This week’s episode considers the fate of social reform movements during the Cold War Era, giving an overview of long-term cultural trajectories. The Red Scare of the early Cold War years cast reformers who challenged existing institutions as potential subversives. After World War II, US society valued traditional gender roles; the “happy American housewife” was regarded as freer than the Soviet woman who was required to work. Southern politicians attacked black civil rights activists as Communistic agitators. However, reformers eventually found success by learning to work within an anti-Communist “liberal consensus.” Even conservative politicians like Nixon became persuaded that the US had to reduce racial discrimination in order to improve capitalism’s image among non-white nations during the Cold War. The social changes of the 1960s opened up new career & lifestyle choices for women. Federal “Great Society” programs attempted to reduce poverty during the 1960s, but in subsequent decades, advocates of progressive economic reform had little success. A New Left called for liberation of marginalized groups & cultural transformation, in contrast to the Old Left’s focus upon economic class struggle. By the late 1970s, social changes sparked conservative backlash & motivated New Right activists. During the last decade of the Cold War, major political changes came to an end, even as American culture evolved toward greater acceptance of diverse populations.Support the show
From Boomers to Millennials is a Modern US History podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations from the Cold War era to the present. Welcome to Episode 9B, “Reform in a Time of Cold War.” Like Episode 9A a little over a month ago, this episode is a loose adaptation of a college research paper; I was assigned to analyze the Cold War’s impact upon race, class, & gender reform movements during the 20th Century. From that, I’ve created a broad overview episode that briefly recaps previously-discussed events of the early Cold War. It also discusses some of the social changes of the 60s, & it concludes with a brief discussion of the Cold War’s final decades & aftermath. So, to those of you attracted to our podcast because you want to get the story of Modern US History in chronological order, I must warn you that there are some spoilers here (that is, if things that happened in the past & that most listeners will probably already know about can count as “spoilers”).
But first, it’s time for our monthly podcast update. We are proud to announce that our show has officially been downloaded in all 50 states & the District of Columbia. Many thanks to all our new listeners! Our monthly podcast recommendation goes to the Presidencies of the United States Podcast. On this interesting & informative show, host Jerry Landry provides detailed profiles of all of the American presidential administrations, in chronological order. He is currently detailing exciting events of the early 1800s, such as the Louisiana Purchase & the Lewis & Clark expedition. He often invites other history podcasters to take part in his shows, and for a recent episode released on April 19th, 2020, he asked me to narrate a quote from President Thomas Jefferson. Reading the role of a Founding Father was a lot of fun for me. Fans of US political & diplomatic history should check out the Presidencies of the United States podcast at their home page: presidencies.blubrry.com/
There has been no shortage of presidential history on our podcast lately. However, this week we will examine the actions of grassroots activists instead of focusing on the familiar political elites. The arrival of the Cold War dramatically slowed the momentum of social reform movements in the late 1940s and early 1950s. During this period, dissenters & non-conformists were suspect figures, sometimes portrayed as potential Communist accomplices. As the Cold War progressed into the late 1950s & early 1960s, reform movements gradually learned to frame their arguments within the context of an anti-Communist “liberal consensus,” & they thereby achieved greater success. The avalanche of progressive legislation that passed into law under President Lyndon Johnson during the mid-1960s provided major victories for Cold War Era reform movements. However, by the late 1970s, backlash against the social changes that had taken place during the Sixties created a resurgence of political conservatism. During the last 10 years of the Cold War, new political & social reforms were quite limited, even as American culture continued to evolve toward more toleration of new roles for women, racial minorities, & other marginalized groups.
Now, let’s dive into the specific details. After World War II, a shift toward conservatism in the United States seemed underway even before the full development of the Cold War. Republicans regained control of Congress in the 1946 midterm elections by promising to keep social unrest & rising labor activism in check, & by taking advantage of public fatigue with politicians’ social reform efforts, as we discussed way back in Episode 1. These tactics echoed conservative Republicans’ successful 1920 campaign, which promised a return to normalcy in government after years of Progressive Era reform efforts & a 1st World War that had supposedly saved democracy.
However, Cold War tensions grew the rightward shift into something more long-lasting than a temporary move toward caution & stability after New Deal reforms & World War II upheaval. By 1947, former British leader Winston Churchill’s warnings about a rising “Iron Curtain” & President Harry S Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” speech to Congress describing international communist aggression helped to provoke widespread fear of the so-called “Red Menace” among the American public. In the years that followed, the Communist capture of China, the revelation that spies (including Elizabeth Bentley, Alger Hiss, & Julius Rosenberg, profiled in Episode 4) had passed U.S. government secrets to the Soviets, and the USSR’s acquisition of nuclear weapons caused Americans to view the “global communist conspiracy” as a deadly serious threat. This anxiety sparked multiple crusades to remove from public life any “subversives” that might pose danger to the security of the republic.
These efforts included the Truman Administration’s loyalty investigations, the House Un-American Activities Committee (or HUAC) hearings, & Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts. All of these institutional instigators of the “Red Scare” helped create a political & cultural environment in which radicals, reformers, even misfits & non-conformists, were viewed as potential Communist threats. Historian David K. Johnson’s book The Lavender Scare emphasizes the previously overlooked fact that gays & lesbians were among the victims of the culture of fear. The administrators of Truman’s loyalty programs of the late 1940s opted to dismiss federal employees who were homosexual as “security risks” (investigators speculated that gays could easily be seduced or blackmailed). These firings were part of a so-called “Lavender Scare” in the early 1950s, in which political investigations attempted to identify LGBT people & other so-called “sexual deviants” in government jobs. Homophobic stereotypes emerged among red-baiters like McCarthy that depicted US State Department officials in particular as effeminate bureaucrats who lacked the necessary toughness to stand up to the Soviets.
Fear of homosexuality was only one facet of a widespread concern about issues related to gender roles during the early years of the Cold War. Responding to the Homefront labor shortages of World War II, in the early 1940s many women took jobs in industries that previously had almost exclusively male workforces (such as heavy manufacturing). However, American society revived traditional gender roles once men returned from the war. Marriage & birth rates increased substantially, creating a “baby boom” and a new cult of domesticity. Cultural neo-traditionalism thrived throughout the early Cold War era. Dissenters from the nuclear family norm were often seen as suspect or neurotic; US social historian Elaine Tyler May noted that one survey from the Fifties showed that just 9% of Americans thought that single people could be happy.
Why did this ‘gender conservatism’ thrive during the age of the Red Scare? Elaine Tyler May’s book Homeward Bound argues that Americans, traumatized by years of depression & war, wanted security in the postwar years: (quote) “secure jobs, secure homes, & secure marriages in a secure country” (close quote). At the same time military containment provided a bulwark against threatening Communist expansion abroad, she suggests that traditional two-parent family life provided a domestic form of containment in which (quote) “potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed.” The American norm of having a housewife in charge of maintaining the home & taking care of the children contrasted with many Communist countries that required women to work outside of the house. Men’s status was also an important area of debate, as noted in article in the Journal of American History by Professor K.A. Cuordileone that contends Cold War rhetoric reflected a crisis of American masculinity. The struggle against the Soviets allowed anti-Communists to claim that homosexuals, promiscuous women, and quote-unquote “soft” or “weak” men were not just cultural concerns, but actually constituted genuine threats to the security of the nation. Anti-communism thus became (quote) “an ideological buffer against discomforting social trends” (close quote) by turning unsettling domestic developments (such as people subverting traditional gender roles) into possible avenues of enemy subversion.
By the early 1950s, Cold War conservatism & paranoia frustrated the efforts of many major American reform movements. Liberals hoping to expand upon the New Deal’s attempts at reducing economic inequality struggled in a political environment in which social welfare programs & class-based appeals were sometimes dismissed as socialistic. Fear of social disorder during the Red Scare slowed efforts to fight for the civil rights of African-Americans. New federal laws (especially the Taft-Hartley Act, discussed during Episode 2) put the labor movement on the defensive. Elaine Tyler May reports that over the course of the Fifties, the percentage of women in the workplace gradually increased, yet American culture still glorified the domestic ideal, & American businesses provided few opportunities for female promotion or advancement.
We mentioned last time (in Episode 9) that by the mid-1950s, the anti-Communist hysteria began to subside. After the Korean War, it appeared that foreign Communism was contained, at least for the time being. In domestic politics, most Americans came to realize that Joe McCarthy had been a dishonest political opportunist; this revelation taught them that some anti-Communist actions might be excessive & unnecessary. The 1958 midterm elections resulted in substantial Democratic majorities in Congress, & this outcome, when combined with the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House 2 years later, placed pro-reform liberal Democrats in their strongest position in over a decade. Whether a change in partisan control of the government would provide opportunities for social reformers remained uncertain, however, because American politics had entered a period of relative bipartisan consensus.
The British journalist Godfrey Hodgson coined the term “liberal consensus” to describe the political climate in the United States during this period. The left-liberal element of the liberal consensus involved fiscal policy; both parties agreed upon the Keynesian economic concept of using government spending to help support & stabilize the capitalist marketplace. Mainstream members of both parties also acknowledged that the basic New Deal social safety net (programs like Social Security, the minimum wage, etc.) should remain intact, & even be moderately expanded at times. The liberal consensus also supported public investments to construct infrastructure & do scientific research. However, much of the so-called “liberal consensus” was actually somewhat centrist or even conservative. Both parties advocated a hard-line foreign policy to contain Communist expansion anywhere in the world. Politicians agreed that American society was in good shape, that capitalism was working, & that the nation’s institutions needed only minor reforms. Standing up to the Soviets & their Communist allies was the US federal government’s most important challenge, & everything else was secondary.
Despite the fact that the consensus advocated social spending to address problems like unemployment, it also placed clear limits on what American government should do. The post-World War II era had seen a major expansion of the middle class. The American labor movement was strong, but many unions had reached agreements with management not to strike in exchange for higher wages & good benefits (see Episode 5). The broad-based nature of American prosperity caused many people to buy into the idea that capitalism was working & new government interventions were not needed. Federally-funded universal health care was dismissed as “socialized medicine.” Reformers on the political Left in the United States had to use different tactics than their social-democratic counterparts in Europe, because class-based labor militancy & attacks upon corporations could be portrayed as socialistic agitation by anti-Communist red-baiters. During the 1950s & 60s, American tax rates were higher than they are today, but the nationalization of industries & redistributory taxation levels that occurred (for instance) under Labour governments in the United Kingdom were out of the question in the United States. Instead, liberal reformers found success by focusing upon 2 of the USA’s most distinct & serious problems. They advocated (1) eliminating extreme poverty & (2) helping to reduce discrimination against racial minorities.
To some extent, liberals shifted their focus from the class relations that had preoccupied them in the 1930s to the topic of racial inequality by the 1950s. Of course, race & class often intersected to present complicated problems. Scholar Ira Katznelson’s book When Affirmative Action Was White makes the provocative argument that the economic relief policies created during the New Deal often ignored racial injustice, & sometimes they actually perpetuated it, because these programs were administered in a discriminatory manner. This pattern continued in the 1940s, when the GI Bill promised all World War II veterans numerous benefits, but racist local administrators often placed black veterans exclusively in menial jobs. Katznelson contends that banks refused African-Americans entry into the booming suburbs by denying them home loans (also discussed in Episode 3A). He writes that the GI Bill brought many white veterans into the middle class, but its design ensured that black people would remain toward the bottom of the American economic ladder. As the federal government continued to engage in racially unfair policies, white liberals increasingly fought to eliminate racial discrimination in the postwar period. This was an important change; African-American activists had been speaking out for decades to little avail, since the US power structure had previously been indifferent (and often hostile) to the cause of racial equality.
Activists such as 1st Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had been early advocates for rights of African-Americans, but the institutional Democratic Party took very little specific action to help blacks until after World War II. As mentioned in Episode 8, during the 1940s the attacks & atrocities committed by the Nazis in the name of a racist ideology helped bring international attention to problems of discrimination. In the postwar USA, Democratic President Harry S Truman desegregated the U.S. military & openly campaigned for the black vote. The flagship organization for anti-Communist liberals, the Americans for Democratic Action (or ADA), helped to push through a civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform of 1948. However, at the height of the Red Scare during the early 1950s, the ADA became cautious & temporarily backed away from the civil rights issue. McCarthyism also ensured that some important black intellectuals on the Left, such as W.E.B. DuBois, would emerge as too tainted by past Communist ties to lead a public civil rights movement. Historian Thomas Borstelmann’s book The Cold War & the Color Line establishes that the Cold War eventually played a complicated, sometimes contradictory role in the civil rights struggle. Many politicians worried that segregation & discrimination hurt the image of the United States around the world, thus aiding Soviet propagandists & damaging American attempts to win international support for their ideological struggle against Communism. However, the Cold War also provided conservative anti-Communists with an excuse for opposing civil rights, because domestic reformers & radicals could be labeled as unwitting (or witting) allies of Moscow for questioning the established institutions & practices of the capitalist USA.
Supreme Court decisions in the Fifties chipped away at the legal basis for segregation, as discussed in Episode 8, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower initially made few efforts to force Southerners to comply with these rulings. In response, African-Americans in the segregated South turned to grassroots actions in order to pressure the U.S. government to enforce its own laws. By the late 50s, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. rhetorically situated the civil rights movement within the American traditions of democracy & Christianity, & they thereby avoiding being labeled “subversive” or “Communistic” like other social reformers had been previously during the Cold War era. Meanwhile, angry Southern white mobs who blocked school entrances to prevent racial integration often only succeeded in making African-Americans’ civil rights struggle seem more sympathetic to many Northerners.
Racial issues were also important to US foreign policy. Borstelmann notes that decolonization spread to sub-Saharan Africa during the late 1950s & early 1960s, increasing pressure upon Americans to support racial equality in order to avoid losing new African nations to the Communists. By this time, advocates of civil rights had learned to make the Cold War work in their favor. Anti-Communist stalwarts such as Richard Nixon (no one’s idea of a bleeding-heart social justice advocate) were convinced that greater support for African-American civil rights was in the country’s strategic interest. Borstelmann reports that as vice-president, Nixon traveled to Africa in 1957 to gain the United States some goodwill from newly independent majority-black nations.
The quest for racial equality, probably more than any other issue, became the most hotly-debated topic in US politics during the early-to-mid 1960s. It inspired a wide range of political actions, from student activism on college campuses to legislation in the US Congress. The civil rights movement used non-violent tactics such as sit-ins to resist racist laws. Members of this movement were sometimes subjected to violent attacks by those attempting to maintain the racial status quo. Broadcast media attention brought the ugly side of Jim Crow, such as harsh police tactics against peaceful protesters, to national & even international attention. More Americans came to be convinced that something needed to be done on the civil rights issue. During the mid-1960s, a bipartisan coalition in Congress passed through a landmark Civil Rights Act & a Voting Rights Act, with only segregationist Southern Democrats & a few very conservative Republicans opposed. As president, liberal Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson (having won re-election in a landslide during 1964) hoped to further reduce racial tensions through his Great Society anti-poverty programs & race-conscious policies like Affirmative Action. Because many blacks were poor, the crusade for racial equality was also a de facto struggle against extreme poverty & for more egalitarian class relations in the United States, although liberals of the era carefully avoided speaking in “class conflict” terms. Instead, they proposed that government programs could eliminate poverty without fundamentally changing the structure of the American capitalist economy.
By the 1960s, gender relations were changing as well. Feminist writer Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique articulated many women’s discontentment with the suburban domestic ideal, & became a foundational document for a new second-wave feminist movement. In the 60s & 70s, marriage & birth rates began to decline from their peak during the years immediately after World War II. This occurred in part due to greater medical access to contraception & also due to the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 60s & 70s that made sexual relationships outside of marriage more culturally acceptable. At the same time women were being offered more personal choices, they were also gaining more legal protections. Some of the civil rights laws that Congress passed in the mid-1960s to foster greater racial equality also extended women some protection against discrimination. By the end of the 60s, a vocal feminist movement emerged out of the New Left; it sought to make women conscious of gender-based oppression & encouraged them to fight for more rights. As a result, “women’s liberation” became a popular concept that figured into major political & cultural debates during the 1970s. The integration of women into the American workplace was more gradual, & arguably less reliant on government legislation, than the fight against racial segregation. Nevertheless, despite the lingering presence of sexism & skepticism about their abilities, women made steady gains in a wide variety of industries & professions throughout the second half of the Cold War Era. Whereas during the early Cold War years quote-unquote “happy American housewives” were championed by anti-Communists as having superior lives to those of female Soviet workers, by the late Cold War the modern Western independent career woman provided a different contrast with women in the USSR, whose decisions & freedoms were more limited by the ruling Party & the centralized power of the State.
During the mid-to-late 60s, the Vietnam War also fueled the growing New Left by provoking a rising antiwar movement that captivated many of the nation’s youth. Activists now challenged the foreign policy of the liberal consensus, alleging that the United States had repeatedly violated human rights & suppressed democratic movements around the world during the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, some government officials suspected these protesters were secret agents of Soviet subversion. However, governmental civil liberties violations during the Vietnam War were far less extensive than those that occurred in World War I & World War II. Intelligence agencies secretly & illegally spied on student activists, but protesters generally were not jailed simply based on their opinions or identities, as First World War protesters such as socialist politician Eugene Debs had been back in the 1910s. Overall, the USA was much more tolerant of domestic criticism of its own government than its Soviet antagonists were This relative restraint helped the U.S. government to protect its democratic image in the Cold War battle for global hearts & minds. Americans could hardly criticize the USSR for its brutal suppression of political dissidents if they engaged in the same practices.
While the Old Left tended to promote community & working-class solidarity, the reform movements of the New Left emphasized identity politics & individual liberation, postures that could not plausibly be associated with Soviet ideology. During the 60s & 70s, racial minority rights, women’s rights, & gay rights campaigns picked up momentum. These movements provoked a backlash from political conservatives, but few bought into the idea that most hippies were literal Communists. Unlike the class-focused Marxist ideological formulation of the Old Left, the New Left emphasized individual freedom & liberation; many conservatives accused the counterculture of weakening US morality & American families, but it was difficult to paint as a dogmatic Stalinist-type movement. From civil rights to the counterculture, significant social reform & cultural change occurred in the United States during the 1960s & 70s, despite the presence of Cold War tensions. In some ways the existence of the Cold War helped liberation movements, because the USA was attempting to prove that its liberal-democratic capitalist system provided maximum individual freedoms for all citizens, in contrast to the authoritarian Communist model. This encouraged American institutions to become more respectful of rights of various previously marginalized groups.
Despite the social changes that occurred, inequalities & injustices within American life persisted in the late 20th Century. Women freed themselves from so-called “domestic containment,” but they continued to face unequal pay & glass ceilings in the workplace. Gays & lesbians gained greater acceptance, but they still could not yet serve openly in the military or legally marry their partners. African-Americans gained political rights, but poverty, crime, & police abuse continued to define many struggling black neighborhoods. According to historian Michael K. Honey, civil rights icon Martin Luther King once argued that gaining political rights would be far easier than challenging the economically disadvantaged status of black people in the United States.
Indeed, economic change may be the one area in which the Cold War consistently discouraged reform efforts. By the 1970s, anti-Communists, neoconservatives, libertarians, & others on the political Right were alleging that a dysfunctional culture of dependence on government welfare was emerging in some low-income areas. After Vietnam & Watergate had drained national resources & self-confidence, a “New Right” movement in favor of less federal spending gained popularity. Groups on the political Right had developed their own activism & reform movements for causes such as cutting taxes, restricting abortion, opposing gun control, & defending traditional religions during this time. However, given their conservative worldviews, these quote-unquote “reformers” were more likely to describe their causes as seeking a return to the past. Unlike activists on the political Left, they claimed they were not interested in changing modern society (other than changing back what they alleged had gone wrong). With the help of these New Right activists, conservatives won more power within the US government during the 1980s & 90s, & they pushed through tax cuts & deregulation that weakened the American social safety net. The labor movement also stagnated, losing its manufacturing-worker base to globalization while largely failing to successfully unionize new service-sector industries. Republican President Ronald Reagan advocated “small government” & “free enterprise” because of his ideological convictions as a pro-capitalist Cold Warrior. When he entered office, he viewed the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” & he therefore shunned the economic central planning & extensive welfare state that he associated with Communism (although he paradoxically expanded the size of military & national security sectors of the federal government, which he viewed as necessary to defeat the Communists).
So, by the late 1970s, concerns over rising rates of crime, divorce, & drug use had also created a rising conservative backlash against cultural permissiveness that stalled further social reforms in the decades that followed. Controversial issues like abortion, affirmative action, & immigration bogged down in intractable culture wars between social conservatives & social liberals that were waged within courtrooms, in legislatures, & over the broadcast media airwaves. When the Soviet Union & its Communist satellite states collapsed during the late 1980s, the end of the Cold War brought about fewer immediate changes to US domestic politics than many expected. The 1990s did not provide much evidence that the Cold War had been holding back a potential wave of economic or social reform. The fall of the USSR freed Americans from fear of a nuclear superpower foe, but the country’s politics did not dramatically change. Indeed, absent the pressure of a global superpower rival, in many ways the USA fell into a triumphalist complacency. Partisan bickering, cultural controversies, & centrist policies defined the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton. Social change continued to occur, albeit slowly (one can, for example, point to more accepting attitudes about gay rights as the decade progressed), but the Cold War’s end transformed political possibilities in the United States far less than advocates of social reform might have hoped.
Nevertheless, 21st Century events indicate that the end of the Cold War may have changed some longstanding trends in American politics after all. Liberal social movements gained new ground in some areas, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage. In recent years, a health care crisis caused a growing percentage of the nation’s public to support government-funded universal coverage. In 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama proposed a universal health care plan & other costly government initiatives. In response, Republican candidate John McCain attempted to label portions of Obama’s agenda as quote-unquote “socialism,” despite the fact that Obama’s plan involved people buying insurance from private companies with a federal subsidy, rather than a “Medicare for All” government-run type model. McCain’s charge of socialism (which was among the most damaging allegations one could make in American politics during the Cold War) had little effect on the 2008 election & Obama won the White House. Using the word “socialist” as a derogatory epithet sounded anachronistic to many younger voters who did not grow up associating the political concept of socialism with a totalitarian foe that constituted an existential threat to the American way of life. In fact, during the 2010s many Millennials actually embraced the label of “socialism” to indicate support for the social-democratic proposals of left-wing political figures like Bernie Sanders & Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Meanwhile, the MeToo movement & the Black Lives Matter campaign have revived conversations about racial & gender equality.
In conclusion, the Cold War had a complicated relationship with American reform movements. Advocates of social change became more successful after the cultural hysteria of the Red Scare died down. They learned to adjust their strategies & rhetoric to avoid the taint of Marxism or Communism. However, those advocating economic change seemed mostly exempt from the pattern of reformers slowly gaining ground during the Cold War. The post-Cold War years have featured rising income inequality & a shrinking middle class, yet the United States still has one of the weakest social safety nets in the industrialized world. That pattern continues to the present, as evidenced by the US government’s more meager response to the current pandemic-related economic crisis than that adopted by other developed nations such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, & Canada (among others). The future of American social & economic reform movements is uncertain, but current trends suggest that the next decade could make the Cold War era look stable by comparison.
In our next full-length episode, we will examine everyday life during the 1950s. Until then, follow our show on Twitter & Instagram, support us on Patreon with a donation, or help us grow by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. Send us an e-mail if you have thoughts about our podcast, including suggestions for supplemental episode topics, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for continuing to spread the word about us, & as always, thank you for listening.