Teaching the Cold War through Songs and Music

I have published articles on the Cold War as a subject for writing and especially teaching – this is, after all, a very popular course in colleges around the world. I have talked about the use of films in such contexts, and today I am going to discuss how songs and music could be deployed. Whenever I teach on a subject, especially very modern eras, I always find the music of the era very useful in conveying the vibe and ideas of the era, and the Cold War was no exception. .

There is significant literature on the uses of music during the Cold War, particularly how both sides used soft power. The Soviets sent classical music and ballet to impress other nations, the United States achieved huge victories via jazz and Louis Armstrong. Here, however, I will use more mainstream, folk, pop, and rock songs, and suggest how they can be used in teaching.

Here is an example. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist Party was very present in the United States, with a significant presence in popular culture of all kinds: Communism was definitely cool, in film, writing, and music. This applied to the very strong boom in folk music of those years, which produced such famous names as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers, who later became the Weavers. For the Almanac Singers, think of pro-union songs like “Which Side Are You On”. If you talk about American Communism and why it sparked such fierce hostility and investigation in the 1950s, music actually provides a valuable tool for understanding. In 1940 and 1941, the Almanac Singers produced powerful and very popular songs, which were vigorous denunciations of war, military intervention, and any attempt to support Britain against Germany. This included bitter attacks on Franklin Roosevelt for boosting US military readiness in 1940 (!). Anti-war songs like Plow Under are just plain wild.

You can certainly respect staunch pacifists who reject all wars and violence, even in self-defense, or against horrific regimes like the Nazis, even if you don’t agree with these demanding pacifist principles. But something strange happened to the Almanac Singers in late 1941, when all of their songs suddenly turned super-patriotic and militaristic, as they demanded immediate US intervention in the war. Check out classics like The Sinking of the Reuben James by Woody Guthrie.

I had fun in the classes playing the songs and asking the students to figure out what happened to make such a change, and they quickly understood. In June 1941, the Germans invaded Soviet Russia, and the overt pacifism of the American Communists and their front groups literally evaporated within hours. And these various musical groups appear, very clearly, as 100% subsidiaries of the Soviets, totally devoted to their interests and their foreign policy. It is not surprising that later investigators paid very close attention to people’s attitudes before and after this turning point in June 1941, as a great way to detect serious pro-Soviet loyalties.

Nuclear history also offers wonderful opportunities in popular music. If you want to illustrate the changing attitudes towards nuclear weapons, you can amaze and shock a class by playing Wanda Jackson’s 1957 Fujiyama Mama, in which she proclaims her female sexual power:

I went to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too!
The things that I did to them baby, I can do them to you!

Surprisingly, the song was a huge hit in Japan, where it became a powerful weapon in gender politics.

When in 1968 the Beatles sang Return to the USSR, what was their intention? Is this a parody of the Soviet evil empire? Or are they seriously trying to make a friendly gesture to the Soviets in a way that makes a lot of sense to left-wing Britons like them, while making fun of the pretensions of American culture? It can spark good discussions.

The protest songs of the time are almost too rich to discuss, but an almost perfect element is Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction (1965). Strikingly and controversially for the time, this underscored not only the looming dangers of nuclear destruction, but the fact that both sides, East and West, had their flaws, evils, and injustices. Yes, Red China is filled with hate, but you were honestly watching segregationist Alabama? If you can’t get a whole class of these lyrics, something’s seriously wrong. The same goes for Phil Ochs’ protest songs around this time. Take Ochs’ song, The War is Over, one of the most radical and conflicting anti-war songs of the time, and focus on this line: “Right before the end, even betrayal could be worth the worth trying / this country is too young to die. “Now there is a topic of discussion, especially when setting aside the real betrayal of various Cold War spies and defectors. So in a world who seems to be rushing towards nuclear war, is the betrayal justified?

Anti-nuclear themes were prominent in such plays. Before turning their attention to the Vietnamese conflict, protest singers in the English-speaking world focused on the nuclear threat. To take one example among hundreds, in 1962, Bob Dylan denounced the Masters of war, and another song warned that A heavy rain will fall. Barry McGuire himself warned that “if the button is pressed there is no escape / There will be no one to save with the world in a grave.” There is actually an interesting religious angle here. These songs were highly apocalyptic, and McGuire and Dylan became born again Christians. There is a transition from the nuclear preoccupations of the 1960s, as expressed in popular culture, and the born again movement of the following decade, and songs like this illustrate it very well.

In 1973, I met McGuire while he was touring England, performing his last songs, which were strongly evangelical and evangelical, and actually very End Times oriented. I begged him to play Eve of Destruction, which he refused, claiming he forgot the lyrics. I helped him by reciting the entire first verse and starting the second, before he stopped me and laughingly confessed his defeat. He sang it. Yes, I’m dropping names, slightly, but the point is important: these songs were very, very, memorable, and did a great deal to condition attitudes towards respective evils on both sides in the global confrontation. And yes, I still know all the words.

One problem with anti-nuclear songs is that they became so abundant, and quite with the neo-cold war of the 1980s. You can find several lists online of the best songs of this genre, and this abundance is an important point in itself to illustrate attitudes. (Feel free to follow the links in this sentence). The 80s have us 99 red balloons, and XTC Living through another Cuba reads like a cold war curriculum. (“It’s still 1961 and we’re piggy in the middle”). Hmm, stop me before I sing any more.

You don’t want to overwhelm a class with these songs, although they illustrate the extent of Liberal and left-wing hostility to the robust military policies associated with Ronald Reagan. And this was doubly true in Britain and Europe. For example, you can use Morrissey’s Everyday Is Like Sunday (1987: “Come, Armageddon! Come!”). The great Dutch hit song of 1982 was “De Bom” (The Bomb), a declaration of futility in the face of impending destruction.

If I had to pick just one track, it would be from Pink Floyd’s still much underrated album The Final Cut (1983). The best track for lessons might be Two Suns in the Sunset, in which a man drives east, gazing at the reflection of the setting sun behind him, when a new sun appears in front of him – a nuclear fireball. “Perhaps, the human race is over. In his final moments, he realizes that

Ashes and diamonds

Enemy and friend

We were all equal in the end

The album also offers a direct and practical final solution to the nuclear threat, in the title Fletcher Memorial House. It envisions bringing together the world’s political leaders and militarists, all tyrants and kings, with laudable objectivity – Reagan and Brezhnev, Thatcher and Begin – and killing them all as humanely and swiftly as possible. Of course, Roger Waters didn’t mean that this bloodthirsty fix had to be taken seriously (Oh yes, he did).

Not all of these political songs were limited to nuclear threats and the Armageddon language, either. Other Cold War issues also surfaced easily and often. Witness to several songs on the 1980 Clash album, Sandinista!

Note that I do not touch the very parodied of Billy Joel We didn’t light the fire (1989), which for many years has been a boon to high school history teachers across the country.

Like I said, there are a lot of opportunities here. I would have liked to know more about the Soviet side and the Eastern Bloc of this musical war. Suggestions?

Wikipedia has a long and popular list of songs on the Cold War.


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