As the passage of time slowly diminishes notable events, it is history that must gather all the facts and emotions and expose them to future generations. The Cold War era was a period full of suspicion and apprehension that influenced the daily life of many American people. By the end of the 1950s, dissent slowly increased reaching a climax in the late sixties. The Cold War lasted almost until the death of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Effectively, the Cold War origins can be traced to the late 1910s when America experienced the Red Scare. During the Cold War period, there was an increase in suspicion and apprehension of the Soviet Union which remained constant throughout the twenties and thirties intensifying with Joseph Stalin's brutal regime.
The invasion of Russia by the Nazis overshadowed American concerns temporarily, and the Soviet Union became an ally. As World War II ended with the Allied victory, tensions once again arose between the Americans and the Soviets. According to Chafe, five significant issues separated the two future adversaries: the impending government of Eastern European countries, the country of Poland, economic reconstruction, the future of Germany, and the atomic bomb. Imperatively, some of these issues were seen through the "sphere of influence" lens, where no county had formal power, but political, ideological, or economic influence. Initially, the Soviet sphere centered around their borders, while the United States’ was centered around Western Europe.
Although Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was prepared to live with this ideology, widespread political opposition existed in Washington as exemplified by Congressman John Dingell's statement in August 1943, "We Americans are not sacrificing, fighting, and dying to make permanent and more powerful the communistic government of Russia and to make Joseph Stalin a dictator over the liberated countries of Europe". (1) On the issue of what type of government should rule Eastern Europe, obviously a democratically elected administration was the American expectation. The same was said for Poland and Germany. However, FDR recognized Poland as an integral part of the Soviet sphere of influence, but he hoped Stalin would give concessions to appear as if the Atlantic Charter were being implemented. In the case of Germany, the Soviets and Americans acknowledged the permanent destruction of the German industrial capability to prevent a third conflict, but the plan failed.
The Soviets argued that a pastoral Germany would be unable to make war reparations. Interestingly, American business interests and policymakers agreed but with differed reasoning. The American ideology was that a strong German industry would be a key to postwar commerce and trade releasing the United States from supporting the German economy for an extended period. However, the issue of European economic reconstruction was entirely in the hands of the Americans, who possessed the strongest economy during and after the conflict. From the Soviet perspective, American interests easily persuaded Stalin to petition for a loan ranging from $1 billion in 1943 to $10 billion in 1945. As the war ended, enthusiasm turned to skepticism when American diplomats perceived a toughening of Soviet policy. Congress feared a return to recession and misuse of funds and placed drastic limits on lend-lease support pointing out that requests for loans after the war would meet deep uncertainty. Furthermore, it is imperative to acknowledge that the Soviets never received any monetary assistance.
The final divisive issue between the former allies was the atomic bomb. From the moment the atomic bomb became a reality, FDR agreed to share its secrets with the British and no one else except by mutual consent. In the end, agreements were signed, including the reassurance that Great Britain would remain a world power after the war and providing maximum secrecy regarding atomic weapons. However, it did so in a way that aroused Soviet suspicions about its two allies' intentions. As these suspicions mounted and the gulf widened between the two superpowers, the presidency felt the tentacles of the emerging conflict.
The Cold War brought about changes to the United States' presidency via internal and external forces driving those changes. Internally, Truman's hardline stand against Stalin put enough pressure on his administration to affect many presidential acts. Externally, politicians used anti-communist hysteria to campaign on a strong, rightist platform, sometimes accusing the current administration of softness to improve their lot. In one instance Robert Taft blamed Truman for seeking a congress "dominated by a policy of appeasing the Russians abroad and of fostering communism at home." (2) American foreign policy became one of containment as it reacted to the Cold War. As the mutual confidence of the two nations weakened, a kind of chess game evolved using the world map as its board. The United States supported corrupt and anti-democratic governments, but friendly to America. Meanwhile, the Soviets subsidized groups favorable to their own interest.
The Cold War's rhetoric and anti-communist propaganda dictated foreign policy. In scaring "the hell out of the American people", Truman unleashed a fervor that would become part of American life and modify existing relationships with the outside world. American allies depended almost exclusively on their stance on communism which was similarly applied to domestic policy. The Cold War affected domestic policy in two ways: socially and economically. The intensive indoctrination of the American people led to a regression of social reforms especially regarding civil rights, labor unions, working conditions, and women’s concerns. Furthermore, there was a striving for unity and cohesion which can be broadly encapsulated by the term ‘Americanism’ and is often referred to in an anti-communist context. (3) During the Cold War period, there was also a struggle for control of education which one could argue almost mirrors the socio-political and cultural conflict that was being waged on a national level during this period. (4) In terms of the economic impact on domestic policy, enormous growth spurred by industries related to war was aided by heavy government expansion. However, New Deal economics felt the greatest impact of the Cold War. By the 1950s, New Deal reforms were often associated with the left, and advocates were attacked for promoting programs close to the realm of socialism. The presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower kept away from the Rooseveltian ideals of social and economic reforms. However, for veterans, the economic future brightened as the government spent countless resources through the GI Bill, VA, and FHA loans to help them buy new homes or receive an education.
In human behavior, consensus to anti-communist ideals became the norm for everyone, especially government employees. In the United States, a firm anti-communist demeanor was expected from everyone, particularly those in government. During this period there were campaigns to rid the government of so-called "reds" that became commonplace. For example, one such campaign was the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which used the Smith Act of 1940 to prosecute anyone advocating communism. In such a fervent era of anti-communism, the junior senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, employed this hysteria to prosecute countless government officials. If one was promoting liberal ideas, civil rights advancements, or possible cooperation with communist states that was enough to mark a person for persecution which highlights the severity of the impact of the Cold War period on ideology and culture. Although it is imperative to note that changes in the "conformity" of America, however, did not occur until the end of the 1950s, which came slowly at first.
One of the potential turning points of consensus for the American public may have started changing after CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly showcased McCarthy's formal accusation of Air Force Lieutenant Milo Radulovich who had been asked to resign because his father and sister were once accused of reading "subversive newspapers." Murrow and Friendly confronted McCarthy directly, accusing him of assaulting people’s integrity, destroying careers, and using "character assassinations to seize control of the political process." (5) In the television and film industries, many actors and actresses were blacklisted for their assumed leftist views. Interestingly, movies became a vehicle to show the discontent against the system, with films by James Dean and Marlon Brandon being popular among many others. Furthermore, movies and literature flourished with themes of individualism versus the system with poets like Robert Lowell, critics like Dwight McDonald, movies like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones, rock-and-roll music, and college student unions, "conformity" in the 1950s was all but secure. Ultimately, these critics of "conformity" championed individualism and the younger generation's anxiety over nuclear war. Also, another area of criticism was the economy. Although poverty had declined, between one-fifth to one-fourth of the nation could not survive on the income earned. (6) In the end it was not until the end of McCarthyism that dissent increased, reaching a crescendo during the Johnson/Nixon administrations of the late sixties and early seventies.
The longest conflict of the twentieth century, the Cold War affected everything, from political ideology, and foreign and domestic policy, to the presidency and the personal lives of Americans. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the unification of Germany, the fragmentation and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union have all but eliminated the Cold War. International cooperation during the first Gulf War demonstrated that even before the end of the Soviet Union, the rhetoric of the past no longer had any place in American foreign or domestic policy.
1. William H. Chafe. The Unfinished Journey. page 47
2. Ibid. page 98
3. Foster, Stuart J. “The Red Scare: Origins and Impact.” In Red Alert!: Educators Confront the Red Scare in American Public Schools, 1947-1954, 1–10. New York: P. Lang, 2000.
4..Foster, Stuart J. “The Red Scare: Origins and Impact.” In Red Alert!: Educators Confront the Red Scare in American Public Schools, 1947-1954, 1–10. New York: P. Lang, 2000.
5. Ibid. page 132
6. Ibid. page 143
Foster, Stuart J. “The Red Scare: Origins and Impact.” In Red Alert!: Educators Confront the Red Scare in American Public Schools, 1947-1954, 1–10. New York: P. Lang, 2000.
The Journey- America since World War II by William H. Chafe. Oxford University Press. Second Edition
[Edited by Hannah Holbert, 2023.]