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Nuclear bomb blast Marking a momentous period in American history, Radio 4 charts the development of the United States, exploring three key themes: Empire, Liberty and Faith. (In three series)

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 3: 1 June - 10 July

Red or Dead?

From World War to Cold War

By 1947, the Soviet Union was transformed from America's ally to its greatest foe, as the wartime alliance degenerated into half a century of Cold War. The Second World War had devastated the Soviet Union and Stalin was determined to control the key states on his country's borders. During 1945, Communist-dominated governments were established in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.

Americans were tired of entanglements abroad and wanted to get out of uniform and on with their lives. But as tensions with the Soviets mounted, Truman, catapulted into the presidency by Roosevelt's death, was determined not to be bullied or to squander the hard-won fruits of victory. In a speech to Congress in March 1947 he appealed for aid to fight communism in Greece and Turkey. Setting out what became known as the 'Truman Doctrine', he called on the U.S. to support nations it believed were threatened by totalitarianism.

A central battle of the Cold War was the struggle for mastery of Germany, now ruined and occupied but with the potential to be Europe's strongest economy. The Russians wanted to keep Germany weak and fragmented. The Americans and British hoped that by reviving the German economy, they could avoid the economic misery which had encouraged fascism and might foster communism.

Frustrated at the deadlock, in June 1947 U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall announced the Marshall Plan. Over four years the Plan provided $13 billion of American aid to Western Europe. Meanwhile, Stalin drew the iron curtain tighter, forcibly extracting as much from Eastern Europe as the U.S. was pumping into Western Europe.

A World Half-Slave, Half-Free

Unable to reach agreement with the Soviets on the political and economic future of Germany, in June 1948 the western Allies introduced a new currency - the Deutschmark - to their zones of Germany to try and stabilise the economy. In retaliation, Stalin cut off all access to Berlin. The city was occupied by all four allies, but America, Britain and France had to cross Soviet-controlled territory to reach their sectors. Convinced they must maintain their presence in Berlin, the Americans and British set up an 'airbridge' to supply the city. Eleven months later, the Soviets backed down and lifted the blockade. For millions of Germans, America was transformed from enemy to friend.

In a further blow for Stalin, Truman used the crisis to justify negotiating the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in April 1949. It was a landmark in American foreign policy - the first time the New World had made peacetime commitments to the Old.

Within a year, the international situation had deteriorated for the Americans. In August 1949, the Soviets carried out their first atomic test (the CIA had predicted this wouldn't occur until 1953). U.S. strategy had been based on countering Soviet superiority in conventional forces with the threat of an American nuclear attack on the USSR. Now Stalin would be able to deliver atomic retaliation against Western Europe.

As U.S. policymakers absorbed the shock of the Soviet test, Mao Zedong proclaimed a communist victory in China. In response to the grimmer global outlook, Truman agreed to the development of a hydrogen bomb known as the 'Super' because of its massively enhanced power.

The Suburban Republic

In the mid-1940s, the biggest worry for millions of Americans wasn't international politics, but the domestic housing shortage. So American business turned its energies to suburban house-building, using the mass-production methods that helped win the war. Across the country, new communities were constructed in record time, often in identical styles.

Suburban living required a car. By the mid-1950s, three-quarters of American families owned a car; motels, malls and drive-in movie theatres all came of age. The government responded with the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, creating a state-subsidised national system of roads.

Sixteen million Americans had served in the war, and they were repaid with the 1944 'GI Bill of Rights', giving guaranteed home loans and grants for education. But, like subsidized road-building, this Federal largesse benefited a selected part of the population, mainly the suburban middle class rather than the urban poor.

The American post-war economic boom continued, with a few blips, for a quarter-century. In 1950 the U.S. had 7% of the world's population but half its manufacturing production. Per capita income and levels of home ownership were double those in Britain. Millions of Americans were now moving into the suburban middle class and even America's poor were rich by global standards. And those poor remained disproportionately non-white. Southern leaders wanted to keep African Americans in their place to act as cheap farm labour. Race remained America's Achilles heel.

Korea - The Cold War Turns Hot

At the end of the war, Korea had been divided in two with the border along the 38th parallel. In June 1950, the Soviet-backed North Koreans invaded the south to take control of the whole country. Truman was determined to prevent South Korea turning communist. Initially, the campaign went well for the Americans, who re-took the capital Seoul in September 1950 but in November, the Chinese intervened and the Americans were overwhelmed.

In America, fear of communism was whipped up by the sensational accusations of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who claimed that hundreds of government officials were Communists. For many, McCarthy epitomized the worst in Cold War demagoguery. The Truman administration knew his accusations were not completely unfounded - wartime intelligence had revealed that over 300 Americans, some in senior government positions, had been in contact with Soviet agents.

In 1947, on the basis of Venona information, Truman imposed a loyalty programme on Federal employees and gave the FBI - led by J. Edgar Hoover - its head in investigating their backgrounds. The House Committee on UnAmerican Activities publicly pilloried not only leftists but also Jews, intellectuals and free spirits in the media. Around 1,500 people were blacklisted.

During the winter of 1950-1 Truman turned the North Atlantic Treaty from a diplomatic pact of mutual support into a military alliance, backed by four new U.S. combat divisions and an American commander - Dwight Eisenhower.

Defended to Death?

Running for the Republicans, Eisenhower won a landslide in the 1952 presidential election. The Democrats were tarnished by the deadlock in Korea. The new administration wanted to reduce government spending and avoid entanglement in another unwinnable ground war. The answer was greater reliance on America's nuclear arsenal and Eisenhower's 'New Look' defence policy. Rather than fighting land wars, America would prevent aggression by letting Russia and China know that the result would be a massive nuclear retaliation. The administration also advocated 'covert operations' to destabilize America's enemies, a significant new enterprise for the CIA.

1950s America was becoming a TV nation, with three quarters of all homes owning television sets by 1955. News and current affairs were marginalized, encouraging a confidently American-centred view of the world. TV was now influencing politics, and Eisenhower's presidential campaign used commercials to sell their candidate.

In October 1957 America's pride in its own progress was dented when the Soviets put the first man-made satellite into orbit. The 'Commie sky' had sinister implications. Sputnik was launched by a rocket with sufficient range and power to hit the U.S. with a nuclear warhead in under an hour. Americans felt vulnerable as never before - the Cold War had come home.

Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.

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