Cold War

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Cold War

The cold war was a pivotal era in the twentieth century. The term cold war itself, popularized in a 1946 speech by prime minister Winston Churchill of Britain, describes the ideological struggle between democracy and Communism that began shortly after the end of World War II and lasted until 1991. For the foreign policy of the United States, the cold war defined the last half of the twentieth century. It was a war of ideas, of threats, and of actual fighting in the countries of Korea and Vietnam, pitting western nations against the Soviet Union and China and their Communist allies. The 1940s and 1950s saw the cold war bloom into a period of unparalleled suspicion, hostility, and persecution. Anti-Communist hysteria ran through each branch of government as the pursuit of U.S. Communists and their sympathizers consumed the energies of the Executive Branch, lawmakers, and the courts. Rarely in the nation's history have constitutional rights been so widely and systematically sacrificed.

The cold war began in the aftermath of World War II. Although only recently allied against Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union saw their relationship quickly dis-integrate. The division of Europe, with the Soviet bloc countries sealed off behind what Churchill called the "iron curtain," had been the first blow. A fear that Communism would undermine the security of the United States took hold of the nation's leaders and citizens alike. Measures had to be taken to safeguard the country from infiltration, it was popularly believed, and the government began a vigorous campaign against Communist activity. On March 21, 1947, President Harry S. Truman took a significant early step toward protecting the country from Communism by issuing an order establishing so-called loyalty boards within each department of the executive branch (Exec. Order No. 9835, 3 C.F.R. 627). These boards were designed to hear cases brought against employees "disloyal to the Government" and, on the evidence presented, remove disloyal employees from federal service.

The loyalty boards deviated from the traditional standard of presumed innocence. Instead, the boards made their determinations based on whether "reasonable grounds exist for belief" that an accused employee was disloyal. Thus, instead of having to prove Beyond a Reasonable Doubt that the accused person was guilty of disloyalty, it was sufficient to bring enough evidence against the accused person to damn that person in the eyes of the board. This abridgment of due process, which ended jobs and ruined reputations, grew harsher under the administration of President dwight d. eisenhower. By amending the order in 1951, Eisenhower made it even harder for an accused employee to prove his or her innocence (Exec. Order No. 10,241, 16 Fed. Reg. 3690). Now, the Burden of Proof was reduced to a showing of "reasonable doubt as to the loyalty of [the] person," a standard amenable to trumped-up charges.

The intensity of domestic fears grew in 1949, following the announcement by President Truman that the Soviets had developed the atomic bomb. Only a year later, the Korean War broke out. These events ushered in a period of bomb shelters; air raid drills in schools; civilian anti-Communist organizations; and suspicion of anyone whose ideas, behavior, personal life, or appearance suggested belief in or sympathy for Communism. Terms like Pinko, Red, and Communist sympathizer found their way into the national vocabulary.

During the late 1940s, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), created to investigate subversives, provoked widespread concern that government officials had given secrets to the Soviets. Over the next decade, in a climate of general suspicion that it helped foster, it also investigated union leaders, academics, and, most dramatically, Hollywood. The right to freedom of association meant little to congressional investigators. HUAC subpoenaed private citizens and confronted them with a no-win choice: cooperate in naming Communists or face Contempt charges. Crucial to the success of these hearings was the cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which provided the committee with both public support and information.

At the same time, Senator joseph r. mccarthy conducted his own hearings through the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. From 1950 to 1954, McCarthy's charges about alleged Communist operatives in the State Department and the Army captivated the nation. Like HUAC activities, his witch-hunt shattered reputations and lives, but it backfired when he attacked the U.S. Army. Censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954, he ultimately gave history a word that symbolizes the zealous disregard for fairness in accusation: McCarthyism.

Starting in 1948, the Justice Department prosecuted members of the American Communist party under the Smith Act of 1940 (18 U.S.C.A. § 2385), a broadly written law that prohibited advocating the violent overthrow of the government. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld 12 convictions in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S. Ct. 857, 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951), and this ruling cleared the way for 141 subsequent indictments. Over the next several years, 29 convicted party members were sent to jail. In time, Congress provided prosecutors with new ammunition through the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 (50 U.S.C.A. § 781 et seq.) and the Communist Control Act of 1954 (50 U.S.C.A. § 841).

Anti-Communist hysteria decreased somewhat following the embarrassment of McCarthy. However, the cold war continued. HUAC operated throughout the 1960s, as did the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; both continued to locate the nation's troubles in the work of alleged subversives. And from the late 1950s to the 1960s, the FBI, under the direction of j. edgar hoover, secretly fought Communists and other targets through its Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro).

Although the domestic waging of the cold war had diminished by the early 1970s, the international struggle continued. Over the next two decades the cold war drew the United States into military involvement in Asia, Africa, and Central America. After Vietnam, the United States fought communism by supporting anti-communist factions in Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the United States shifted to an economic strategy, hoping to bankrupt the Soviet Union through an arms race of unprecedented scale. The cold war effectively ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Further readings

Craven, John Pina. 2001. The Silent War. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hakim, Joy. 1995. All the People: A History of Us. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

laFeber, Walter. 2004. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–2002. Updated 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Levering, Ralph B. 1982. The Cold War: 1945–1972. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson.

Mendelsohn, Jack. 1999. "History and Evaluation of the Role of Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War." Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 31 (mid-summer).

Neusner, Jacob and Noam M. 1995. The Price of Excellence: Universities in Conflict during the Cold War Era. New York: Continuum.

Rosenn, Max. 1995. "Presumed Guilty." University of Pittsburgh Law Review (spring).

Tatum, Dale C. 2002. Who Influenced Whom?: Lessons from the Cold War. Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America.

Wenger, Andreas, and Doron Zimmermann. 2003. International Relations: From the Cold War to the Globalized World. Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner.


Communism "House Un-American Activities Committee" (In Focus); Hiss, Alger; Nixon, Richard Milhous; Rosenbergs Trial.

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