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Culture during the Cold War

The Cold War (1947–91) was reflected in culture through music, movies, books, television and other media, as well as sports and social beliefs and behavior. One major element of the Cold War was the threat of a nuclear war; another was 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 1953–62 saw Cold War themes first enter the mainstream culture as a public preoccupation. For the historical context in America see United States in the 1950s.

Cloak and dagger stories became part of the popular culture of the Cold War in both East and West, with innumerable novels and movies that showed how polarized and dangerous the world was. Soviet audiences thrilled at spy stories showing how their KGB agents protected the motherland by foiling dirty work by America's nefarious CIA, Britain's devious MI-6, and Israel's devilish Mossad. After 1963, Hollywood increasingly depicted the CIA as clowns (as in the comedy TV series "Get Smart") or villains (as in Oliver Stone's "JFK" (1992).

During the Cold War, films functioned as a means to influence and control public opinion internally. The United States and the Soviet Union invested heavily in propaganda designed to influence the hearts and minds of people around the world, especially using motion pictures. Cold War films produced by both sides attempted to address different facets of the superpower conflict and sought to influence both domestic and foreign opinion. The gap between American and Soviet film gave the Americans a distinct advantage over the Soviet Union; America was readily prepared to utilize their cinematic achievements as a way to effectively impact the public opinion in a way the Soviet Union could not. Cinema, Americans hoped, would help close the gap caused by Soviet development of nuclear weapons and advancements in space technology. The use of film as an effective form of widespread propaganda transformed cinema into another Cold War battlefront.

The Americans took advantage of their pre-existing cinematic advantage over the Soviet Union, using movies as another way to create the Communist enemy. In the early years of the Cold War (between 1948–53), seventy explicitly anti-communist films were released. American films incorporated a wide scale of Cold War themes and issues into all genres of film, which gave American motion pictures a particular lead over Soviet film. Despite the audiences' lack of zeal for Anti-Communist/Cold War related cinema, the films produced evidently did serve as successful propaganda in both America and the USSR. The films released during this time received a response from the Soviet Union, which subsequently released its own array of films to combat the depiction of the Communist threat.

My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.
My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you that today I signed legislation that will allow student religious groups to begin enjoying a right they've too long been denied—the freedom to meet in public high schools during nonschool hours, just as other student groups are allowed to do.
In arguing that West Germany was not "Americanized" after the war, Logemann joins a long debate about American consumer capitalism's power, sweep, and depth of influence in the developed world through the second half of the twentieth century. In pointed contrast to Reinhold Wagnleitner's Coca-colonization and the Cold War (1994) and Victoria de Grazia's Irresistible Empire (2005), Logemann argues that, for all the noisy commentary, pro and con, about postwar Americanization, West Germans shaped their version of the affluent society according to deeply held and distinctly un-American values. Rather than a sweeping homogenization of the developed world, postwar affluence ran along "different paths to consumer modernity"....Instead of the "consumer-as-citizen" (whom Lizabeth Cohen, in The Consumer's Republic [2003], defined as the main social type in postwar America), West Germans promoted the social consumer who practiced "public consumption," which Logemann defines as "the provision of publicly funded alternatives to private consumer goods and services in areas ranging from housing to transportation or entertainment" (p. 5).
  • 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 (Showtime, 2000) – A remake of the 1959 film.
  • Fail-Safe (CBS, 2000) – A remake of the 1964 film.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Gotcha! (1985 film) is a film about a college student named Jonathan (Anthony Edwards) who plays a game called Gotcha in which he hunts and is hunted by other students with paint guns on campus. Jonathan goes to France on vacation, meets a beautiful woman named Sasha (Linda Fiorentino), travels with her to East Germany, and unknowingly becomes involved in the spy game between the USA and USSR.
  • Chess The game of chess was another mode of competition between the two superpowers, which the musical demonstrates.
  • Belmonte, Voir Laura A. "A Family Affair? Gender, the US Information Agency, and Cold War Ideology, 1945-1960." Culture and International History, (2003): 79-93.
  • Brooks, Jeffrey. Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Day, Tony and Maya H. T. Liem. Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast Asia (2010)
  • Defty, Andrew. Britain, America and Anti-Communist Propaganda 1945-53: The Information Research Department (London: Routledge, 2004) on a British agency
  • Devlin, Judith, and Christoph H Muller. War of Words: Culture and the Mass Media in the Making of the Cold War in Europe (2013)
  • Fletcher, Katy. "Evolution of the Modern American Spy Novel." Journal of Contemporary History (1987) 22(2): 319-331. in Jstor
  • Footitt, Hilary. "'A hideously difficult country': British propaganda to France in the early Cold War." Cold War History (2013) 13#2 pp: 153-169.
  • Gumbert, Heather. Envisioning Socialism: Television and the Cold War in the German Democratic Republic (2014) excerpt and text search
  • Hammond, Andrew (2013). British Fiction and the Cold War. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 86. 
  • Hendershot, Cynthia (2001). I was a Cold War Monster: Horror Films, Eroticism, and the Cold War Imagination. Popular Press. 
  • Hixson, Walter L. Parting the curtain: Propaganda, culture, and the Cold War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997)
  • Iber, Patrick, Neither peace nor freedom: The cultural Cold War in Latin America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2015.
  • Jones, Harriet. "The Impact of the Cold War" in Paul Addison, and Harriet Jones, editors, A Companion to Contemporary Britain: 1939-2000 (2008) ch 2
  • Kuznick, Peter J. ed. Rethinking Cold War Culture (2010) excerpt and text search
  • Major, Patrick. "Future Perfect?: Communist Science Fiction in the Cold War." Cold War History (2003) 4(1): 71-96.
  • Marwick, Arthur. The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen-Eighty-Four. London: Secker & Warburg. (later edn. )
  • Polger, Uta G. Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (2000)
  • Shaw, Tony. British cinema and the Cold War: the state, propaganda and consensus (IB Tauris, 2006)
  • Shaw, Tony. and Denise J. Youngblood. Cinematic Cold War: The American Struggle for Hearts and Minds (University Press of Kansas, 2010). excerpt and text search
  • Vowinckel, Annette, Marcus M. Pavk and Thomas Lindenberger, eds. Cold War Cultures: Perspectives on Eastern & Western Societies (2012)


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