The end of World War II in 1945 marked the emergence of the United States as the most powerful country in the world. The expanding middle class allowed for immense growth of the economy with the rise of consumer culture, and unemployment was low. The United States was the only country in the world to possess nuclear weaponry with no apparent competition to change that. However, the American monopoly on nuclear weapons only lasted for four years, when the Soviet Union successfully tested their first atomic bomb in 1949. US officials were left wondering how the Soviets developed the technology to successfully detonate an atomic bomb so quickly, and it was soon discovered that espionage among scientists working on the Manhattan Project leaked nuclear secrets. Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Joseph Stalin and the communists initiated an arms race between the United States and Soviet Union that dominated foreign affairs for the most part of the 20th Century, until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The ensuing tensions between the two superpowers and the ever-present risk of nuclear warfare created a sense of fear and paranoia in American society.
The possibility of nuclear warfare breaking out at any moment loomed over the heads of Americans at all times. This fear led to a mass movement among civilians to build or install fallout shelters on their premises. In a few cases, local governments of small towns would build shelters to house the entire community. In the event of a nuclear attack, individuals or entire families would pack into the shelter to seek protection from deadly nuclear fallout on the surface. Shelters were designed for long-term residence, as experts recommended staying inside for several months to allow the radioactivity to subside. Canned food, handheld radios, and bottled water saw an increase in demand, as they were valuable items in long-term shelters. An increase in tensions between the two superpowers during the early Kennedy administration led to a rise in construction of fallout shelters, but demand greatly decreased after tensions were eased in the mid-1960’s through bans on nuclear tests and promises to reduce arsenals.
Fear and paranoia undoubtedly affected other aspects of society during the constant threat of nuclear warfare in the Cold War, but the observable social changes remain the same. Never before had Americans been dominated by fear. The country was established by defeating the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen in combat in the American Revolution. The country defended its newly found freedom, again, from the most powerful empire in the world in the War of 1812. The country fearlessly risked life and limb expanding westward against new predatory animals, extreme weather, and hostile Native Americans. And now, the country was afraid. The threat of instant annihilation at the hands of the Soviets unsettled Americans, causing them to prepare for the worst. The age of Positivism had been replaced with the pessimistic Post-Modernism.
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