The tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, known as the Cold War, was another defining element of the 1950s. After World War II, Western leaders began to worry that the USSR had what one American diplomat called “expansive tendencies”; moreover, they believed that the spread of communism anywhere threatened democracy and capitalism everywhere. As a result, communism needed to be “contained”–by diplomacy, by threats or by force. This idea shaped American foreign policy for decades.
It shaped domestic policy as well. Many people in the United States worried that communists, or “subversives,” could destroy American society from the inside as well as from the outside. Between 1945 and 1952, Congress held 84 hearings designed to put an end to “un-American activities” in the federal government, in universities and public schools and even in Hollywood. These hearings did not uncover many treasonous activities–or even many communists–but it did not matter: Tens of thousands of Americans lost their jobs, as well as their families and friends, in the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s.
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