How did the Cold War affect American culture?

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saintfester eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Cold War had a substantial impact on American culture during the 1950’s and 60’s especially. Themes such as nuclear war and espionage permeated popular culture during this time period as tensions between the USSR and the USA escalated.

In literature, dystopian themes were prevalent. Books such as the Manchurian Candidate and The Fourth Protocol reflected fears of Soviet takeover, while books like 1984 and Alas, Babylon explored what Soviet domination might actually look like.

Television, a new medium, also reflected people’s preoccupation with the U.S.  Shows like I Spy, Danger Man, Mission: Impossible and I Led Three Lives were all spy dramas, many with Soviet characters. Some shows even made fun of the tension, such as Get Smart and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Many movies came out that dealt with the themes of nuclear apocalypse. Doctor Strangelove, Fail-Safe and WarGames all reflected the ever-pervasive fear of nuclear destruction. James Bond films were notorious for showcasing East/West tensions, as were films like Firefox and Hunt for the Red October.

Even athletic competitions became venues for Soviet-American showdowns. These sports festivals provided opportunities for the two superpowers to show off the benefits of their respective systems.

As you can see, the Cold War became the driving force behind popular culture for decades.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would say that one distinct impact of the Cold War on American Culture was the presence of an eternal enemy and politicians' abilities to capitalize on this as a way to consolidate their own sense of power and control.  The Cold War gave all Presidents a clear and definable enemy, one that allowed them a great sense of control.  The presence of the "evil Communists" allowed Presidents the ability to marshal and galvanize public support around initiatives that would keep the enemy at bay, and in the process, allow their own sense of stature and control to increase.  This ended up impacting American Culture to a great extent in that it perceived consciousness that was not American as potentially hostile or foreign, needing to be subdued or made "friendly."  It seems to be a very provincial attitude given the massive globalization and free exchange of ideas in which the United States and most other nations are now immersed.  In the end, I think that this reality ended up having a profound impact on American Culture.

Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If you're interested in how the cold war affected popular culture, you can take a look at theatrical movies.  The paranoia concerning communism and nuclear holocaust certainly surfaced in movies.  Soviet Russia and its satellites made for great villains.

Movies like The Manchurian Candidate demonized communism, and the James Bond franchise certainly produced its share of Soviet villains, although it also created the criminal franchise, S.P.E.C.T.R.E (I'm not sure about the spelling) so all of the villains didn't have to be communists. 

Growing up during the cold war, I think most of us, possibly naively, assumed not even government leaders would be stupid enough to actually start a nuclear war, but the thought was always present in the backs of our minds. 

For males, a related thought also nagged at us--the draft. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would say that the main effect of the Cold War on US culture was to make us a lot more nervous.  There was a great fear of communist takeover and of nuclear war.

In the early days of the Cold War, Americans were taught how to "protect" themselves in case of nuclear attack (by getting under their desks at school, for example).  There were fallout shelters in cities and some people had their own shelters at home.

In movies, you saw a lot of things that showed a fear of communist takeover.  Examples of this can be seen in movies like "The Manchurian Candidate" with its emphasis on communists brainwashing people.

leabc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The fear of a communist takeover was rampant and we allowed that fear to sometimes get the best of us.  Senator Joseph McCarthy made a name for himself by making accusations that various people were communists or spies for the Soviet Union; most of the claims were unsubstantiated.  The American people were willing to buy into McCarthyism out of fear.

In addition to the movies that have been mentioned, many of the space movies of the 50s were using aliens to symbolize the communists.

Yojana_Thapa | Student

American society is being affected and it is clearly shown through many events. Cold war creates fear within the people. Executive order 9835 passed by President Harry Truman to investigate the government employees.  It simply was to make sure that no American, especially government officials were communists. SO that all American would be on the same boat. America feared communism so they investigated threats of communism in U.S. House committee in Un-American Activities also disrupted the lives of the Americans in its hunt for communists. 

Furthermore, the nuclear arms race which was a central to the Cold War. Many feared that the Cold war was mostly about the belief that the more nuclear weapons on country had, the more powerful and dominant they were. This definitely had a huge effect in the United States’ Domestic policy and American society. The whole world was in Danger, USA exploded the H-bomb in 1953. The Soviets also produced an H-Bomb in 1953. They both began building up stockpiles of nuclear weapons. It leads to US families building bomb shelters. Many were afraid of the destruction that it would cause. The federal government encouraged the building of these shelters. . The soviets increased its skills and power by launching the Sputnik.  This had a drastic effect on the education provided in the American society as depicted in . U.S began emphasizing science that’s they forgot about General education. This can show that U.S was so concentrated about the cold war, about the U.S, about the fear it created that they emphasized Science and felt that they had to retaliate with a massive force. It changed the domestic policy because science was more crucial as a result of Sputnik. The space race begins where both of these massive forces see who had the best science and technology in space.

In Addition, altering the Domestic policy, lottery draft systems for Americans were created as depicted in , as a soldier turn 18, he will be chosen randomly to serve in the Vietnam War. It changed the American society as well, because once the men are taken out the women’s role can be altered.

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