The largest and most important revolutionary socialist organization in US history, the Communist Party USA was always a minority influence. It reached considerable size and influence, however, during the Great Depression and World War II years when it followed the more open line associated with the term “Popular Front.” In these years communists were much more flexible in their strategies and relations with other groups, though the party remained a hierarchical vanguard organization. It grew from a largely isolated sect dominated by unskilled and unemployed immigrant men in the 1920s to a socially diverse movement of nearly 100,000 based heavily on American born men and women from the working and professional classes by the late 1930s and during World War II, exerting considerable influence in the labor movement and American cultural life. In these years, the Communist Party helped to build the industrial union movement, advanced the cause of African American civil rights, and laid the foundation for the postwar feminist movement. But the party was always prone to abrupt changes in line and vulnerable to attack as a sinister outside force because of its close adherence to Soviet policies and goals. Several factors contributed to its catastrophic decline in the 1950s: the increasingly antagonistic Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States; an unprecedented attack from employers and government at various levels—criminal cases and imprisonment, deportation, and blacklisting; and within the party itself, a turn back toward a more dogmatic version of Marxism-Leninism and a heightened atmosphere of factional conflict and purges.
James R. Barrett
Sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Harry S. Truman faced the daunting tasks of winning the war and ensuring future peace and stability. Chided by critics for his lack of foreign policy experience but championed by supporters for his straightforward decision-making, Truman guided the United States from World War to Cold War. The Truman presidency marked a new era in American foreign relations, with the United States emerging from World War II unmatched in economic strength and military power. The country assumed a leadership position in a postwar world primarily shaped by growing antagonism with the Soviet Union. Truman pursued an interventionist foreign policy that took measures to contain Soviet influence in Europe and stem the spread of communism in Asia. Under his leadership, the United States witnessed the dawn of the atomic age, approved billions of dollars in economic aid to rebuild Europe, supported the creation of multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, recognized the state of Israel, and intervened in the Korean peninsula. The challenges Truman confronted and the policies he implemented laid the foundation for 20th-century US foreign relations throughout the Cold War and beyond.
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.