The Cold War

Created By

Brenna Greer, Wellesley College

  • The Cold War, 1945-1975: Containment and Early Cold War Conflicts
  • The Cold War, 1945-1975: Race for Military and Technological Supremacy

Introduction & Context

During World War II, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had been allies. After the war, however, divergent ideological and economic systems and competing geopolitical interests fueled a conflict between the former allies that was quickly dubbed the “Cold War.” This “war” began in the immediate postwar years. As Soviet leader Joseph Stalin sought to expand the USSR's sphere of influence in Eurasia, the United States responded with multiple economic and military “containment” policies. The Cold War continued for decades and ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, following the steady decrease in the influence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform programs of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness or transparency), which encouraged democratic forces in Russia and other Soviet satellite nations.

The main players, the United States and Soviet Union, were hardly the only nations affected by the Cold War. The two superpowers drew multiple African, Latin American, Asian, Southeast Asian, and European countries into their conflict. In particular, the contest between U.S. and Soviet nuclear power that characterized the Cold War made this conflict supremely relevant and perilous for nations the world over. Additionally, the U.S. and the Soviet Union each provided financial, military, and political support to friendly governments engaged in wars that served their respective interests, either containing or spreading communism. These “proxy wars” included the Korean War, Suez Crisis, Congolese Crisis, Angolan Civil War, Ethiopian Crisis, Nicaraguan Revolution, Salvadoran Civil War, Soviet-Afghan War, and, most notably, the Vietnam War. In addition to proxy wars, key forces and events that defined the Cold War included: postwar division and occupation of Germany and Berlin; erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961; the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; establishment of key American defense institutions, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); establishment of international military alliances, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Warsaw Pact; nuclear arms and space races; the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Treaties; and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).

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Teaching Tips Download PDF

The video and audio clips in this source set are drawn from documentary footage, propagandist films, news reports, and recorded interviews; collectively, they map some of the broad contours of the Cold War. These sources provide details about major Cold War events, highlight individuals who figure prominently in Cold War history, and attest to the international and transnational importance of this conflict. They trace the global position and power of the United States throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Background Information

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • U.S. and Soviet involvement in World War II
  • The establishment, composition, and ideology of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR)
  • The Vietnam War

Essential Question

What is the significance of the Cold War within U.S. history?

General Discussion Questions

  • How did the Cold War extend beyond the United States and the Soviet Union?
  • Which events do histories of the Cold War typically highlight? Why?
  • What is the legacy of the Cold War, for the United States and globally?

Classroom Activities

1) Topic: The Cold War and other nations

Ask students to watch the following sources and then discuss one or more of the questions:

According to these sources, what is the significance of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and/or Latin America within Cold War history? From a U.S. perspective, what were the stakes in each of these conflicts (the Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam War)? What are some ways that the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union impacted other nations? In what ways might the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union have served other countries’ purposes? What, if any, propagandist ideas do these sources document? How did U.S. interests and actions in the Korean War align with or differ from U.S. interests and actions in the Vietnam War?

2) Topic: The arms race and nuclear policy

Ask students to watch the following sources and then discuss one or more of the questions:

Based on these sources, what factors defined the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union? How did U.S. nuclear policy change over time? Why? What does U.S. nuclear policy reveal about U.S. attitudes toward the Soviet Union? Who produced these films and what objectives did they have? What national narratives do these documentary films convey?

3) Topic: The Berlin Wall

Ask students to watch the following sources and then discuss one or more of the questions:

According to these sources, how did the Berlin Wall figure into the Cold War? What changes occurred with respect to the Berlin Wall and, more broadly, East-West relations during the years between the two films? What do these sources reveal about the Wall as a physical structure? A symbolic structure? How did different groups view the Berlin Wall? How did different groups experience the Wall?

4) Topic: Communism in Europe in the late 1980s

Ask students to watch the following sources and then discuss one or more of the questions:

According to these sources, what was the state of communism in Europe during the late 1980s? What accounted for those circumstances? How did U.S. and Western officials interpret these circumstances? How did communist officials view them? How did James Baker’s role as former Secretary of State affect his perspective and conclusions?

Additional Resources

  • The Cold War series, Turner Original Productions, via YouTube
  • What Was the Berlin Wall and How Did It Fall?, Imperial War Museum, UK
  • End of the Cold War, The Wilson Center Digital Archive
  • Making the History of 1989, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
  • Citation

    Greer, Brenna. "The Cold War." WGBH and the Library of Congress.