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America’s Cold War Culture


 

I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination,
Communist subversion, and the International Communist conspiracy to sap
and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

 
General Jack Ripper
from the movie, Dr. Strangelove
1963

   

Without the Cold War, what is the point of being an American?

 
Harry Angstrom
Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
1991

 

The training film instructed the children to remember to “duck and cover” when they saw the flash of the nuclear explosion. There was precious else to do, apart from pray, once the bombs and missiles began falling.


 
Americans looked to Washington for answers in the wake of World War II, as communism, directed from Moscow, rolled up Eastern Europe, blockaded Berlin, and spread to Asia.  The reply came via forceful denouncements of the communist menace, international cooperation among the Free World nations, military reorganization, and - at home - Civil Defense.
Training films, booklets, bomb shelters, and drills prepared citizens to respond to attack warnings and evacuation orders.  Americans came to realize that intercontinental ballistic missiles had taken from them their two biggest buffers, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  Now they would have not months but minutes to prepare for World War III.
Yet angst was not the only emotion stirring among Americans.  Between 1946 and 1960 the generation born during the Great Depression and victors in World War II would add almost 80 million children to the nation’s role.  Those born into this baby boom would grow up during the Cold War, and their culture would be defined by it.
What it meant to be an American in this ideological struggle played itself out in movie theaters, books, television, religion, college campuses, and any venue open to cultural expression.  On the silver screen, aliens substituted for Communists.  Tales of espionage and spy rings spilled from publishing houses.  Television programs spoofed the Cold War through sitcoms and cartoons.  Religion denounced the amorality of nuclear warfare from one wing and the “great sinister anti-Christian movement inspired by Satan” from the other wing.  Protests over war and nuclear disarmament stirred universities from coast to coast.
Over the course of the Cold War, cynicism toward Washington would grow.  Fights over civil rights, welfare, and environmentalism in the 1950s and 60s would collide with corrupt government, a bad economy, and a weak military in the 1970s.  By the 1980s, when mid-life Baby Boomers were full stakeholders in American life, patriotism was renewed.  America spoke with increased confidence at home and abroad. And by decade’s end the Iron Curtain crumbled.  In its dust, Americans, who had grown up knowing little but a divided world, were left to wonder what lay ahead.
  Photograph of Survival Supplies for the Well-Stocked Fallout Shelter ARC Identifier 542103 "Air raid wardens at a sector meeting in Washington, DC, discuss the zones they control during a practice air raid.", ca. 1941 - ca. 1945  

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