Cold War Influences on American Culture, Politics, and Economics

Cold War Influences on American Culture, Politics, and Economics

UNLV History 102

December, 4th 2009

The Cold War became a dominant influence on many aspects of American society for much of the second half of the 20th century. It escalated due to antagonist values between the United States, representing capitalism and democracy, and the Soviet Union, representing communism and authoritarianism. Being the two dominant world powers after WWII, contention between the Americans and Soviets became a global conflict. The Cold War differed from most wars in that it was as much of a propaganda war as a war with military engagements. The Korean and Vietnam Wars are important examples of military intervention by the Americans in the name of stopping communist expansionism. However, these wars did not have the decades long impact on American domestic and foreign policy that the cultural, political, and economic battles of the Cold War had.

Cultural battles between the superpowers had as much, or more, of an impact on the everyday lives of most American civilians than any other aspect of the Cold War.   As a propaganda tool, “national security agencies encouraged Hollywood to produce anticommunist movies … and urged that film scripts be changed to remove references to less-than-praiseworthy aspects of American history” (Foner 851). This led to a litany of movies that helped spark patriotism, but also raised suspicion of communist activity in America. These anticommunist sentiments grew out of control and ended up working against Hollywood during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings against suspected communists in Hollywood. While some communists were rooted out, many more lives were ruined based on weak evidence, unsubstantiated accusations, and peoples’ refusal to take part in the hearings or answer questions. Anticommunist fervor trickled down to have local impacts as well. For example, the “Better American League of southern California gathered the names of nearly 2 million alleged subversives in the region” (Foner 864). Many of these people were fired, blacklisted, and had their civil rights violated based on these claims.

Not all aspects of the cultural conflicts of the Cold War were negative. One of the worst blemishes on American culture of the time was racial inequality. Despite being freed from slavery approximately 80 years before the end of WWII, blacks were still second class citizens in the South and discrimination was common in varying forms almost everywhere. While change for blacks and other minorities came slowly, it did eventually come. President Truman “noted that if the United States were to offer the ‘peoples of the world’ a ‘choice of freedom or enslavement’ it must ‘correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy” (Foner 857). Beginning in the early 1950s states began establishing fair employment commissions, they passed laws banning discrimination, and black voter registration began to rise (Foner 856). In 1954 the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for desegregation in all public schools. Additionally, it undid the “separate but equal doctrine” established by an 1896 case, Plessy v. Fergusson, which enabled much of the institutional discrimination to persist in the South (Foner 903-904). President Johnson not only disliked injustice, he understood the international repercussions that came along with America’s perceived hypocrisy. In turn, he helped pass The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in public and many private accommodations. While it would not be accurate to say the civil rights movement happened because of the Cold War, the backdrop of the Cold War helped people to realize that aspects of American society were in contrast to the values we were professing to stand for and changes were needed. While cultural effects of the Cold War were primarily domestic, political battles between the Soviet Union and the United States were mostly fought on an international stage.

Politically speaking, the United States and the Soviet Union were polar opposites at the end of WWII. Decolonialization by European countries and the withdrawal of Axis forces of occupied lands left a “vacuum of power” in Europe and around the globe (Fry). Both the Americans and the Soviets sought to influence new governments in these countries with the Americans being “the world’s foremost proponents of democratic representative government, and” the Soviets “the world’s foremost proponents of authoritarian communism” (Fry). At the end of WWII Soviet forces occupied much of Eastern Europe and they wanted to occupy those lands to provide a buffer zone against further invasions. The United States was unwilling to commit military forces to remove the Soviets so Eastern Europe fell under control of the Soviets for the next 45 years. At the same time, the Soviets were devastated after WWII and did not want to risk war with the U.S. so they left Western Europe to fall under U.S. influence. In turn, the U.S. formed formal alliances with Western Europe with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and in response the Soviets formed the Warsaw Pact with its Eastern European allies. While tensions between the two sides were high, these tensions coupled with mutual fear have prevented large scale war in Europe since WWII.

Political battles between the U.S. and Soviet Union were not limited to Europe. The U.S. adopted a policy called “containment, according to which the United States committed itself to preventing any further expansion of Soviet power” (Foner 842). While a political doctrine, containment resulted in American military intervention all over the world. Most notably, the Korean and Vietnam Wars were fought to stop the spread of communism in Asia and each led to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. The U.S. was so dedicated to its containment policy that it occasionally abandoned its ideals of self-determination and backed brutal dictators, such as General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, as long as they were not communists (Foner 965). Domestically speaking the Cold War led to the election of anti-communist presidents such as Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. In addition to battling the Soviets politically and culturally, these presidents waged economic warfare with the Soviet Union.

Economically speaking, the Soviets and the Americans we as different during the Cold War as they were politically. The Americans advocated free market capitalism while the Soviets promoted communism. Both sides touted the benefits of their system and the deficiencies of the other while claiming greater freedom for their citizens. For the Americans, this meant championing the innovation and affluence that capitalism brought; while correlating communism with oppression. In contrast, the Soviets preached egalitarianism among all citizens and portayed the West as being greedy and materialistic.

In the wake of the Cold War, Americans felt it was their patriotic duty to buy consumer goods to help the economy grow. In turn, the U.S. became the world’s dominant economic power and continues to be so today. This “Consumer culture demonstrated the superiority of the American way of life to communism and virtually redefined the nation’s historic mission to extend freedom to other countries” (Foner 878). The United States used its economic might as a weapon against the Soviets in the Cold War. In the 1980s, President Reagan helped stimulate massive economic growth with his tax cuts and deregulation. In the windfall, federal tax revenue increased dramatically as the economy grew. President Reagan directed much of this money to military spending. Much of this went to the lofty Strategic Defense Initiative and to military aid for American allies all over the world (Foner 991). In response, the Soviets felt obligated to increase their military spending and eventually went bankrupt trying to keep up with the Americans. To try and prevent collapse Soviet Premier Gorbachev attempted to reinvent his country’s brand of communism introducing reforms and openness known as perestroika and glasnost. A domino effect of these policies spread across Eastern Europe. Within six years the Soviet empire had disintegrated and the Cold War was over.

The Cold War was an important influence on almost all aspects of American society. Cultural antagonism between the United States and Soviet Union had both positive and negative repercussions. Mutual fear between the two countries led to political confrontations; some of which nearly led to world war. Differing economic philosophies resulted in opposing claims of what freedom meant, and economic competition led to massive military spending by both countries. Because of its broad influence, the Cold War was the defining event of the second half of the 20th century and impacted, to varying extents, almost all American foreign and domestic policy decisions.


Foner, Eric. (2009). Give Me Liberty!: an American History. 2nd Seagull Ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Fry, Andy. World War II and the Early Cold War. UNLV History 102 video lecture.


38 responses to “Cold War Influences on American Culture, Politics, and Economics

  1. i think that this answer is really interesting!:)(:

    • I am a sixth grader and i just want to know what the heck the things are i am doing a 5 paragraph essay on this and it is not fair that i do not know what this thing includes. Thanks for reading my comment!

  2. am currently studying U.S. History (HST-203) using “Foner” text and was researching “cold war influence on culture and society” as study assignment.
    Your paper is well written and reflects positively you and UNLV. (I’m glad it’s over “duck and cover” used to make me really mad in the 6th grade) Regards

  3. i am currently studying the cold war and i think that the soviets were just trying to start something.

    • well the western countrys did take almost 1/4 of russia after WW1 for no reason (which was about 35% of there farmland) any countrys that the soviets tradad with, the west would outsell to that country so the soviets lost the west took our (yes our im russian) land, our food, and our buisness. yes we did do bad things but you werent the best people yourself!

    • Zwidofhelangani

      Hi!cn u tell me the influences of cold war?

    • The Soviets were rightly upset when they learned that the US had hired an ex SS Major General, Reinhard Gehlen, to run a private intelligence agency which conducted acts of sabotage on Russian soil against the Soviets. They were even more upset in 1955 when the “Democratic” government of West Germany announced that the “ex” Nazi Spymaster Gehlen would now be – officially – the head of the West German military-intelligence apparatus.

      Gehlen was not the only “ex” Nazi in the “Democratic” government of West Germany. You might want to look up the career of a guy named Hans Globke, who helped write the Nazi racial Nuremberg laws and who would later be the German State Secretary.

      The Russians had good reason to suspect the motives and methods of the NATO allies, particularly when one recalls that among the first 10 nations that formed NATO, nearly ever one, and particularly Italy, had recently had armed forces within the borders of Russia, attacking that country. NATO founding member ITALY, for example had over 150,000 of its soldiers attacking Russia only 6 years prior to the founding of NATO.

  4. I believe that if the Soviet stayed true to their cause, and had not felt compelled to compete with U.S’ method of military spending, the outcome could have been different

  5. Thank you for the reference

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  7. It’s genuinely very difficult in this active life to listen news on Television, so I only use internet for that purpose, and obtain the latest information.

  8. the cold war was a great war without fighting leading to growth of milltary and the down fall of the soviet union america used it to show they were the top of the nations but still the people who disrepect this article have lost a great deal of respect they did alote in this war i respect you sir which wrote this article it was nothing like the holocaust we did not murder inseinct people for gain never compare russian with gremany never russia is not a back stabing low life as found with hitler so get the facts right

    • Russia is a 2nd rate European country that lives in a perpetual inferiority complex to all other nations. They are not intelligent enough to understand proper diplomacy and can’t seem to win at anything in life. Putin is a joke of a bitch that tries to save face by being a unerect penis. They are the faggots of europe and people wouldn’t care if someone dropped a bomb on them. Germany can at least wipe all of Europes dirty ass and is the economic power house of the eu.

  9. i think you lost somthing the cold war lol

  10. this really helped with my book report im in 7th grade best thing that heped me is this and yeah this was a horriblw war meaning ww1 and ww2 well and of cause the cold war

  11. It’s fantastic that you are getting thoughts from this post as well as from our discussion made at this place.

  12. can someone tell me what American values were during the Cold War? like what was important to the people

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  14. Thank you for writing this article. I am researching culture during the cold war era and this really helped. I didn’t live in that time period and have no idea what it was like.

  15. And responding to some of the earlier comments I think that the US and former USSR were both at fault for the mass hyseria in the Cold War.

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  19. Just like a white girl (which is who i assume you are) I simply can’t even handle your stupidity right now……

  20. Will the real Stalin please stand up

  21. Just stop fighting! The cold war and the holocaust are two very different things that you people should obviously look up because they are NOT the same at all!!!!!!!

  22. FutureLawyer

    An essay on my final exam tomorrow: Of the two, which had the greatest impact on the on the United States and why? The New Deal or the Cold War?…..Help

  23. yea

  24. u guys need to stop fighting holy shit

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  29. this really helped me a lot. im getting research for a 4-6 page essay so thanks for all this good info.

    This site has parts of this article verbatim claimed by two other people, just so you know your work is being used.

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