How did the Cold War contribute to the conformity of American society in the 1950s, and how was this dangerous to freedom?
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McCarthyism is a really good example of how the Cold War influenced the urge in America to conform. People did not want to be suspected of having Communist leanings; the Red Scare in the early 1950s questioned citizen's loyalties and ideological beliefs, especially in fields like the entertainment industry, and of course, government. Government workers and politicians alike in Washington D.C. feared for their reputations and their jobs, so the idea of conforming to avoid suspicion was an easy choice for many people.
This time period in U.S. history was certainly dangerous to freedom, because the Red Scare and Joseph McCarthy used fear and intimidation to make accusations that cost people their livelihood and sometimes resulted in imprisonment. It was a dangerous climate, because it used the collective, overwhelming fear of communism to stifle people's freedom of speech and press; people were too afraid to speak out on their beliefs.
Certainly the Cold War, and the fears of communism as an internal threat contributed to what has become known as an "age of conformity" in the years after World War II. McCarthyism, and the HUAC hearings that preceded McCarthy, were perhaps the most obvious manifestation of these fears, and indeed encouraged a spirit of conformity. So did, for that matter, the rise of corporate culture, suburban neighborhoods, television, and the spread of chain retail and restaurant franchises, though these developments did not necessarily contribute to the loss of freedom, at least not in a political sense.
Yet many historians now argue that the notion that the 1950s should be characterized as a period when conformity and consensus were achieved is simplistic at best. As historian Laura McEnany observes,
...we must avoid imbuing the Cold War with an ideological and an institutional solidarity it did not have. The Cold War's political reach, popular applications, and cultural meanings were neither consistent nor complete. The United States after World War II was simply too messy and diverse a society to fold neatly into an ideological crusade.
So it is worth suggesting that perhaps the squelching of free speech, the emergence of the "corporation man," the suburbs, and the Cleavers were less representative of America as a whole during the 1950s than the emerging civil rights movement, rock n' roll, hard bop jazz, and the Beat generation. Additionally, many attempts at narrowing civil liberties by federal and state governments were fiercely resisted by private individuals, and polls conducted throughout the 1950s repeatedly indicated support for free speech, even for Communists. More women actually went to work in the 1950s than during the Second World War. So the culture of conformity that is often identified with the Cold War, while certainly present and powerful, was perhaps not as pervasive as we often think.
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