Cold War

1945–1991

The longest-running single episode of armed confrontation in the American experience, it proved to have wide-ranging impacts on the people, life, and economy of South Carolina

The cold war was the period of intense ideological and military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that began after World War II and lasted until the Soviet collapse in 1991. The longest-running single episode of armed confrontation in the American experience, it proved to have wide-ranging impacts on the people, life, and economy of South Carolina. In the 1950s schoolchildren practiced emergency drills, canisters of food and water were stored in public buildings, and radio and television stations announced periodic tests of the civil-defense system. When the cold war turned hot– it did in the so-called “proxy wars” against the “Soviet surrogates” North Korea and China, 1950–1953, or Vietnam, 1960–1975–South Carolina sent forth to the fight its share of sons and daughters. Because of the cold war, the state gained new population groups and new waves of defense, economic, educational, and transportation activity. The cold war continued the role of federal expenditure that commenced during the New Deal and greatly expanded during World War II. Defense dollars created jobs, attracted new types of workers, and helped accelerate the process of urbanization. Finally, the era saw the end of the segregation by law of blacks and whites that had been the state’s legacy since Reconstruction.

The term “cold war” meant that a dangerous, protracted struggle was at hand, one that could reach the brink of war and go beyond it. Against the Soviets, President Harry Truman devised a strategy of containment, an essential element of which was the ability to deter Soviet nuclear attack against the United States. The premise of deterrence was simple: any attack would be met by a devastating American response against the Soviet Union. This was a task in which South Carolina played a direct and vital role. Beginning in the early 1960s, nuclear-powered submarines of the U.S. Navy began plying in and out of Charleston harbor. The largest, designated fleet ballistic submarines, carried nuclear warhead-tipped, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (or SLBMs). The other type, attack submarines, had the mission of seeking out and destroying Soviet submarines before these could launch their own SLBMs against targets in the United States. In South Carolina the only accident or mishap involving dangerous weapons of this sort occurred in 1958. In that year a U.S. Air Force bomber on a training mission accidentally dropped an atomic weapon over a rural area near Florence. The triggering device went off and flattened farm buildings, but the warhead did not detonate. The incident involved no loss of life or casualties.

Cold-war defense spending in South Carolina flowed from decisions made within a framework established by the National Security Act of 1947. Thanks to congressmen such as L. Mendel Rivers, South Carolina would receive, as the cold war progressed, its full share or more of the new military installations and facilities judged essential to national security. Results included the World War II naval air station at Beaufort reopening as a U.S. Marine Corps air station, additional units at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, and upgrading and expanding the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island and Fort Jackson near Columbia.

South Carolina also played a direct role in the manufacture of materials used in thermonuclear weapons. The Savannah River Site, designed in 1950, came to include nuclear reactors and heavy water and nuclear fuel facilities, as well as a capability for meeting waste-management requirements–meaning that high-level radioactive waste would be stored there.

Another piece of cold-war legislation of great importance to South Carolina was the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. Although a central purpose of this act was to ensure that military forces could move freely about the United States, in South Carolina the Interstate Highway Act proved to have a far broader significance. Tourists now came to South Carolina’s beaches and recreational areas in increasing numbers, continuing a trend reaching back to well before World War II. So also did new residents, attracted by the opportunities of working to construct the new bases and installations needed for defense. Other workers were drawn to service-industry opportunities in those areas where the bases and facilities were located. In addition, the military brought new population groups to the state. One group comprised the young men and women in their teens and twenties who had been ordered to the state on active duty. A second group was the retirees who had completed their active service and tended to settle in the coastal areas or near bases where they had served. The areas around Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia, Myrtle Beach, and Sumter thus tended to gain substantial numbers of military retirees. This process began at the outset of the cold war and continued after its end.

These various factors–the defense dollars spent for military construction, the tourists and new residents flowing to beaches or new jobs over improved highway systems, the waves of military retirees–were mirrored in the experiences of other states in which, as in South Carolina, substantial cold-war expenditures occurred. But unlike California and Texas, South Carolina did not gain, for example, the same sorts of highly technical, defense-related industries such as aerospace, communications, or computers. Some manufacture of infantry small arms and even some small warships did occur, but for the most part South Carolina did not win the same levels of federal funding as did other southern states in the areas of research or defense manufacturing.

Key elected officials recognized that the state’s educational system might be a factor in attracting–or failing to attract–such industries. In 1960 Governor Ernest F. Hollings led an initiative that resulted in the creation of South Carolina’s technical education system. But not until 1983 did South Carolina create the South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA), an effort to assist higher education and research entities in attracting research and development enterprises to the state. This effort lagged behind similar ones in neighboring southern states.

In the Korean War 467 South Carolinians died, and 896 perished in the Vietnam War–substantial losses indeed for a state relatively small in population. The U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division departed in August 1965 from Charleston’s army depot for the first large ground battles of that war. Tens of thousands of soldiers and U.S. Marines initially trained at Fort Jackson and Parris Island served in Vietnam. Myrtle Beach– and Shaw-trained U.S. Air Force fighter pilots and U.S. Marine pilots from Beaufort flew their perilous and costly missions in South Vietnam and against Hanoi and Haiphong. Neither they nor the soldiers and Marines on the ground could know at the time that a Charleston-based U.S. Navy communications specialist, John Walker, was selling secrets–in fact, the highest-level United States operational code–to the Soviets, meaning that the Soviets’ North Vietnamese allies could receive knowledge of American moves before they were made.

Yet the long cold-war struggle finally came to an end. For the final event of the contest, the Soviet Union, spent by costly arms races and beset by myriad systemic problems, at last dissolved into its component parts. The Charleston naval base and the U.S. Air Force base at Myrtle Beach proved casualties of this victory and closed under the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990. South Carolina retained, however, the rest of the bases originally employed in the waging of the cold war.

Clements, Kendrick A., ed. James F. Byrnes and the Origins of the Cold War. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1982.

Petit, J. Percival. South Carolina and the Sea. Vol. 2, Day by Day toward Five Centuries, 1492–1985 A.D. Isle of Palms, S.C.: Le Petit Maison, 1986.

Schulman, Bruce J. From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938–1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

University of South Carolina Legacy Project. The Cold War in South Carolina, 1945–1991: An Inventory of Department of Defense Cold War Era Cultural and Historical Resources in the State of South Carolina: Final Report. 4 vols. Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.: Legacy Resource Management Program, United States Department of Defense, 1995.

Wallace, Meghan Wynne. “Selling Armageddon: An Analysis of the Promotion of Cold War Civil Defense in Columbia, South Carolina through the Study of Material Culture.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1999.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Cold War
  • Coverage 1945–1991
  • Author
  • Keywords President Harry Truman, containment, Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990, U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division, Soviet Union,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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