Culture during the Cold War

Culture during the Cold War

The Cold War was reflected in culture through music, movies, books, and other media. One element of the Cold War often seen relates directly or indirectly to the threat of a nuclear war. Another is the conflict between the superpowers in terms of espionage. Many works use the Cold War as a backdrop, or directly take part in fictional conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The period 1953-1962 saw Cold War themes first enter the mainstream culture as a public preoccupation.

The Cold War was also reflected in the attitudes of people in their everyday lives. In the United States, the Hollywood blacklist determined who would create, work on, and star in motion pictures; in politics the House Un-American Activities Committee questioned those thought to be communist sympathizers.


House Un-American Activities Committee

The House Un-American Activities Committee interfered in American cultural life through its questioning of actors, directors, and others who produced movies in Hollywood. The effect of this questioning was the Hollywood blacklist, and was felt far beyond Hollywood.

Jackie Robinson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, specifically stating that he was not a Communist.[1]

Books and other works

  • Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
  • Arc Light by Eric L. Harry
  • Berts vidare betraktelser — Anders Jacobsson and Sören Olsson (1990), features Bert travel with his family to New York City in July 1989, but fearing United States agents arriving to Öreskoga to prevent him from going to the USA, as he has fallen in love with Paulina, who's cousine Pavel has arrived to Sweden from Czechoslovakia (under Communist rule), and Bert has been talking to Pavel.[2]
  • Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  • "Good Morning Comrades" by Ondjaki, a novel about a young boy in Luanda, Angola and the end of the Cold War.
  • Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois
  • Twilight 2000, role-playing game.
  • Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka
  • Red Storm Rising a 1986 novel by Tom Clancy, about a conventional NATO/Warsaw Pact war.
  • Other Tom Clancy novels which are part of the Jack Ryan universe, most especially The Hunt for Red October and Cardinal of the Kremlin, though all of his books from this era are featured against a background of East-West conflict.
  • The First Team by John Dudley Ball, 1973 — a story of United States capitulation to the USSR by a weak president and the group that overthrows the occupying government
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Spy vs. Spy
  • Frederick Forsyth's spy novels sold in the hundreds of thousands. The Fourth Protocol, whose title refers to a series of conventions that, if broken, will lead to nuclear war and that are now, of course, all broken except for the fourth and last thread, was made into a major film starring British actor Michael Caine. The point of such novels—like that of American movies of the 1950s and 1960s such as My Son John or Kiss Me Deadly—is to vilify the "enemy within", the treacherous peace movement activists, and simple Labour party voters who, by 1988 were marching against the Cold War.
  • The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon, took a different approach and portrayed a Communist conspiracy against the U.S.A acting not through leftists or pacifists but through a thinly veiled allusion to Joe McCarthy. The logic of this was that if McCarthyists were accusing so many people of being communist agents, it could only be to divert attention from the real communists. The theme of collusion between international communists and Western rightists would be picked up again by many movies (Goldfinger, A View To A Kill) or televisions shows (episodes of MacGyver or Airwolf), which would feature an alliance between power-hungry communists attacking the free world from without and profit-driven capitalists undermining it for financial gain.
  • Masters of Deceit — a non-fiction work written by the FBI, through J. Edgar Hoover's office, extolling the vices of Communism, and the virtues of Americanism.[3]
  • Glasnost radically changed Russian culture, as books that had been forbidden suddenly became available, and people were reading them all the time, everywhere.[4]

Movies and television

TV shows

Television commercials

Wendy's Hamburger Chain ran a television commercial showing a supposed "Soviet Fashion Show", which featured the same large, unattractive woman wearing the same dowdy outfit in a variety of situations, the only difference being the accessory she carried (for example, a flashlight for 'nightwear' or a beach ball for 'swimwear').

Apple Computer's "1984" ad.

Daisies and mushroom clouds

Daisy was the most famous campaign commercial of the Cold War.[1] Aired only once, on 7 September 1964, it was a factor in Lyndon B. Johnson's defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. The contents of the commercial were controversial, and their emotional impact was searing.

The commercial opens with a very young girl standing in a meadow with chirping birds, slowly counting the petals of a daisy as she picks them one by one. Her sweet innocence, along with mistakes in her counting, endear her to the viewer. When she reaches "9", an ominous-sounding male voice is suddenly heard intoning the countdown of a rocket launch. As the girl's eyes turn toward something she sees in the sky, the camera zooms in until one of her pupils fills the screen, blacking it out. The countdown reaches zero, and the blackness is instantly replaced by the thunderous flash of a nuclear explosion, followed by a billowing mushroom cloud.

As the firestorm rages, a voiceover from Johnson states emphatically, "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." Another voiceover then says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." (Two months later, Johnson won the election in an electoral landslide.)

Bear in the woods

Bear in the woods was a 1984 campaign advertisement endorsing Ronald Reagan for President. This campaign ad depicted a brown bear wandering through the woods (likely implying the Soviet Union) and suggested that Reagan was more capable of dealing with the Soviets than his opponent, in spite of the fact that the ad never explicitly mentioned the Soviet Union, the Cold War or Walter Mondale.

Films depicting nuclear war

The 1959 film On the Beach, depicted a gradually dying, post-apocalyptic world in Australia that remained after a nuclear Third World War. Other films include:

  • Duck and Cover — A 1951 educational movie explaining what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) — A black comedy film that satirizes the Cold War and the threat of nuclear warfare.
  • Fail-Safe (1964) — A film based on a novel of the same name about an American bomber crew and nuclear tensions.
  • The War Game (BBC, 1965) — Depicts the effects of a nuclear war in Britain following a conventional war that escalates to nuclear war.
  • Damnation Alley (20th Century Fox, 1977) — Surprise attack launched on the United States, and the subsequent efforts of a small band of survivors in California to reach another group of survivors in Albany, New York.
  • The Children's Story (1982) short film, which originally aired on TV's Mobil Showcase, depicts the first day of indoctrination of an elementary school classroom by a new teacher, representing a totalitarian government that has taken over the United States. It is based on the 1960 short story of the same name by James Clavell.
  • The Day After (1983) — This made-for-television-movie by ABC that depicts the consequences of a nuclear war in Lawrence, Kansas and the surrounding area.
  • WarGames (1983) — About a young computer hacker who unknowingly hacks into a defense computer and risks starting a nuclear war.
  • Testament (PBS, 1983) — Depicts the after-effects of a nuclear war in a town near San Francisco, California.
  • Countdown to Looking Glass (HBO, 1984) — A film that presents a simulated news broadcast about a nuclear war.
  • Threads (BBC, 1984) — A film that is set in the British city of Sheffield and shows the long-term results of a nuclear war on the surrounding area.
  • The Sacrifice (Sweden, 1986) — A philosophical drama about nuclear war.
  • The Manhattan Project (1986) — Though not about a nuclear war, it was seen as a cautionary tale.
  • When the Wind Blows (1986) — An animated film about an elderly British couple in a post-nuclear war world.
  • Miracle Mile (1988) — A film about two lovers in Los Angeles leading up to a nuclear war.
  • By Dawn's Early Light (HBO, 1990) — About rogue Soviet military officials framing NATO for a nuclear attack in order to spark a full-blown nuclear war.
  • On the Beach (Showcase, 2000) — A remake of the 1959 film.
  • Fail-Safe (CBS, 2000) — A remake of the 1964 film.

Films depicting a conventional U.S./USSR war

In addition to fears of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, there were also fears of a direct, large scale conventional conflict between the two superpowers.

  • Invasion U.S.A. (1952) — The 1952 film showed a Soviet invasion of the U.S.A succeeding because the citizenry had fallen into moral decay, war profiteering, and isolationism. The film was later parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000. (This is not to be confused with the similarly titled Chuck Norris action vehicle released in 1985.)
  • Red Nightmare, a 1962 government-sponsored short subject narrated by Jack Webb, imagined a Soviet-dominated America as a result of the protagonist's negligence of his "all-American" duties.
  • World War III, a 1982 NBC miniseries about a Soviet invasion of Alaska.
  • Red Dawn (1984) — presented a conventional Soviet attack with limited, strategic Soviet nuclear strikes on the United States, aided by allies from Latin America, and the exploits of a group of high schoolers who form a guerrilla group to oppose them.
  • Invasion U.S.A. (1985) — This film depicts a Soviet agent leading Latin American Communist guerillas launching attacks in the United States, and an ex-CIA agent played by Chuck Norris opposing him and his mercenaries.
  • Amerika (ABC, 1987), a peaceful takeover of the United States by the Soviet Union.

Films depicting Cold War espionage

  • Firefox is a 1982 film based on a Craig Thomas novel of the same name. The plot details an American plot to steal a highly advanced Soviet fighter aircraft (MiG-31 Firefox) which is capable of Mach 6, is invisible to radar, and carries weapons controlled by thought.
  • The Hunt for Red October is a 1990 film based on a Tom Clancy novel of the same name about the captain of a technologically advanced Soviet ballistic missile submarine that attempts to defect to the United States.
  • James Bond first appeared in 1953. While the primary antagonists in the majority of the novels were Soviet agents, the films were only vaguely based on the Cold War. The Bond movies followed the political climate of the time in their depictions of Soviets and "Red" Chinese. In the 1954 version of Casino Royale, Bond was an American agent working with the British to destroy a ruthless Soviet agent in France, but became more widely known as Agent 007, James Bond, of Her Majesty's Secret Service, who was played by Sean Connery until 1971 and by several actors since. Although Bond films often used the Cold War as a backdrop, the Soviet Union itself was almost never Bond's enemy, that role being more often left to fictional and apolitical criminal organizations (like the infamous SPECTRE). However, Red China was in league with Bond's enemies in the films Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun, while some later movies (Octopussy, The Living Daylights) featured a rogue Soviet general as the enemy.
  • «TASS Upolnomochen Zayavit...» (TASS is Authorized to Announce...) — a Soviet TV series based on Julian Semenov's novel. The plot of the movie is set around fictional African country Nagonia, where CIA agents are preparing a military coup, while KGB agent Slavin is trying to prevent it. Slavin succeeds by blackmailing the corrupt American spy John Glebe.
  • The Falcon and the Snowman is a 1985 film directed by John Schlesinger about two young American men, Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, who sold U.S. security secrets to the Soviet Union. The film is based upon the 1979 book The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage by Robert Lindsey.

Other films about U.S./Soviet fears and rivalry


The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a competition in the arts as well, mainly in ballet. The Americans and the Soviets would send previews of their country's ballets to prove their superiority. In America, this caused a dramatic increase in government funding. In both countries, ballet was turned into powerful political propaganda, and they used dance to reflect life style in the "battle for the hearts and minds of men."

Jazz was also a useful tool for the United States State Department to show off the United States democracy, as jazz was a democratic music form, free flowing and improvised. Jazz tours of the Soviet Union were organized in 1956, and lasted through the 1970s.[6]

Along with ballet, the two countries also competed in such things as theatre, chess, and even who could reach the moon first. As well when it came to sports the two countries both competed in the Olympics during the Cold War period which also created a lot of hostilities.[7] David Caute, author of "The Dancer Defects", goes into detail each nation and how they could have "won" the cultural war. He ends up not nearly as much as declaring a winner, but more so looks into how each nation both had its great strengths. Russia excelled with plays, and was well known for its ballet. Whereas the West (United States in this case) showed a lot of power in technology, and the famous chess player Bobby Fischer.[8]

Stephen J. Whitfield writes in his article titled The Cultural Cold War As History that these two nations were not fighting their cultures against each other, but more onto their own citizens. As well that many things that were going on during the Cold War were purely done as an intent to create fear among African Americans, especially within the United States.[9]


1950s and 1960s

Musicians of these decades, especially in Jazz and Folk Music, were influenced by the shadow of nuclear war. Probably the most famous, passionate and influential of all was Bob Dylan, notably in his songs Masters of War and A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall (written just before the Cuban Missile Crisis). In 1965 Barry McGuire's version of P. F. Sloan's apocalyptic Eve of Destruction was a number one hit in the United States and elsewhere.


There were many protest songs during the 1980s that reflected general unease with the escalating tensions with the Soviet Union brought on by Ronald Reagan's and Margaret Thatcher's hard line against the Soviets. For example, various musical artists wore military uniform-like costumes, as a reflection of the increased feeling of militarism seen in the 1980s. Songs symbolically showed the superpowers going to war, as in the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song "Two Tribes." This song's MTV music video featured caricatures of United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko in a wrestling match.

Other songs expressed fear of World War III, as in the song, "Russians", where Sting eloquently states, "I don't subscribe to his [Reagan's or Khrushchev's] point of view" (that Reagan would protect Europe, or that Khrushchev would "bury" the West). Other examples include Sly Fox's "Let's go all the way", a song about "going all the way" to nuclear war; The Escape Club's "Wild Wild West" with its various references to the Cold War; the Genesis song "Land of Confusion" expressed a desire to make some sense out of the world, especially in relation to nuclear war.

Countless punk rock bands from the 1980s attacked Cold War era politics, such as Reagan's and Thatcher's nuclear deterrence brinkmanship. A small sampling includes The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Government Issue, Fear, Suicidal Tendencies, Toxic Reasons, Reagan Youth, etc. Noted punk compilation P.E.A.C.E. included bands from around the world in an attempt to promote international peace.

Probably the most famous of the 1980s songs against increased confrontation between the Soviets and the Americans was Nena's "99 Luftballons", which described the events that could lead to a nuclear war.

Imperiet — "Coca Cola Cowboys" — a Swedish rock song about how the world is divided by two super powers that both claim to represent justice.

Roman Palester, a classical music composer had his works banned and censored in Poland and the Soviet Union, as a result of his work for Radio Free Europe, even though he was thought to be Poland's greatest living composer at the time.[10]

Musicals and plays

  • Chess The game of chess was another mode of competition between the two superpowers, which the musical demonstrates.


Video games

Protest culture

Women Strike for Peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis

Anti-nuclear protests first emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[11] In the United Kingdom, the first Aldermaston March, organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, took place in 1958.[12][13] In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, about 50,000 women brought together by Women Strike for Peace marched in 60 cities in the United States to demonstrate against nuclear weapons.[14][15] In 1964, Peace Marches in several Australian capital cities featured "Ban the bomb" placards.[16][17]

In the early 1980s, the revival of the nuclear arms race triggered large protests about nuclear weapons.[18] In October 1981 half a million people took to the streets in several cities in Italy, more than 250,000 people protested in Bonn, 250,000 demonstrated in London, and 100,000 marched in Brussels.[19] The largest anti-nuclear protest was held on June 12, 1982, when one million people demonstrated in New York City against nuclear weapons.[20][21][22] In October 1983, nearly 3 million people across western Europe protested nuclear missile deployments and demanded an end to the arms race; the largest crowd of almost one million people assembled in the Hague in the Netherlands.[23] In Britain, 400,000 people participated in what was probably the largest demonstration in British history.[24]

Political campaigns

1950 defeat of Senator Claude Pepper

A pamphlet was circulated with the title The Red Record of Senator Claude Pepper, [25] which painted him as a communist sympathiser, and cost him the election. He later served in the United States House of Representatives.


  • Barbie—Barbie represented the American way of life, because she was the ultimate consumer.[26]
  • New Math was a strong reaction to the launch of Sputnik, by changing the way mathematics was taught to school age children.


  1. ^ Whitfield, Stephen J., The Culture of the Cold War, page 194
  2. ^ Berts vidare betraktelser, Rabén & Sjögren, 1990
  3. ^ Whitfield, Stephen J., The Culture of the Cold War, page 68
  4. ^ Remnick, David, Lenin's Tomb: The last days of the Soviet Empire, page 59
  5. ^ Whitfield, Stephen J., The Culture of the Cold War, page 66
  6. ^ "How Jazz Warmed Cold-War Hearts — The Picture Show Blog : NPR". 
  7. ^ Caute,David. The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War ,Published by Oxford University Press, 2003
  8. ^ Caute,David. The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War ,Published by Oxford University Press, 2003,pg.611-613
  9. ^ Whitfield, Stephen J."The Cultural Cold War As History", West Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1993, pg.377-392
  10. ^ "Profiles: Roman Palester". Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Retrieved on 12 May 2007.
  11. ^ David Cortright (2008). Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, Cambridge University Press, pp. 134-135.
  12. ^ A brief history of CND
  13. ^ "Early defections in march to Aldermaston". Guardian Unlimited. 1958-04-05.,,105488,00.html. 
  14. ^ Woo, Elaine (January 30, 2011). "Dagmar Wilson dies at 94; organizer of women's disarmament protesters". Los Angeles Times.,0,5499397.story. 
  15. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (January 23, 2011). "Dagmar Wilson, Anti-Nuclear Leader, Dies at 94". The New York Times. 
  16. ^ Women with Ban the Bomb banner during Peace march on Sunday April 5th 1964, Brisbane, Australia Retrieved 8 February 2010.
  17. ^ Girl with placard Ban nuclear tests during Peace march on Sunday April 5th 1964, Brisbane, Australia Retrieved 8 February 2010.
  18. ^ Lawrence S. Wittner. Disarmament movement lessons from yesteryear Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 27 July 2009.
  19. ^ David Cortright (2008). Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, Cambridge University Press, p. 147.
  20. ^ Jonathan Schell. The Spirit of June 12 The Nation, July 2, 2007.
  21. ^ David Cortright (2008). Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, Cambridge University Press, p. 145.
  22. ^ 1982 One million people march in New York City
  23. ^ David Cortright (2008). Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, Cambridge University Press, p. 148.
  24. ^ Lawrence S. Wittner (2009). Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, Stanford University Press, p. 144.
  25. ^ Whitfield, Stephen J., The Culture of the Cold War, page 29
  26. ^ Whitfield, Stephen J., The Culture of the Cold War, page 71
  • Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen-Eighty-Four. London: Secker & Warburg. (later edn. ISBN 0-451-52493-4)

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