How did the Cold War affect popular culture?

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The Cold War refers to the era between 1945 and 1989, when the United States and its allies were engaged in a contest for the “hearts and minds” of the world, in opposition to the efforts of the USSR and its satellites in the Soviet bloc. Among the key elements...

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The Cold War refers to the era between 1945 and 1989, when the United States and its allies were engaged in a contest for the “hearts and minds” of the world, in opposition to the efforts of the USSR and its satellites in the Soviet bloc. Among the key elements of the “war” were an emphasis on consumerism, which promoted American products as necessary and superior; the Space Race; and extensive propaganda portraying all elements of post-Revolutionary Russia as bad.

Television played a key role in disseminating pro-American and anti-Soviet propaganda. Situation comedies routinely touted the peaceful, orderly life of happy, American, suburban nuclear families, while commercials showcased the products that Americans could gain happiness by purchasing. Social problems at home were downplayed, while Soviet Russia was shown to be severely afflicted with shortages.

After the Soviets successfully launched a satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and then placed a cosmonaut into orbit, the United States accelerated its efforts to surpass the achievement. Once the US space program had developed enough to catch up, President Kennedy declared the goal of reaching the moon, which the nation accomplished in 1969.

Anti-Communism at home and anti-Soviet information were promoted in films as well. Espionage became a standard subject of popular culture, both in light-hearted treatments such as James Bond movies and in severe indictments such as I Was a Communist for the FBI. The risk that Soviet methods of “brainwashing” could turn loyal Americans into traitors was emphasized in The Manchurian Candidate, which built on the anti-Red hysteria of McCarthyism and the House Committee hearings.

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The Cold War played a key role in the popular culture of the 1950s. Even after Americans witnessed the destructive nature of the atomic bomb against Japan, nuclear also gained a connotation of being "good," as television began to push the "nuclear family" through sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver and I Love Lucy.

This was important as the United States began to increase its nuclear arsenal in preparation for a possible nuclear war with Russia. McCarthyism made anything even remotely leftist a taboo subject, and it destroyed the reputation of many Hollywood actors and screenwriters. The United States also placed a greater emphasis on physical education for school-age children; it was important to have healthy men who would be eligible for a draft if necessary. To combat the atheism of the Soviet Union, "One Nation Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance under the Eisenhower administration in order to further demonstrate how life was "better" in the United States than it was in the Soviet Union. Church membership also increased during this period as clinging to one's religion and family values was seen as one way to fight communism at home. In popular movies from the period depicting World War II, the Soviet role was largely diminished; one would almost believe that the United States won World War II by itself with minimal British help. By proving American exceptionalism and touting the benefits of American culture, the popular culture during the Cold War proved to be an effective tool in suppressing thoughts of Communism at home.

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During the Cold War, Communism was considered an insiduous threat which stood to invade American culture; it's only face, of course was the Soviet Union. Aside from its military power, most Americans were influenced by the athiestic nature of Communism. It was in direct response to the percieved threat of Communism that Americans began attending Church in droves. The words "In God We Trust" were added to our currency and the words "Under God" added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Movies such as "My Son John" and books such as Herbert Hoover's "None Dare Call it Treason"  played heavily on the idea that Communism would not take the country militarily, but by subterfuge. To be a communist or even a socialist was considered the worst form of treason. This in addition to the construction of bomb shelters, duck and cover drills, etc. in response to the percieved threat of a nuclear attack.

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The Cold War facilitated the concept of demonizing "the other."  When we examine how the Cold War influenced popular culture, it did so through the belief that the Communists were "wrong," or were "unholy."  There was little in way of understanding "the other," the dialectical opposite of American culture.  Rather, there was a wholesale condemnation of it being wrong and anything associated it as being wrong.  The rise of Joe McCarthy was but a small reflection of this attitude.  Another cultural reflection of the Cold War was to create a sense of binary dualism where one side was "correct" and another was "incorrect."  It fostered a simplification of global and internal affairs.  Such a dualism benefits those in the position of power because it removes complexity and critical thought in the equation, forcing individuals to simply embrace what is being told in terms of who or what defines the enemy.  In this light, the cultural effect of the Cold War was to not embrace a spirit of questioning or intricacy, but rather exist with an end product that is reflective of the attitude and demeanor associated with "winning."

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