To what extent did the Cold War shape the American domestic life of the 1950s?

Immediately after World War II, life for most Americans in the United States was as good as it had ever been: the middle class rapidly expanded, unemployment was low, and the United States (the only country with a nuclear bomb) became the most powerful country on earth. But this advantage lasted just four short years, until the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949.

By the 1950s, both the United States and Soviet Union were racing to stockpile more nuclear bombs than the other. The people of the United States expressed two contrasting moods:

  • They were happy and successful, living the American Dream and finding new sources of leisure for their growing families, and
  • They were paranoid and fearful, certain that nuclear war or a Soviet invasion was imminent.

"Nuclear preparedness" became a way of life. Communities installed air raid sirens. Ordinary folks built and stocked bomb shelters in their suburban backyards. Schools practiced duck-and-cover drills where children hid under their desks, covering their heads. The government started construction of the interstate highway system (Although this road network had been proposed years earlier, President Eisenhower secured its approval by pointing out that the interstate highways could move troops if the United States was invaded).

Americans lived in constant fear that "the bomb" might drop at any minute. This paranoia was exacerbated by some political figures who suggested that Soviet spies were everywhere, actively conspiring to overthrow the government. Soon, Americans started distrusting their neighbors. Reckless accusations forced thousands of people to be called to testify before Congress (The House Committee on Un-American Activities) or the FBI. While many of these accusations were unsubstantiated, people still lost their careers and some were even imprisoned — just being accused of being a Communist sympathizer could cause a person to be rejected by his whole community.

Among the political figures who most exaggerated the Communist threat were J. Edgar Hoover (then head of the FBI) and Senator Joseph McCarthy (after whom was coined the term McCarthyism — which is the act of accusing or shaming a person without clear evidence of a crime). What's ironic is that these men and others like them created an atmosphere in the United States of paranoia, distrust, and fear (of the government as much as of the enemy). This was how they described life in the Soviet Union; they had created the same environment that they were trying to convince Americans to fear.

Even Hollywood reacted to the country's mood. Sci-fi movies about alien invaders were ever popular — and they thinly disguised the real threat of Soviet invaders. Other sci-fi films took a different approach to the nuclear threat — nuclear testing in the desert resulted in giant, man-eating insects in Tarantula and Them!, and benevolent alien visitors threatened our destruction if humankind can't find a way to get along with each other in The Day the Earth Stood Still.