The Cold War: the two biggest powers in the world, one in the east, one in the west, a rivalry and competition that many thought would lead to an imminent war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Not only did a potential war create fear, but the ever increasing reach of the Soviet Union’s Communist ideals made some U.S. politicians question the loyalty of their own citizens.
Through examples of media, the Cold War can be broken down into smaller, bite-sized pieces that still provide good examples of how the fear of the Cold War bled into all forms of media. Through all forms maintained the Soviets as American antagonists and what children were seeing in the 1950s-1980s could easily now be called propaganda. Here are some great examples you can use to show what audiences were seeing.
The Introduction of the Spy Genre
In the 60s the “Spy” genre ruled programming. (The spy genre was also very popular in the UK) To put things into real life context, it was no coincidence that people were captivated by spies.
In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower had famously fell for a USSR trap when a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia. This came after Eisenhower’s constant denial that the U.S. was spying on anyone, especially the Soviets. Gary Powers a CIA pilot was flying a spy mission over Russia and was shot down. He did have a false coin that hid a lethal injection should he have to use it. U.S.S.R. premiere,
Nikita Khrushchev addressed his people right away, stating the Americans were in indeed spying. The U.S. figured that Powers was dead because the plane was incredibly flimsy and light. Eisenhower quickly said that it was not a spy, but a NASA craft that drifted off course, going as far as to have another U-2 plane painted with a NASA logo so he could show the media. Khrushchev then reveals the USSR has the pilot and the plane. “Comrades, I must let you in on a secret. When I made my report two days ago, I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the remnants of the plane—and we also have the pilot, who is quite alive and kicking!”
By setting up a trap and catching Eisenhower in a lie, the relationship between USSR and the U.S. was strained further.
Get Smart (1965-1970)
Get Smart shows Maxwell Smart, a bumbling American secret agent working for a secret counter–espionage agency called CONTROL. In every episode Smart and his very capable partner, Agent 99, must embark on a mission with crazy gadgets to stop an evil organization called KAOS, which happens to be set in Romania. As a former Soviet territory, Romania had declared themselves a Socialist Republic in the same year that Get Smart premiered.
Here’s a series of clips from the first season of Get Smart:
The communist caricatures start around 8:15 but the first couple scenes can help for reference. Disclaimer: This show is a product of the sixties and some scenes may not be wholly appropriate for students.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (1959-1964)
This wacky TV show was a hit with children and offered many quips to indulge adults. Rocky was a flying squirrel and Bullwinkle was a dimwitted moose.
Throughout the episode it would be common to see the evil spy characters Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Boris was short and stout. He wore a black trench coat and a black hat. He had a mustache and sometimes red eyes. This was the Soviet stereotype that was shown in many mediums. Natasha was meant as a play on femme fatale. These characters were constantly causing mischief for Rocky and Bullwinkle at the behest of their “Fearless Leader.” Boris and Natasha came from a fictional country called Pottsylvainia that was located in Eastern Europe, an area widely known as being under Soviet control.
One of the other things that the media did was work to create a generalized persona for everyone living in the USSR. People were shown with very little individual freedom and it really dehumanized them, which likely made it easier for Americans to dislike.
In 1985, Wendy’s made a commercial that was titled “Soviet Fashion Show.” In the commercial, the Soviets are showing off the newest fashions in three categories: daywear, eveningwear, and swimwear. In each segment of the fashion show, a women comes out in the same blue/grey dress and only changes what she is holding.
This ad did cause a fair amount of controversy. By 1985, Soviet antagonism had died down a bit. With the Vietnam War having come and gone, the American people had become concerned with other things. Even if they weren’t aware of it, Wendy’s had joined a marketing trend at the time. Many companies were bringing back the antagonizing of communism. The trend caused a little animosity between them and people were concerned at the time because this was soon after a rare meeting between President Ronald Regan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Many thought at the time these kinds of ads would de-rail peace talks.
Creating Patriotism through Competition
During the Red Scare, audiences around the country gathered to see the big-budget pictures that liked to push Soviet antagonism further. The Anti-Communist themes stretched from war movies to spy movies and even sports movies. Sports create natural competition and many Americans have always taken a great deal of pride in their teams. In 1980, the world shook when the U.S. men’s ice hockey team defeated the perennial favorite Soviet Union and then went on to win gold. The 1980 Olympics showed how compelling the idea of a sports drama between the U.S. and Soviets was to watch, and filmmakers took note.
Released in 1985 the third sequel to the original Rocky, Rocky Balboa comes back out of retirement to fight the U.S.S.R.’s Ivan Drago after Ivan accidentally kills Rocky’s friend, Apollo Creed, in the ring in Las Vegas. Rocky then agrees to go to the cold and snowy Russia and train in its harsh terrain and avenge his friend. Most of the movie takes place in Russia and makes sure to show a bleak, and raw Russia compared to the way the filmmakers displayed beautiful, extravagant Las Vegas. Ivan is portrayed as the “bad guy communist” and shows no remorse for the accident.
Without any dispute, The Cold War was a scary time period of American and global history. This being so, it could be very helpful to show students media they are familiar with to help engage and provoke thought. You can show them what was popular at the time, while also picking out what the consensus attitude was towards The Soviet Union.
What are some examples of modern propaganda that you have seen?
Prior to the invention of social media, propaganda was distributed through TV and print materials. Has the invention of social media changed the way that propaganda is distributed?
While we are experiencing current events, it is often difficult to realize the differences between fact and opinion. What are some ways that you can take information and decide whether it is accurate or an exaggerated/untrue view of the topic?