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Mention the Cold War to young adults, people much like me, and you will typically get reactions of feigned interest at best and indifference at worst. Compare this reaction to what you find when asking someone who actually lived through the crisis and the difference is striking. For those who lived through the Cold War a viewpoint of hatred and derision toward the Soviet Union and even modern Russia is much more common. This outlook is not one that looks at the citizens of the former Soviet Union as regular people simply living in another country. Instead, the Soviet Union is viewed as a demonic entity hell-bent on causing the destruction and evil wherever they may go.
To understand how pervasive this vilification of the Soviet Union was, take for example, a speech given by President of the United States Ronald Reagan to the National Association of Evangelicals at the University of Virginia on March 3, 1983. In this speech President Reagan addressed the crowd, urging them,
Beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely…uh…declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
The fact that the American president never hesitated to speak of the Soviet Union, as an “evil empire” speaks multitudes about the demonization of the USSR by the United States. In that very same speech, President Reagan compared the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union as not simply a war between militaries, but instead a war of spiritual ideals, stating,
I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.
By likening the Cold War struggle between the United States to a spiritual battle and calling the enemy evil, President Reagan opened the door for further demonization of the Soviet Union.
That is not to say that President Reagan was the first to demonize the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The attitude of fear and hatred that emerged during the Cold War era was not one that simply appeared out of nowhere. In fact, for the previous thirty odd years prior to his speech in Charlottesville, Virginia, the demonization of the Communist USSR had already been in full swing. Rooted in the paradigm of the territoriality that has been seen throughout history (i.e., the ancient struggle between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for holy spots at the Temple Mount of Jerusalem and the modern competition between Israel and Palestine for the Gaza Strip), the Cold War led the United States to denigrate the Soviet Union as a personification of evil, instead of viewing them as people in their own right.
Unlike other examples of the paradigm of territoriality, the competition between the United States was not isolated to one specific location. Instead, the goal of the United States and other Western powers was to limit the expansion of Communist powers into any other parts of the world. Gaining popular support for efforts to counteract the spread of the Soviet Union and their system of Communism was not a difficult task for the United States, as they effectively utilized propaganda and inflammatory speech in film, literature, and everyday life to mark the Soviets as a diabolical enemy who could not be allowed to succeed at any costs.
While an indisputable amount of anti-Communist Russia propaganda was released in the United States during the Cold War, an undeniable fear of war with USSR was the driving force which fed the propaganda (which in turn, fed greater fear of the Soviet Union). The tension between the United States and the USSR was not created in a vacuum. In order to understand the source of this fear, it is necessary to look at the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and the closely linked history of Communism in the United States.
In what was officially known as the Great October Socialist Revolution, the Russian Provisional Government which had been established after the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy in 1912, was itself overthrown by Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party leading to civil war and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. These events were the source of a great deal of panic regarding worker revolution and political radicalism in the United States, prompting the First Red Scare. Political scientist Murray B. Levin described the Red Scare as,
A nation-wide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of Life.
Increasingly, labor strikes in the US were viewed with fear and derision. Strike support from foreign left-leaning organizations such as the International Workers of the World did little to abate the fears held about the working class. In response to a series of bombings by political anarchists, the Palmer Raids were initiated resulting in the deportation of leftist immigrants, including members of the Communist Labor Party of America.
The advent of the Great Depression led many Communists, both foreign and domestic, to believe that Karl Marx’s prediction of the collapse of Capitalism was coming true. The Communist Party of America reached new heights of popularity during the early 1930s, marked by the organization of the working poor and supporting African Americans against prejudice. 1932 saw the election of Franklin Roosevelt, followed swiftly by union organization. While the Communist Party of America continued to put forward their own candidates during elections in this era, they typically tolerated Democrats as the lesser of two evils. American Communism saw a brief rise of popularity at the beginning of the 2nd World War, but numbers quickly fell after Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with fascist Nazi Germany and did not recover after the Soviet Union joined the Allies against Hitler. In the aftermath of World War II, President Truman’s loyalty oath program legitimized the reputation of Communists as subversives that needed to be exposed. This attitude would persist throughout the Cold War.
With the advent of the nuclear arms race between the two super powers in the 1950s, the paradigm of territoriality was utilized even more effectively because Soviet encroachment into countries near the United States and its anti-Communist allies was viewed as an explicit nuclear threat. The conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union was just one example of America’s response to this threat.
Indeed, fear of a nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union was one of the most powerful agents in the demonization of their people, as the United States government and its citizens began to worry about the escalation of nuclear arsenals. One of the results of this worry, was the doctrine of mutually assured destruction also known as mutual deterrence, which was outlined in a speech by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on September 18, 1967,
It is important to understand that assured destruction is the very essence of the whole deterrence concept. We must possess an actual assured-destruction capability, and that capability also must be credible. The point is that a potential aggressor must believe that our assured-destruction capability is in fact actual, and that our will to use it in retaliation to an attack is in fact unwavering. The conclusion, then, is clear: if the United States is to deter a nuclear attack in itself or its allies, it must possess an actual and a credible assured-destruction capability.
This line of thought led to further escalation of the arms race and greater tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. By portraying the Soviet Union as the antithesis of the United States and a threat to its very existence, the Soviet Union was dehumanized and vilified at all levels of American society.
During the 1960s the Cold War reached new levels with the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962, and the increasing competition of the Space Race following the Soviet Yuri Gagarin’s successful trip into space and President Kennedy’s Moon Race announcement. More and more during this time, the Cold War struggle between the United States and the USSR was viewed as a battle of ideologies. American Capitalism clashed with Soviet Communism. The consumerism which was praised as the crown jewel of American society was pitted against the utilitarianism of the USSR. Perhaps an even bigger issue, were the religious dichotomy between the two superpowers. In the Billy Graham Evangelical Association’s Hour of Decision, Billy Graham used his influence to crusade against the Soviet Union, intertwining Christian teachings with anti-Communist sentiment. A staunch supporter of Joseph McCarthy and other “Cold Warriors”, Graham condemned those who would allow Communism to take root in America, stating,
The mysterious pull of this satanic religion is so strong that it has caused some citizens of America to become traitors, betraying a benevolent land which had showered them with blessings innumerable. It has attracted some of our famous entertainers, some of our finest politicians, and some of our outstanding educators.
By making use of Christian rhetoric to denounce the Communist Soviet Union, Billy Graham and other Christian leaders contributed a great deal to the vilification of the USSR. They effectively made the Cold War a holy war and condemned those who would not defend so-called Christian lands such as the United States and other democratic nations.
“Pictures give an idea of America which is difficult to portray in any other way, and the reason, the main reason, we think, is because our pictures are not obvious propaganda.” This statement was made by Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, during his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in June 1953. However, just because the propaganda in Cold War era cinema was not obvious, does not mean that it was ineffective. In fact, the subtlety of American cinema in promoting Capitalist values and demonizing Communism was perhaps its greatest asset. Hollywood executives have prided themselves on producing benign, unbiased entertainment since the beginning of the movie industry, but in truth, American film has been political since its inception.
In particular, the American movie industry has been historically biased against extremism in many forms. Long before the Cold War, Hollywood lashed out against Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
In what has become known as the first Red Scare of 1918-1920, the film industry portrayed Russian Bolsheviks as murderers, rapists, and anarchists in silent movies such as Dangerous Hours (1920) and Starvation (1920). While the most violent images of Russians depicted in Hollywood largely subsided during the 1920s and 1930s, the subtle jabs at Communist Russians as humorless, unfashionable, and uncaring in movies made during that time were arguably more effective due to their believability.
Hollywood films featuring propaganda prior to World War II were different from their successors in that the United States government had no direct involvement in their production. However, by the time of World War II, the Hollywood film industry was being effectively used at the request of the Office of War Information (OWI) in the United States as an agent of propaganda: extolling the evils of fascism, requesting support for the allied nations, and asking citizens to do their part by buying bonds, going to work, or conserving resources.
At the request of the OWI the American film industry produced films portraying Allied Communist Russia in a positive light in movies such as Mission to Moscow (1943) and Tender Comrade (1943) during the Second World War. In these movies, and others like them, the Soviet Union was depicted as gallantly defending the Eastern Front against Japan, although in reality Soviet effectiveness as a buffer was largely due to the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact signed in 1941. Unfortunately, by the late 1940s, Hollywood had a new enemy to demonize, and changing directions led to a number of problems that would come back to bite them, including, but not limited to the praise given Russian allies in movies made during World War II. Nevertheless, the ties established between Hollywood and the OWI would be useful in producing propaganda against the Soviet Union in the years to come.
Under the watchful eyes of the conservative groups in Hollywood such as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and federal agencies such as the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the film industry was quick to jump onto demonizing the Soviet Union if it meant taking the heat off their pro-communist films in the past. Some members of Hollywood did not even need the pressure of the government; big names such as Walt Disney and John Wayne were staunch conservatives and gladly helped create films with anti-Soviet agendas.
The “Hollywood Blacklist” was an effort by HUAC to reveal whether Communist sympathizers had been planting propaganda in American films. Drawing from allegations made by Hollywood elite such as then-Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan, screenwriters, directors, and other entertainers were drawn before Congress to testify as to whether they had ever had an y involvement in the Communist Party. Ten of those subpoenaed refused to testify, citing first amendment right, and were held in contempt of Congress. These “Hollywood Ten” were barred from employment until they were cleared of charges, and swore that they had no Communist affiliation. The list of names added to this “Hollywood blacklist” would continue to grow until the early 1960s when blacklist member John Henry Faulk won his lawsuit against CBS Radio. Opposition to the blacklist became much stronger after Faulk’s victory.
Utilizing the paradigm of territoriality, Hollywood portrayed a proposed Soviet invasion of the United States in numerous ways,
They were sabotaging military installations, controlling labor unions, twisting the minds of university students, and masquerading (though not very successfully) as Christians on church pews.
No less dangerous were Soviet activities in other parts of the world. Movies such as Target Hong Kong (1953) and Assignment Paris (1952) depicted Soviets throughout the world engaging in plots to extend the reaches of communism even further than before. While the American heroes in these movies were portrayed as courageous and god-fearing, their communist enemies were,
Evil-doing, cowardly, mentally unstable, automatons… who did not stand for anything in these films, only against sacred American principles: God, motherhood, and the love for one’s family and country.
Indeed, the extent of the demonization was so great, that what was actually known about the Soviet enemy can be summed up by a line from R. G. Springsteen’s The Red Menace (1949) as cited in Shaw and Youngblood which states, “I don’t know what communism is, but it must be bad if it makes you do the things you do.”
During the 1960s, American cinema shifted to portraying the Communist Russia as the enemy within. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which featured an international Communist conspiracy to establish a pro-Communist President of the United States, was just one of many spy films released during the era that added to Cold War tensions and demonized the Communist threat. Films depicting nuclear war with the Soviet Union were also very prominent from the 1950s through the end of the Cold War. These films, ranging from the obviously fantastical Planet of the Apes (1968) to the more realistic Red Dawn (1984), showed dire consequences of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The United States film industry was not the only source of propaganda which demonized the Soviet Union. During the 1950s and 1960s, books such as Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative were the main mode of gathering support for anti-communist causes by so-called conservative “Cold Warriors”. Anti-communists sought to spread their influence by offering discounts for purchasing anti-communist paperbacks in bulk and by forming book clubs and other groups in an effort to spread awareness about the nature of the Soviet threat and how best to fight it.
Another form of literature that was used to vilify the Soviet Union was oddly enough, the newspaper comic strip. The adventure comic strip Steve Canyon was produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s and depicted the Soviet Union as a manipulative enemy and portrayed the United States as a country constantly under siege. The notion of territoriality was also touched upon in the Steve Canyon comic strip. In the comic, Steve Canyon supports involvement in the Korean War by persuading the reader that if the Soviet Union is allowed to encroach further eastward they may soon wind up on the shores of Alaska, Hawaii, or even California.
In a time of increasing concern regarding Russian activity, while their actions should not be overlooked or even condoned, it is important to look to the past and remember how quickly propaganda and the demonization of the Soviet Union led to increasing aggression between the USSR and the United States. There is no question that the paradigm of territoriality and the use of propaganda within the United States were used to shape the Soviet Union as the personification of evil in the past. Therefore, awareness of the dangers of simplifying an enemy to a manifestation of evil should be spread so that it does not occur once again.
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