Anglo-American Psychology in the Cold War
- Marcia E. HolmesMarcia E. HolmesBirkbeck University of London, Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology
From the end of World War II until roughly 1989, global leaders feared that cataclysmic war would break out between the world’s two superpower states, the Soviet Union and the United States. Though such a confrontation did not occur, the stalemate between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States—with its simmering fears, proxy battles, and psychological warfare—became known as the Cold War. Psychological expertise played an important role in the Cold War, especially within Western democracies like the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. In these countries, citizens tended to view the Cold War as a “battle for minds”: a fight against communist political ideology, totalitarianism, social conformity, and other threats to individual mental freedom. Anglo-American psychology flourished within this intellectual environment by finding new topics and applications for research, new sources of funding, and a new image as essential to the functioning of healthy democracy.
Historians continue to debate how the Cold War influenced the field of psychology. Overall, the strategic partnership between psychology and the “military-industrial complex” was limited to certain initiatives. In some cases, Anglo-American psychologists who used their expertise to fight the Cold War were led into questionable pursuits, resulting in greater public scrutiny and even scandals for themselves and their profession. Nonetheless, the Cold War had a significant impact on Anglo-American psychology by making the relationship between psychological knowledge and democratic values a continual subject of public concern.