Cold War Home Front, 1945-19

by Jon Timothy Kelly

Published as Chapter 4 in Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Modern America:  From the Indian Wars to the Vietnam War (2007)


            Throughout World War II, the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) served as an important agency to promote both home front protection and population mobilization for the war effort.  Yet by May of 1945, with plans for the invasion of Japan in the works and the threat of Japanese attack against the American homeland remote, President Harry Truman abolished the OCD.[1] A year later, Miles Bell, chief property inspector for the District of Columbia , was the last of the OCD's 36,000 workers in the nation's capital.  As far as Bell was concerned, the OCD would live on only until he could dispose of 33,206 armbands, 27,000 feet of hose, 9,469 helmets, 3,003 pumps, and 3,759 gas masks, in addition to first-aid kits and firemen's coats.  He had grown rather attached to his diverse inventory, he told a reporter.  "I feel like the man who always wore spurs on the grounds that he never knew when he might meet a horse.”[2]

            Bell's comments proved prophetic as fears generated by the Cold War would soon revive efforts at home front protection, not just from an external military threat, but also a widely perceived threat of internal subversion.  Americans were told to remain vigilant against Communism, and these warnings came not just from national politicians, but from all levels of society:  school and community leaders, pastors, service clubs, newspaper editors and other opinion makers.  Anti-Communism was infused throughout American culture, and American media trumpeted this propaganda by drawing on the skills it had honed during World War II.  In the fight against Communism, American civilians were urged to take on the role of citizen soldiers to protect the home front.

            The Cold War was not a war in the traditional sense of the word.  It had neither the intensity nor the concentration of time that can be used to describe previous world wars.  There were, of course, limited wars in Korea and Vietnam, but if the U.S.S.R. was perceived as the enemy in this Cold War conflict (accused, as it was, of being both expansionist and the source of the worldwide Communist threat), it is worth noting that American and Russian forces never actually engaged one another on the battlefield.  Thus the Cold War was a contest between ideological, economic, and political systems.  In contrast to a “hot war,” the Cold War was characterized by a heightened state of tension over a long duration, which was made all the more dangerous by the fact that after 1949, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had the nuclear capability to lay waste to one another’s cities within a matter of hours.[3]

            Between 1945 and 1962, Americans were gripped by a sense of fear and insecurity that was more intense than any other period in the Cold War era, and led both American policymakers and civilians to build a Cold War home front.  While military conflict was always a possibility, the real goal of such a home front atmosphere was to encourage civilians to participate in this contest with Communism as “citizen soldiers.”  Only after the U.S. and the Soviet Union nearly fell into the nuclear abyss at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 did both nations step back from the precipice and begin a sincere dialogue over how Cold War tensions could be reduced.

            Yet by 1963, it was clear that the superpower contest had dramatically impacted American society in a variety of ways.  The Cold War fueled a search for internal enemies at home that resulted in the hysteria of McCarthyism and a near stifling of political dissent.  It encouraged the formation of families at a faster rate than ever before as individuals sought security in the nuclear age through marriage and children.  It led America as a result of its role as “leader of the free world” to confront racial injustice against African Americans at home.  It produced an unprecedented level of prosperity as the American economy was transformed into a partial but permanent wartime economy to fight a war in Korea and contain the U.S.S.R. in Eastern Europe.  And finally, it forced Americans to try to come to terms with the unimaginable threat of nuclear war and what protective measures - if any - could be taken.


[1] Executive Order 9562, Truman Presidential Papers:  1945, pp. 30-31.

[2] “OCD’s Last Man,” Newsweek, 30 September 1946 , p. 25.

[3] Keith Nelson, The Impact of War on American Life: The Twentieth-Century Experience (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), pp. 173-174.

 Further Sections to the Chapter

The Origins of the Cold War

Communists and Anti-Communists  

Anti-Communism and the Schools

Anti-Communism and the Media

Anti-Communism in American Life

Civil Rights and the Cold War

Containment and the Korean War

The Economic Impact of Containment

Civil Defense and the Search for Security


Would you like to read the whole chapter?  Send me an e-mail for a Word.doc copy.



Barson, Michael and Steven Heller.  Red Scared: The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture.  San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 2001.

Barson and Heller provide a fascinating account of the Cold War through imagery.  In addition to a detailed chronology of the Cold War, this book is filled with photos that range from anti-Communist movie posters to children’s trading cards.  Documents presented in the book include anti-Communist pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles, and comic books.

 Boyer, Paul.  By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age.  New York : Pantheon, 1985.

Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light remains the classic study in explaining the atomic bomb’s impact on both public discourse and popular mythology between 1945 and 1950.  The bomb, he argues, radically transformed American culture and the nation’s morals and values through its impact on music, literature, film, print media, and education.  It was only by domesticating the bomb that Americans could deal with its horror.

Dudziak, Mary L.  Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy.  Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2000.

Dudziak’s work is one of the first to deal with the relationship between the Cold War contest and the struggle for equality on the part of African Americans.  She shows how concerned American policy makers were about the U.S. image abroad whenever it received critical press coverage detailing civil rights abuses in the South, and how those concerns pressured elected officials to push for civil rights legislation nationally. 

Fried, Richard M.  The Russians are Coming!  The Russians are Coming!  Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold War America ( New York : Oxford University Press, 1998.

Fried offers a unique cultural and political history of the Cold War by focusing on American society at the grassroots level.  He is particularly interested in showing the influence that patriotic and civic activists had through both local and national campaigns to reinvigorate a sense of national pride in Americans in order to fight the perceived threat of Communism.

May, Elaine Tyler.  Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.  New York : Basic Books, 1999.

Elaine Tyler May explores the relationship between Cold War insecurities and the American family of the 1950s by showing how cultural opinion makers sought to contain “explosive issues” such as sexuality and the bomb within the confines of the home.  Relying in part on interviews from the 1950s which focused on the psychological and personality development of married couples, May seeks to explain why so many women chose to be homemakers in the post-war decade instead of seeking to advance the economic and social opportunities they had during World War II.

Markusen. Ann and Joel Yudken, Dismantling the Cold War Economy.  New York : Basic Books, 1992).

The focus of Markusen and Yudken’s book deals with the difficulties of retooling an American economy that is oriented towards Cold War defense.  What will it take, they ask, to transform it into a post-Cold War world economy?  In the process, they explain the history of the military industrial complex, how it came to be, and which regions of the country benefitted the most from it.

Navasky, Victor.  Naming Names.  New York : Penguin Books, 1980.

Navasky calls his book less of a history and more of a moral detective story, but in fact this work remains the best historical account yet of the Hollywood blacklist era.  Navasky details the tremendous pressures faced by those who were brought before HUAC and eventually complied with HUAC’s demands to name names of colleagues who at one time belonged to or associated with those who were members of the Communist Party.

Oakes, Guy.  The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture.  New York : Oxford University Press, 1994.

Oakes argues that even as U.S. policymakers under Truman and Eisenhower encouraged the public to participate in building a strong civil defense program, they knew that surviving a nuclear war was impossible.  The real reason behind civil defense was to build within the civilian population the moral resolve necessary to face the hazards of the Cold War.  Americans were told how to control their fears and what actions they would need to take in the days and weeks after a nuclear attack.  Moreover, Oakes shows that policymakers promoted a Cold War ethic by rooting civil defense in the notion of family togetherness and self-protection.

Pierpaoli, Paul.  Truman and Korea : The Political Culture of the Early Cold War.  Columbia : University of Missouri Press, 1999.

There are very few books which deal with the domestic impact of the Korean War, thus making Pierpaoli’s work both unique and important.  The Korean War, he argues, permanently altered the American economic and political landscape, making it a watershed event.  The focus of the book is on the building of the national security state and the evolution of the political culture of the Cold War, with particular emphasis on the American fear of creating a garrison state to meet the Soviet threat.

Rose, Lisle A.  The Cold War Comes to Main Street : America in 1950.  Lawrence : University of Kansas Press, 1999.

In this social history of the Cold War, Rose focuses on the year 1950 as he shows how the hopeful mood Americans once shared in the early post-war years was transformed into fear with the explosion of a Russian atomic bomb and the Korean War.  Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade heightened these fears and bred public distrust in the liberal establishment of the New Deal.  This period, Rose argues, laid the foundation for the ultra-Right’s campaign in the years that followed to dismantle the foundation of modern American liberalism.

Schrecker, Ellen.  Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America.  Boston : Little, Brown, and Company, 1998.

Schrecker argues that McCarthyism should be viewed as more than just the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but rather the actions of an entire anti-Communist network throughout American society.  She provides an excellent historical overview, detailing both the breadth and complexity of the McCarthy period.  Her opposition to McCarthyism is obvious, but her assessment of the movement is analytical and fair.

Whitfield, Stephen.  The Culture of the Cold War, Second Edition.  Baltimore : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Whitfield provides a civil libertarian and anti-Communist perspective to the Cold War as he demonstrates through a collection of essays the impact of anti-Communism in literature, movies, art, religion, and the media.  Whitfield asks how and why were constitutional and democratic values trampled upon in the search for an internal “enemy,” even while at the same time anti-Communists praised American civil liberties as a key difference between American democracy and Soviet Communism.

Weinstein, Allen and Alexander Vassiliev.  The Haunted Wood:  Soviet Espionage in the Stalin Era.  New York :  The Modern Library, 1999.

Weinstein and Vassiliev were among the first historians to view declassified KGB files in the Russian archives, and where appropriate they also integrate decoded VENONA transcripts which tracked the movement of suspected Soviet agents and their American counterparts in the U.S.   The narrative they weave together shows the extent of Soviet espionage from the 1930s to the early 1950s.  Without rendering any moral judgments, these authors also seek to explain the motivations for Americans who chose to spy against their own country.