Multiculturalism and the Cold War

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America's role in the Cold War led the nation to pursue policies that eventually resulted in the rise of multiculturalism. This trend has had an increasing impact on American society.

"Multiculturalism" has several meanings. At the minimum it means acceptance of people from different backgrounds. As used by scholars it has been associated with liberals and progressives on college campuses, to whom it means inclusion of people who have been "disempowered" through the control of public discussion by those who have had power. In general, multiculturalism supports diversity and the principle that no particular group should be privileged. Multiculturalists favor the metaphor of "mosaic" or "tossed salad" over "melting pot" as a means of conceptualizing their ideal of American society and culture. A mosaic is an art form in which various elements blend while maintaining their identities, whereas in a melting pot blended elements lose their identities.

During the Cold War America built upon its tradition of sheltering refugees, many of whom were victims of communism. Winston Churchill proclaimed the start of the Cold War in a speech in 1946 in Missouri, drawing eloquently on the American ideological self-image. His image of an iron curtain concisely encapsulated a picture of a world divided into two clear sides by a type of war—a "cold" war because there was no shooting. He echoed the American frontier experience in which a line between good and evil was clear.

In the Cold War era, due to increasing disapproval of racism in America, ethnicity became a dominant basis for identifying difference, replacing race and class as an explanation for dysfunctionality. European immigrants, the thinking went, were assimilated. African Americans had not yet been assimilated. The new Cold War immigrants such as Cubans and Asians, however, tended to be more difficult to assimilate. To combat the assimilationist model an ideal of America as a pluralist and multi-ethnic society came to the fore, reinforcing political views that emphasized identity and self-affirmation. Ethnic groups became political action groups, exemplified by African Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Culture wars erupted, pitting these groups against proponents of a "common culture."

Multiculturalism reacts against both positions. While not disavowing ethnicity, it seeks to separate politics from ethnic group formation; and it opposes the political oppression of minorities fostered by a common culture. Multiculturalism calls on people to transcend differences and to glory in diversity.

Cold War policy-makers and multiculturalists both played a part in promoting multiculturalism. For example, because of Castro's ties to the Soviet Union, 1.5 million Cubans fled to the United States after 1959. These Cuban-Americans gained an influence on American foreign policy, especially in regard to Latin America. They simultaneously became deeply involved in arguments about diversity and multiculturalism, as the Spanish language and Cuban culture came to predominate in parts of southern Florida. Similarly, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotians, Hmong, and others who sought refuge from Communist regimes have fought to maintain their language and culture, aided both by multiculturalists and by the legacy of the Cold War.


Hinds, Lynn Boyd, and Windt, Theodore Otto. The Cold War as Rhetoric: The Beginnings, 1945–1950. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Mergen, Bernard. "Language, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship in Comparative Perspective: A Review." American Studies International 40, no. 3 (2002): 77.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. New York: Norton, 1998.

Schmidt, Alvin J., and Dinesh D'Souza. The Menace of Multi-culturalism: Trojan Horse in America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.

Frank A. Salamone

See also:Civil Rights Movement; Hiroshima Guilt; Jackson, Jesse Louis; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Latinos and Military, 1946–Present; Muslims, Stereotypes and Fears of; Powell, Colin; Race and Military.