Along with freedom, the Cold War’s other great mobilizing concept was “totalitarianism.” The term originated in Europe between the world wars to describe fascist Italy and Nazi Germany—aggressive, ideologically driven states that sought to subdue all of civil society, including churches, unions, and other voluntary associations, to their control. Such states, according to the theory of totalitarianism, left no room for individual rights or alternative values and therefore could never change from within. By 1950, the year the McCarran Internal Security Act barred “totalitarians” from entering the United States, the term had become a shorthand way of describing those on the other side in the Cold War. As the eventual collapse of communist governments in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would demonstrate, the idea of totalitarianism greatly exaggerated the totality of government control of private life and thought in these countries. But its widespread use reinforced the view that the greatest danger to freedom lay in an overly powerful government.

Just as the conflict over slavery redefined American freedom in the nineteenth century and the confrontation with the Nazis shaped understandings of freedom during World War II, the Cold War reshaped them once again. Russia had already conquered America, the poet Archibald MacLeish complained in 1949, since politics was conducted “under a kind of upside-down Russian veto.” Whatever Moscow stood for was by definition the opposite of freedom, including anything to which the word “socialized” could be attached. In the largest public relations campaign in American history, the American Medical Association raised the specter of “socialized medicine” to discredit and defeat Truman’s proposal for national health insurance. The real estate industry likewise mobilized against public housing, terming it “socialized housing,” similar to policies undertaken by Moscow. The Soviets opposed organized religion, so to “strengthen our national resistance to communism,” Congress in 1954 added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Cartoonist Bill Mauldin illustrated the essence of the idea of totalitarianism in this 1946 cartoon—a dictatorial government that refuses to accept the legitimacy of difference of opinion.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!