Cold War propaganda reached its heights in the 1950s and 1960s, with concerted attempts to demonise communism while extolling the virtues of capitalism and democracy. Pro-American values were promoted in film, television, music, literature and art. This was done openly and often with little subtlety; watched today, some examples are little more than nonsensical propaganda. The 1948 animated feature Make Mine Freedom extolled the advantages and freedoms available to those who live in a capitalist society. Released the following year, Meet King Joe told American workers to be content with their lot, as they had it better than workers anywhere else in the world. As time progressed the themes and methods in pro-democracy propaganda became more subtle; governments produced less of it themselves, instead relying on film and television studios to incorporate acceptable ideas and values into their product. Most of the radio series, dramas and sit-coms made in America during the 1950s celebrated the distinct advantages of living in a prosperous, capitalist nation. The benefits of things such as the nuclear family, school, community, obedience and loyalty were openly promoted.
In addition, communism was condemned both as an ideology and a social system. Every medium from motion pictures down to children’s comic books was used to portray an America under the heel of a communist dictatorship. A classic example was the early 1950s film Red Nightmare, first made as an instructional film for the armed forces but later released on television. Red Nightmare makes the outlandish claim that entire US cities had been reconstructed in Soviet territory, in order to train communist spies and infiltrators in methods of bringing down American government and society. In the comic book This Godless Communism, an American family finds the US has been taken over by communists, virtually overnight, and renamed the ‘United Soviet States of America’. As they attempt to find help, they find all their rights and freedoms have been abolished; father is relocated to a distant lumber mill, mother to an urban factory and the children to state-run schools and nurseries. In the 1950s the CIA commissioned an animated film version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – an allegorical account of the Russian Revolution and Soviet government – to serve as propaganda.
Anti-communism in popular culture
Some other examples of Cold War propaganda include:
Movies. Motion pictures brought the battle between democracy and communism to the big screen. Many of these films were made in the wake of the HUAC-inspired blacklists, as movie studios and producers strived to appear patriotic and loyal. In Big Jim McLain, John Wayne stars as a HUAC investigator who travels to Hawaii to stamp out communist activity there. Soviet and Western espionage was a common theme, represented in movies such as The Third Man. Cold War hysteria leaked into the science-fiction genre, in movies such as Red Planet Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob. All contained aliens who were shadowy forces hell-bent on taking control of the world by stealth, an obvious metaphor for perceptions of communism. Cold War themes were also revived in 1980s films such as Red Dawn (where the US is subject to a joint Soviet-Cuban invasion) and Rocky IV (where an American boxer does battle with a robotic Soviet fighter).
Television. Television was still in its infancy in the 1950s. Most television programs contained music, light entertainment and comedy, so anti-communist themes were represented with more subtlety. American television in the 1950s promoted conservative family values and the virtues of American society, particularly in its situation comedies. Situation comedies like Leave it to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet emphasised the importance of education, work, obedience, respect for your parents and the stability and prosperity enjoyed by American families. Cold War espionage was explored in drama series like I Spy and The Man from UNCLE; it was also parodied in the Mel Brooks-created series Get Smart. Even the villains in children’s cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle (Boris and Natasha) and Roger Ramjet (Noodles Romanoff) were nothing more than stereotypical European communist agents. Television journalists occasionally influenced public attitudes, such as Edward R. Murrow’s 1954 criticism of Joseph McCarthy, or Walter Cronkite’s 1968 editorial suggesting that the US should look to withdraw from Vietnam.
Daniel Leab, historian
Literature. George Orwell’s 1984 expanded on the Cold War by envisioning a world kept divided and obedient with fears of ‘perpetual war’. The ‘spy novel’ genre was by far the most prevalent in Cold War literature. Ian Fleming’s novels about a British spy, James Bond, were written in the 1950s and were motivated by tensions with the Soviet bloc. In The Spy who Loved Me, Bond does battle with SMERSH, a Soviet counter-espionage agency. John le Carre (a pen-name for David Cornwell, a former employee of British spy agency MI5) penned a number of novels such as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, set in East Germany. The 1950s and 1960s also saw the production of hundreds of cheap pulp-fiction novels, often with lewd themes or excessive violence. Purgatory of the Conquered showed an America taken over by communist forces; Red Rape told of a Soviet-run operation to capture Western women for the purposes of sexual slavery.
The Arts. Cold War tensions fuelled competition and shaped the content of art forms as diverse as music and ballet. American and Soviet dance companies performed regularly around the world, attempting to demonstrate cultural superiority. This competition led to a dramatic rise in US government funding for the arts. A critical moment came in 1961 when Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West to perform with Britain’s Royal Ballet; Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev later signed a death warrant for Nureyev, should he ever return to Russia. The US provided funds to allow several orchestras, jazz bands and solo musicians to tour the USSR, in an attempt to demonstrate the artistic advantages of capitalism. The superpowers also engaged in chess competitions to prove whose strategies were more effective.
Sport. Cold War rivalry was also reflected in sporting events. The 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne were held just days after Soviet forces had crushed a pro-democratic uprising in Hungary, prompting the withdrawal of Holland, Spain and Switzerland from the games. These tensions spilled over into a water polo match between Hungary and the USSR, where players exchanged punches and one left the pool bleeding. The game was called off after the pro-Hungarian crowd threatened to riot. The 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball match between the US and USSR also ended in controversy, with the defeated Americans refusing to accept the silver medal. The 1980 Olympics were held in Moscow and were boycotted by the US, West Germany, Japan and several other nations. The Soviets reciprocated by refusing to attend the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Education. In both hemispheres, education was harnessed for Cold War purposes and to instil the political values of each system. Education systems in both the US and USSR received dramatic boosts in funding, particularly in the maths and sciences. Humanities subjects like History and English became steeped in patriotism and political values. In 1952 the American Pledge of Allegiance, widely chanted by schoolchildren, was altered to include the words “under God”. Many American students were also subject to ‘social hygiene’ or ‘mental health’ films in high school. These 10-20 minute single-reel movies focused on what might now be called ‘personal development’: hygiene, manners, respect for others, appropriate behaviour and sexual conduct. Many examples contained an obvious political message or subtext, such as one titled How to Spot a Communist. There were also the ubiquitous instructions and ‘duck and cover’ drills to show what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
1. Cold War propaganda was widely used in all major nations, in an attempt to gain and consolidate public support.
2. Early forms of propaganda contained explicit political messages and themes and lacked any subtlety.
3. In time the messages of Cold War propaganda were integrated into popular culture, such as film, books and television.
4. In America, Cold War propaganda celebrated the prosperity of capitalism, while reinforcing conservative social values.
5. Cold War culture was also keenly focused on the continued activities of spies and secret agents, who were well represented in film, television and literature.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Cold War propaganda”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/cold-war-propaganda/.