9 Cold War

  1. The Iron Curtain

Although the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in World War II, the relationship did not last long after the defeat of Germany and Japan. On February 22, 1946, less than a year after the end of the war, the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, George Kennan sent a lengthy telegram to the State Department denouncing the Soviet Union. “World communism is like a malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue,” he wrote, and “the steady advance of uneasy Russian nationalism . . . is more dangerous and insidious than ever before.” Kennan recognized that Russian imperialism would advance under what he called the “new guise of international Marxism”, although the U.S.S.R. was being ruled not as a communist democracy but as a totalitarian dictatorship under Josef Stalin. Marx’s ideal of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, where workers would live in such harmony that police and armies would be unnecessary, never arrived for the Russian people. There could be no cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, Kennan wrote. Instead, the Soviets had to be “contained.” Less than two weeks later, on March 5, former British prime minister Winston Churchill visited President Harry Truman in his home state and made a speech at a small Missouri college, declaring that Europe had been cut in half by an “iron curtain” that had “descended across the Continent.” As the Russians had advanced toward Germany in the final years of World War II, they had not only retaken Russian territory but expanded their control over Eastern Europe. In the years after the war the U.S.S.R. controlled not only East Germany but newly formed People’s Republics of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. In the alarm caused by the creation of these satellite states, often ruled by Soviet-installed dictators, anti-Soviet sentiment seized the American government and soon the American people.



The Cold War was a global political and ideological struggle between allied Western nations and this new Eastern Bloc, although the dispute was most often described as a contest between capitalist and communist economic systems. From the perspective of many nations that tried to remain “nonaligned” in this contest, the dispute appeared to be a face-off between two empires. Both claimed to be interested in “freeing” the people of the world: the Soviets from the evils of the capitalist marketplace and the Americans from the evils of communist totalitarianism. The conflict was called “cold” because it was never a “hot,” direct shooting war between the United States and the Soviet Union. But both superpowers (because the U.S.S.R. quickly joined the U.S. as a superpower) used similar tactics of financial and military support to their allies and client states and intimidation or intervention in states supported by the other side. Tensions ran highest during the first decades of the Cold War, from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. engaged in a series of “ proxy wars” such as the Korean conflict of the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In the late 1970s a period of relaxed tensions and increased communication and cooperation, known by the French term détente began, which lasted until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Cold War reshaped the world and its threat hung over the generations of Americans that lived under its shadow.


Cover of an anti-communist 1947 comic book published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society warning of “the dangers of a Communist takeover.”

The Cold War grew out of the failure to achieve an agreement on the organization of the postwar world order between the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The leaders of the Allies met at Yalta in Russian Crimea and at Potsdam in occupied Germany during the late stages of the war. Millions of lives had been lost, especially by Russians. Stalin considered the newly conquered territory part of a Soviet sphere of influence. With Germany’s defeat imminent, the Allies created an occupation regime that would initially divide Germany into American, British, French, and Soviet zones. Suspicion and mistrust were already mounting. The political landscape was altered drastically by President Roosevelt’s sudden death in April 1945, just days before the inaugural meeting of the UN. Although Roosevelt was skeptical of Stalin, he always held out hope that the Soviets could be brought into the “Free World.” Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s Vice President and successor, shared Churchill’s less hopeful view of Stalin’s agenda. He committed the United States to a hard-line, anti-Soviet approach.

At the Potsdam Conference, held on the outskirts of Berlin from mid-July to early August, the Allies debated the fate of Poland, which the Red Army had liberated from German control and then occupied. Toward the end of the meeting, the American delegation received word that Manhattan Project scientists had successfully tested an atomic bomb. On July 24, when Truman told Stalin about a “new weapon of unusual destructive force,” the Soviet leader simply nodded his acknowledgment and said that he hoped the Americans would make “good use” of it. Stalin had been one of the Bolsheviks who had led the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Civil War that followed, and he clearly remembered that the United States had intervened militarily against the Red Army, and when the Soviet Union was founded in 1922 the U.S. refused to recognize it. The two powers had been brought together in World War II only by their common enemy, and without that common enemy there was little hope for cooperation.


Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949.

On the eve of American involvement in World War II, on August 14, 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill had issued a joint declaration of goals for postwar peace, known as the Atlantic Charter. An adaptation of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the charter established the United Nations. The Soviet Union was among the fifty charter UN member-states and was given one of five seats alongside the “Four Policemen” (the United States, Britain, France, and China) on the Security Council. The Atlantic Charter also began planning for a reorganized global economy. In July 1944 a UN Financial and Monetary Conference, known as the Bretton Woods Conference for the New Hampshire town where it was held, created the International Monetary Fund and the forerunner of the World Bank, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The Bretton Woods system was expanded in 1947 with the addition of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, forerunner of the World Trade Organization. The Soviets rejected it all.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why did Kennan feel that the U.S.S.R. had to be “contained”? Do you agree?
  • How was the United Nations different from the League of Nations?


2. Rebuilding Europe

At the conclusion of World War II, Turkey was pressured by the Soviet government to allow Russian shipping to flow freely through the Turkish Straits, which connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

Officials on both sides knew that the Soviet-American relationship would dissolve into renewed hostility at the end of the war. To some extent this hostility was based on the incompatibility between the capitalist economic system embraced by the U.S. and the communist ideology of the Soviets. These systems are based on incompatible philosophies, but neither nation operated under a pure version of the system they claimed to support. The United States was a mixed economy that operated many programs for the welfare of its people. In addition to the unemployment income and Social Security many critics complained was to “socialist”, the G.I. Bill, public schools, the post office, and even the and interstate highway system were examples of government spending for the public good. And although the Soviets justified their actions by dogmatically quoting Marxist-Leninist ideology, the U.S.S.R. under Stalin was a totalitarian dictatorship that actually resembled the ideals of socialism (or even communism) very little. The issues that drove the conflict between the two superpowers strongly suggest the point was power rather than ideology. In 1946 for example, the Soviet Union refused to cede parts of occupied Iran, a Soviet defector betrayed a Soviet spy who had worked on the Manhattan Project, and the United States refused Soviet calls to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. Diplomat George Kennan warned that Americans should “continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner,” in a 1947 article for Foreign Affairs. Kennan blamed Stalin, who he said harbored “no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds.” He urged U.S. leaders to pursue “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians.” President Truman expressed a similar sentiment in March 1947 when he announced $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey, where he said “terrorist activities . . . led by Communists” jeopardized “democratic” governance. With war-ravaged Britain unable to play its traditional role as defender of the accepted world order, Truman believed it fell to the United States “to support free peoples . . . resisting attempted subjugation by . . . outside pressures.” The so-called Truman Doctrine became a cornerstone of the American policy of containment.

The labelling used on aid packages created and sent under the Marshall Plan.

But it was not entirely clear that all communist movements threatening democratic governments were unwelcome Soviet interventions in otherwise stable nations. During the harsh winter of 1946–1947, famine loomed in continental Europe. Blizzards and freezing cold halted coal production. Factories closed. Unemployment rose again after the full employment of wartime. As European governments seemed unable to prevent these conditions, communist parties in France and Italy gained nearly a third of the seats in their respective parliaments. American officials concerned about a shift in the “balance of power” worried that Europe’s impoverished masses were increasingly vulnerable to Soviet propaganda. The situation remained dire through the spring, when George Marshall (1880-1959, a soldier and statesman who served as Army Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense) gave an address at Harvard University in June 1947, suggesting that “the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” Although Marshall had been careful to say his proposal was “not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty . . . and chaos,” Stalin interpreted Marshall’s proposal as an assault against communism in Europe. He saw it as a “Trojan Horse” designed to lure Germany and other countries on his western border into the capitalist web. The European Recovery Program or “Marshall Plan” pumped money into Western Europe. From 1948 to 1952 the United States spent $13 billion on reconstruction while simultaneously loosening trade barriers. The Soviets countered with the Molotov Plan of aid to Eastern Europe. Stalin rewarded Poland with a five-year, $450 million trade agreement for boycotting the Marshall Plan. When Czechoslovakia received $200 million in American assistance, Stalin summoned the Czech foreign minister to Moscow. The minister later recounted that he “went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state” but “returned as a lackey of the Soviet Government.” Stalin exercised ever tighter control over the U.S.S.R.’s satellite countries in central and Eastern Europe.


The only three permissible air corridors to Berlin in 1948.

The situation in Germany, which had been occupied by the allies since the war’s end, continued to deteriorate. The capital, Berlin, had been divided into American, Russian, French, and British zones. But Berlin lay deep in the eastern portion of Germany controlled by the Soviets. In June 1948 the U.S.S.R. blockaded the city, cutting off rail and road access to the three zones of West Berlin it did not control in an effort to gain control over the entire city. The United States organized an airlift that flew essential supplies into the beleaguered city for eleven months. When the Soviets finally lifted the blockade in May 1949, Germany was officially broken in half. The western half of the country was renamed the Federal Republic of Germany and the eastern Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic. Berlin, which lay squarely within East Germany, was divided into two sections which beginning in 1961 were separated by the heavily-guarded Berlin Wall.


Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport in 1948
The mushroom cloud from the first air-dropped Soviet hydrogen bomb test in 1951.

The Berlin crisis convinced the U.S. and its European allies that the U.S.S.R. was a serious threat to its Western neighbors. Within months of the partition of Germany in the summer of 1949, the allies created NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Soviet Union’s detonation of a nuclear bomb in August 1949 further alarmed the allies. In contrast with the Marshall Plan’s economic focus, NATO was a mutual defense treaty in which the United States and Canada guaranteed to protect England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland from Soviet aggression. The U.S.S.R. responded with its own collective defensive agreement in 1955, the Warsaw Pact, which included Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany. American journalist Walter Lippmann helped popularize the term Cold War in his book The Cold War: A Study in U.S. Foreign Policy. Lippmann predicted a prolonged stalemate between the United States and the U.S.S.R. and a war of words and ideas. Lippmann agreed that the Soviet Union should be stopped from expanding its power, but suggested that if the spread of communism could be prevented in the “heart” of Europe, the Soviet system could be left alone to collapse under the weight of its own imperfections.

Questions for Discussion

  • Although the two superpowers highlighted their ideological differences, what were some other possible motives for the Cold War?
  • How was the rhetoric of the U.S. and the Soviet Union similar when they criticized the other?
  • Compare the Marshall Plan and NATO. Which do you think was a more successful program?



3. China “falls” to Communism

Chinese postage stamp
Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong shaking hands on Chinese postage stamp, 1950.

A new chapter in the Cold War began on October 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong led the Chinese Communist Party to victory against Western-backed Kuomintang nationalists led by the Chiang Kai-shek. The Kuomintang had been established in 1919 by Sun Yat Sen but had begun purging and persecuting communist members when Chiang Kai-Shek succeeded Sun in 1925. When Mao gained control of most of China, the nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan and the communists were able to establish the People’s Republic of China. Coming so soon after the Soviet Union’s successful test of an atomic bomb, on August 29, the “loss of China,” the world’s most populous country, contributed to a sense of panic among American foreign policy makers, whose attention began to shift from Europe to Asia. After Dean Acheson, a principal architect of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, became secretary of state in 1949, Kennan was replaced in the State Department by former investment banker Paul Nitze. Acheson’s first assignment for Nitze was to help compose a document designed to “bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’” into approving a “substantial increase” in military expenditures.

Nitze’s document, “National Security Memorandum 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” known as NSC-68, achieved its goal. Issued in April 1950, the sixty-page classified memo described “increasingly terrifying weapons of mass destruction” and warned “every individual” of “the ever-present possibility of annihilation.” It said that leaders of the USSR and its “international communist movement” sought only “to retain and solidify their absolute power.” As the main “bulwark of opposition to Soviet expansion,” America had become “the principal enemy” of the U.S.S.R.’s leaders, that “must be subverted or destroyed by one means or another.” NSC-68 urged a “rapid build-up of political, economic, and military strength” in order to “roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world domination.” Such a massive commitment of resources, amounting to a tripling of the annual U.S. defense budget, was necessary in Nitze’s assessment because the USSR, “unlike previous aspirants to hegemony,” was “animated by a new fanatic faith,” seeking “to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” While there was some truth to the claim that the Soviet and Chinese commitment to communism was an ideological challenge to the west, a greater threat may have been the receptiveness of people around the world to the communists’ focus on criticizing western imperialism.

Question for Discussion

  • Why did the establishment of the People’s Republic of China alarm the United States?


4. Korean War

Douglas MacArthur
Brig. Gen. Courtney Whitney; Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief of U.N. Forces; and Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond observe the shelling of Inchon from the U.S.S. Mt. McKinley, September 15, 1950.

In June 1950, as U.S. officials were considering NSC-68’s proposed “intensification of . . . operations by covert means in the fields of economic . . . political and psychological warfare” to foment “unrest and revolt in . . . [Soviet] satellite countries,” fighting erupted in Korea between communists in the north and American-backed anti-communists in the south. The Korean peninsula was divided because when Japan surrendered in September 1945, a U.S.-Soviet joint occupation quickly became a standoff. In November 1947, the U.N. passed a resolution that a united government in Korea should be created, but the Soviet Union refused to cooperate. The south held elections and the Republic of Korea (ROK) was created three months later. Communists in the north established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Both claimed to be the legitimate government of the whole Korean peninsula. The U.N. recognized the ROK and in the spring of 1950, Stalin endorsed North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s plan to “liberate” the South by force; a plan heavily influenced by Mao’s recent victory in China. While he did not desire a military confrontation with the United States, Stalin thought correctly that he could encourage his Chinese comrades to support North Korea if the war turned against the DPRK. The North Koreans launched a successful surprise attack and Seoul, the capital of South Korea, fell to the communists on June 28. The U.N. passed resolutions demanding that North Korea withdraw to the thirty-eighth parallel and calling on member states to provide the ROK military assistance to repulse the northern attack.


U.S. Marines engaged in street fighting
U.S. Marines engaged in street fighting during the liberation of Seoul. Note M-1 rifles and Browning Automatic Rifles carried by the Marines, dead Koreans in the street, and M-4 “Sherman” tanks in the distance. September, 1950.

That July, U.N. forces mobilized under American general Douglas MacArthur. Troops landed at Inchon, a port city about thirty miles from Seoul, and liberated the city on September 28. They pushed the North Korean forces out of the South and on October 1, ROK/UN forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel and entered North Korea. The northern capital, Pyongyang, fell on October 19 but the invasion continued north. A week later ROK/UN forces reached the Yalu River, the traditional Korea-China border. They were met by three hundred thousand Chinese troops who broke the advance and halted the offensive. China’s effective defense of its border came as a shock to MacArthur, who had believed there were few troops in the region and only a small northern force in Manchuria. On November 30, ROK/UN forces began a fevered retreat. The United Nations forces regrouped, but the war entered into a stalemate. General MacArthur, growing impatient, requested authorization to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and China. Denied, MacArthur publicly denounced Truman. The president, unwilling to begin World War III and refusing to tolerate MacArthur’s public insubordination, fired the general in April. On June 23, 1951, the Soviet ambassador to the U.N. suggested a cease-fire, which the U.S. immediately accepted. Peace talks continued for two years and resulted in an armistice but not a peace treaty.

Harry S. Truman, who had become president when Franklin Roosevelt died and had been re-elected in 1948, decided not to seek a second full term. General Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of D-Day, decided to run as a Republican although Truman had expected him to join the Democratic Party. Eisenhower defeated Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential election, and Josef Stalin died in March 1953. The Korean armistice agreement was signed in July 1953. More than 1.5 million people had died during the conflict, including about 34,000 U.S. soldiers.

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think motivated General MacArthur to denounce President Truman?
  • Why did the Chinese enter the war on the North Korean side?


5. Nuclear and Space Race

The world was never the same after the United States leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 with atomic bombs. Not only had hundreds of thousands of civilians been killed, the nature of warfare was forever changed. The Soviets accelerated their nuclear research with the help of  “atom spies” such as Klaus Fuchs, who stole nuclear secrets from the Americans’ secret Manhattan Project. Soviet scientists successfully tested an atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, years before American officials had predicted they would. This unexpectedly quick Russian success caught the United States off guard, alarmed the Western world, and propelled a nuclear arms race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. The U.S. regained the lead when it detonated the first hydrogen bomb, using fusion explosives of theoretically limitless power, in November 1952. The blast measured over ten megatons and generated an inferno five miles wide with a mushroom cloud twenty-five miles high and a hundred miles across. The irradiated debris or fallout from the blast circled the earth, sparking international alarm over the effects of nuclear testing on human health and the environment. The USSR successfully tested a hydrogen bomb in 1953 and Eisenhower responded by announcing a policy of “massive retaliation.” The United States would promised to respond to Soviet aggression with perhaps its entire nuclear might. Both sides would theoretically be deterred from starting a war, through the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD). J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of Los Alamos laboratory that developed the first nuclear bomb, likened the state of “nuclear deterrence” between the United States and the U.S.S.R. to “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other,” but only by risking their own lives.


Nuclear weapon test
Nuclear weapon test Bravo (yield 15 Mt) on Bikini Atoll. The test was part of the Operation Castle. March 1, 1954.

Antinuclear protests in the United States and abroad warned against the perils of nuclear testing and highlighted the likelihood that a thermonuclear war would unleash a global environmental catastrophe. But at the same time, peaceful nuclear power technologies seemed to promise a utopia of electrical power that would be clean, safe, and “too cheap to meter.” In 1953, President Eisenhower proclaimed at the U.N. that the United States would share the knowledge and means for other countries to use atomic power. Eisenhower hoped that “the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” The “Atoms for Peace” speech brought about the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), along with worldwide investment in this new economic sector. By 1957, nuclear reactors were producing energy for America’s commercial electrical grid.


V-2 cutaway
U.S. Army V-2 cutaway drawing of the V-2 rocket showing engine, fuel cells, guidance units and warhead.
A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space.

As Germany collapsed at the close of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union raced toward Berlin, hoping not only to be first to occupy the capital but to acquire elements of the Nazi V-2 superweapon program. In the last months of the war, a “vengeance weapon” had been developed to terrorize England, even though Germany had no hope of winning. The V-2 was the world’s first guided ballistic missile, capable of delivering an explosive payload up to a distance of six hundred miles. Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. wished to capture the scientists, designs, and manufacturing equipment to build their own rockets. Germany’s top rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, surrendered to U.S. troops and became the leader of the American space program. About 1,600 German scientists and engineers found their way into the American program. The Soviet Union’s program was managed by Red Army colonel Sergei Korolev, although the Soviet program also had about 2,000 Germans. Both engineering teams worked to adapt German rocket technology to create an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could carry the new nuclear weapons. The Soviets achieved success first. They even used the ICBM launch vehicle on October 4, 1957, to send Sputnik, the world’s first human-made satellite, into orbit. It was a decisive technological victory, and the Soviet propaganda ministry took full advantage of the opportunity to begin a space race while at the same time warning the U.S. that it could deliver nuclear weapons to American targets.

Space dog box
Original Soviet space dog environmentally controlled safety module used on sub-orbital and orbital spaceflights

In response, the U.S. government rushed to perfect its own ICBM technology and in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established to launch satellites and astronauts into space. Initial American attempts to launch a satellite into orbit suffered spectacular failures, heightening fears of Soviet domination in space. While the American space program struggled, the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 capsule became the first human-made object to touch the moon in September 1959. Then the U.S.S.R. successfully launched a pair of dogs (Belka and Strelka) into orbit and returned them to Earth alive in August 1960 while the American Mercury program languished behind schedule (the first dog the Soviets sent to orbit, Laika, died during the trip). Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit on April 12, 1961. American astronaut Alan Shepard accomplished a suborbital flight in the Freedom 7 capsule on May 5. The United States had lagged behind, and John Kennedy would use America’s embarrassment over early losses in the “space race” to bolster funding for a moon landing.

While outer space captivated the world’s imagination, the Cold War still captured its anxieties. The ever-escalating arms race continued to foster panic. In the early 1950s, the Federal Civil Defense Administration began preparing citizens for the worst. Schoolchildren were instructed to “duck and cover” beneath their desks in the event of a thermonuclear war.

Questions for Discussion

  • Does the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction make sense?
  • How might people’s perceptions have been altered if nuclear energy had produced electricity too cheap to meter?
  • How did early Soviet success in space affect U.S. policy?


6. Red Scare


Joseph McCarthy
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954.

Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy burst onto the national scene during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950. Waving a sheet of paper in the air, he falsely announced that he was holding a list of 205 names “that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping [U.S.] policy.” Since McCarthy had no actual list, the number changed to fifty-seven, then eighty-one. Finally, he promised to disclose the name of just one communist, the nation’s “top Soviet agent.” The shifting numbers brought ridicule, but it didn’t matter: McCarthy’s lies won him fame and fueled a new “red scare.”

J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover, first Director of the FBI, in 1940.

McCarthyism was a symptom of a widespread anticommunist propaganda campaign directed at Cold War America by the U.S. government. Only two years after World War II, President Truman, facing growing anticommunist excitement and a tough election on the horizon, gave in to the pressure to politicize the Cold War. In March 1947 he issued Executive Order 9835, establishing loyalty reviews for federal employees. The FBI conducted close examinations of all potential “security risks” among Foreign Service officers. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had granted the FBI permission to wiretap people suspected of subversive activities. When the Korean War began, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover petitioned Truman to suspend habeus corpus and detain 12,000 Americans suspected of disloyalty. Hoover grew increasingly frustrated with what he saw as the Supreme Court’s obstruction of his ability to prosecute people for political opinions. In 1956, Hoover began a counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, to disrupt the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). The scope of Hoover’s suspicions and COINTELPRO’s targets grew to include civil rights groups, feminists, environmentalists, Indian activists, and anti-war protestors before the program’s dissolution in 1971. The program’s domestic espionage and psychological warfare tactics were widely criticized. Many believed the FBI had greatly overstepped its authority; some even accused COINTELPRO of planning the assassinations of some of the program’s targets.

In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held over a hundred investigations and hearings on communist influence in American society between 1949 and 1954. Antisubversion committees emerged in over a dozen state legislatures, and review procedures targeting teachers proliferated in public schools and universities across the country. At the University of California, for example, thirty-one professors were dismissed in 1950 for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. The Internal Security Act, passed by Congress in September 1950, required all “communist organizations” to register with the government, gave the government greater powers to investigate sedition, and made it possible to prevent suspected individuals from gaining or keeping their citizenship. In the first year, the new law turned away over 50,000 immigrants from Germany and over 10,000 displaced Russians. There were, of course, American communists in the United States. The CPUSA was formed in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks created a Communist International (the Comintern) and invited socialists from around the world to join. But communism remained on the margins of American life until the 1930s, when leftists and liberals began to see the Soviet Union as a symbol of hope during the Great Depression. Many Americans also appreciated the U.S.S.R.’s stand against fascism. Because Soviet propaganda made it seem Stalin’s first Five Year Plan was a great success, many Americans joined the Popular Front, which sought to make communism mainstream by adapting it to American history and American culture. Popular Front communists integrated into mainstream political institutions through alliances with progressives in the Democratic Party. The CPUSA enjoyed most of its influence and popularity among workers in unions linked to the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Communists also became strong opponents of Jim Crow segregation and developed a presence in both the NAACP and the ACLU. But even at the height of the global economic crisis, communism never attracted many Americans. A its peak, the CPUSA had just eighty thousand national “card-carrying” members. And when news broke of Hitler’s and Stalin’s 1939 nonaggression treaty, many fled the party, feeling betrayed.


1961 poster against McCarran Act
Civil libertarians and political activists considered the Internal Security (McCarran) Act to be a dangerous and unconstitutional infringement of political liberty, as exemplified in this 1961 poster.

Lacking legal grounds to abolish the CPUSA, government officials instead sought to expose and contain CPUSA influence. HUAC was established in 1938 to investigate accusations of a plot to overthrow the government and to make the case for interning Japanese-Americans. It was reorganized after the war and given the explicit task of investigating communism. By the time the Communist Control Act was passed in August 1954, effectively criminalizing party membership, the CPUSA had long ceased to have meaningful influence. Anticommunists worked to eliminate remaining CPUSA influence from progressive institutions, including the NAACP and the CIO. The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) gave union officials the go-ahead to purge communists from the labor movement. In January 1947, anticommunist liberals formed Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), whose founding members included former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Working to help Truman defeat former vice president Henry Wallace’s progressive, Popular Front–backed campaign in 1948, the ADA combined social and economic reforms with staunch anticommunism.

Questions for Discussion

  • What made American Communism so alarming to organizations like HUAC?
  • How are J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy remembered today?



Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury in January 1951.

Anticommunist policies reflected national fears of a surging global communism. Newspapers were filled with headlines alleging Soviet espionage. When such accusations were proven true, the response could be extreme. An example of this was the Rosenberg case of 1951-3, which resulted in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. During the war, Julius had worked briefly at the U.S. Army Signal Corps Laboratory in New Jersey, where he had access to classified information. He and his wife, Ethel, had both been members of the CPUSA in the 1930s. When the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, the Rosenbergs were accused of passing secret bomb-related documents to Soviet officials and were indicted for espionage. They were found guilty in March 1951. Although figures such as the Pope, Pablo Picasso, and Albert Einstein argued for a reduced sentence (at least for Ethel), the couple were  executed on June 19, 1953.

Alger Hiss
Alger Hiss, a senior American diplomat, testifying in 1950.

Alger Hiss, the highest-ranking government official linked to Soviet espionage, was another prize for conservatives. Hiss was a prominent official in the U.S. State Department. A young congressman and member of HUAC, Richard Nixon, made waves by accusing Hiss of espionage. In August 1948, a confessed American spy for the Soviets, Whittaker Chambers, testified before HUAC that he and Hiss had worked together as part of the secret “communist underground” in Washington, D.C., during the 1930s. Hiss, who always maintained his innocence, stood trial twice. After a hung jury in July 1949, he was convicted on two counts of perjury. The conviction of a former U.S. diplomat fueled an anticommunist frenzy. Some began seeing communists everywhere. Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs offered anticommunists such as Joseph McCarthy the evidence they needed to claim the existence of a vast Soviet conspiracy to subvert the U.S. government and justify the smearing of all left-liberals, even those who were resolutely anticommunist. Not long after his February 1950 speech in Wheeling, President Truman arranged a partisan congressional investigation designed to discredit the Republican McCarthy. The Tydings Committee issued a report admonishing McCarthy for perpetrating a “fraud and a hoax” on the American public. American progressives saw McCarthy’s crusade as a political witch hunt. In June 1950, The Nation magazine characterized “McCarthyism” as “the means by which a handful of men, disguised as hunters of subversion, cynically subvert the instruments of justice . . . in order to help their own political fortunes.” Truman’s liberal supporters hoped in vain that McCarthy and the new “ism” that bore his name would blow over quickly.

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson, American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, Spingarn Medal winner, in 1942.

The domestic obsession with communism was a bipartisan consensus of left-liberals and conservatives that included politicians, journalists, scientists, businessmen, civic and religious leaders, educators, and entertainers. Hoover’s FBI fueled Americans’ suspicion by assisting the creation of blatantly propagandistic films and television shows, including The Red Menace (1949), My Son John (1951), and I Led Three Lives (1953–1956). Alarming depictions of espionage and treason in a “free world” imperiled by communism heightened the 1950s culture of fear. In the fall of 1947, HUAC entered the fray with highly publicized hearings of Hollywood. Film mogul Walt Disney and actor Ronald Reagan, among others, testified about communist influence in the entertainment industry. Others such as Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston, Judy Garland, and Danny Kaye formed a Committee for the First Amendment to protest the government’s attack on the film industry. A group of writers, directors, and producers called the Hollywood Ten who refused to answer questions were held in contempt of Congress. Hundreds of film artists were “blacklisted” and barred from industry work for the next decade. HUAC made repeated visits to Hollywood during the 1950s, and many witnesses cooperated, and named anyone they knew who had ever been associated with communist-related groups or organizations. In 1956, black entertainer and activist Paul Robeson chided his HUAC inquisitors, claiming that they had put him on trial not for his politics but because he had spent his life “fighting for the rights” of his people. “You are the un-Americans,” he told them, “and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” Robeson refused to sign a confession that he was a communist. His passport was revoked and his music was banned in the U.S. Because he was unable to travel, Robeson sang for British sold-out British audiences via telephone.

Questions for Discussion

  • Were the responses to suspected spies like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs appropriate?
  • Is it surprising that some celebrities resisted the red scare while others embraced it?


7. McCarthyism

Anticommunist ideology celebrated over-the-top patriotism, religious conviction, and blind faith in capitalism. Those who shunned such “American values” were fair game for attack. The playwright Arthur Miller’s popular 1953 play The Crucible compared the red scare to the Salem Witch Trials. Rallying against communism, American society urged conformity. “Deviant” behavior became dangerous. Having entered the workforce as part of a collective effort in World War II, middle-class women were told to return to housekeeping responsibilities. Having fought and died abroad for American democracy, black soldiers were told to return home and accept the American racial order. Homosexuality, already stigmatized, became dangerous. Personal secrets were seen as a liability that exposed one to blackmail. The same paranoid mind-set that fueled the red scare also ignited the Cold War “lavender scare” against gay Americans.” American religion, meanwhile, lined up to fight what McCarthy, in his 1950 Wheeling speech, had called an “all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.” Cold warriors in the United States routinely referred to a fundamental incompatibility between “godless communism” and God-fearing Americanism. Religious conservatives championed the idea of the traditional nuclear, God-fearing family as the only defense against the spread of atheistic totalitarianism.

With ideas of national belonging and citizenship so closely linked to religious commitment, Americans during the early Cold War years attended church at higher rates than in any time in American history. Americans sought to differentiate themselves from godless communists through public displays of religiosity. Ignoring the United States’ long history of separating church and state, politicians infused government with religious symbols. The Pledge of Allegiance was altered to include the words one nation, under God in 1954. In God We Trust was adopted as the official national motto in 1956. In popular culture, one of the most popular films of the decade, The Ten Commandments (1956), retold the biblical Exodus story as a Cold War parable, echoing NSC-68’s characterization of the Soviet Union as a “slave state.” Monuments of the Ten Commandments went up at courthouses and city halls across the country. Political leaders celebrated America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. It was important to be religious in America, no matter what the religion. In December 1952, a month before his inauguration, Dwight Eisenhower said that “our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower spoke of U.S. foreign policy as “a war of light against darkness, freedom against slavery, Godliness against atheism.” His Democratic opponent, former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, said that America was engaged in a battle with the “Anti-Christ.” Evangelical minister Billy Graham became a spiritual advisor to Eisenhower as well as other Republican and Democratic presidents.


McCarthy chats with Roy Cohn
McCarthy chats with lawyer Roy Cohn (right) at the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.

Though publicly rebuked by the Tydings Committee, Joseph McCarthy soldiered on. In June 1951, on the floor of Congress, McCarthy charged that secretary of defense (and former secretary of state) General George Marshall had fallen prey to “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” He claimed that Marshall, a war hero, had helped to “diminish the United States in world affairs,” enabling the United States to “finally fall victim to Soviet intrigue . . . and Russian military might.” The speech caused an uproar. During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower, who was moderate and politically cautious, refused to publicly denounce McCarthy. “I will not . . . get into the gutter with that guy,” he wrote privately. But he benefitted publicly. McCarthy campaigned for Eisenhower, who won a stunning victory. So did the Republicans, who regained Congress. McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy’s mudslinging became increasingly unrestrained. Soon he went after the U.S. Army. After forcing the army to again disprove theories of a Soviet spy ring at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, McCarthy publicly berated officers suspected of promoting leftists. On March 9, CBS anchor Edward R. Murrow, a respected journalist, denounced McCarthy’s fearmongering. He told his television audience that McCarthy’s actions had “caused alarm and dismay amongst . . . allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.” Twenty million people saw the Army-McCarthy hearings unfold over thirty-six days in 1954. The army’s head counsel, Joseph Welch, captured the mood of the country when he said, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” In September, a senate subcommittee recommended that McCarthy be censured. On December 2, 1954, his colleagues voted 67–22 to “condemn” his actions. Humiliated, McCarthy faded into irrelevance and alcoholism and died in May 1957 at age 48.


Ronald Reagan
Promotional photo of Ronald Reagan when he was host of the GE Theater on television, 1960.

By the late 1950s, the worst of the second red scare was over. Stalin’s death, followed by the Korean War armistice, opened new space—and hope—for the easing of Cold War tensions. Détente and the upheavals of the late 1960s were on the horizon. But McCarthyism outlasted McCarthy and the 1950s. The tactics he perfected continued to be practiced long after his death. “Red-baiting,” the act of smearing a political opponent by linking them to communism or some other demonized ideology, persevered. And McCarthy had not been the only politician to use these tools. Congressman Richard Nixon used his place on HUAC and his public role in the campaign against Alger Hiss to catapult himself into the White House as Eisenhower’s running-mate and later into the presidency. Ronald Reagan bolstered the fame he had won with his testimony against Hollywood and his anticommunist work for major American corporations such as General Electric. Reagan became governor of California in 1967 and was elected president in 1980. In 1958, radical anticommunists founded the John Birch Society, attacking liberals and civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. as communists. And anticommunism was used as part of an assault against the New Deal and its defenders. Even many liberals who had fought against communism found themselves smeared by the red scare. The leftist American tradition was in tatters, destroyed by anticommunist hysteria. Movements for social justice, from civil rights to gay rights to feminism, were all suppressed under Cold War conformity.

Question for Discussion

  • How did the Cold War affect American Society on the questions of conformity and free speech?


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