The Cold War in America: Effects on Everyday Life

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Cold War brought fear of both Communism and nuclear annihilation to the United States. Learn how this fear affected the daily lives of Americans and how it shaped American laws and policies. Updated: 09/01/2021

Cold War America

The onset of the Cold War, which was a period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, drastically altered life for Americans. While the battle against communist subversion raged internationally throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the effects of the conflict were eventually felt on the home front. The Red Scare, which was the fear of communist subversion, caused Americans to reevaluate their daily interactions and beliefs. The possibility of nuclear annihilation also loomed after observing the tests of both nations' nuclear arsenals. As a result, a period of uncertainty and trepidation gripped millions of Americans.

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Truman and the Origins of Fear

The fear of communism began with the commencement of President Harry Truman's Loyalty Program in 1947, which called for allegiance to the United States by federal employees under the penalty of immediate termination. Moreover, J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was given free rein to covertly investigate and detain anyone he suspected of being a national risk. Eventually, the Subversive Activities Control Board was created in 1950, which officially allowed authorities to investigate suspected communist-controlled organizations. This was only the beginning of the effects felt by the widespread battle against communism.

Truman's anti-communist rhetoric was first felt by labor unions, many of which had gained notoriety following the end of the Second World War. These organizations campaigned for higher wages and more power in the workplace, yet Truman viewed many of these individuals as militant supporters of communism, largely because of their post-war strikes. Even Congress became involved in stripping labor unions of their rights, which had been earned in previous decades. One aspect of the Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress in 1947, required labor unions to confirm that none of their leaders belonged to the Communist Party. Unions that were found guilty of an infraction lost federal protection.

House Un-American Activities Committee

The House Un-American Activities Committee, also known by its acronym HUAC, was a congressional entity developed in 1938 to seek out and eliminate suspected communist subversion within the United States. Two prominent, early Cold War cases developed during the organization's existence: the Hollywood investigations and the Alger Hiss trial.

HUAC believed that certain members of Hollywood, which included actors, actresses, writers and directors, were engaged in the Communist Party. As a result, HUAC opened investigations in 1947 into the alleged communist activity, and eventually tried and imprisoned the group known as the 'Hollywood Ten'. Additionally, HUAC created a Hollywood 'blacklist' which stigmatized those who were deemed to be supporters of communism. This action alone ruined the careers of many aspiring artists throughout the late 1940s and 1950s.

The case of Alger Hiss rose to national prominence during 1948. Hiss, who was charged with espionage and selling national security secrets to the Soviet Union during the 1930s, was tried and convicted only of perjury before Congress. The Hiss case proved to be the catalyst for future congressional hearings on communist activity, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts in the federal government.

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