World War II was a booming success for the United States economy. Before the war, the economy was wracked with unemployment and a lack of growth, but the beginning of the war saw an almost immediate improvement in both areas. A cynical view of American history would suggest that the Cold War was an attempt to continue to build the economy around militarism and in order to do this, a threat from outside needed to be created. That threat was discovered in the form of the Soviet Union.
Another view of the Cold War would suggest that the Soviet Union was a real threat to the economic and political safety of the United States. After World War II, the Soviet Union had established a buffer zone between itself and Western Europe. It did so by installing communist puppet regimes in places like Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In doing so, the Soviet Union blocked any opportunity for the United States to foster trade relationships with those nations. With the fall of China to the communists, there was a feeling in the U.S. government that communism needed to be stopped. The United States adopted an official policy of containment of communism to new areas of the world which resulted in proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam among other places.
The Cold War had a profound impact on the lives of Americans. Through speeches and propaganda, the American citizens came to believe that communism was a real threat to the sovereignty of the nation. After the successful development of an Atomic bomb by the Soviets in 1949, Americans believed that civilization itself was in peril. Communities began preparations for nuclear fallout and schoolchildren routinely performed bomb drills in school. Movies were produced that added to the hysteria (see Manchurian Candidate, Invasion, USA). A psychology of fear was created that made the Soviet threat real for Americans. As a result, a new enemy was created and defense spending skyrocketed.
Added to this threat of attack from abroad, was the idea that communists would infiltrate sacred American institutions, particularly the military and government within the United States. Senator Joseph McCarthy used this fear to institute a witch hunt of Congress, Hollywood, and then finally the army. Few Americans dared to speak out against McCarthy because they did not want to be targeted by the witch hunt themselves. McCarthy was eventually censured by Congress after attacking the army but damage had been done to the lives of dozens of Americans by the attack. The fact that McCarthy was able to conduct such a bogus investigation into the lives of Americans pointed to the stark reality that the fear of a communist takeover was real.
Other effects of the Cold War on American society included an increase in consumerism, nativism, and efforts to grant Americans civil rights. Americans started to believe that purchasing goods was patriotic and enhanced a strong capitalist economy. Many believed that if we were to fight for freedom abroad, it would be hypocritical of us to not allow civil liberties to our own citizens, particularly black Americans.
In the area of Civil Rights, two leaders emerged in the struggle. Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both had the same goal for political and economic opportunity for African-Americans. They did, however, have different means for that goal. Dr. King was more moderate in his approach and included white Americans in the struggle. King called for integration in the United States and advocated a policy of nonviolence and civil disobedience. King's message was tied to the teachings of the southern Baptist church of which he belonged and was a preacher.
Malcolm X advocated a more aggressive approach for African-Americans that called for a complete separation between the races. He was a prominent member of the Nation of Islam which advocated black nationalism. Malcolm X did not necessarily advocate violence but did believe that if the enemy acted aggressively, black Americans should arm and defend themselves.