American Way of Life and Education during the Cold War

Society is locked in a battle of interpretations when it comes to the Cold War. Was it a war against the sinister spread of communism that threatened the moral fiber and the political existence of the United States, or was it a battle between two economic powers determined to gain world hegemony? Even among historians, the debate rages. Regardless of the underlying goals that fueled the Cold War, one thing remains clear – it was a war both the United States and the Soviet Union were committed to winning. Part of the strategy employed by both powers was the use of education as a means of instilling a common ideology. While the United States would point fingers at the Soviet Union and accuse it of indoctrination rather than education, a real effort to promote an American Way of Life was embarked upon at home. It was also exported in much the same manner as the Soviet exportation of communism.

Unlike with communism, the United States did not have a concise definition that it could promote, but during the decades of the Cold War, an ideology emerged even though it was never capsulized in one definitive form. Movies and television idolized an American Way of Life that often romanticized an ideal version of the United States and its history. Books were written promoting a celebrated notion of Americanism; some warning about the pervasive threats against the United States, and other attempting to define what was un-American and what wasn’t. The American image was molded and promoted at home and abroad.

World War I had highlighted a need for a more educated populace, but the post-World War II era took education into a new realm with the U.S. educational system undergoing a transformation during the Cold War. The study of science and technology increased, and universities often found endless government funding for research and development particularly in areas that were argued as essential for national defense. While higher education benefited from an influx of funds, it was not just the research labs which saw change. In public elementary and secondary schools nationwide, the youth learned civics lessons even as they learned to Duck and Cover. However what may have been the most dramatic change came in the form of racial integration. For a nation proclaiming a dedication to equality and promoting democracy worldwide, segregation, especially the segregation of school children, was a political nightmare. The Supreme Court and the State Department worried that segregation jeopardized national interests and foreign policy. A nation determined to promote and export an American Way of Life needed to eradicate segregation from its narrative, and Brown vs. Board of Education was key to changing that narrative. The United States hoped to put to rest international criticism against a way of life which had supported segregation. A national policy of desegregation, accompanied by film images of the forced desegregation of elementary schools, went far in achieving that goal. In an ideological battle between superpowers, perception was a vital component of strategy. A change in national policy, particularly with regard to education, helped improve the perception that the principle of equality was fundamental to an American Way of Life.

 

 

Further Reading

Dudziak, Mary L. “Brown as a Cold War Case.” The Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (2004): 32–42.

Dudziak, Mary L. “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative.” Stanford Law Review 41, no. 1 (1988): 61–120.

Isaac, Joel. “The Human Sciences in Cold War America.” The Historical Journal 50, no. 3 (2007): 725–746.

Lind, Michael. The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Merelman, Richard M. “Symbols as Substance in National Civics Standards.” PS: Political Science and Politics 29, no. 1 (1996): 53–57.

Reuben, Julie A. “Beyond Politics: Community Civics and the Redefinition of Citizenship in the Progressive Era.” History of Education Quarterly 37, no. 4 (1997): 399–420.

Solomon, Eric. “Cold War U.” American Literary History 11, no. 4 (1999): 721–735.

Solomon, Eric. “Cold War U.” American Literary History 11, no. 4 (1999): 721–735.

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