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A Contradictory Legacy: How The Cold War Shaped Orange County's Diversity and Conservatism

Congressman Richard M. Nixon delivers a stump speech from the back of his "Yellow Woody" Mercury Station Wagon during his successful 1950 U.S. Senate campaign, Garden Grove, April 28, 1950.
Congressman Richard M. Nixon delivers a stump speech from the back of his "Yellow Woody" Mercury Station Wagon during his successful 1950 U.S. Senate campaign, Garden Grove, April 28, 1950. | Geivet Collection, Old Orange County Courthouse Museum, OC Parks
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"A People’s Guide to Orange County" is an alternative tour guide that documents sites of oppression, resistance, struggle and transformation in Orange County, California. The following series of stories explore how the Cold War shaped Orange County in unexpected ways.

The Cold War shaped Orange County. Open space, fair weather, political influence and its strategic location on the Pacific Rim made the region a key location for military bases during World War II. Wartime patriotism led Seal Beach to make room for the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station in 1944. When leaders of the cities of Seal Beach and Westminster tried to reclaim that space, in 1950 and 1961, new conflicts in the Pacific theater kept trumping local efforts to regain the coastline. The Cold War kept those earlier bases open. In the 1950s, the Defense Department’s budget was $228 billion, with California receiving $50 billion of that — more than any other state — and Orange County receiving one of the largest shares of any county in California.

Explore some of the spaces in Orange County shaped by the Cold War. Click on the starred map points to read more in-depth stories.

Suburban sprawl was Cold War policy. Military-industrial contracting firms were encouraged to locate outside of urban centers in order to create dispersed targets for the enemy’s nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War, Orange County’s aerospace and electronics firms employed 31,000 workers. The interstate highways that brought so many residents to Orange County were also initially a Cold War project, designed by the Defense Department in 1955 to disperse population in case of nuclear attacks. Those highways and military-industrial jobs helped Orange County’s population balloon nearly fourfold from 113,760 in 1940 to 703,925 in 1960.

Cold War influence fueled Orange County’s mid-century conservatism, but it also brought minority workers here because federal antidiscrimination requirements were stronger than local customs. The military’s influence has been both conservative and progressive. African American activists had pressured the U.S. military to desegregate in the 1940s, so it was military members and veterans who desegregated many of the suburban tracts of Orange County in the 1950s. The midcentury military attracted people who desired a same-sex atmosphere, so LGBTQ spaces in Laguna Beach and Garden Grove thrived with military-affiliated customers. The Cold War spurred global migrations and international refugees who built Orange County’s Little Saigon, Little Arabia and Koreatown, as well as communities of Armenians, Cambodians, Filipinos, Romanians, Persians, Salvadorans and Samoans. Orange County’s politics are contrapuntal, zigging and zagging fascinatingly. The global Cold War has had significant repercussions for this single California county.

Further reading

Lewinnek, Elaine, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang. A People’s Guide to Orange County. University of California Press, 2022.

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Explore all the stories from "A People's Guide to Orange County."

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