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.