When a pair of Southern druggists, experimenting within a few years and a few hundred miles of each other at close of the 19th century, blended oils, flavorings, and extracts of the African kola nut to produce a zesty beverage syrup, they had little inkling of what they had wrought.
Both saw their concoctions as patent-medicine elixirs.
Gray-bearded former Confederate officer John S. Pemberton in Atlanta dubbed his brew a "Brain Tonic" before renaming it with the snappier title "Coca-Cola." Medical school dropout Caleb B. Brabham in New Bern, N.C., billed his potion as relief for dyspepsia, an intention reflected in the name he gave it: "Pepsi-Cola."
Neither man could have dreamed that their pharmaceutical panaceas were to become the world's most advertised and available products, revolutionizing drinking habits around the globe, building multinational corporate empires, and inciting a grim struggle for the nickels and dimes of the earth's thirsty that would encompass superpower politics.
The corporate infighting between Coke and Pepsi, as one must keep reminding oneself, is a cosmic battle over a product that the authors of "The Cola Wars" rightfully classify as "utterly superfluous" -- bubbly water laced with sugar and flavorings, nonnutritional and only marginally thirst- quenching. As a Pepsi vice-president concedes: "No one needs it."
What elevates this carbonated- warchronicle above the fizzy inconsequentiality of its subject matter, or the trade-journal dryness of yet another account of industrial competition, is the extent to which -- both in this country and the rest of the world -- the colas have come to symbolize (however distortedly) American life.
The two soft-drink giants, almost from the beginning, have sought to identify themselves as an integral part of the national psyche.
As early as the 1920s, Coke in its advertising intertwined "life, liberty, and the pursuit of thirs," and proclaimed itself "the national drink." More recently, Pepsi appended its name to an entire generation of Americans -- "the Pepsi Generation."
Abroad, the first sign of the encroachment of Western culture often has been the familiar red on bearing the Coca-Cola script. And the first taste of the American way of life has come from that Georgia-green bottle.
Few of the hundreds of millions of soda- pop sippers around the world probably are aware of the high stakes riding on their casual choice between a Coke and a Pepsi. Even fewer are likely to notice the very real differences in style, strategy, and, yes, politics, separating the two corporate protagonists.
As befits a company that has led the industry ever since the inventive Mr. Pemberton stirred up the first Coca-Cola in 1886 (some seven years before the first Pepsi), Coke's management style is establishment-solid, cautious, sometimes even a mite sleepy.
Pepsi, the rambunctions challenger, has scrambled its way up -- surpassing Coke for the first time in 1979 in overall corporate sales, although not in soft-drink sales -- through two bankruptcies, bitter lawsuits, bold mergers, and showy leaders.
The heavy artillery, for both contestants, is advertising. Coke alone plows roughly two- thirds of its corporate profits into ads.
Such spendthrift advertising, according to the authors, reflects a realization that "the real differences between Coke and Pepsi lie not in the products, but in the images propagated in their advertising."
Their advertising images turn out to be as different as their colas are alike. Coke's, we learn, is oriented toward the product, nature, and females. Pepsi's emphasizes the product's user and contemporary culture, and carries macho overtones.
The open partisan allegiances of the two firms -- rare in American industry -- extend their marketplace battle into the political arena.
Coke has been staunchly Democratic, from the Reconstruction South through the New Deal (with former national party chairman James F. Farley heading up its overseas operations) to home-stater Jimmy Carter (four of whose cabinet members had Coke connections).
Pepsi has been equally Republican, hiring Wendell L. Willkie and Richard M. Nixon as lawyers, befriending Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, and engaging as a director Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
Having paid their deposit, the cola companies have reaped a rich return. Pepsi capitalized on the rise of its ex-lawyer Nixon to the presidency by beating Coke in 1973 into the Soviet Union. Coke retaliated five years later, with one of its own, Mr. Carter, ensconced in the White House, by gaining exclusive entry into China.
How much might have been accomplished to improve the human condition, one is left wondering, if only such political leverage, corporate creativity, and financial resources were channeled into something more socially uplifting than hawking sugary effervescence?