Cold War
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Time Period
1947  - 1991
Description
After World War II, the United States and Soviet Union became tense enemies. The two superpowers engaged in a Cold War struggle marked by Communism versus democracy, "godless" versus "God-fearing" societies, and the nuclear arms race.

Beginning in the late 1940s, America was gripped by a 'Red Scare' over Communist spies and infiltrators. The House Un-American Activities Committee targeted suspected 'subversives' and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-WI, notoriously investigated alleged government infiltrators.

The arms race led to competing hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s. In October 1963, U.S. President John Kennedy threatened military action after Soviets stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida. The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the Soviets agreeing to remove their missiles and the U.S. secretly agreeing to remove theirs in Turkey.

The Cold War thawed after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
Interactive Timeline(s)
Prominent Religious Events and People in American History
Social Movements and Religion
Religious Minorities (Non-Christian)
Race/Ethnicity and Religion
Women and Religion
Baptist Religious Events and People in American History
Catholic Religious Events and People in American History
Methodist Religious Events and People in American History
Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
Narrative
After World War II, the United States and Soviet Union became tense enemies. The two superpowers engaged in a Cold War struggle marked by Communism versus democracy, "godless" versus "God-fearing" societies, and the nuclear arms race.

Beginning in the late 1940s, America was gripped by a 'Red Scare' over Communist spies and infiltrators. The House Un-American Activities Committee targeted suspected 'subversives' and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-WI, notoriously investigated alleged government infiltrators.

The arms race led to competing hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s. In October 1963, U.S. President John Kennedy threatened military action after Soviets stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida. The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the Soviets agreeing to remove their missiles and the U.S. secretly agreeing to remove theirs in Turkey.

The Cold War thawed after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

The Role of Religion in the Cold War

In the early period of the Cold War, political and religious leaders often used religion to further differentiate between the United States, a covenant nation guided by God, and the "godless" Soviet Union. Karl Marx had referred to religion as the "opium of the people," while Vladmir Lenin viewed religion as an intoxicant that taught poor people to be docile in their impoverished life. Russia promoted state atheism, actively discrediting religion and closing religious institutions. In contrast, many viewed the United States as a God-fearing nation and antithetical to the perceived danger of Communism. In reality, the United States had a dual nature, one being a secular society with separation of church and state and another being a covenant society. This led to internal tensions as the Cold War persisted.

Both Catholic and Protestant religious leaders saw Communism as a threat to religious faith, trying to create heaven on earth without God. In 1937, Pope Pius XII released an encyclical scolding Communism as undermining the foundation of Christian civilization. Popular Catholic radio priest Fulton Sheen claimed that Communism invaded spiritually weak hosts and that religious faith was needed to fight the infectious disease. Similarly, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr framed Communism as a dangerous religious movement, with fanatics seeking converts. Christianity, Niebuhr believed, was the key to fighting Communism. Similarly, renowned evangelist Billy Graham expressed anti-Communist views. The 1950s saw a rise in religious adherence, going from 88 million members belonging to a religious group in 1951 to 116 million by 1961, a 31 percent increase. Religious attendance also increased in the late 1950s.

Political leaders also used religion as an ideological tool to further support their political actions against the Soviets. For President Harry Truman (1945-1953), there needed to be ideological justification for abandoning America’s wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union following World War II and seeking an alliance with religious institutions appeared to be a viable strategy. In 1947, Truman penned a letter to the Vatican, stating, "Your Highness, this is a Christian Nation...I believe that the greatest need of the world today is a renewal of faith." Pope Pius XII reciprocated the letter, claiming that the United States has "wholehearted cooperation from God’s Church." On Christmas Eve, 1950, Truman spoke to the nation stating, "We are all joined in the fight against Communism. Communism is godless...Democracy’s most powerful weapon is not a gun, a tank or a bomb. It is faith -- faith in the brotherhood and dignity of man under God." Two years later, Truman signed into law a congressional resolution establishing an annual National Day of Prayer.

President Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) took the use of religion as ideological armor even further. Inspired by a sermon from Reverend George M. Docherty, legislation was passed in 1954 to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, which previously was absent. A year later, a Congressional Prayer Room opened for the first time. Finally, in 1956, "In God We Trust" was added to all national currency. Patriotic hymns and school prayer played a powerful role in reinforcing the notion that America was a nation of faith. If Truman helped institute a holy war with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower intensified it.

What appeared to be a cooperative use of religion across the United States in the 1950s turned into a divisive issue in the 1960s, as public displays of religion became increasingly challenged in court cases. Appealing to the notion of separation of church and state, Engel v. Vitale (1962) Supreme Court ruled that the recital of the Regents' Prayer was unconstitutional. A year later, the Supreme Court case Abington School District v. Schempp declared that school-mandated Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer were unconstitutional. These cases gave rise to the Christian Right in the 1970s, which continued framing Communists as "evil." The framing of the Cold War in religious terms increasingly became more of a partisan tactic for political conservatives until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.

Nonetheless, the impact of religion in the Cold War remains relevant today. Some in the public discourse continue to mistakenly use "In God We Trust" on currency and "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance as evidence for the United States long being a Christian nation, instead of understanding these as symbolic displays used to differentiate Americans from the Soviets during the Cold War.
Photographs

The launch of Apollo 11- University of Iowa Libraries- NASA photo

Berliners watching a C-54 land during the Berlin airlift- US Air Force photo

Mao Zedong proclaiming the founding of the People's Republic of China- Wikimedia Commons

Gun crew near the Kum River during the Korean War- US Army photo

US Navy plane flying over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban Missile Crisis- US Navy photo
Book/Journal Source(s)
Herzog, Jonathan P., 2011. The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America's Religious Battle Against Communism in the Early Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press.
Web Source(s)
http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/united-states-tests-first-hydrogen-bomb
The History Channel, "1952 -- United States tests first hydrogen bomb"
http://americanhistory.si.edu/subs/history/timeline
"Cold War Timeline"
http://www.ushistory.org/us/59e.asp
"The End of the Cold War"
Web Page Contributor
Sandi Dolbee
Affliated with: Former Religion and Ethics Editor, The San Diego Union-Tribune
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