History 271


Spring 2016


The United States in the 1950s, Part I – Anxiety and Anticommunism




As World War II ended, many Americans felt anxious about the future. Three sources of this anxiety were especially prevalent:


1) Anxiety about the economy


Many of the unemployed had taken jobs in war industries or as soldiers. Once the war was over, they feared they would lose these jobs. Unemployment would again skyrocket and the depression would return.


As it happened, this did not occur. Americans had been doing without numerous consumer goods throughout the war – cars, refrigerators, furniture, and so on – because factories were producing war materials, not consumer goods.


The DEMAND for these products was high once the war ended, and consumers had saved up money during the war years (since there was very little to buy – even basic goods had been rationed or been sent abroad to supply the soldiers.) But it would take time to reconvert the factories from producing war materials to producing consumer goods. Therefore the SUPPLY was low. High demand for goods, coupled with low supply of said goods will drive up the prices of these goods.


The source of anxiety, then, was not unemployment, but rather inflation (higher prices). Many Americans were anxious that the cost of living would go up faster than their wages and that they would not be able to pay their bills or afford the consumer goods they needed.


2) Anxiety about the Soviet Union and its expansion into Eastern Europe


The U.S. Government, during World War II, had painted the Soviet Union and particularly it leader, Josef Stalin, in a very positive light. President Roosevelt did this to maintain Stalin’s trust and to insure the Soviets remained U.S. allies against the Germans. Once the Germans were defeated and the common enemy that had brought the U.S. and the Soviets together was gone, relations between the U.S. and the Soviets broke down quickly.


In large part this was due to events in Eastern Europe where the occupying Soviet army acted with brutality in Eastern Germany (raping over 1 million German women in the first few months after the war ended, for example). Stalin also consolidated Soviet power in other nations, such as Poland, where Soviet presence was not welcomed. The Soviet actions – from Stalin’s perspective, they were necessary defensive measures to protect his nation from another, future German invasion – were seen as aggressive by the British and the Americans (not to mention the Eastern Europeans themselves.)


By 1946, one year after the end of the war, many Americans were anxious that the Soviet Union might pose a threat to the U.S. It was said that a state of “cold war” existed between the two nations.


Winston Churchill, the wartime British Prime Minister, declared during a visit to the U.S. that an “iron curtain” was now dividing Europe – democratic freedom in the west and communist tyranny in the east. This kind of rhetoric heightened the anxiety in the U.S. and many feared that the “cold war” might turn into a fighting war if the Soviets tried to expand their influence any further – into France or Italy in western Europe, for example.


3) Anxiety about the unleashing of nuclear weapons and the prospect of atomic warfare


The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 had not initially been a source of anxiety for the American people. Most Americans were simply relieved that the war was over. In time, however, some came to fear that it would only be a matter of time before other nations (and, in particular, the Soviet Union) were able to produce their own atomic bombs. This would seriously threaten American national security.


Still, government officials insured the American public that it would be “several years” before any other nation “unlocked” the secret of the atomic bomb.


In 1949, however, the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb. Not only was the detonation itself an obvious source of anxiety for the American public, it soon came to light that the Soviet bomb was an exact replica of the U.S. bomb. This suggested – correctly as it happened – that Americans working as Soviet spies had given classified information on the construction of the bomb to Soviet officials.


This provoked another source of anxiety – Were there Soviet spies in the U.S. government and, if there were, how did one find them and remove them?


The Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb also precipitated an arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. In reaction to the Soviets’ atomic bomb, the U.S. developed a stronger, hydrogen bomb; the Soviets in turn developed their own hydrogen bomb. In time, both sides had more than enough fire power to completely destroy the other nation. This balance was referred to as “Mutual Assured Destruction” or, appropriately enough, “MAD.”


By 1957, when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit (Sputnik), many Americans feared the U.S. was losing the arms race, and, by extension, the cold war. These fears were largely unfounded, but troubling nonetheless – and the cold war with the Soviets continued to be a major source of anxiety.


If it weren’t for the Soviet Union (and communism), it was said, there would not be such pervasive anxiety in the United States.


Unlike in past international crises, however, simply declaring “war” on the Soviet Union was not an option. Such a war would be unwinnable. The anti-Soviet animus had to go somewhere, so instead it got turned inward. Americans often projected their dislike for communism and the Soviets onto internal enemies – supposed (and real) Communists who lived in the United States.


Therefore, the anxiety that came about due to the Cold War against the Soviet Union led to widespread anticommunism in the United States.





Most Americans did not have an especially firm grasp on what “communism” actually was. They did know, however, that whatever it was, they didn’t like it.


Popular culture often portrayed “communists” as violent, savage gangsters or criminals. (In fact, most American Communists tended to be middle-class intellectuals, union officials, or white-collar workers who spent more time in boring meetings than out terrorizing the locals.)


Politicians jumped on the anticommunist bandwagon to win votes. An election in the early 1950s, some politicians believed, could turn on which candidate appeared to be tougher on “communism.” Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy achieved prominence by gaining reputations as hard-line opponents of communism.


Federal bureaucrats, like FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, also came to realize they could enhance their power and increase their agencies’ budgets if they were seen as playing a significant role in fighting communism.


In the late 1940s and 1950s, it came to light that several Americans had been secretly supplying the Soviets with classified government documents, or, in the case of Julius Rosenberg, technological data that ended up helping the Soviets construct and atomic bomb. That these men had been “secret” communists, and that some – like Alger Hiss – looked perfectly “normal” and would never have been suspected of being communists, fueled the so-called red scare. If a neat, trim, bureaucrat in a tweed suit (like Hiss) could be a communist spy, ANYONE could be!


This turn of events had a chilling effect on American culture and American politics. ANYONE who stood out, who seemed to disagree with those in power, or who expressed reservations about taking a “loyalty oath” risked being seen as a communist or a “communist sympathizer.”


As a result, no one wanted to “stand out” and so American society became far more conformist. (Ironically, the conformity of Soviet society had been one of the arguments against communism, but the times did not lend themselves to an appreciation of irony.)


In all walks of life, Americans expressed a patriotism grounded in anticommunism. If, for example, the Soviets did not value family life and sent their children to day care centers while both parents worked for the state, America should put the “nuclear family” at the center of its culture to demonstrate the stark contrast with the communists.


As a result, Americans married younger, had more children, and, outwardly at least, put great value on the quality of family life. Popular culture again played a role in disseminating the image of the “ideal” happy family on tv shows such as “I Love Lucy” and “Father Knows Best.”


Male and female gender roles also became more strictly defined. Women were supposed to stay at home to raise the kids and men went to work. Women who did work were expected to take “female” jobs – secretaries, teachers, receptionists. Even female movies stars came to look more unmistakably “feminine” – curves were back and the “androgynous” look was out.


(In fact, more married women were working in the 1950s, but the reality never got in the way of the image.)


To reassure those who still worried that the “bad” communists might be hard to detect, Hollywood produced a spate of movies in which it was very easy to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”


(The more successful films, particularly those by director Alfred Hitchcock, broke from this trend, however, and often developed plot lines in which the evil character was not revealed until the end of the film. Psycho, for example.)


It was also well-known that communists were atheists. Accordingly, Americans came to feel they should go out of their way to show their own religious faith. During the 1950s, church attendance went up, and the government made several symbolic nods to religion (“under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we Trust” added to the currency). Ministers like Billy Graham became well-known and highly regarded public figures.


Therefore, the celebration of family life, the insistence on rigid gender roles, and the focus on religious faith all distinguish us from the communists – “We aren’t like THEM.”


BUT, this approach was largely negative.


It was believed that insisting the U.S. was NOT like the Soviet Union was not enough to convince those nations still uncommitted to one side or the other in the Cold War that they should back the U.S. and not the USSR.


The US had to have something POSITIVE to offer when making the case that its system was better.


This “something” became American AFFLUENCE.  The US was a far wealthier nation than the USSR, and so this could be the best argument for why the system of liberal democracy and capitalism worked better than communism. American AFFLUENCE (or wealth) was positive proof that its system was better.


The negative approach of ANTICOMMUNISM therefore created the need for a more positive portrayal of the nation which centered on its AFFLUENCE. In this sense, the emphasis on Anticommunism during the late 1940s and early 1950s led to the emphasis on AFFLUENCE that came to dominate the mid-1950s.