The Cold War was a challenging time in US History. It was the closest the world has ever been to nuclear annihilation, as well as a time of great growth in technology and societal norms. The world was forever changed because of the foreign policy put in place by both nations. Each of them trying to expand their reach to the ends of the world. The threat of nuclear war shaped the conduct of American foreign policy and American culture from World War II and beyond by experiencing the Red Scare, civil rights issues, and adopting a new policy of containing communism.
Immediately after the United States ended World War II with dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, the bomb became a symbol for peace and was idolized in the daily life of Americans. The idolization of bomb led to music being created about it, hairstyles, and a sense of great patriotism. Unfortunately, the East and West alliance started to deteriorate almost immediately after World War II. The Soviets started filling in the empty voids of what was once sovereign nations, expanding their reach deep into Europe, as well as parts of Asia. The American populace, as well as some people in the government, believed that it didn’t matter if the relations reached a tipping point because we were the ones with the bomb. The testing of atomic bombs on the Bikini islands were broadcast on the radio for everyone to hear. They were able to hear that there were live animals around the blast site, so that research could be done see what would happen to the average person. It was also broadcasted on the radio to disprove theories such that the “atomic blast underwater would vaporize all the oceans”. The atomic bomb was so idolized that a new bathing suit style called the ‘bikini’ was named after the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests. The military rations for garments that were in place from World War II, supposedly set the stage for Louis Réard, the bikini designer. Apparently Réard “…claimed his version was sure to be as explosive as the U.S. military tests”. However, the Americans were shocked to learn that the Soviets had tested their own bomb. This led to the realization that the bomb is no longer idolized, that we too now live in the threat of nuclear annihilation, as well as the revelation that the Soviets now just can not be dealt with by dropping a bomb.
When the Soviets developed the bomb in 1949, it shattered our original foreign policy goals and made us rethink our whole strategy. No longer did the United States have the Atomic Monopoly. This meant we could no longer stop the spread of communism whenever we saw fit through atomic diplomacy or actual atomic war. When 1950 rolled around and the Soviet backed North Koreans attacked the US backed South Koreans, the US spearheaded a United Nations invasion. The Soviets could of vetoed this resolution because they yield veto power in the UN. However, the Soviets were boycotting the UN because the US refused to recognize the new communist Chinese government that took over in 1949. Truman was under a lot of heat for this from the more ‘hawkish’ politicians in Washington, referring to it as the ‘loss of China’. Truman was determined not to make that mistake again, and since the US could not just bomb their way out of it, they attacked the korean peninsula conventionally. It at first was an easy success but after a chinese attack to push the forces away from their border, it grew into a stalemate. Truman had briefly considered using nuclear weapons and said in a speech “If the UN yields to the forces of aggression, no nation will be safe or secure. If aggression is successful in Korea, we can expect it to spread throughout Asia, and Europe, and to this hemisphere” . Truman ended up deciding against using nuclear weapons in Korea and further expanding the war into China. Even though the war ended in a stalemate, I believe that was good thing. I believe this because since the US was the only nation to use an atomic bomb in warfare, at the time, we did not know about the pandoras box we just opened. If Truman had used nuclear bombs in Korea, it could of sent a message to the world that it is okay to use nuclear weapons in regional/conventional. If that would of happened, we would have a different future, if a future at all.
While foreign policy was radically changed following World War II, so was the domestic culture of America. The so called ‘Red Scare’ started to spread like wildfire through the US. The US started prosecuting suspected spies such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Julius Rosenberg’s name was given by David Greenglass because he was trying to reduce his sentence, given a looming conviction of being a soviet spy. However, David’s sister, Ethel, was caught in the crossfire. Both Julius and Ethel were tried and sentenced to death. The evidence against Ethel was slim to none but the evidence against Julius was there. When they both were sent to the electric chair, they had to electrocute Ethel twice because it did not work the first time. A sad ending for someone who turned out to be innocent. The Red Scare took a turn when Joseph McCarthy hit the scene in early 1950. He became the public face against communism and his rhetoric led to more public anxiety about communism. His rhetoric also led to policy in the form of the Internal Security Act which, among other things, allowed the communists to be deported, authorizes internment camps, and “grants increased authority to investigate persons subject to disloyalty”. A lot of things implemented to impede communism, including things in the Internal Security Act, were a gross encroachment on civil rights but at the time, the people were more afraid of the tentacles of communism then their own government rescinding rights. Despite this, their were some gains in civil rights. The landmark civil rights case, Brown V. Board of Education, granted people of color the right to be integrated into the school system, and deemed the term ‘separate but equal’ as unconstitutional. While this case was a positive for society as whole, some could argue that the reason was more far reaching than the domestic implications. A state department official once said “(Segregation) Remains a source on constant embarrassment to this Government in the day-to-day conduct of its foreign relations; and it jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world” . This statement, begs the question, was Brown V. Board a Cold War case more than a civil rights case? If you consider this case as a cold war case, it makes sense. At this time, 1954, both the US and the Soviet Union had tested a hydrogen bomb. The tensions were only escalating and the US was trying to stop the spread of communism all over the world. Well when there are two competing ideologies, it looks bad on the US that a good chunk of our citizens are treated as second class. Thus, this landmark civil rights case could boost the America’s image abroad and show democracy at works.
All things considered, the cold war and living in constant fear of nuclear annihilation influenced the United States foreign policy and domestic culture immensely. The US’s foreign policy dramatically changed when the government realized they did not have the atomic monopoly anymore and could not diplomatically bully the Soviet Union into containment. This led the US spearheading a UN invasion of Korea where nuclear bombs were considered. Truman backed down, which I believe is a positive because that could of set the wrong precedent for future wars. On the homefront, the societal norms had changed. What came with the Red Scare and McCarthyism, was an encroachment on civil rights. The McCarthyism era brought on policies that were anti-communist and raised society’s anxiety against communism. This led to policies that were borderline breaching civil rights in the name of capturing the communists. However, the landmark civil rights case, Brown V Board of Education, boosted America’s image abroad and can be argued as a cold war case instead of a civil rights case. Overall, the beginnings of cold war brought great change to America’s foreign and domestic goals. Its quite sad that it took the fear of nuclear annihilation to galvanize people to bring great change to the world.
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