The Impact of the Cold War on American Culture

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The Cold War was, at it’s core, a conflict of good versus evil, showcasing a clear death-match between the forces representing freedom, and the forces representing totalitarianism. Lasting from 1947-1991, the Cold War’s countless costs such as lives, money, pride and national security still take a heavy toll on the world we live in today. There are a multitude of economic, political and social legacies that would not exist without the Cold War, each entailing positive or negative traits that have a profound impact on the world itself and international relations. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union), The United States of America (USA) and all other inclusive ‘proxy’ nations demonstrate overpowering legacies that are extremely relevant today, all of which will be explored in this essay.

During the Cold War, the economic standpoint from all nations involved was and still is today, unfathomable. The US accumulated a total cost of publicly known military expenses such as nuclear weapons, weapons related programs and general training of up to $8 trillion. Both the Soviet Union and the USA suffered a high percentage of their respective gross national products (GNPs) in military expenditures. According to the New York Times: “United States expenditures for nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs between 1940 and 1996 consumed nearly $5.5 trillion in adjusted 1996 dollars. That is 29 percent of all military spending and 11 percent of all Federal Government spending.” The Soviet Union is said to have spent about $33 billion in total. Therefore, the economic legacy left by the Cold War and the allocation of resources, has resulted in effects on many dimensions of each nation’s economic performance; which led to economic imbalance. As well as this imbalance, the war’s institutional and constitutional legacies loomed over the nation itself. Great factions of the USSR funds were used in funding proxy wars such as the Vietnam War, whereby the USSR sent artillery to the Viet Minh. Funding these proxy wars caused extra government spending, and hence lowered the country's GDP. Another noticeable cost on behalf of both nations was maintaining the military. Marc Trachtenberg states “If productivity did not rise substantially, the Soviet leadership would confront major problems.” Which evidently highlights the major issue of ‘smart spending’ throughout the cold war. To date, both the USA and USSR face heavy pressure in regards to how their involvement the Cold War has created piles of debt and debatably little strategic benefit; “warned by Walter Lippmann almost a century ago”, Jacob Heilbrunn states. Similarly, Lippman’s book ‘U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic’, announces that “in foreign relations we have habitually in our minds divorced the discussion of our war aims, our peace aims, our ideals, our interests, our commitments, from the discussion of our armaments, our strategic position, our potential allies and our probable enemies.” Thus, exhibiting how the economical legacy of the Cold War is difficult to satisfy all international relations of the United States. Lippmann uses the term “divorced minds” which clearly outlines the differential mindsets of the world, economically, as well as the sheer difficulty in satisfying all parties involved. Moreover, described as the ‘dean of American realist thinkers’ Lippmann summarises his points by stating “no policy could emerge from such a discussion.” Which again, is a direct commentary on the international relations left from the economic impact of the Cold War.

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This also relates to the political sphere in regards to the ministerial legacy left by the Cold War, which is equally if not more immense. Manish Singh suggests that The Cold War “led to the division of the world into two powers”. This bipolarity of world politics is showcased through the abundance of secrecy, privacy and the classified nature the political sphere during the Cold War. Of which, arguably still exists today, clearly not to the same extent, politicians and world leaders alike still hold bias and scepticism when dealing with their ex-enemies of war. Considering one side was led by USA and its allies, the other was dominated by the USSR and its allies of eastern Europe, decision making with global matters can become immensely difficult when considering the past and history between nations, both power blocks made extraneous efforts to increase their area of influence. Efforts were made to rope in allies from Asia, Africa as well as Latin America. The nations of western Europe more or less remained loyal to USA and became members of its military alliance NATO (North American treaty alliance). USSR also forged a collective security pact with its allies and named it ‘Warsaw pact’. Continuously, in terms of international relations, USA also made efforts to contain USSR by eastward extension of NATO. Therefore, Singh is correct in declaring the evident “divide” between these nations, along with The Cold War severely subverting the capacity of the UN to maintain peace and security in the world; leaving everlasting effects on todays’ international relations between nations. The rivalry made any consensus on key issues of peace and security in the security council impossible. Thus, reducing the United Nations to the status of a mute spectator in the face of wars and conflicts. Economically, the rising power of communism had a moderating effect on the market based capitalism economies of liberal democratic countries and overall international relations.

The Cold War became a dominant influence on many aspects of American society for much of the second half of the 20th century. It escalated due to antagonist values between the United States, representing capitalism and democracy, and the Soviet Union, representing communism and authoritarianism. Being the two dominant world powers after WWII, contention between the Americans and Soviets became a global conflict. The Cold War differed from most wars in that it was as much of a propaganda war as a war with military engagements. The Korean and Vietnam Wars are important examples of military intervention by the Americans in the name of stopping communist expansionism. However, these wars did not have the decades long impact on American domestic and foreign policy that the cultural battles of the Cold War had, which still leave a noticeable impact on todays society, socially. The Cold War was an important influence on almost all aspects of American society. Cultural antagonism between the United States and Soviet Union had both positive and negative repercussions.

Mutual fear between the two countries led to political confrontations; some of which nearly led to world war. Differing economic philosophies resulted in opposing claims of what freedom meant, and economic competition led to massive military spending by both countries. Because of its broad influence, the Cold War was the defining event of the second half of the 20th century and impacted, to varying extents, almost all American foreign and domestic policy decisions. Historical writer Mary L. Dudziak mentions that The U.S. government had a hand in generating public perception of the Cold War, “as the nation assumed an ongoing state of war,” Dudziak writes, “government propaganda became permanent and professional.” In terms of current international relations, as the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Xennials all grew up during this indoctrination of the Cold War, the propaganda that was brainwashed in masses can still be remembered today within society, allowing for discrimination socially. Resulting in difficulty of successful transparency between international relations.

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The Impact of the Cold War on American Culture. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
“The Impact of the Cold War on American Culture.” Edubirdie, 25 Nov. 2022,
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