History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Cold War

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Literature Sexuality and Gender Theatre Fashion Politics
Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist),1950
Theme from TV series "Peter Gunn", by Henry Mancini (1958)

Politics || Theatre || Fashion || Literature || Gender and Sexuality



You may recall that, during the war, Stalin of the Soviet Union had insisted on the Allies opening a Western Front. Britain and the U.S. had delayed this, mostly because Churchill of Britain had insisted that focusing on the Mediterranean operations (North Africa, Italy) would be of more use in helping the Soviets. Europe 1945 map  showing divided GermanyFranklin D. Roosevelt, president of the U.S., had bowed to Churchill's wishes. But both knew this was about more than wartime strategy. It was also about communism. Stalin claimed that Britain and the U.S. were refusing him a second front so that the Nazi fascists and the Soviet communists would kill each other off. And indeed, Churchill's focus on the south was part of his strategy to restrict Stalin by invading Eastern Europe up from the south.

Had Churchill's strategy won out, Allies would have invaded up through the Balkans, occupying Eastern Europe and preventing the USSR from doing so. But FDR decided, in Operation Overlord, to answer Stalin's demand, in an effort to prove that the capitalists were not trying to kill off the Russians, and in hopes that the USSR would be a full participant in the new United Nations. Only Soviet confidence in the intentions of her allies, FDR believed, would prevent future war. So in 1944, U.S. and British troops invaded northern France, and Germany was occupied in the east by the Soviets and in the west by Britain, the U.S., and France.

After the U.S. used atomic weapons against Japan, Stalin felt even more threatened and was determined to hold onto eastern Europe as a "buffer zone" against western capitalist aggression. Germany had been partitioned into British, American, French, and Soviet sectors (as had Berlin), but the map above shows East Germany as fully within the Soviet "bloc", along with other nations where the local communist parties had taken over the government, almost all with Soviet assistance. Churchill called this line, the western border of the communist bloc, the "Iron Curtain".

book Workbook document: Winston Churchill: The Iron Curtain

Berlin was the hole in that curtain. After the war, Europe went into economic depression. In nations everywhere, including the west, communists and socialists took power. The American solution to this, and communist aggression in Eastern Europe, was the Marshall Plan. In 1947, the U.S. offered billions to Europe in economic recovery cash. Western European nations accepted the money, but Eastern bloc nations declined after Stalin explained that the U.S. was trying to buy them with money when it couldn't earn them with ideology. The result was that money flooded into western Europe, but not eastern Europe, which had only the Soviet Union as a trade partner. In Berlin, it was possible for someone leaving anywhere in eastern Europe to walk from East Berlin across a street into the French, U.S. or British sector of the city, and then take a train or plane to anywhere in the west. By the 1960s, the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was experiencing a "brain drain", where good scientists and scholars were leaving for western Europe and the U.S. In 1961, the East German government constructed the Berlin Wall to keep people from leaving the Soviet sector of East Berlin, and thus all of Eastern Europe.

map of Germany showing four zones, then  showing Berlin divided with wall on west side of Russian sector

The U.S. saw the wall go up, as did the British and French, but decided not to start World War III in order to stop it. This was the Cold War, a standoff between communist and capitalist nations.

The Cold War was also evident in the United Nations. Shortly after the war, the U.S. had proposed the Baruch Plan, designed to halt nuclear development. But the Soviet Union felt it unfair to "freeze" conditions when only the U.S. had a nuclear bomb.

photograph of UN chamberThe United Nations, founded in 1945 in San Francisco, would be moved to New York City. It was located in the U.S. in order to ensure there would not be a repeat of post-Great War isolationism, which had excluded the U.S. from the League of Nations. There are two main bodies in the UN: the General Assembly, which consists of representatives from all member nations, and the Security Council. The Security Council has five permanent members in addition to members which rotate, and each permanent member has veto power. The permanent members in 1945 were Great Britain, France, the U.S., Republican China (later Communist China) and the Soviet Union (now Russia). The Security Council handles all issues that relate to international security (war and peace). So, the Soviet Union vetoed the Baruch Plan, and the nuclear arms "race" began.

The USSR detonated its first atomic device in 1949 (a year that also saw the communist takeover of China). States fearful of Soviet expansion formed NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In addition to nations on either side of the North Atlantic (the U.S., Canada, France, Britain, Portugal) others were included who might be useful against the Soviets (such as Turkey). The Soviets would respond with a similar communist nation club called the Warsaw Pact in 1955.

Between the end of the war in 1945 and the beginning of the Vietnam War in 1965, the Soviet Union and the U.S. "fought" each other around the world through "proxy" wars in smaller nations, by supporting the capitalist or communist side. The earth was divided into the First World (U.S. and allies), the Second World (Soviets and allies), and the Third World (non-aligned and others).

Among the significant events were:
The Korean War (1950), in which the U.S.-led U.N. pushed invading North Korea out of South Korea. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese, with the North surrendering to the Soviets and the south to the Americans. The North had become communist under Soviet tutelage, and had close ties to the newly communist China. U.S. President Truman was able to get the war started through the U.N. Security Council, because on that particular day the Soviets were boycotting the meeting Stalin statue head on the ground as people walk byto protest the U.N. refusing to allow Communist China to take the seat of Republican China. (They never missed another meeting.)
Revolt of Hungary (1956), which followed Stalin's death in 1953 and new leader Khruschev's efforts to de-Stalinize the USSR. Following Poland's lead, students and workers rebelled against Soviet oppression. When the new liberal government tried to pull out of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets sent in tanks and ended the rebellion.
Suez Crisis (1956), in which the jointly-owned (by Britain and France) Suez Canal in Egypt was nationalized by Egyptian leader Nasser. This was also related to U.S. support for Israel (created 1948) against the Arabs in Palestine. Egyptian Arabs looked to the Soviets for support against capitalist interests, and got it. The British and French invaded Egypt. By 1957, both the Soviets and the U.S. had fleets off the coast of Egypt.
The building of the Berlin Wall (1961) (see above)
The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), wherein the newly communist nation of Cuba was seen to be receiving offensive missile equipment from the Soviet Union, which could set up platforms for hitting the U.S. American President John F. Kennedy won the game of chicken against Soviet premier Khruschev, and the Soviets withdrew.



It was during the Cold War that the U.S. really conquered Europe, and became a trendsetter in culture. The performing arts were, for many, Europe's introduction to what was becoming a thriving American culture. Nowhere was this more evident than in theatre.


One of the greatest writers in the American theatre was Tennessee Williams. Blanche DuBois (played by Vivian Leigh) and Stanley (Marlon Brando) looking at each otherThough he used much symbolism in his plays, his characters always seemed real. Freudian psychology played a great role in his work. His play A Streetcar Named Desire featured Blanche duBois, a pathological liar living in a fantasy world. She seemed to be southern gentility, full of airs and polite speech, but she's actually broke. Coming to live with her sister in a working-class neighborhood, she is forced to encounter an earthier lifestyle. The contact with reality, particularly in the form of sexually-charged encounters with her sister's husband, send her round the bend.

Arthur Miller's work also dealt with personal themes, but in an even more universal way. His Death of a Salesman (1949) is still one of the most performed plays in the world. It contains a very American mingling of material success, coupled with the need for love. Main character Willy Loman, a salesman, believes his sons won't love him unless he's a success, and he's trained his sons to believe the same thing. He works himself to death although he is far from successful, and only at the end photo of cast of a production of The Crucibledoes he realize that love is more important, and exists despite ones material failures.

Miller's work The Crucible relates directly to the Cold War. It is a retelling of the Salem witch trials, which took place in America in 1692. There are continual parallels between the witch hunts in the play and the ones taking place in the U.S. during the Cold War, as Congress hunted down American communists and sympathizers, all of whom were seen to be providing assistance to the Soviets, even if they weren't.


Musical theatre originated in London music halls, but became an American art form after the war. This was the age of Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Camelot. Although such works are now sometimes considered frivolous, they often had serious themes and intricate stories.

One example is Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. Unlike music halls, where the action stopped for the songs, Rodgers and Hammerstein's work integrated story, music and characters; the songs move the action along. The play dealt with racial issues that were particularly American yet universal at the same time, as post-war Europe dealt with migrations of strangers into their nations. The play is set in the South Pacific islands during the war, and one main character is nurse Nellie Forbush, who falls in love with a French plantation-owner. Upon discovering he has two children from a deceased Polynesian wife, she has problems accepting him because of the race of his kids. The other main character is a young GI who falls for a local Polynesian girl, but feels he cannot marry her and bring her back to the states, where they would face prejudice. Producers wanted one of the songs that dealt with these issues specifically (You've Got to Be Taught) cut from the show, but Hammerstein insisted it remain.

click here for audio of songYou've got to be taughtclick here for music
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Theatre of the Absurd

During the 1950s, Europeans also created new theatrical forms. Eugene Ionesco, photo of Ionescowho was Romanian, was the father of "theatre of the absurd". His plays were in the tradition of existentialism, where man is defined by his actions. But, since actions were based on moral decisions, and morality was based on convention (because the truth is really chaos rather than order), human action was inherently illogical. He once said, "It's not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it's mankind."

book Workbook document: Ionesco's The Chairs

In his work The Bald Soprano (1950), there really isn't any action. The characters are so alike they are interchangeable, and all the dialogue is cliché. The story degenerates from there, until at the end of the play the characters are just repeating letters of the alphabet. Just as abstraction was beginning to dominate visual arts, theatre began to take apart the elements that most people thought of as being theatrical.

The other expert of this genre was Samuel Beckett, who wrote Waiting for Godot in 1953. In this play, two homeless men sit on a bench and improvise diversions while waiting for Godot, who never shows. It is a metaphor for life, kind of like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, except that Godot might be God. The idea is that life itself is absurd; we're just creating diversions for ourselves.


Fashion click here for audio

movie still of man and woman looking angrily across the table at each other World War II brought about restrictions on fabric, which was needed for blankets, bandages and uniforms. The result of this and the emphasis on military action was broad-shouldered suits for women and men alike.


With the end of the war, fabric was more plentiful and many people wished to go "back to normal". Although post-war depression dampened sales, the Marshall Plan (1947) helped Europe recover economically. Paris designer Christian Dior developed the New Look, which was opulent and feminine.

The New Look was a relief from war-time rationing. Lipstick, mascara and eyeliner no longer meant a "loose" woman. Skirts were full, and waists were pinched in an emphasis of the hour-glass figure. Silk stockings and high heels completed the image.

movie poster: Murder My Sweet, with couple embracing

Men wore hats in public.

Men's fashion wasn't limited to business suits. Casual shirts (Hawaiian especially) made a debut during the 1940s.

The New Look, with hourglass silhouette

During the 1950s in the U.S., movie stars like James Dean popularized a new young look: jeans, t-shirt, and jacket.

It was during this time that young people began to take the lead in fashion.

James Dean in leather jacket with cigarette
Jackie Kennedy looking lovely in peach sleeveless dress and pearls, on boat
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

By the early 1960s, the dresses were slimmer, shorter, and less ornate. To be fashionable was to be dressed simply, but elegantly and expensively. Women used hair spray to keep the rounded styles in place.


The Beatles with mop-top hair

The Beatles "mop top" look was considered radical, but became a trend in male hair by the mid-60s. Hair for men and women would become longer and more natural after that.

Kids with absurdly small car, one guy on each side and three women standing up in the seat Before 1965, dress was pretty conservative, and particularly casual for young people.

Gender and Sexuality

Feminismphotograph of Simone de Beauvoir

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

--Simone de Beauvoir, 1953

Simone de Beauvoir created modern feminist theory.

Her life is interesting. She was a teenager during the freedom of the 1920s, and was frequently at odds with her bourgeois parents regarding appropriate fashion and independence. Since they had no dowry for her, her family sent her to university at Sorbonne. There she became a teacher, novelist, and activist. She also began a life-long affair with existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, but they were not exclusive and didn't want to marry. She led a sexually free life, her middle-class money allowing her to obtain both birth control and abortion although they were illegal in France.

In her book The Second Sex, she noted Western culture as male-dominant and oppressive to women, who are born free but made to see themselves as secondary in society. She criticized the reassertion of traditional values that followed World War II. In showing how traditional science, history, and social sciences relegated women to a role as "the other" in society, she lay the groundwork for scholarly studies demonstrating the exclusion of women from the products of intellectual endeavor: literature, history, art, etc. Today there are plenty of reflections of what she began; for example, the current movement to include women in medical drug studies.

Homosexuality submerged

The post-war era saw the simultaneous Soldiers gathered around munitionevolution of the gay community and the anti-gay movement. World War II had caused changes in sexual contacts: the combat military was mostly male, the home front workers mostly female. Same-sex contact was thus increased, and provided an environment for exploring sexual identity and developing close friendships.

But the Cold War era environment was highly restrictive, emphasizing a reassertion of traditional gender roles and behavior. Women were supposed to be in the home, men in the public workplaces. Homosexuals were attacked, especially in the U.S., where they were purged from the armed forces, banned from federal jobs, harassed by police if they lived openly, and subjected to state laws against sexual deviancy. Those who rebelled against the norms of the day, such as Beat Generation writers, even if they weren't gay, became heroes for turning traditional values upside down. cover of The Ladder: a Lesbian Review, with Statue of LibertyThese cultural rebels against the suburban "Leave it to Beaver" mentality of the 1950s created an option that would set the pattern for the social rebellion of the 60s.

But during the 1950s, there were basically two options for gay people. You could "come out", going public with your sex life, frequenting known gay bars and dressing in the clothes expected for that particular group. Doing this would pave the way for the future by bringing forth injustice and discrimination. Groups formed like the Daughters of Bilitis (1955) and The Mattachine Society (1951) to help gay people create communities. The other option, taken by most, was to publicly deny your homosexuality, keeping friendships but ignoring or denying any sexual context. Because this was the most frequent response, post-war homosexuality is hard to study, as it became submerged in literature and public culture. It wasn't until the Stonewall event of 1968 occurred that open communities became popular.



George Orwell: Animal Farm (1945)

cover of the book, with big pig looking angry, with other farm animals around itOrwell's story of a farm where the animals take over was a parable of communist takeover in Russia, but it was more. In the story, the animals want to create a society where everyone is equal, but the pigs declare that "some are more equal than others". They make themselves the elite, even walking on two legs to imitate humans. Power corrupts. The story is as valid today as it was then.

Orwell's other highly significant book was 1984, a futuristic look at a society that becomes a police state. Double-speak propaganda ("War is Peace") dominates, and Big Brother keeps an eye on all citizens with intense surveillance.

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (1955)

still from the movie, with Lolita in the car while he drives

Nabakov believed that of the forbidden subjects in Western literature, the only plot less acceptable than a mixed-race couple having a happy marriage and children was a much older man in love with a young girl. He dealt with that in Lolita, which portrayed its male character with sympathy. His sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl is documented with his internal psychological processes as he conducts an affair with her.

book Workbook document: Nabakov's Lolita

Shocking in its explicitness, Nabokov's book was banned in Europe, though it was published in the U.S. Filmed versions in 1962 and 1997 stirred even more controversy.

1960s Literature

During the 1960s, literature became even more expressive of societal fears. In Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, gangs of kids go around committing acts of extraordinary violence. Using first-person narration, Burgess embues the novel with its own slang language, pulling you into the world of the perpetrators of violence. This book turned people's stomachs, and reflected fears of youth rebellion and societal extremes.

book Workbook document: Burgess' A Clockwork Orange
photo of Sylvia Plath Poetry, also, reflected extremes of feeling. American Sylvia Plath tried to commit suicide in 1953, which led to psychiatric hospitalization and electroshock therapy, a story she told in the novel The Bell Jar (1963). On the backs of the drafts of this work she wrote some of the poems in Ariel. She was a brilliant poet of what was called the "confessional" style, pioneered by poet Robert Lowell. She successfully committed suicide in 1963, at the age of 30. Her poetry provides insight into the mind of a depressive genius, and marked the beginnings of a change in modern poetry.
book Workbook document: Plath's Ariel



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.