Culture during the Cold War  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Cold War 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 United States and the Soviet Union. 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.


Fiction: spy stories

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).

Books and other works


Cinema as early Cold War propaganda

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.

US cinema

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.

Several organizations played a key role in ensuring that Hollywood acted in the national best interest of the U.S. Catholic Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration acted as two conservative groups that controlled a great deal of the national repertoire during the early stages of the Cold War. These groups filtered out politically subversive or morally questionable movies. More blatantly illustrating the shift from cinema as an art form to cinema as a form of strategic weapon, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals ensured that filmmakers adequately expressed their patriotism. Beyond these cinema-specific efforts, the FBI played a surprisingly large role in the production of movies, instituting a triangular-shaped film strategy: FBI set up a surveillance operation in Hollywood, made efforts to pinpoint and blacklist Communists, secretly laundered intelligence through HUAC, and further helped in producing movies that "fostered [the FBI] image as the protector of the American people." The FBI additionally endorsed films, including Oscar winner The Hoaxsters.

In the 1960s, Hollywood began using spy films to create the enemy through film. Previously, the influence of the Cold War could be seen in many, if not all, genres of American film. By the 1960s, spy films were effectively a "weapon of confrontation between the two world systems." Both sides heightened paranoia and created a sense of constant unease in viewers through the increased production of spy films. Film depicted the enemy in a way that caused both sides to increase general suspicion of foreign and domestic threat.

USSR Cold War cinema

Between 1946–54, the Soviet Union mimicked the US adoption of cinema as a weapon. The Central United Film Studios and the Committee on Cinema Affairs were committed to the Cold War battle. Under Stalin's rule, movies could only be made within strict confines. Cinema and government were, as it stood, inextricably linked. Many films were banned for being insufficiently patriotic. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union produced a plethora of movies with the aim to blatantly function as negative propaganda.

In the same fashion as the United States, the Soviets were eager to depict their enemy in the most unflattering light possible. Between 1946 and 1950, 45.6% of on-screen villains in Soviet films were either American or British. Films addressed non-Soviet themes that emerged in American film in an attempt to derail the criticism and paint the U.S. as the enemy. Attacks made by the United States against the U.S.S.R were simply used as material by Soviet filmmakers for their own attacks on the US. Soviet cinema during this time took its liberty with history: "Did the Red Army engage in the mass rapes of German women and pillage German art treasures, factories, and forests? In Soviet cinema, the opposite was true in [The Meeting on the Elbe]." This demonstrated the heightened paranoia of the Soviet Union.

Despite efforts made to elevate the status of cinema, such as changing the Committee of Cinema Affairs to the Ministry of Cinematography, cinema did not seem to work as invigorating propaganda as was planned. Although the Anti-American films were notably popular with audiences, the Ministry did not feel the message had reached the general public, perhaps due to the fact that the majority of moviegoers seeing the films produced were, perhaps, the Soviets most likely to admire American culture.

After Stalin's death, a Main Administration of Cinema Affairs replaced the Ministry, allowing the filmmakers more freedom due to the lack of direct government control. Many of the films released throughout the late 1950s and 1960s focused on spreading a positive image of Soviet life, intent to prove that Soviet life was indeed better than American life.

Russian science fiction emerged from a prolonged period of censorship in 1957, opened up by de-Stalinization and real Soviet achievements in the space race, typified by Ivan Efremov's galactic epic, Andromeda (1957). Official Communist science fiction transposed the laws of historical materialism to the future, scorning Western nihilistic writings and predicting a peaceful transition to universal communism. Scientocratic visions of the future nevertheless implicitly critiqued the bureaucratically developed socialism of the present. Dissident science fiction writers emerged, such as the Strugatski brothers, Boris and Arkadi, with their "social fantasies," problematizing the role of intervention in the historical process, or Stanislaw Lem's tongue-in-cheek exposures of man's cognitive limitations.

Films depicting nuclear war

  • Duck and Cover – A 1951 educational movie explaining what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
  • On the Beach, depicted a gradually dying, post-apocalyptic world in Australia that remained after a nuclear Third World War.
  • Ladybug Ladybug 1963 an elementary school nuclear bomb warning alarm sounds
  • 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.

Films depicting a conventional U.S./USSR war

In addition to fears of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, there were also fears of a direct, large scale conventional conflict between the two superpowers.

  • 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.

Films depicting Cold War espionage

  • 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.

Other films about U.S./Soviet fears and rivalry


Television commercials

Wendy's Hamburger Chain ran a television commercial showing a supposed "Soviet Fashion Show", which featured the same large, unattractive woman wearing the same dowdy outfit in a variety of situations, the only difference being the accessory she carried (for example, a flashlight for 'nightwear' or a beach ball for 'swimwear'). This was supposedly a lampoon on how the Soviet society is characterised with uniformity and standardisation, in contrast to the U.S. characterised with freedom of choice, as highlighted in the Wendy's commercial.

Apple Computer's "1984" ad, despite paying homage to George Orwell's novel of the same name, follows a more serious yet ambitious take on the freedom vs. totalitarianism theme evident between the US and Soviet societies at the time.

Political commercials

Daisies and mushroom clouds

Daisy was the most famous campaign commercial of the Cold War. Aired only once, on 7 September 1964, it was a factor in Lyndon B. Johnson's defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. The contents of the commercial were controversial, and their emotional impact was searing.

The commercial opens with a very young girl standing in a meadow with chirping birds, slowly counting the petals of a daisy as she picks them one by one. Her sweet innocence, along with mistakes in her counting, endear her to the viewer. When she reaches "9", an ominous-sounding male voice is suddenly heard intoning the countdown of a rocket launch. As the girl's eyes turn toward something she sees in the sky, the camera zooms in until one of her pupils fills the screen, blacking it out. The countdown reaches zero, and the blackness is instantly replaced by a simultaneous bright flash and thunderous sound which is then followed by footage of a nuclear explosion, an explosion similar in appearance to the near surface burst Trinity test of 1945, followed by another cut to footage of a billowing mushroom cloud.

As the fireball ascends, an edit cut is made, this time to a close-up section of incandescence in the mushroom cloud, over which a voiceover from Johnson is played, which states emphatically, "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." Another voiceover then says, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." (Two months later, Johnson won the election in an electoral landslide.)

Bear in the woods

Bear in the woods was a 1984 campaign advertisement endorsing Ronald Reagan for President. This campaign ad depicted a brown bear wandering through the woods (likely implying the Soviet Union) and suggested that Reagan was more capable of dealing with the Soviets than his opponent, in spite of the fact that the ad never explicitly mentioned the Soviet Union, the Cold War or Walter Mondale.


The 1984 "We begin bombing in five minutes" incident is an example of cold war dark humor. It was a personal microphone gaffe joke between Ronald Reagan, his White House staff and radio technicians that was accidentally leaked to the US populace. At the time, Reagan was well known before this incident for telling Soviet/Russian jokes in televised debates, many of which have now been uploaded to video hosting websites.

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.

The joke was a parody of the opening line of that day's speech:

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.

Following his trip to Los Angeles in 1959 and being refused entry into Disneyland, on security grounds, a dejected Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev joked, "... - just now I was told that I could not go to Disneyland, I asked "Why not?" What is it, do you have rocket launching pads there?


The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in competition vis-à-vis the arts. Cultural competition played out in Moscow, New York, London, and Paris. The Soviets excelled at ballet and chess, the Americans at jazz and abstract expressionist paintings. The US funded its own ballet troupes, and both used ballet as political propaganda, using dance to reflect life style in the "battle for the hearts and minds of men." The defection of a premier dancer became a major coup.

From 1956 through the late 1970s, the U.S. State Department sent its finest jazz musicians to show off music that appealed to youth, to demonstrate racial harmony at home, and to undergird freedom as jazz was a democratic music form, free flowing and improvised. Jazz tours of the Soviet Union were organized in 1956, and lasted through the 1970s.

Chess was inexpensive enough—and the Russians always won until America unleashed Bobby Fischer. Vastly more expensive was the Space Race, as a proxy for scientific supremacy (with a technology with obvious military uses). As well when it came to sports the two countries both competed in the Olympics during the Cold War period which also created severe tension when the West boycotted the first Russian Olympics in 1980.


1950s and 1960s

Musicians of these decades, especially in Jazz and Folk Music, were influenced by the shadow of nuclear war. Probably the most famous, passionate and influential of all was Bob Dylan, notably in his songs Masters of War and A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall (written just before the Cuban Missile Crisis). In 1965 Barry McGuire's version of P. F. Sloan's apocalyptic Eve of Destruction was a number one hit in the United States and elsewhere.

Van Cliburn was a pianist who was celebrated with a ticker tape parade after winning a musical competition in the Soviet Union .


Many protest songs during the 1980s reflected general unease with escalating tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States brought on by Ronald Reagan's and Margaret Thatcher's hard line against the Soviets. For example, various musical artists wore military uniform-like costumes, as a reflection of the increased feeling of militarism seen in the 1980s. Songs symbolically showed the superpowers going to war, as in the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song "Two Tribes". This song's MTV music video featured caricatures of United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko in a wrestling match.

Other songs expressed fear of World War III, as in the Sting song, "Russians", with lyrics such as "I don't subscribe to his [Reagan's or Khrushchev's] point of view" (that Reagan would protect Europe, or that Khrushchev would "bury" the West). Other examples include Sly Fox's "Let's go all the way", a song about "going all the way" to nuclear war; The Escape Club's "Wild Wild West" with its various references to the Cold War. The Genesis song "Land of Confusion" expressed a desire to make some sense out of the world, especially in relation to nuclear war.

A number of punk rock bands from the 1980s attacked Cold War era politics, such as Reagan's and Thatcher's nuclear deterrence brinkmanship. A small sampling includes The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Government Issue, Fear, Suicidal Tendencies, Toxic Reasons, Reagan Youth, etc. Noted punk compilation P.E.A.C.E. included bands from around the world in an attempt to promote international peace. The Scars covered apocalyptic poem "Your Attention Please" by Peter Porter, a radio broadcast announcing nuclear war.

Probably the most famous of the 1980s songs against increased confrontation between the Soviets and the Americans was Nena's "99 Luftballons", which described the events - ostensibly starting with the innocent release of 99 (red) toy balloons - that could lead to a nuclear war.

Imperiet – "Coca Cola Cowboys" – a Swedish rock song about how the world is divided by two super powers that both claim to represent justice.

Roman Palester, a classical music composer had his works banned and censored in Poland and the Soviet Union, as a result of his work for Radio Free Europe, even though he was thought to be Poland's greatest living composer at the time.

Musicals and plays

  • Chess The game of chess was another mode of competition between the two superpowers, which the musical demonstrates.


Historians debate whether the spread of American-style consumerism to Western Europe (and Japan) was part of the Cold War. Steigerwald reviews the debate by looking at the book Trams or Tailfins? Public and Private Prosperity in Postwar West Germany and the United States (2012) by Jan L. Logemann:

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).


Cold war tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were the backdrop of sports competitions, especially in hockey and in the Olympics of 1980 and 1984.

Playground equipment

Playground equipment constructed during the Cold War was intended to foster children's curiosity and excitement about the Space Race. It was installed in both Communist and non-Communist countries throughout the Cold War.

Video games

Protest culture

Anti-nuclear protests first emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the United Kingdom, the first Aldermaston March, organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, took place in 1958. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, about 50,000 women brought together by Women Strike for Peace marched in 60 cities in the United States to demonstrate against nuclear weapons.

In the early 1980s, the revival of the nuclear arms race triggered large protests about nuclear weapons. In October 1981 half a million people took to the streets in several cities in Italy, more than 250,000 people protested in Bonn, 250,000 demonstrated in London, and 100,000 marched in Brussels. The largest anti-nuclear protest was held on June 12, 1982, when one million people demonstrated in New York City against nuclear weapons. In October 1983, nearly 3 million people across western Europe protested nuclear missile deployments and demanded an end to the arms race; the largest crowd of almost one million people assembled in the Hague in the Netherlands. In Britain, 400,000 people participated in what was probably the largest demonstration in British history.


See also

Western culture

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Culture during the Cold War" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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