How did the Cold War affect American culture?

The Cold War established the presence of an American eternal enemy, and politicians capitalized on this as a way to consolidate their own sense of power and control. The Cold War gave American politics and culture a clear and definable enemy that everyone could agree on. The Cold War became a driving force behind popular culture for decades. Themes such as nuclear war, dystopia, and espionage permeated film and literature, among other mediums.

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From the start, the Cold War had a profound impact on culture in the United States. It established a clear "us versus them" mentality that was reflected in the arts, athletics, and pop culture. Throughout it all, communism was portrayed as anathema to all that the United States stood for. Many Americans saw themselves as representatives of freedom and democracy and touted the virtues of capitalism. While this was not entirely responsible for the consumer culture that arose in the United States after WWII, it did support it to a certain extent. As a result of all this, ethnocentric and nationalistic cultural elements became widespread in the country. Movies, television, and literature were often used to bolster these attitudes, with many bordering on propaganda-like adoration of American values and vilification of the other.

The ever-looming threat of nuclear war also had a cultural impact. Throughout the Cold War period, a sense of anxiety over nuclear annihilation ran in the background. Many Americans constructed backyard bomb shelters, and students conducted drills in school to rehearse for a nuclear attack. Some also began looking at both foreigners and their neighbors with the suspicion that they may be communist sympathizers or even spies. This was particularly the case during the time of McCarthyism.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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