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The Cold War: The American Homefront
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The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had broad implications on the American homefront. Old fears and prejudices were rekindled and the new, very real, threat of nuclear war impacted public policies as well as the daily lives of people across the country.
The Red Scare
Central to the Cold War on the American homefront was the fear that communist spies were trying to destroy the country from within. This fear rose to a fever pitch between 1947 and 1957 during what is known as the Red Scare or the Great Fear. During this time there was a strong attempt to root out communists and communist sympathizers at all levels of society.
During this time period, the federal government and other institutions created loyalty programs. To keep their jobs, or to be hired, employees had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and to swear that they had never been a part of an organization that had advocated the overthrow of the government. They also had to swear that they would never join any such group in the future. The program went further and required hearings and investigations if someone was accused of being disloyal. Under President Truman the first loyalty program was started in 1947 – affecting federal employees and potential employees. The program soon spread to other organizations, particularly state governments, schools, and universities.
These loyalty programs were controversial. On the one hand they attempted to root out dangerous spies and subversives; on the other, they violated the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, association, and privacy. Thousands of people lost their jobs when they refused the oath, thousands more were fired when they were falsely accused of being communists.
It was fairly easy to be accused of being a communist. People who spoke out against the government or called for social reforms were often investigated. Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were investigated by the FBI, even though Dr. King (and many others) called for peaceful demonstrations rather than a violent overthrow of the government. The FBI also maintained a file on John Steinbeck in spite of all the pro-American propaganda and reporting he did during World War II. Steinbeck”s novels, especially The Grapes of Wrath, made him suspect; Steinbeck questioned the social and economic systems in the United States and whether they truly benefited everyone. His links to Hollywood also made him a potential communist in the eyes of many people.
In 1947 the House Un American Activities Committee (HUAC), held a series of very public hearings on directors, writers, and actors who were all suspected of or accused of being communists.
The hearings led to a group called the “Hollywood Ten” being sent to jail when they refused to testify about their past associations (what organizations they joined, meetings they had attended, and friends they had). This was a very difficult time in the entertainment industry. Even people who were not convicted of any crime or disloyal acts were often “blacklisted.” Few, if any, companies would hire or work with someone who had been blacklisted; careers were destroyed in this way. Many people were willing to testify against others, even friends, in order to avoid being investigated themselves – often times knowing the person was innocent.
The most famous investigations were the result of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy delivered an address in February of 1950 in which he said he had obtained a list of more than 200 known communist infiltrators working within the United States government. Although he never delivered any proof, McCarthy”s accusations caused the investigation of many of his political opponents. Anyone who appeared weak on communism or the Soviet Union could be brought under investigation. McCarthy”s witch hunt finally stopped in 1954 when the Senate voted to censure him.
Union leaders, artists, Civil Rights leaders, anti-war demonstrators – anyone could be suspected of being a communist and a Soviet spy during the Cold War. Although there were certainly spies and infiltrators, the fear of them was greatly exaggerated.
Recent scholarship has shown that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted and executed for giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union (a conviction that was highly suspect at the time), were most likely guilty; however, recently released documents also show that men like Dr. King and John Steinbeck were wrongly suspected and, often, harassed by the federal government. Although published in 1938 (before the Cold War), Steinbeck”s short story “The Raid” (published in The Long Valley) illustrates the fear of communism and the hatred (or even violence) that people suspected of being communist faced.
Following World War II the U.S. economy did not descend into another depression as many people had feared. High employment and the massive amount of government money that was pumped into the economy during the war left consumers with money to spend. President Truman also slowly released the wartime regulations which had controlled industrial production, wages, and prices – helping the economy to stay strong. In addition, the G.I. Bill (The Servicemen”s Readjustment Act), which had been passed in 1944, helped war veterans go to college or to buy a home.
Unlike other post war eras, defense spending did not return to pre-war levels following World War II. Cold War fears led to an arms race and a military buildup that kept large amounts of government spending flowing into the economy. The U.S. government continued to spend billions of dollars on defense; by the 1960s the defense budget was 50% of the entire federal budget.
Defense spending led to booms in several areas of the economy and technological fields. Aerospace, computers, nuclear power, electronics, automobiles, and other industries all benefited greatly from federal spending. As the Cold War continued, this connection, known as the “Military-Industrial Complex,” grew – especially aerospace. Not only did the United States and the Soviet Union engage in an arms race, but also in a space race.
Billions of dollars went into NASA and other related organizations in an effort to beat the Soviets to space. The Soviet Union, however, launched the first man-made satellite in 1957, Sputnik, and sent the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. Fear of losing to the Soviets led to a focus on Math and Science in schools and billions more in spending on research and development. Eventually, in 1969, the United States landed the first people on the surface of the moon – and has remained the leader in space exploration ever since.
By the early 1960s over 3 million people were employed, either directly or indirectly, by the defense industry. Large government contracts continued to create jobs in urban areas which drew Americans out of the rural areas of the country and into the cities. The majority of defense contracts, however, were in Western and Southern urban areas; the migration out of the countryside that had begun in the 19th century continued during the Cold War, but this time the migration was to the west and south rather than to the north and east.
At the same time, economic prosperity created a growing middle class who began moving out of urban centers and into the suburbs. These families could afford larger homes and to purchase things that were once thought of as luxuries – particularly automobiles. Between 1945 and 1965 the number of cars in the United States tripled from 25 to 75 million. Automobiles were essential to the suburban life: they enabled families to live outside the major cities and to drive to work. In addition, the federal government invested heavily in highway construction – helping to make travel faster and easier than ever. Interstate highways linked large urban areas across many states and helped to grow the American car culture.
Although this period was full of growth, prosperity, and scientific achievements, there was always the underlying fear of nuclear war. The government prepared for war constantly and expanded the country”s arsenal of weapons with which to retaliate, but the general public was also impacted by fear and preparation for “the bomb”.
At any moment, the public service announcements repeatedly told people, the bomb could be dropped; it was important to be prepared.
Schools practiced duck and cover drills, major cities installed and regularly tested air raid sirens, public fallout shelters were constructed, and an unknown number of families built their own shelters at home. The fear and threat of nuclear war was a very real concern for people across America, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.