The Cold War

The aim of a Cold War lesson is to familiarize students with its causes, the importance of nuclear weapons to its duration, and the political and diplomatic implications for the United States, Europe, and the U.S.S.R. of a prolonged period of "cold war." Students should examine the conflicting strategic and political ideas behind the conflict of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and consider the effects of that conflict on Europe and the rest of the world. You might also want to include its social effects on American and/or European societies.


  1. Students will be able to define a "cold war" and understand the circumstances of its formation and early development as a conflict driven by competing interests and goals for the postwar world.

  2. Students will understand how the Cold War endured until 1991 by examining issues such as the proliferation of nuclear armaments, mutually assured destruction (MAD), the balance of power, and the role of alliance systems such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

  3. Students will study particular Cold War events to apply general ideas and observe the Cold War's effects on Russian, European, and American society.

Note: If the pressure of time is great, concentrating on the origins of the Cold War is an effective strategy for engaging students with the creation of a pattern of mistrust and strategic competition between the two superpowers.

I. The Early Cold War, 1945-53

The purpose of this section is to familiarize students with the major events at the end of World War II that mark the origins of the Cold War.


  1. Group Work

    The early years of the Cold War can be divided chronologically into three distinct periods. Groups of students can explore these periods in more detail by creating timelines, examining biographies of the major leaders, or discussing main events in class:

    1945: The Yalta and Potsdam conferences, the division of Europe into East and West, the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, the death of President Roosevelt, the division of Germany.

    1946-47: The "Iron Curtain" speech, the overthrow of East European governments, the fall of China, the development of the Marshall Plan for Western Europe.

    1948-52: The Berlin Crisis, the formation of NATO, the detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb, the Korean War, the "Red Scare" in the U.S., and Stalin's purges in the U.S.S.R.

    Students might write brief reports or presentations on major historical figures, concentrating on their aims for the postwar world and their views on the other superpower as the wartime alliances faded. There is a wealth of material on Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Josef Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. There is also considerable material on figures like General George Marshall, Konrad Adenauer (first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany), Dean Acheson, or British Prime Minister Clement Attlee.

    You can also divide students into small groups to outline or prepare timelines of the major events for discussion in class. The Yalta and Potsdam conferences, at which the division of Europe was formulated by the victorious Allies, are a particularly good topic, as is the Marshall Plan or the formation of East and West Germany.

  2. In-Class Essay

    Alternatively, or in addition, to the above exercises, students might prepare a short (one-page) written essay on how they define a "cold war" or a "balance of power." Encourage them to be as specific and detailed as possible, using either real events or hypothetical circumstances as examples. Class discussion on the basis of student ideas may be profitable. Group student observations and comments into broad categories, including such examples as "peaceful competition," "alliance building," "preparations for eventual war," and so forth. Or, you can encourage students to think thematically by grouping their observations under such categories as "political aspects," "economic aspects," or "military aspects."

II. The Middle Cold War, 1953-74

Students should begin to grapple with the Cold War as it stabilized, with the aim of analyzing its events and general meanings.

A. Crisis and Competition

Continue a discussion of the later period of the Cold War, possibly periodizing it as follows:

1950-61: Stabilization of the Cold War: the Suez Crisis, Hungarian Revolt of 1956, and nuclear buildups; development of the hydrogen bomb; Sputnik.

1961-74: Repeated crises and competition: Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Six-Day War, Vietnam, Berlin Wall crisis, the "space race."

B. Why Did the Cold War Continue?

One of the most difficult things for students to grasp about the Cold War is the intractable ideological conflict and the differing interests of the United States and the Soviet Union.


  1. Document Analysis

    Have students divide into small groups and examine selected documents that reveal some of the central ideas of the early or later Cold War—the Iron Curtain speech, Stalin's response, debates during Yalta or Potsdam, or Castro's statements during the Cuban Missile Crisis are excellent source material, as are the speeches of Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy.

  2. Statistical Analysis

    Have students utilize a world map or available statistical information to illustrate the preponderance of the United States after World War II and the strategic dilemma of the Soviet Union. Students might particularly discuss where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. deployed nuclear weapons.

  3. Oral Reports

    The length of the Cold War gives students an ideal opportunity to present different topics or events individually or in groups. The Berlin Crisis of 1948, that of 1961 (the Berlin Wall), the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and several others give students the opportunity to delve into the causes of the Cold War's persistence. Five-to-10-minute presentations with question-and-answer periods are particularly useful.

  4. Debate

    The issue of nuclear weaponry is key to engaging students with one of the critical reasons the Cold War endured without a major conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Students might debate the uses of the atomic bomb, or why it was never used after 1945. They might also consider why nuclear weapons were built in such numbers, the concept of "Mutual Assured Destruction," and the destructive power of a nuclear weapon.


  1. Critical Book Review

    A possible assignment for a Cold War lesson is to have students read one of the several novels written during the Cold War about nuclear war and its effects. Some of these are included in the Additional Resources section below. Students can discuss the author's assessment of nuclear war, its damage, or the causes of a nuclear war. Having one group of students reading a novel written in the 1950s compared to one written in the 1960s or 1970s can be particularly instructive because students can contrast the development of public sentiment about the nuclear problem.

  2. Critical Film Review

    There are numerous excellent and thought-provoking films on nuclear war as well, many accessible on VHS or DVD. Films can spark discussion about both nuclear conflict and the nature of the Cold War itself. Several suggestions are noted in the Additional Resources section below. Whether satirical or serious, films about nuclear war get at the public attitude and the difficult question of using nuclear weapons in a way few other sources can. You will have no problems getting students to engage with a film on a variety of levels, since most films either operate on a certain set of assumptions about nuclear conflict (that it was fundamentally irrational, or suicidal, for nuclear weapons to be used) or question them. Students can also discuss the value of the film as a source.

III. The Cold War's End, 1974-91

Most likely toward the end of the course, students can explore the reasons for the Soviet Union's abandonment of its position as the United States' main rival in 1989 and its disintegration in 1991-93.

Important topics to cover in this section include the SALT talks, the Reykjavik Summit of 1986 (Gorbachev-Reagan), and the East German revolt of 1989.

Discussion Questions

Students should now be able to come to some conclusions about why the Cold War occurred, how leaders perpetuated it, and how it ended.

  1. What were the reasons the United States and Soviet Union could not agree on a workable postwar relationship?

  2. Why did the Soviet Union pursue the domination of Eastern Europe, including constructing the Berlin Wall?

  3. What was the "Domino Theory"? What was "containment"? Why and how did the United States pursue containment as a strategy?

  4. Why did crises like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, or the Berlin Wall crisis not develop into war?

Additional Resources


Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Columbia Pictures, 1964.
One of two movies about a nuclear accident released in the same year, the film is a hilarious and thought-provoking satire about accidental nuclear war gone out of control. Students will find it very funny, although they may not identify the real-life figures represented by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens.

Fail-Safe. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Columbia Pictures, 1964.
The second film about a nuclear accident released in 1964, the film is a suspenseful look at the possible consequences of an "accidental" missile launch against the Soviet Union, resulting in a tit-for-tat destruction, without warning, of New York City.

From Russia with Love. Directed by Terence Young. United Artists, 1963.

You Only Live Twice. Directed by Lewis Gilbert II. United Artists, 1967.
These two James Bond movies are excellent sources for engaging students in the way in which the Cold War affected ideas of manhood, the proper role of government, and espionage. They are also a tremendously entertaining way to explore how a single individual could cope with, or supposedly save the world, in an era of nuclear danger.

The Manchurian Candidate. Directed by John Frankenheimer. United Artists, 1962.
Classic film about espionage and a communist conspiracy to gain control of the U.S. government. Invaluable for its accurate (if possibly over-the-top) examination of Cold War paranoia and the difficulty of maintaining individual freedoms in the face of a long-term rivalry with communist powers.

Wargames. Directed by John Badham. MGM, 1983.

Red Dawn. Directed by John Milius. MGM, 1984.
These are not films that explore the Cold War in a sophisticated or intellectual way. Rather, they are included as representations or reflections of the Cold War in popular culture. Red Dawn, particularly, with its plot involving the dissolution of NATO and a subsequent invasion of the United States by Nicaragua, Cuba, and the U.S.S.R., is especially interesting as an illustration of the Reagan-era fears of Soviet aggression, an interesting view in light of the economic weakness of the Soviet Union.


Clemens, Diane Shaver. Yalta. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
An older account of the origins of the Cold War, but continues to be a solid, highly readable analysis of the Yalta Conference and the issues of the early Cold War.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-47. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
Perhaps Gaddis's best book. Students will continue to find this account of the Cold War's origins a valuable narrative, written mainly from the American perspective.

Gardner, Lloyd. Spheres of Influence: The Great Powers Partition Europe, from Munich to Yalta. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993.
A cogent account of the end of World War II and the conflicting plans for the postwar period. The centerpiece of Gardner's account is the Yalta conference, but the importance of the book is that it begins with World War II, so the background of the agreements and disagreements that began the Cold War is laid out well. Deals with the European as well as the American and Soviet leadership.

Kennedy-Pipe, Caroline. Russia and the World, 1917-1991. London: Arnold, 1998.
There are an increasing number of books devoted to the formation of Soviet foreign policy in the Cold War that deal confidently with the goals and beliefs of the Soviet leadership from Stalin to Gorbachev. Kennedy-Pipe's recent account is highly readable and stands out as a concise resource for students.

LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2000. 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
An excellent all-around account of the Cold War, including its ideological foundations and its various crises. It is probably too long to assign to students but is an invaluable reference for individual events. It is also an excellent bibliographic guide.


Clancy, Tom. Red Storm Rising. New York: Putnam, 1986.
Written before the fall of the U.S.S.R., this Reagan-era potboiler is a retelling of a 1970s fictionalized account of the likely path of World War III—fought in Germany, by NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with no nuclear weapons involved.

Frank, Pat. Alas, Babylon. New York: Bantam Books, 1960.
Written before the era of MAD, this late 1950s novel is a "what if?" tale of a small band of Floridians caught in the aftermath of a nuclear conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Miller, Walter. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam Books, 1959.
A post-apocalyptic world is held together by the lingering memories of the past, preserved by an order of monks in the New Mexico desert. This is an intriguing novel that examines the moral, physical, and political consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

Schute, Nevil. On the Beach. New York: William Morrow, 1957.
A tragic story of mankind's last months on Earth. Nuclear fallout has exterminated the remnants of humanity in the northern hemisphere. A small community left at the southern tip of Australia confronts the inevitable progress of the fallout south, leading to the end of life on Earth.

Primary Sources

Judge, Edward, and John Langdon. The Cold War: A History Through Documents. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.
A well-edited source for speeches by American presidents and Soviet premiers; memoranda on national security, nuclear policy, and overseas crises; and a good central source for other primary materials on China and Europe.


Students will find the following Web sites entertaining and useful sources of confirmed and factual data.

National Security Archive at George Washington University
Through this site, students can also link to specific sites on the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, and they can download visual sources from the digital National Security Archive. There are also links to the Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact and the Cold War International History Project.

Internet Modern History Sourcebook at Fordham University
This unique central source for documents on modern history provides a wealth of primary source material for students. It is also excellent for intellectual views culled and presented in their original format (mainly from magazines of the 1950s-60s.) There are documents and articles on Korea, Vietnam, the fall of China, both Berlin crises, Cuba, and détente. On the Soviet Union, in particular, there are sources on Khrushchev, the Warsaw Pact, the Hungarian revolt, and 1989.