United States vs. Curtiss Wright, the ruling that the Roosevelt administration had the inherent authority to prevent the export of military technology to Bolivia created the basic legal foundation for export management. Beginning in 1935, the Neutrality Acts restricted U.S. arms exports to combatants, out of the belief that these weapons could spark or extend wars.
Shifting the Focus of Battles Over Technology
Civilian equipment that contained technology with possible military applications was a different question entirely. For a time, it received little attention. The U.S. exported significant amounts of technology to the Soviet Union in the interwar period, and so did France and Britain. During World War II, the U.S. transferred huge amounts of military equipment to the Soviets, including tanks, trucks, and aircraft. One piece of equipment that the U.S. did not export was the B-29 Superfortress, an aircraft that the Americans had spent an enormous amount of money developing. They did not intend to just give it away. But it didn’t matter: The Russians got their hands on three aircraft that landed after bombing raids against Japan, took them apart, and eventually produced the bomber in bulk.
After World War II, U.S. planners believed that they would require a significant technological advantage in order to offset the numerical superiority of the Soviet military, and thus instituted strict rules on the export of equipment with military applications. Much of this effort had its origins in the race to grab Nazi technology in the immediate wake of the war, when it became apparent that the Soviets very much wanted to catch up with the U.S. in military sophistication. New rules forced U.S. companies to seek approval from the U.S. government for the transfer of sensitive technologies. Essentially, the new regime made military and even non-military technology a matter of national security, and thus subject to the scrutiny of the state.
Recruiting Allies to the Cause
The U.S. strategy for technology management had an international aspect. Although the U.S. designed the system in order to prevent its own companies from transferring technology to the Soviet Union, in practice many friendly states found themselves the target of the export controls, due to concern that they would trade with the USSR or with its Eastern European satellites.
The international manifestation of export controls was the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, more commonly known as CoCom. Designed to coordinate high-technology export policies across the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, CoCom came into effect in 1950. The U.S. leaned hard on allied states, mostly Japan and the members of the NATO alliance, to limit the transfer of military and dual-use technology to the Soviet bloc, and to customers sympathetic with the Soviet bloc. This included not just transfers from the U.S., but also technology developed in Europe and Japan.
The system of protection that concentrated on the movement of things in the 1940s and the 1950s soon turned its attention to people. Stopping the Soviets from acquiring technology was one problem, but stopping them from acquiring know-how was perhaps even more important. This manifested not only in visa regulations applied to foreign scholars and engineers, but also in schemes designed to prevent suspect individuals from accessing critical knowledge. Even the spread of unclassified information became problematic, if it might lead to the revelation of classified knowledge. Soviet efforts to collect vast reams of Western scientific knowledge undoubtedly heightened U.S. concerns.
A Return to the Technology Restrictions
All of this was costly to the United States, and to the scientific community as a whole. Efforts to limit Soviet access to knowledge necessarily reduced the scientific capacity of the United States and its allies, both by compartmentalizing information and by insulating Western scientific communities from foreign knowledge and expertise. However, U..S policymakers believed that controls designed to limit personal interaction with Soviet and Soviet-sympathizing scientists would hurt the Russians more than they would hurt America.
Later in the Cold War, the role of export controls in maintaining American technological supremacy came under debate. On one hand, scholars and policymakers associated with the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment emphasized the need for the United States to stay ahead of the USSR in technology in order to offset Soviet numerical superiority. On the other hand, détente provided the basis for a variety of social and scientific exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. When détente waned following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, advocates of tighter controls gained the upper hand. Even tighter restrictions on scientific cooperation and the export of dual-use equipment ensued.
In an important sense, the campaign worked. The USSR wasn’t completely cut off from technological developments, but Soviet science and engineering were undoubtedly held back because they could not collaborate with the best scholars and engineers from the West. Different norms of research and publication developed on either side of the Iron Curtain, and Western military and civilian technology steadily pulled ahead of their Soviet equivalents. After 1992 everything loosened up, and Russia gained access to the most advanced international technology.
In retrospect, it may seem that the three decades that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a brief, bright, fleeting window in U.S.-Russia scientific and technology relations.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).