Domestic Life in the 1950s

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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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While the United States's society has always been characterized by diverse strands of thought, the Cold War contributed to a push towards conformity in the US during the 1950s. A chief figure driving this conformity was Senator Joseph McCarthy; he held Senate hearings accusing people of being communists who were determined to undermine the US government. Such accusations could and did destroy careers, whether they were true or not. This atmosphere of fear led people to be very careful that nothing they said or did could be interpreted as communist or showing communist sympathies.

The McCarthy hearings had an especially chilling effect on the entertainment industry, as many Hollywood figures were hauled before the Senate and accused of being communist sympathizers. The careers of some actual communists in the industry were destroyed, along with people who were not communists at all; the accused no longer could get jobs and no longer could get their message out. Other artists, fearing false accusations, were careful to produce movies and television that conformed closely to conservative ideas of the "American way."

This widespread "witchhunt" was dangerous to freedom, as freedom is based on free speech and the rule of law. When people are afraid to speak their truth, lies can take over, and people who are innocent of any wrong-doing can be tried and found guilty simply by being accused.

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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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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. 

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