CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013
New Books in History APRIL 23, 2015
Conventional wisdom among historians and the public says anticommunism and the Cold War were barriers to reform during their height in the 1950s. In this view, the strong hand of a conservative anticommunism and Cold War priorities thwarted liberal and leftist reforms, political dissent and dreams of social democracy. Jennifer Delton is a professor of history at Skidmore College, and her new book, Rethinking the 1950s: How Anticommunism and the Cold War Made America Liberal (Cambridge University Press, 2013) encourages us–as the title suggests–to rethink that conventional view. She argues that in fact the Cold War and anticommunism promoted and justified many liberal goals rather than stifling them. Her book demonstrates that supposed conservatives championed many liberal causes while many liberals genuinely supported the Cold War and anticommunism. For example, she discusses the liberal beliefs and actions of business leaders and politicians like Dwight Eisenhower, who are often thought of as conservative figures, to show the dominance of liberal political ideas during this period. On the other side, she also argues that liberals, such as many labor activists, were themselves strongly anticommunist because they saw communism as truly damaging to their cause, not simply because they aimed to avoid the taint of a communist label. These sentiments had important effects on policy as well. From high taxes to regulation, civil rights and the continuance of New Deal programs, liberal ideas held sway. They had a powerful effect on policy, not in spite of, but because of the larger Cold War context. In the interview, Delton discusses her book and its importance in reforming both historians’ views of the period and our broader thinking about partisan politics and nationalism.