Containment During The Cold War
The society of the United States during the Cold War era experienced peace and prosperity; yet what also came with it was fear, instability, and a security threat of nuclear fallout on the horizon of everyday lives to not only US citizens, but to the entire world at the conclusion of the second world war. To cope with this lingering fear that persisted in the hearts of US civilization, “containment” of this threat came through domesticity to deal with internal conflicts. At the heart of this “domestic containment” was the gradual norm change of traditional gender roles in which men were to be the main breadwinners and providers of the family while women were the homemakers and caretakers of the children. Though these roles were followed and accepted across both husbands and wives alike, many couples prescribed many feelings of discontent and unhappiness with their roles in society which caused much instability and resistance to the conformity of men and women needing to “know their role in society.” While domesticity was being contained in the home, racial means of containment were also running rampant throughout the United States, particularly in the Jim Crow South where African Americans and other nonwhites were experiencing segregation in everyday activities. These means of “containment” led to consequences of insurgency and instability in internal and external conflicts which began to reshape the corrupt social standards and norms that persisted for many decades in American history.
During the post WWII era, many couples married at a much younger age than the generation before them (May, 3); however, the consequences that were not considered when couples married earlier was the sacrifices they had to make. Though men and women both had to make sacrifices, women especially had to make much tougher sacrifices to ensure their husband was happy and not stepping outside the boundaries “domestic containment.” Women did not step outside of social boundaries because it would be perceived as an attack on containment and a failure to serve their “purpose” as the homemaker of the family. Carol Sears was an example of a housewife who sacrificed her independence. “Carol Sears described her independence as if it were a chronic disease or allergy that flared up now and then to bother her…It did not fit well with domestic containment…Defying the consensus could lead to a loss of economic security, social reputation, or community support. Adaptation was clearly safer than resistance.” (May, 174-175) From the start of their lives, women were already caught in a trap of a norm that made it imperative for them to live a life of misery because no other choice or opportunity was available to them. To contain a woman’s ambitions for a higher education level and greater personal independence, societal norms persuaded women to believe that the home was their purpose rather than finding work outside the home. “Because of the severely limited opportunities for women in the paid labor force, women who hoped to marry may have believed that continuing with higher education would lead them to career aspirations that would ultimately be frustrated.” (May, 79) As a result of these frustrations, for a hand in marriage, women were given a seemingly rational choice to be a housewife which gave them the benefits of security and a purpose, but sacrificed their independence which caused them to live a life that society wanted them to live, not the life that would have made them happy and find their own sense of purpose.
On the flipside, men also experienced frustrations toward domestic containment in their own lives through their role as the breadwinner of the family. Men’s roles in society were best illustrated in the Cold War era by the bestselling The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson. The theme of this book was that, “The family, rather than the workplace, was the arena in which men demonstrated achievement. Work appeared relatively meaningless without the family to give purpose to men’s efforts.” (May, 167-168) In a similar stance to women, men followed this social norm of “containment” because if they could not the authoritative and main provider for his family, society would ridicule them by attacking their masculinity and judge them as a noncontributor to their role in society. This was a heavy burden for men; the constant stress of working and being the authoritarian figure they needed to become caused tensions be prevalent in the home. In addition to taking this breadwinner role, men had to sacrifice time and energy away from their families, causing much internal unhappiness and bitterness feelings to persist. “I wish he had more time for the children and for himself…he, too, worried about providing for his family’s needs, particularly a college education for his children.” (May, 170) Despite both men and women having their setbacks with the conformity they believed they had to follow, couples believed the benefits that came with marriage, and the family life outweighed the consequences of the sacrifices and tensions. In reshaping the social norms, postwar parents instilled in their children that independence and comfortability were imperative to feeling fulfilled and content with how they should live their own lives. “I hope on day, when my daughter is older…perhaps she will understand enough that she will avoid becoming a miserable housewife!” (May, 203-204)
“Domestic containment” was a means to control how society acted in the home, however, containment also came through external conflicts during the post WWII era by racial segregation and African American’s burning desire to reshape the corrupt conformity they were forced to live in misery. Ever since the end of reconstruction, whites contained minorities and African Americans by denying their federal rights to vote, share public spaces with fellow whites, or simply do anything on an equal and opportunistic level. These suppressions of freedom and the corruption of “separate but equal” stirred much discontent and tension, yet whites continued to segregate anyways, creating a foundation of hypocrisy and hierarchy favoring white families and undermining how serious of a problem civil rights had become. “Ironically, the very people who complain most bitterly at the prospect of Federal action are the ones who have made it inevitable…This proposed legislation is here only because too many Americans have refused to permit the American Negro to enjoy all the privileges, duties, responsibilities and guarantees of the Constitution of the United States.” (Brown, 257) This inevitable change to containment that African Americans desired for came through civil rights after many riots, white supremacist threats, and at the cost of many innocent lives. Women were also a benefiter of this legislation in that they received employment equity, and an abolishment of sex segregation. (Brown, 264) The reshaped face of America was to not be a face of hypocrisy and corruption, but one of freedom and prosperity to all Americans. “Let us confess the sin of hypocrisy now and vow not to delude the people again…a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” (Brown 261)
The traditional values of social conformity were the source of many tensions and efforts to contain threats that sought to change how society across all backgrounds lived their everyday lives. Although these values didn’t immediately change the face of America at the time, a gradually optimistic future was in the hands of all Americans. Once the 1960s arrived, Americans no longer had to conform to what society attempted to contain them to be. Instead, they could now live independently and fulfill their own personal ambitions. With the Cold War threat still lingering and other social movements such as feminism and anti-war rhetoric running amuck, this newly reshaped America had a lot of work to do internally and externally for everyone to truly feel at peace.
Brown, Victoria and Shannon, Timothy. “Speaking of Equality.” Going to the Source: The Bedford Reader in American History, 4th ed., Vol. 2, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Accessed 20 April 2019.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. Basic Books, 2008. Accessed 20 April, 2019.
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