The Cold War and American Thought

The ability of many writers and essayists to promptly grasp the major events of our lives, the lives of contemporary Americans, is hopelessly flawed. The Holocaust is a good example of this. The number of books on the subject began to grow only in the mid 1980s, more than thirty-five years after the event. The question of how it could have happened, however, was a theme of major thinkers in the early 1950s, including Hannah Arendt in On Authority and Erich Fromm in Fear of Freedom.

The first reaction to the Holocaust was self-protection. "How do we avoid this happening again?" While the later reaction was to try and grasp the meaning of the event. I am struck, three years after the end of the Cold War, by a similar absence of dialogue and thought on the subject of this event, which affected everyone in the United States who lived through it. With sincere modesty and full awareness of the foolishness of this endeavor, I would like to consider the impact of the Cold War on American thought as a first step toward reconstructing our lives.

Exactly what was the Cold War? Not an obvious question. The following summarizes my view of the military, economic, international, social, historic, and religious aspects of the war.


The United States and USSR built two enormous opposing military forces, and were joined in this endeavor by Britain, France, and China. These forces were unique in military history because of their clear focus and slow development (slow and steady over a forty year period) directed at a known enemy. Both nations reached a stalemate early on in the use of nuclear weapons with an appropriate American acronym to describe the situation: MAD, mutually assured destruction.

MAD was a unique military conception that had two overt consequences: It required that warfare be carried on by proxy on a small scale, as was the case throughout the world for forty years. It also kept those wars from escalating.

In the middle of the Cold War, the United States changed its strategy and went from a large draft army with a larger reserve force to a more modest volunteer army with a small reserve force. The consequence of this was a loss of Pentagon interest in the reserves and their education, which had been a sustaining element of public education since the Civil War (from the Land Grant College Act of 1873 to the National Defense Education Act of 1953). U.S. education declined from that point on.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. scientists and engineers were occupied full time on Cold War efforts. As a possible consequence, the United States lost its technical dominance in dozens of fields and manufacturing categories. The technical fields where it has retained dominance are nearly all associated with military functions.


The United States grew at its most rapid historic rates for the first twenty years of the Cold War, then declined for the last twenty years. From 1970 to 1990, the U.S. suffered a decline in real personal income for most of its citizens while also experiencing a period of individual deflation. The country went from being the major net exporter of goods and capital for all of the previous century to a net importer of goods and capital on a large scale.

Following the baby boom of the Second World War, U.S. population growth dropped to the lowest in its history during the last twenty years of the Cold War. The lowest previous rate of births was 19 per 1,000 people at the bottom of the Great Depression in1935; by the 1980s, births were averaging under 16 per 1,000, a negative-population-growth rate.

Defense outlays remained nearly constant throughout the Cold War in real dollars and consequently declined as a percent of government expenditures from over 60 percent at the outset to 25 percent in the final decade, and from over 10 percent of GNP to 6 percent by the end. As costly wars go, it was the most costly, equal to three times one year's GNP in constant dollars compared to World War II, which was under two times one year's GNP; the Civil War, which equaled one year; and the Vietnam and Korean wars, which were each equal to two months' GNP.

Those countries that played minimal roles in the military aspects of the Cold War became the richest; in this order, Japan, Switzerland, Scandanvia, and the Netherlands all became richer than the United States.


For forty years, the United Nations was impotent because of the Cold War. Nearly every developing nation was directly involved in the battleground of the U.S.-USSR conflict.

The creation of NATO and SEATO marked the strongest, largest, and most effective and enduring international alliance in world history. The separation of China from the USSR sphere of influence was the only significant international development during a period of forty years. It had negligable conseqences. Germany returned to its pre-World War II dominance of Europe, and Japan to its pre-war role in Asia (excluding China). This time both nations achieved their status with economic rather than military power.


For the first fifteen years of the forty-year Cold War, Americans were severely distraught by the belief that total annihilation was possible at every moment. Air-raid drills in schools, radio Conalrad tests, and bomb-shelter programs were accepted as norms.

The initial intellectual reaction was the adoption of French nihilism. Sartre and Camus were the favorite authors in college in the 1950s, and the Beat poets were in vogue from '56 to '63.

Beginning in 1964, the baby-boom generation reacted to the threat of annhilation by turning to escapism. Tens of millions of young Americans spent nearly fifteen years using marijuana and other psychedelic drugs and advocating a philosophy of here-and-now hedonism. The same group also adopted a pseudo-religious doctrine of environmentalism that was filled with predictions of millennial catastrophe similar to the threat of nuclear annihilation.

During the last fifteen years of the Cold War, older Americans and others who reacted against the baby boomers elevated fundamentalist and evangelical Christian escapism to a central place in the national political and social dialogue. The politics of the nation became frozen in policy deadlock, with no movement at all.


Several long-term social and political movements reemerged during the Cold War. First came the rebirth of the 19th-century abolitionist movement which was a social movement and then came the Democrat replication of the Republican political movement which originally led to the Civil War. These again converged in the late 1950s to became the Civil Rights movement.

Dissident activity first gathered steam in the mid-1950s in Chicago and Washington, D.C., propelled by a favorable Supreme Court educational decision and a very large migration of Southern black farmers to northern cities. This migration continued until the early 1970s, with a movement of over six million people. The migration of black sharecroppers to northern cities was a major contributing factor in the mass migration of whites to the suburbs during this same period.

The civil rights movement rapidly moved to the South in the late 1950s and finally became a mass movement and a national issue in the mid 1960s. By the early 1980s, significant countervailing forces stopped the movement and sent over a million African Americans to prison, including almost an entire entreprenurial class (drug dealers).

The second reemergent political issue was the women's rights movement, whose earlier incarnation were the suffragettes. Started as a cohesive equal-pay-in-the-workplace movement in the late 1960s as women were drawn rapidly into the work force; by the seventies it came to include a lesbian-rights branch as well as a branch concerned with censorship and expanded penalties for sex crimes

For nearly two decades, from 1967 to 1987, the civil rights and the women's movement cooperated on many issues. By the end of the Cold War, the cooperation ended as women gained influence at the expense of African Americans. The women's movement began to disintegrate into its three component parts after the Cold War ended. (1. Employement activists, 2. Puritans against pornography and sex in the work place, 3. Sexual liberationists).

Two other movements reemerged during the Cold War but had very little signifance. One was the back-to-land movement, which had earlier incarnations in the time of Thoreau (the Oneida commune was the best known of these,) the House of David and Harmony communes.

The other movement was a reincarnation of the prohibition movement. It made a small dent in alcohol consumption in the last decade of the Cold War and escalated penalties for drunk drivers. It was a powerful force against other drugs, particularly cocaine, because the retail distribution was in the hands of African Americans, while the wholesale distribution was controlled by Latinos. By the end of the war, the costs of prohibition enforcement were beginning to have dire state governmental budget consequences and relaxation began.


Early in the Cold War, the American position was staked out in religious terms: God-fearing democratic capitalists versus atheistic totalitarian communists. The position was first fortified by changing the Pledge of Allegiance to include the words "One nation under God". Thenceforth a grand inquisition was undertaken to root out all sympathy for the alien religion. The inquisition was called the "McCarthy hearings", but in fact it started before Senator McCarthy and lasted nearly a decade after he left the scene. As late as 1963, the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities was still holding star-chamber inquisitions.

In response to the inquisition, it now appears, in retrospect, that the central core of American religion garnered its forces and formed a powerful liberal coalition. It was the National Council of Churches, a very influential and powerful political force (headquartered on Riverside Drive in Manhattan) that became active in national politics from 1956 to 1970. The Council appeared to speak with one voice for all of American religions, when it was in fact the voice of Methodism, acting as hegemonic Protestantism.

In the last decade of the war, President Reagan was able to refer to the USSR as the "evil empire," with allusions to the beliefs of Christian fundamentals. This occured because of the rapid growth and coalition of evangelicals, Southern Baptists, and other fundamentalists who gained political power as they coalesced around prominent TV preachers.

Finally, beginning in the late 1970s and running through the entire 1980s, we had a national hysteria about satanic ritual child abuse. Nearly a hundred innocent blue-collar adults were put in jail.


The Cold War had a major substantive and long term effect on the United States. The military circumstances were for reaching, the political and social were deep and pervasive. Through out the forty year war social change was driven by the cold war and suppressed in response to the cold war. The trauma was so great that this is one of the first analysis of it, even in cursory form.


Michael Phillips,1993 (revised 2000)


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