by Akim Reinhardt
Most people associate the Cold War with several decades of intense political and economic competition between the United States and Soviet Union. A constant back and forth punctuated by dramatic moments such as the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, the arms race, the space race, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nixon’s visit to China, the Olympic boycotts, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and eventually the collapse of the Soviet system.
But on the home front, the Cold War was often less about politics and economics and more about culture and society. It was a time of Us vs. Them, of Right vs. Wrong. Certain cows were sacred, others were evil, and woe be unto those who milked the wrong teat. The Cold War was about American society demanding conformity, and persecuting those who did not play along.
The Second Red Scare (ca. 1947–57) was the most dramatic example of persecuting non-conformists. People were hauled in front of Congress and, on national television, subjected to reputation-destroying and career-ending interrogations. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts weren’t just about politics; they also disciplined the society and put dissenters on notice: get in line, or at least shut up, or face dire consequences. And the popular culture followed suit.
Americans reacted strongly to the dominant good guys/bad guys narrative. Fears of a possible World War III and accompanying nuclear holocaust were widespread. The culture was soaked through with an Us vs. Them mentality, with a heavy emphasis on choosing up sides. It could be seen in everything from the ubiquitous white hat/black hat Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s to the Rock vs. Disco antagonism of the 1970s. Everyone had to be on the right side. Picking the wrong side marked you as the enemy. And refusing to pick a side at all? That was so strange as to almost be incomprehensible. Read more »