Cold War liberal

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Cold War liberal is a term that was used most commonly in the United States during the Cold War, which began at the end of World War II.[1] The term was used to describe liberal politicians and labor union leaders who supported democracy and equality. They supported the growth of labor unions, the civil rights movement, and the War on Poverty, while simultaneously opposing totalitarianism and Communist Party rule. Cold-War liberals therefore supported efforts to contain Soviet communism.

Birth of liberalism[edit]

The History of liberalism is the belief in freedom and equal rights generally associated with such thinkers as John Locke and Montesquieu. John Locke’s phrase “life, liberty, and property” is the base of this belief. After the French Revolution overthrew hereditary aristocracy it was the first state in history to implement a document of liberalism and human rights, which was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which was first codified in 1789. Technically, however, the United States of America is the first country to be considered founded without hereditary aristocracy which implies a liberal nation. This is because its Declaration of Independence states that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which stems from John Locke’s statement. This first storm of Liberalism took off which further promoted social activism and civil disobedience within the United States along with other countries.[2]

Classical liberalism[edit]

Before the Cold War and modern liberalism, the foundations of these ideologies were formed through classical liberalism. This form of liberalism was set and made credible via abolitionist and Suffrage movements which took off in the 19th century. Slowly democratic ideals were spreading causing solidarity within the individuals who believed in these ideas. Liberals after the American Revolution wanted to develop a world free from governmental intervention. They believed in negative liberty which constitutes the absence of external constraints. They wanted government to stay out of the lives of individuals. Classical liberalism pushed to expand civil rights, free markets, and free trade as a product of the Industrial Revolution. Liberals saw the 19th century as a portal to accomplishing the promises of the Declaration of Independence.[3]

Liberalism and the Great Depression[edit]

With the Great Depression came modern liberalism which came to be in the 1930s. The difference between classical liberalism and modern liberalism was, quite simply, free markets. Modern liberals, such as John Maynard Keynes, argued that government was responsible for stimulating the economy and to provide funds to “kick-start” the flow of economy again. This is arguably, the ideology that has dichotomized American society most.[4]

Cold War liberalism[edit]

Though modern liberalism was not unknown to Americans, having been the dominant force in American political life since the onset of the Great Depression, its longer success owed everything to a set of events which prevented a return to "normalcy" in the late 1940s.[5] In two words, the Cold War. The Cold War was named because of the two major powers—each possessing nuclear weapons. This war was not one based on physical combat or a restricted population within a population (the military) at risk, this war was based on psychological fear. This is why it was so powerful.[citation needed] After modern liberalism, the ideologies at that time were focused more financially and employment, after the Cold War began, civil rights and humane concerns were brought to the front line of Liberalism given the overwhelming fear of the people. Although the term “Cold War Liberal” was used describe liberal politicians and labor union leaders who supported democracy and equality which supported the growth of labor unions, the civil rights movement, and the War on Poverty, it embodied much more given the growing fear.[citation needed]

The liberals' hero[edit]

John F. Kennedy (JFK) who is regarded by some, one of the key components that revived liberalism, was the 35th President of the United States. JFK was the most influential liberal of the time. During his campaign, Kennedy took the modern liberalism approach by promising voters to revive government liberalism, which had withered under Dwight D. Eisenhower, with a new set of reforms collectively called the New Frontier.[6] The young president wanted to expand Social Security to benefit more Americans, help the elderly pay their medical costs, fund educational endeavors, raise the national minimum wage, and reduce income inequality. In his famous inaugural address, Kennedy appealed to American youth by instructing them to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He later launched the Peace Corps to support this effort, encouraging young Americans to assist people in developing countries. Kennedy also responded to national fears and pressures regarding the space race with the Soviet Union by challenging Americans to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. His enthusiasm spread across the country. He sought to reform economic issues along with issues of the Humanities which is what paved the way for the future of liberalism[7]

Other notable Cold War liberals[edit]

Some notable pioneers of Cold War liberals included Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. World War II ended under the 33rd President of the United States which was Harry S. Truman. Although Truman is criticized in some quarters now for his decision to use atomic weapons against Japan, popular opinion at the time was a positive one. Johnson succeeded to the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, completed Kennedy's term and was elected President in his own right, winning by a large margin over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election.[8] Johnson was greatly supported by the Democratic Party and as President, he was responsible for designing the "Great Society" legislation that included laws that upheld civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, aid to education, and his "War on Poverty". Johnson was renowned for his domineering personality and the "Johnson treatment," his coercion of powerful politicians in order to advance legislation. All of his accomplishments were influenced by the idea of Cold War liberalism which was according to most, implemented by JFK.[9]

Henry Martin "Scoop" Jackson, first a congressman and then senator from the state of Washington, is also widely recognized as a Cold War liberal. A Democrat, his political beliefs were characterized by support of civil rights, human rights, and safeguarding the environment, but with an equally strong commitment to oppose totalitarianism in general, and Communism in particular. Scoop Jackson and his legacy are acknowledged as having significant influence on so-called 'Neoconservatism'. [10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schlesinger JR, 1962, p37
  2. ^ Schlesinger JR, 1962, p14
  3. ^ Keith, 1999,p16
  4. ^ Keith, 1999
  5. ^ Frost,Sikkenga,2003,p33
  6. ^ Hamby, 1992,pp 104-123
  7. ^ (Hamby, 1992 p.106)
  8. ^ Hamby,1992,p216
  9. ^ Hamby,1992 p.235
  10. ^


  • "Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans", Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Politics of Hope, (1962)
  • Bryan-Paul Frost; Jeffrey Sikkenga (2003). History of American Political Thought. Lexington Books. p. 33.
  • Alfred Fernbach and Charles Julian Bishko, Charting democracy in America (1995)
  • Faulks, Keith. Political sociology: a critical introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
  • Alonzo L. Hamby, Liberalism and Its Challengers: From F.D.R. to Bush (1992)