[E]ven in the lower grades I found evidence of a much stronger emphasis on science than we give in the US. It is quite probable that within a generation Russia may have twice as many well-trained scientist as we. Russian resources are separated by vast distances. Her climate is exceedingly difficult. Transportation problems will always be most serious. But much of her soil is rich in the elements which when combined with a severe climate produce a most vital type of human being.This could have be said by almost any politician in the US today, with the possible substitution of China for Russia. But, via Brad DeLong, it was actually said by Henry Wallace in 1952. There was a lot of threat inflation concerning the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s, and much of it was related to the knowledge economy and how that translated into national security ("missile gap", etc) combined with a sense that the US had underestimated the USSR in the 1940s. Not all of this was unreasonable, as Tony Judt recounted in a wonderful 1997 essay in The New Republic on the Chambers/Hiss affair (it's collected in Reappraisals but I can't find it online), but it got blown out of all proportion: without Hiss (and Chambers' special pumpkin) there wouldn't have been McCarthyism, and in the end McCarthyism mostly served McCarthy. In a similar, now we know that many of the principles that dominated US foreign policy from 1960-1990 -- brinksmanship, domino theory, MAD -- were simply unnecessary dangers, as the Soviet Union was not nearly as capable as the US leadership imagined it was.
Is there a lesson to be learnt? Towards the end of the Cold War we heard a lot about institutional superiority -- "end of history" and all that. Some of it was hyperbole, but there is some shred of truth in it as well. We genuinely believe that some form of democratic capitalism produces better outcomes than other systems, and we genuinely believe that societies which have norms of liberté, égalité, et fraternité, even if they are imperfectly applied, fare better than those which do not. Maybe we should take our own rhetoric seriously, for once: maybe we should worry a lot less about scores on science exams of 13 year old Chinese, and focus instead on translating the principles of liberté, égalité, et fraternité into practice.
P.S. the whole speech by Henry Wallace linked above is well worth reading, and could possibly be useful in an Introduction to International Relations course. There's a lot packed into a short document: commitment problems, asymmetric information, perception/misperception, etc.
UPDATE: Thanks to Noah Smith for driving traffic here. For new readers I should note that, contrary to what Smith wrote, as a quantitative social scientist I have nothing against math and science education. To say the least. I do have an issue with politicizing math and science education as a national security imperative, however, particular when done in a zero-sum "either we win the future or the