The Cold War was a nearly 50-year long period of tense relations between the United States and the Communist-ruled Soviet Union. The Cold War began almost immediately after World War II and ended with the 1991 dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The fear of Communism infiltration in the U.S. government, entertainment industry and other organizations affected American politics, culture, and even daily life, particularly in the early years of the Cold War.
The Roots of Fear
U.S. policy toward Communism at the close of World War II centered on containment. This policy led Americans to view Communism as a serious problem that had to be kept in check on distant shores. But in late 1945, a Russian clerk defecting from the Soviet Embassy in Canada provided documents revealing an aggressive campaign by the Soviets to infiltrate the Canadian and U.S. governments. Americans were shocked, and many suspected Communist agents already were working within the government. The 1948 perjury conviction of former diplomat Alger Hiss, who was accused of selling government secrets to the Soviets, and the 1953 execution of New York couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on grounds of espionage heightened Americans' fears.
President Harry Truman attempted to quell Americans' fears by creating the Loyalty Review Board and charging it with verifying the loyalty of all government workers. Americans, however, saw Truman's action as proof that Communists were already living and working among them. By 1951, more than 200 federal employees had been fired and thousands more had been pressured to quit their jobs on suspicion of loyalty infractions. Local governments began conducting loyalty screenings. Universities, businesses and even churches worked to identify Communists among employees and members. As a result, thousands of people lost jobs, friends and families due to suspicion of un-American activities.
Many Hollywood entertainers suspected of Communist affiliations were called to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s. A few, like screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. refused to cooperate and were "blacklisted" in addition to receiving prison sentences. Comedic movie star Lucille Ball gave nonsensical testimony and was cleared. Actor Zero Mostel agreed to tell the committee anything they wanted to know about himself but said his religious beliefs prevented him from discussing other suspects. Some in the industry never recovered from the damaging accusations, even if they were unfounded. Lardner, however, went on to write the successful television series ''MAS*H'' in the 1970s.
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on Americans' fear of Communists by claiming there were more than 200 documented Communists working in the U.S. Department of State. Although he never was able to prove his claim, in 1954 he went on to make accusations against officials in the U.S Army during eight weeks of televised hearings. Though the hearings proved to be McCarthy's undoing after Americans witnessed his cruel behavior and unscrupulous tactics, the hearings also showed Americans first-hand what aggressive interrogation was like. The fear of being labeled a subversive drove Americans to adopt a standard of conformity. Television and movies focused on wholesome entertainment, unions merged and closed ranks, and social reforms were abandoned.
In 1949, the Soviets tested their first atom bomb and China became a Communist nation. Americans feared that nuclear war and a Communist takeover of the U.S. were genuine possibilities. Schoolchildren practiced "duck and cover" exercises and air raid drills. Civil Defense signs were affixed to buildings designated as fallout shelters. Suburban families dug bomb shelters in their backyards and stocked them with non-perishable foods. Television programs were interrupted by tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, reminding viewers that in the event of an actual emergency they would be instructed where to go.
- History on The Web: Cold War
- History Learning Site: What Was The Cold War?
- History.com: Cold War
- History.com: Truman Orders Loyalty Checks of Federal Employees
- Modern American Poetry: "The Hollywood Blacklist"
- U.S.History.org: 53a: McCarthyism
- UPenn.edu: The Legacy of McCarthyism; Ellen Schrecker
- Tennessee4Me: Teacher's Edition: Domestic Impacts of The Cold War
Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.