How the Cold War Affected Education in the United States

The Cold War was a period of intense and remorseless struggle between the United States on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. Ostensibly a struggle between two competing economic and political approaches, the Cold War is better remembered for the nuclear arms race that it engendered and which for so long kept the world wary about impending nuclear war.

The Cold War affected every facet of life, and not least the approach to education in the United States. New approaches to the whole philosophy of education as well as the means by which education was to be financed were engendered during the period of the Cold War; approaches that changed completely the whole face of American education from what it had previously been.

The most important factor in the revolution in education that took place in the United States during those years took place on 4 October 1957. On that day, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. The Soviet success was particularly galling given the fact two previous attempts by the United States through the Vanguard Project to launch satellites into Earth orbit had failed.

In the view of Washington, the launch of Sputnik 1 constituted a major crisis and the president, Dwight D Eisenhower, did in fact refer to it as one. Given the extreme hostility between both countries at the time, the American reaction is perfectly understandable. Although Sputnik itself was harmless, the rocket which had lofted it out of the Earth’s gravity field could just as easily loft a nuclear bomb from the Soviet Union to the United States. Suddenly, that great expanse of sea that had protected mainland USA from attack during two world wars no longer seemed such a great barrier. A response was required.

The United States decided to increase the emphasis on its Vanguard Project to launch an American satellite which was been coordinated by the Navy, and to revive the Army’s Explorer program which had been allowed to go moribund at the time. In fact, America’s first satellite was launched on 31 January 1958 as part of the Explorer program. It was also recognized that research and development that had possible military benefits would do well to be coordinated by a central body, so the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now the Defense Advanced Projects Agency, DARPA) was set up in February 1958. And, on 29 July 1958, the National Aeronautic and Space Act which created the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, NASA, was signed into law.

But it was in the area of education that the impact of the Sputnik Crisis was to be most felt. In 1958, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in an effort to ensure that the “highly trained individuals would be available to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields.” In order to achieve this goal, the act made provisions for loans and grants to institutions of higher learning who wanted to improve their mathematics, science and foreign language programs. Of course this made perfect sense; there was no point setting up research and development bodies if there would be no trained personnel to run them.

Consequently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was revamped and its budget drastically increased. In 1959, Congress appropriated 134 million dollars for the Foundation, almost a hundred million dollars more than the previous year. By 1968, the Foundation was receiving about half a billion dollars a year in federal funds; in fiscal 2012, the NSF had a budget of some 7 billion dollars and provides the funds for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted in colleges and universities throughout America. In some fields, such as mathematics and computer science, the NSF is the major provider of federal support. At all events, in the decade between 1955 and 1965, federal expenditure on research and development rose from 2.7 billion dollars to more than 15 billion dollars, as old bodies, such as the NSF, and new ones, such as NASA, competed to fund research of one kind or another.

But it was not just the government that was putting in new resources into education. The system itself was enthusiastic in its determination to take a giant leap forward, for practitioners of education in America were by no means sanguine at the thought of being left behind by their Soviet counterparts. James B Conant, a former President of Harvard University carried out a detailed two year study of American high schools with the support of the Carnegie Foundation in order to ensure that all gifted children were being properly motivated to pursue higher education; and in 1960 Harvard embarked on its biggest fund-raising up till then for the purpose of reforming its whole approach to education. The campaign raised 82.5 million dollars.

It wasn’t all just about improving the academic resources and standards; there was also a deliberate attempt to mold the minds of the young people going through the system to conform to the “correct” view. At a meeting of the National Governor’s Conference in July 1962, a committee was set up whose sole purpose was to help the public develop a “clearer understanding of the nature of communism” as well as to prepare American youth so that they adequately deal with the “menace of communism”. This side of the coin was just as important, perhaps even more so, than producing the qualified engineers and linguists who were to carry the fight to the Soviet Union. Teachers at all levels of the educational system were often required to sign loyalty oaths before they could be employed to teach.

It is fair to say that the Cold War resulted in a real change in educational policy in the United States both in terms of the content of academic programs as well as the manner in which such programs were run. The need for more and more qualified, well-trained personnel meant that higher education was brought more and more within the reach of millions who might otherwise not have had the opportunity for such education.

The passage of the Higher Education Act in 1965 brought it all together, expanding the federal government’s subsidization of college and university education in a manner that would have been unintelligible just a generation or so before. Supported by federal grants and loans, states began a massive expansion of public colleges and universities; with the increasingly easy access to loans to pay for a college education, the students came flocking.

Then, there was also an economic benefit. The massive spending on defense and defense related areas by the federal government helped to improve the overall economic outlook of the United States, but some areas benefited more than other. In California, for instance, it is estimated that about 50% of the state’s rapid growth between 1945 and 1960 was either directly or indirectly tied to the defense industry and the federal government’s spending on research and development.

It comes as no surprise then, that when California was setting up its Bureau of National Defense Education in the 1960s, the Bureau not only met every federal guideline, the California legislature (through its Senate Fact Finding Commission on Education, 1961,) charged the Bureau to ensure that the state’s schools and colleges “exploit every opportunity to qualify” for all available federal education support funds.