Cold War Legacies in the United States

From 1939 and 1945, World War II pitted two groups of nations, the Axis and the Allies, in one of the most global conflict known to man. By the time the war reached its conclusion it had cost 85 million lives and wreaked havoc around the world. Europe, the staging ground for many of the battles, was essentially destroyed and its nations’ international stature diminished; instead, at the world’s forefront stood the two big winners of the war: the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union paid the steepest price for victory in World War II with more than 26 million dead, which represented over 13 percent of its population. In comparison, the United States lost slightly over 400,000 people, that is, less than half a percent of its pre-war population. Before long, their divergent experiences during the war and their opposing ideologies—the United States championed capitalism, while Soviet leaders supported communism—caused tensions between the former allies that soon devolved into outright hostility.

The two superpowers built opposing alliances that spanned the globe. In a matter of years, Europe was divided by the so-called “Iron Curtain,” which ran from the Baltic to the Balkans, splitting Germany in the middle. The western side was home to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose original members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. To the East, the Warsaw Pact included the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

While the opposing superpowers both focused initially on Europe, they later worked to expand their influence over the post-colonial world, making the Cold War truly global.

From the start, nuclear power was at the heart of the Cold War. President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945, in order to force its surrender was the spark that ignited an arms race between the two superpowers. The destructive potential of this new weapon was unlike anything else the world had seen and whoever possessed it had gained a significant strategic advantage. After years of research, the Soviets eventually obtained the bomb in 1949 and for the rest of the Cold War the threat of nuclear war loomed large. In America in particular, fear of a nuclear Armageddon was rampant, towns built bunkers, and generations of students practiced “duck and cover” drills in school.

For an example of what a “duck and cover” drill looked like, watch this 1955 film cilip by the Office of Civilian Defense and reflect upon the fact that it was made for students, just like you, over 60 years ago.

At the center of the arms race were the US military’s efforts to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking at the heart of the Soviet Union. Such sites are some the most visible remnants of the Cold War, and their environmental impact remains significant. But there are also other traces of the Cold War that can be found. For instance, it was during the early

years of the Cold War, in 1954, that the words “under God,” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, as a way to highlight the fundamental difference between Americans and “godless” Soviets. The Cold War also marked the beginning of a competition at the Olympic games where, every two years, Soviet and American athletes competed for the highest medal count. Yet the most far-reaching legacy of the conflict arguably resides in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower labeled the “military-industrial complex.” In his farewell address in January 1961, Eisenhower told his fellow Americans that “America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interest of world peace and human betterment.” He stated that “this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience” and cautioned that “we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications” as “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Today, many believe that the military-industrial complex born out of the Cold War is still thriving, with a Department of Defense budget of over half a trillion dollars that often profits a small number of politically-connected contractors.

You can find out more about Eisenhower’s farewell address on his presidential library’s website.

Marjorie Galelli

University of Kansas

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, located in the president’s hometown of Abilene, Kansas. Photo by Erik R. Scott.

Questions for Discussion

1. Based on what you know of the atomic bomb, would “duck and cover” have been useful? What was the purpose of such drills?

2. How do “duck and cover” drills compare to the fire drills you have to conduct in school? What other kinds of drills do you practice?

3. What are some examples of movies or television shows that showcase the Cold War? How are the different characters depicted? What historical events are discussed? How are people from the former Soviet Union depicted in present-day movies and shows?

4. How many military installations can you find in your county and state? Do any of them date back to the Cold War?

5. Do you think Eisenhower’s warning about the “military-industrial complex” was heeded by Americans? Why or why not?