The Effects of the Cold War on us Education

The Cold War was an extended period of chilly diplomacy and proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union which polarized much of the world. For nearly 5 decades, both superpowers walked a tense tightrope which kept the world from descending into total nuclear warfare. At the same time, each side was determined to avoid conceding any diplomatic, military, economic, or technological advantage to the other side. As a result, the effects of the Cold War on American education were profound.


In some ways, the Cold War goes back all the way to the Russian Revolution. U.S. relations with the former Russia had been chilly ever since Leninists overthrew the tsarist Russian government and established the Soviet Union in its place. As the world’s first communist power, the Soviet Union stood for everything which was rejected by the capitalist American leadership.

In the years between World War I and World War II, there was widespread fear in the U.S. and many other Western countries that “Bolshevism” would spread. Any hint of labor organization was seen as “talking red.” Many labor rights advocates were arrested during these years, and fledgling unions were stamped out, sometimes violently. This internal tension reached a climax during the Great Depression, when American unemployment in some cities hit 50%.

Yet wars make strange bedfellows. After Nazi Germany broke its Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union quickly sided with the Allies against Nazi Germany. For the duration of World War II, the Red Scare was set aside, to the point that it was nearly forgotten by most people.

Most of the Allied leadership had not forgotten. The Allies trusted the Soviet Union only as far as needed to pull away Axis troops which might otherwise have been sent against the West. Tellingly, they did not share nuclear technology with the Soviet Union. In fact, Winston Churchill and several American generals wanted to continue the war to eradicate Soviet communism as well as German fascism.

World War II established the U.S. as the world’s second superpower. It took over from the British Empire, which lost that status as most of its major colonial possessions became independent. For a few years, the U.S. was the world’s only superpower.

After World War II ended, tensions between the Soviet Union and the West soon increased again, especially after most of the countries freed from German occupation by the Soviet army became Soviet satellite states. In Churchill’s famous words of March 5, 1946:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “Iron Curtain” has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Bucharest, and Sofia: all these famous cities and the population around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere …”

On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union dropped its own atomic bomb. This established the Soviet Union as a new nuclear superpower beyond any possible doubt. The Cold War had begun in earnest. It would not end until the Berlin Wall was rendered moot on November 9, 1989.

The effects of the Cold War on American education

The Cold War lasted for most of the latter half of the 20th century. It started soon after World War II ended, and continued for most of the next 50 years. Thus, every single American baby boomer was educated in a Cold War environment.

Early Cold War education

At first, the effects of the Cold War on American education were minimal. Mandatory public schooling to the completion of elementary school was only a generation old. In 1910, 28% of school-age children still did not attend school, and only 9% of Americans had graduated from high school. The first public junior high school did not exist until 1909.

Between the wars, urbanization had initiated a parallel growth in high schools. By the beginning of World War II, half of all young adults had earned a high school diploma.

The GI Bill tilted popular opinion towards postsecondary education by making it possible for many more people to attend college. Continuing military pressure from early flash points during the Cold War kept the military numbers high. In turn, these young veterans passed those values down to their children.

Throughout this early period, American elementary school students were taught that communism was bad. As the Cold War progressed, this kind of ideological teaching increasingly concentrated on the dangers of communism. However, the curriculum did not include any specifics about what communism was. This continued throughout the Cold War, and still continues to some extent today.

1950s and 1960s

By the 1950s, public education through high school had become the norm, and the percentage of Americans enrolled in postsecondary education was growing. This was originally driven by the GI Bill.

However, there was also a growing government awareness that Cold War supremacy depended on technological supremacy. This point was first hammered in when the Soviet Union joined the nuclear club, beginning the modern nuclear arms race. That was followed up when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, beginning the space race. It was also constantly reinforced by the need for technological innovation in ongoing espionage and proxy wars.

To meet this new need, the focus of American needed to change from the bottom up. Previous low-end education had concentrated primarily on the 3Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic). Now, a new emphasis was needed.

The National Defence Education Act (NDEA) was passed in 1958. Its purpose was “to help ensure that highly trained individuals would be available to help America compete with the Soviet Union in scientific and technical fields.” All beneficiaries of the Act also had to sign a loyalty statement, as a legacy of McCarthyism.

In parallel with this new direction, students learned that getting a good education was their patriotic duty to help win the war against communism. To support this duty, public education was now free all the way from elementary school to community college. Exceptionally generous government grants and loans supported higher education in practical Cold War fields ranging from political development to aerospace technology.

As a result, the late 1950s and early 1960s may have been the high-water mark for American public education. There was no opposition to heavy government spending in public education. Because this kind of spending was considered a solid investment towards winning the Cold War, American classrooms in these fields were better equipped than at any time before or since.

“Duck and cover”

Probably the best-known effect of the Cold War on education was the “Duck and cover” drill which was initiated in the early 1950s. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, all levels of school held these drills regularly. With the helpful advice of Bert the Turtle, even the youngest children were taught to drop everything, duck under the nearest shelter away from potential flying glass, and cover themselves with whatever was at hand.

The standard drill was held once a month, on the last Friday of the month at 10 am. During times of extreme crisis, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, “duck-and-cover” drills were sometimes held twice a day.

These drills were intended to minimize injury in case of atomic attack. More importantly, they gave people something which they could do to protect themselves from the effects of atomic attack, based on studies of the low-yield atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effects of more powerful atomic weapons were not yet fully understood.

American education and the Cold War after 1970

After the U.S. won the race to the Moon on July 20, 1969, the Cold War waned in public relevance compared to other emerging economic, political, and environmental crises. Between desegregation and the growing civil rights movement, the Nixon economic shock (1971), the Watergate scandal (1972), the OPEC oil embargo (1973), stagflation (1973-5), domestic controversy over the Vietnam war (ended in 1975), the Love Canal environmental scandal (1978), and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (1979), the American public was in a different kind of duck-and-cover mode.

At the same time as worldwide economic shocks were making themselves felt in the U.S. economy, the earlier Cold War drive to mass-produce qualified teachers had produced a surplus of qualified teachers for the available positions. As the baby boomer generation was drawing to a close, even fewer teachers were needed to teach the dwindling number of students. During this time of stagflation, there was strong pressure to freeze or even reduce teacher salaries. This was the start of a crisis in public education which has not yet ended.

In partial response to the Iran hostage crisis (1979), Presidents Carter and Reagan massively increased the presence of American troops along the Iron Curtain. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, it seemed at the time to be a new flashpoint which could ignite the Cold War. However, with the assistance of covert American aid, the Soviet Union soon became bogged down in an unwinnable war. After Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, he was able to start implementing gradual reforms, which also allowed him to start withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan on July 20, 1987. That turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Without a strong Cold War imperative to counter the domestic difficulties of the 1970s, public education policy was moved to the back burner. The government spending tap was turned to its lowest level for education since U.S. high schools were first publicly funded.

That tap was never turned back on to the same level. In fact, with the end of the Cold War, much of the earlier willingness to spend generously on public education vanished completely. As the quality of U.S. education continued to fall, any willingness to spend more than the bare minimum fell with it in a vicious circle, which has not yet ended today.