The Cold War: Sociocultural Effects in the United States

The Cold War ended 30 years ago, but terms like socialism are still an epithet in the United States, revealing the power of anti-communist rhetoric.

Dec 18, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
anti communist comic america under communism
An image from Is This Tomorrow?, an anti-communist comic book from 1947, via JSTOR Daily


The first decade of the Cold War sparked tremendous fear that communists were trying to infiltrate and undermine the American way of life. Seeing the Soviet Union control Eastern Europe and continue to support the goal of an international communist revolution made many Americans fearful and want to push back against Moscow. Quick technological and political victories for Soviet communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s helped spark a Red Scare. In the 1980s, anti-communist rhetoric became popular again as the US, under Republican president Ronald Reagan, took a hard-line stance against the Soviet Union. Forty-five years of opposition to the USSR and its authoritarian socialism/communism has led to intense cultural opposition to anything branded with either term.


Where the Cold War Began: Karl Marx and Communism

communism karl marx
A bust of German political philosopher and founder of communism Karl Marx, via The Museum of Political History of Russia, Saint Petersburg


In 1848, German political philosopher Karl Marx (with co-author Robert Engels), wrote The Communist Manifesto. The short book was a negative critique of capitalism, the economic theory described in 1776 by English economist Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations. Marx criticized capitalism for leading to the exploitation of workers and argued that the government should control the factors of production – land, labor, and capital (factories) – to protect the common people.


Government ownership of the factors of production would mean taking property from the capitalists who already owned it. Private property rights would be largely abolished, at least for capital and significant land holdings. This was harshly criticized as unfair and was viewed with horror by the ruling classes in Europe and North America. Although Marx predicted that workers would rise up and overthrow the ruling classes throughout Europe, this did not occur.


Before the Cold War: Communist Revolution in Russia and 1920s Red Scare

russian civil war
Revolutionaries fighting during the Russian Civil War (1917-22), which resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union, via Alliance for Workers’ Liberty


Although Russia had entered World War I as an Allied Power with France and Britain, it did not achieve a quick victory as it had hoped. The large country had already been struggling economically, and it soon found itself bogged down in a brutal war. Public opinion quickly turned against Russia’s leader, Tsar Nicholas II, and his monarchy. In 1917, to help spark revolution against the beleaguered tsar, Germany sent Russian radical Vladimir Lenin back to his home state. Having sought a separate peace with Germany to pull itself out of World War I, Russia was soon in the throes of violent revolution.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Lenin advocated for Marxism and wanted the government to control the factors of production. The Russian Revolution began in early 1917 and swept aside Russia’s monarchy. The world reacted with horror to the executions of the royal family, and the Bolsheviks – who supported communism – often used violence to achieve their aims. Although the Bolsheviks quickly overthrew the government in Moscow, a lengthy civil war between the Reds (communists) and Whites (non-communists) would consume the country.


soviet union map
An administrative map of the Soviet Union, which existed from 1922 to 1991, via Nations Online


The Russian Civil War eventually saw a Red victory, even though the United States and Britain offered some military support to the Whites. The Reds were able to unite all of Russia and several surrounding territories into the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. Despite their brutality, the Bolsheviks successfully portrayed the Whites as repressive monarchists controlled by foreign powers, such as Britain, to keep Russia weak.


As a result of the bloodshed during the Russian Revolution, the United States and other western powers did not have diplomatic relations with the new USSR. There was also fear of the Soviet Union helping communist radicals in the aftermath of World War I. Nations with devastated economies and hungry citizens were seen as ripe for communist revolution, with Bolsheviks promising food and employment for those willing to fight against the capitalists.


wall street bombing 1920
The aftermath of a 1920 bombing of Wall Street, New York, that was often blamed on communists, via the Federal Bureau of Investigation


Americans saw the violent Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War and soon feared that communists were infiltrating their own country. In the early 1920s, acts of terrorism were usually blamed on communists. Challenges to the status quo were likewise typically blamed on communist agitators. The public, fearful of an enemy that could blend in with the population, began accusing anyone who seemed suspicious of being a communist. This period became known as the first Red Scare in the United States.


The Red Scare quickly dissipated as the economy improved and the U.S. enjoyed the Roaring Twenties. Tensions with the Soviet Union relaxed, although diplomatic relations were not established. When the Great Depression erupted at the beginning of the 1930s, communism became more popular as unemployment and evictions skyrocketed. The new US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, enacted many reforms during the New Deal that could be seen as socialist. In 1933, his administration officially restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. During the Depression, the “Reds” didn’t seem quite so radical!


After World War II, USSR Becomes Authoritarian Boogeyman

soviets victorious in germany 1945
Soviet Red Army troops during the Moscow Victory Parade in June 1945, via Soviet Art


Under dictator Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union committed horrible atrocities against its own people during the 1930s, ranging from a terrible famine in Ukraine due to collective farming policies to the Great Purges of its own government and military leaders. However, due to the ongoing Great Depression, these were not widely known at the time. The rise of Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan was more newsworthy, and during World War II, the USSR was a crucial ally. After the war ended, however, tensions swiftly returned.


With the Nazis no longer around, the world’s attention focused on the authoritarian regime of Joseph Stalin. After the war, the USSR showed no signs of desiring warmer relations with the US and focused on restoring its tremendous losses from the war. The ideological differences between American capitalism and Soviet communism, which had been somewhat ignored during the war, returned. There was some bitterness regarding the perceived delay of the US to open a “second front” against Nazi Germany, forcing the Soviet Red Army to do more of the fighting on the ground.


first soviet nuclear test
The first Soviet nuclear test on August 29, 1949, via Radio Free Europe


The Cold War began soon after the end of World War II as the Soviets refused to remove their armies from Eastern Europe. Quickly, communist governments loyal to Moscow were set up in these formerly independent countries. Despite Soviet aggression in spreading its brand of communism, including support for Chinese communists in the ongoing Chinese Civil War, the US still held a trump card in any potential conflict: the atomic bomb.


However, it turned out that Soviet spies had infiltrated the American atomic bomb program, and the USSR tested its own nuclear weapon a mere four years after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Beginning in August 1949, the United States was no longer the only nation with “the bomb.” Revelations that the Soviets had successfully infiltrated the most secretive government program sparked public panic. Beginning in the late 1940s of the Cold War era, there was widespread suspicion that virtually anyone could be a Soviet spy or communist sympathizer.


Second Red Scare: 1950s McCarthyism 

cold war sen mccarthy 1950
Senator Joseph McCarthy (standing) investigating potential communist activity in the U.S. Army in 1954, via the University of Washington, Seattle


The 1920s Red Scare saw Americans panicked by threats of bombings and radical protesters. After revelations that the Soviets had stolen atomic secrets using spies and subterfuge, a new Red Scare developed. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a second Red Scare during the Cold War revolved around the belief that communist sympathizers and Soviet agents were subtly infiltrating America’s institutions and culture. The House of Representative Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, investigated suspected communists working in the federal government. In Congress, Senator Joseph P. McCarthy became known as the most famous anti-communist, and he aggressively demanded investigations into suspected links to communism.


The second Red Scare came to a climax in 1954 when Senator McCarthy began investigating the US Army itself for allegedly being lax on communism. At a hearing where McCarthy was alleging that one of the Army’s lawyers had links to communism, Army chief counsel Joseph Welch famously snapped, “have you no sense of decency?” Swiftly, McCarthy’s popularity collapsed, ending the era of McCarthyism, and the second Red Scare dwindled. The public realized that its witch hunt in search of suspected communists had gone too far.


Civil Rights and Counterculture Movements Ease Hatred of Communism

hippies protests 1970
Anti-war protesters in 1970, via George Washington University, Washington DC


Immediately after the collapse of McCarthyism in 1954, the Civil Rights Movement began with the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The idea of racial equality had often been attacked as communist, but a growing movement was supporting the end of racial segregation. Despite rejecting authoritarian communism, criticism of wealth hoarding saw civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. labeled as a communist. Slowly, however, the Civil Rights Movement saw successes in ending legalized segregation.


During the late 1960s, a growing anti-war movement, an emerging Women’s Rights movement, and a continued Civil Rights movement were fitted into an overall counterculture movement. Many young Americans were dissatisfied with traditional norms dictating racial separation, women focusing on domestic roles, and people silently supporting and obeying the government. The counterculture movement protested the military draft and ongoing Vietnam War – a proxy for the Cold War – as linked to capitalism and desire for imperialism and profit.


1980s Neocon Movement Renews Disdain For Communism

us invades grenada 1983
American paratroopers landing on the island nation of Grenada in 1983, via the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


A decade after the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, the US renewed its goal of preventing the rise of communist governments. Unlike intervention in Vietnam, which devolved into a lengthy quagmire, the US saw quick victories in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, both allegedly allied with Cuban communists. The swift application of US military might to communist uprisings was a pillar of the neoconservative movement championed by Republican president Ronald Reagan.


Reagan also renewed a war of rhetoric against the Soviet Union, famously labeling the USSR an “evil empire” in 1983. This aggressive stance against the Soviets was the harshest since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and Reagan challenged Moscow by spending heavily on a modernized, high-tech US military. The US Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, proposed to create an anti-missile shield that would prevent Soviet nuclear missiles from striking the United States. Although SDI, sometimes labeled “Star Wars,” was not as technologically feasible as planned, it led the USSR to spend billions of dollars to counter it.


The Collapse of USSR Reinforces Argument That Communism Doesn’t Work

gulf war victory parade 1991 fighter jet
A Gulf War victory parade in 1991, via the BBC


Just as the late 1940s and early 1950s saw swift communist victories rock America to its core, the late 1980s and early 1990s did the reverse. Beginning in the late 1980s, the Soviet economy began to crumble under the rigidity of central planning. By 1989, several of the Soviet Socialist Republics were declaring their independence from the USSR. The next year, as the USSR lay crumbling, the United States scored a tremendous geopolitical victory in the Gulf War against Iraq. Leading a coalition of democratic allies, the US defeated Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with smart weapons that decimated his obsolete, Soviet-made armor.


On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union officially dissolved, marking the end of the world’s largest and most powerful Marxist state. Although China remained communist, the USSR and China had developed different forms of communism. By the 1980s, even as Soviet central planning was failing, China had introduced pro-market reforms. Détente in the 1970s had brought China closer to the United States and away from the Soviet Union; the Sino-Soviet Split of the 1960s had actually made the two communist powers enemies. Thus, although China was still officially communist in regard to its authoritarian government, its lack of economic central planning prevented it from being identified by most Americans as a Soviet-style, traditional communist nation.


Cold War Legacy: Socialism and Communism Still Dirty Words

single payer cartoon
A political cartoon advocating for single-payer health care, via the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP)


The collapse of the Soviet Union has reinforced American culture’s glorification of military strength and disdain for any political or economic reforms that are labeled “socialist” or “communist.” This is seen specifically with the debate over single-payer health care. While many of America’s democratic allies have this form of health care, where the government has a national health insurance plan for all basic medical care, conservatives frequently deride the concept as socialist. Liberals in the US typically respond by pointing out that such “socialism” already exists with Medicare, a government-run health insurance program for all Americans aged 65 and older.


As a result of the Cold War, “socialism” and “communism” are such loaded terms that they may prevent meaningful political discussion. Conservatives have largely been successful in blunting liberals’ drive toward instituting Medicare-for-All, the most common proposal for single-payer health care, by decrying it as socialism. Research has shown that the word “socialism” is still equated with reliance on the government and lack of work ethic by many Americans, though this seems to be decreasing as the amount of time since the end of the Cold War grows.

Author Image

By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.